30 April 2004

Speaking of HBO short movies, I recently caught an interview with Oliver Stone, whose movie about Fidel Castro aired a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by his typical liberal flakiness vis a vis Castro in the interview, and then I found this interview in slate which is even worse. I haven't gotten a chance to watch the movie itself, but from the advance buzz I've seen, it doesn't look like some of Stone's finest work.

Dave Barry sums up Hollywood's treatment of Castro best: "Naomi Campbell visited Cuba and declared, based on her extensive training as a supermodel, that Castro was 'a source of inspiration to the world.' Around the same time, noted human rights authority Jack Nicholson described Castro as 'a genius.'" The frustrating thing about Stone is that, unlike Campbell and Nicholson, he's so aware that he's being manipulated, yet it happens anyway.
I've been enlisted by the H-R Club of New Mexico to try to come up with some good events so that the club appeals to people who graduated after 1950. Another guy and I have decided that the best way to do this is to bring in some speakers who people would need to see, if only to show their outrage. John Ashcroft would be my top pick. Since he's unlikely to come to a liberal bastion to give a speech, I have to come up with someone who isn't such a chicken. Does anyone have any ideas?

So far the best idea I've come up with is bringing Chuck Hagel to town to debate Wavy Gravy on why we should bring back the draft.
Sharon's question about the logical incoherence of the G.O.P.'s policies, and the implied question of why party lines in America have crystallized the way they have, reminded me of this article: Will God Save America This Time? It's from the official Hare Krishna site, and it's worth a look. I first read it last year, in an e-mail that was forwarded around by some of my company's employees based in India. It provides a passionate list of foreign grievances against the United States, and it's interesting because it represents a completely different combination of political grievances than the ones I'm used to seeing. The author condemns America's program of global imperialism, the illegitimate presidency of George W. Bush, prison overpopulation, and runaway defense spending, and also condemns abortion, women's rights, pornography, and single parenthood. In other words, it seems that when you come from totally outside the American political system (and Hare Krishna is, let's face it, pretty far out there), you can reasonably draw the lines anywhere you want.

29 April 2004

Overheard on Fresh Air:

According to Tina Fey, author of the new movie Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan's character was originally written as a home-schooled teenager. (The intent was to place her character in high school with no previous exposure to the "queen bee" hierarchy of teenage girls, which is the movie's real subject.)

In response to notes from the studio, however, this was changed to home-schooled abroad, because they didn't want to associate her character with the American home-schooling movement, which, according to Tina Fey, is perceived as being sort of weird.
Our pleasant image of the week comes from a Wall Street Journal article on Fear Factor, which is struggling to invent new disgusting stunts in the wake of heightened restrictions on broadcast decency. The article notes: "While contestants must sign a 41-page liability waiver, producers emphasize that no player has ever sustained serious injuries, although a production assistant, testing a stunt, got a praying mantis stuck in her throat."

Alec (adjusting tie a la Jon Stewart): "Oy, that's some deadly mantis!"

28 April 2004

Bessie, do you have any stories to share from last weekend's march?

25 April 2004

It appears that many of the absurd prices appearing on eBay for Pat Tillman items are actually the result of intentional sabatoge intended to derail the auctions. (The auction that I linked here on Thursday is no longer active, presumably cancelled by eBay itself.)
On Thursday, I attended the premiere of Strip Search, an HBO short film by Sidney Lumet, director of Network and Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet was there. He's over eighty years old, but he's still working, and he looks and sounds great. In the question-and-answer session that followed the movie, he was unfailingly sharp and funny, and I'm glad that I had a chance to see this legendary old man in action.

The same can't be said for Strip Search, unfortunately. It's a drama about the fictional detentions of two people after 9/11, one an American citizen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) interrogated by a Chinese officer, another an Arab student interrogated by an American intelligence agent (Glenn Close). The movie cuts back and forth between the two interrogations, often using the same dialogue for both, to emphasize the fact that both detainees have been stripped of their rights. If this sounds overly schematic and obvious, well, it is. It's the sort of premise that David Mamet might have loved, but Mamet would have injected the drama with ambiguity and shifts of power, and might even have allowed the detainees to briefly turn the tables on their interrogators before their final destruction.

The biggest problem is that the innocence of Lumet's two detainees is never in doubt. Not only does this make Strip Search ineffective as cinema, it also hamstrings it as a persuasive political argument. Opponents of the Bush administration's detention policy, as ill-advised as it may be, have to confront one compelling argument on the administration's side: a rollback of the Bill of Rights might well be justified if we can use it to fight terrorists and save lives. As hollow as this point may seem, you can't just sidestep it entirely. A movie about two innocent detainees isn't an effective response to this argument; if anything, we need someone to make a movie about two guilty detainees, and show, through rigorous dramatic logic, that even if an unconstitutional detention policy can be used to capture terrorists, the tradeoff isn't worth it. David Mamet, are you reading this?

24 April 2004

Shaolin Soccer was worth the wait. It's a sweet, giddy, sometimes grotesque rush of a movie, instantly forgettable, but still the happiest ninety minutes I've spent in a movie theater this year. After you see it, you should check out Roger Ebert's terrific review, which amounts to nothing less than a manifesto by our best living film critic as to why it makes sense to give three stars to a film like, say, Hidalgo or Shaolin Soccer, and only two stars to Dogville.

I've probably said this before, but those who dismiss Ebert as a television clown without reading his reviews are missing out on some of the best criticism of any kind being written in this country today. Ebert draws upon a vast love of film and an equally vast reservoir of common sense and erudition, and he never allows himself to become carried away by the sound of his own voice. (For a counterexample of this sort of verbal intoxication, see every single review by Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times. Or any of my own reviews. But I love Elvis Mitchell, too.)
From the nota bene of my imaginary Tom Cruise fan club:

The solid, but unspectacular, $110 million domestic gross of The Last Samurai has led a few observers in the New York Times and elsewhere to proclaim the end of the star-driven motion picture, speculating that Samurai might end up only breaking even or losing money while movies like Cheaper by the Dozen showed staying power. The truth? The Last Samurai has just passed the two Mission: Impossible movies to become the highest-grossing motion picture overseas of Tom Cruise's career, with an overseas gross of more than $343 million. Cheaper by the Dozen, by contrast, has made something less than $50 million in foreign markets.

Not sure why I'm blogging this, except that it's something that I would have wanted to know, if I hadn't discovered it myself. (I like Tom Cruise. Besides the fact that he's made a handful of great movies, he's also my favorite role model for those of us who are determined to overreach our inherent limitations by means of hard work and smart choices.)
If baseball's not your cup of tea and you happen to be in Berkeley tonight, you can come hear me sing with the University Chorus in Handel's Messiah. After rehearsing it for the whole semester, including every day this week, even I'm almost ready to belive in the Resurrection. Perhaps we can convince you too...

23 April 2004

The best thing about April is the projected baseball statistics. For example, Barry Bonds is going to hit .525 with 91 homeruns, 243 walks (111 of which will be intentional), a .703 on-base percentage, and a 1.325 slugging percentage. Dontrelle Willis will lead the league with a 0.00 ERA, and Armando Benitez will save 80 games. And our beloved Twins will have the best record in the majors at 111-51.
On Wednesday, you could have bought a Pat Tillman Upper Deck football card for about $0.75. At the moment, the price on eBay for the same card is upwards of $5,000.
Say, remember that novel I'm supposed to be writing about the epic buyout struggle over a third-class movie studio? Well, it's basically happening right now.

21 April 2004

It's interesting how, in our list-obsessed culture, a bunch of editors at a glossy music magazine can sit around and put together a quasi-official list of the fifty best songs of all time or fifty uncoolest albums of all time, or whatever, and somehow make this seem newsworthy to hundreds of newspapers nationwide. Even more interesting is how I'm compelled to blog it. Case in point: Blender magazine's Fifty Worst Songs of All Time.

As these lists go, this one is artfully constructed; you know you haven't succeeded with a good Top Fifty list if you haven't pissed off a few readers by including the likes of "Shiny Happy People," "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," or "The Sounds of Silence" side by side with "What's Up?" and Starship's "We Built This City."

20 April 2004

From "Twins notes":
Twins mascot T.C. Bear, while driving a four-wheeler across the warning track before the game, unexpectedly veered into the left field wall, tearing down a banner in the process. The bear was unhurt.
Frank Rich has an article in Sunday's New York Times that suggests that Lawrence of Arabia is the movie of the moment for reflecting the current situation in Iraq. It's a good idea, but the article ought to go further. Rich only refers to the last few scenes of the movie, which depict the disorganized Arab council at Damascus. True, it's impossible to watch these scenes today without being reminded of the upcoming "transition of power" (to whom, or to what, still a mystery), but there's a lot more going on here.

I've been an obsessive viewer of Lawrence of Arabia for about a year now. I revisit portions of the movie every few months, and recently watched the whole thing again over a couple of evenings. It's one of the most mysterious movies ever made, endlessly complicated and fascinating, and it would take a long, long essay to do justice to its many echoes with contemporary events. I'd suggest, however, that it's the structure of the movie itself that deserves our attention.

Lawrence of Arabia falls into two halves separated by an intermission, the first of which is an almost mythologically pure story of adventure, and the second of which depicts that adventure's long, messy unravelling. In the first, an extraordinarily intelligent, brave, and ascetic soldier, his head full of the classics, goes into Arabia with the intention of living a boy's book of adventure in the desert, and succeeds brilliantly. In the second, he starts to believe his own myth, is captured, tortured, grows cruel, and orders the massacre of a retreating army. The rallying cry of the first half is "Aqaba!" The cry of the second half is "No prisoners!"

The first half of the movie is what most people remember, but it's the second half that haunts me the most. It's hard to look at Lawrence in his desert robes without thinking of George W. Bush in that flight suit, and it's frightening to think that Lawrence, whose spiritual, intellectual, and martial resources were infinitely greater than those of Bush, couldn't resist the fall into an almost inhuman cruelty. In a way, of course, it's absurd to compare these two men. But there's a line from Lawrence of Arabia that applies equally well to both: "A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth," says Dryden to Lawrence. "But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it."

19 April 2004

There's a letter responding to Safire's column about hedge funds in today's New York Times. I actually had a chance to read the original, uncut version of this letter last week. It makes some good points.

Just to clarify, the "disclosure" that Safire and Bill Donaldson have been recommending would require all hedge funds to register as investment advisers with the SEC. (About a third of them already do so.) Being an investment adviser isn't especially burdensome; it requires a firm to file an annual questionnaire with the SEC with extremely general information about its investment objectives and techniques, and to be subject to an occasional audit wherein government regulators poke around the company for a few days looking for anything that seems amiss. These audits are very occasional; my company has been registered for years, and I don't think we've ever had an audit. In any case, it's hard to see how this would serve as much of a deterrent to the sort of fraudulent or illegal activity that Safire mentions.

17 April 2004

A. E. Housman's definition of true poetry is that it causes the hair on one's face to bristle, making it impossible to shave. John Shade also refers to this phenomenon in line 920 of Pale Fire. Anyway, I'm not sure what this says about me, but of all the movies I've ever seen, only two have endings that reliably cause all the hairs on my arms to stand on end and send a shiver down my spine. One is Kill Bill Vol. 1. The other is Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
When Hattori Hanzo presents the Bride with a samurai sword in Kill Bill Vol. 1, he notes modestly: "This my finest sword. If in your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut." I would also suggest that if God were to watch the complete four-hour version of Kill Bill, which currently exists only in some Miramax vault and in my own imagination, He would be cut by that, too.

Now that the full shape of Kill Bill is finally visible, it's clear that from the mulch of a thousand grindhouse kung fu movies and spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino has created nothing less than the richest pop-mythological soil that the cinema has offered since the days of the late, and sincerely mourned, George Lucas. Kill Bill has loose ends and ragged edges that were made for fanfic, and more importantly, it creates a comic book universe that is completely believable and completely preposterous. For better or worse, this movie is an engine that will drive trash cinema for the next thirty years.

As one character in Vol. 2 notes, you don't compare a Hattori Hanzo sword with another Hanzo sword. Still, comparisons between the two films are probably inevitable. Like The Return of the King, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is demonstrably richer and more accomplished than its prequel. The fact that both The Return of the King and Vol. 2 were shot simultaneously with their earlier chapters, meaning that the budget, directorial energy, and quality of the acting for each installment were essentially the same, implies that time, the luxury of living with the raw footage of a movie for an additional year or six months, is the only variable that matters.

Somehow, though, I liked Vol. 1 more. Maybe I miss O-Ren Ishii, "half Chinese, half Japaneshee," a ridiculous character who nonetheless lives in my imagination as do few other characters in the movies. Or it could be that I find kung fu films more seductive than spaghetti westerns, although I'll admit that the Texas-style burial in Vol. 2 is the single best sequence in the entire epic. The most important point, however, as I noted in my original review, is that this epic demands total immersion, and that somewhere there exists a perfect four-hour version of Kill Bill that will wound God Himself.

15 April 2004

To appease a certain milkmaid who is apparently bored by my endless discussion of hedge funds, here's an article about the classics instead.

Ah, the Aeneid. It's a troublesome, messy poem, but it's worth reading just for the sake of the last fifteen lines, in which pious Aeneas, faced with the chance to spare his enemy's life, instead...well, I won't give it away, but let's just say that it's one of the greatest, most subversive sick jokes in all of Western literature.

At least, that's my take. I'm curious to see what Fagles does with it.

14 April 2004

For those of you who are wondering how reliable my financial advice really is: either the city of New York owes me a $1.7 million dollar tax refund, or I made a teeny mistake on my tax return. (See what happens when you forget one decimal point?)

Good thing I caught that.
All right, you twisted my arm. Safire's misconceptions fall into two broad categories:

1. First, there's the idea that "full disclosure" by hedge funds would somehow combat such already illegal activities as front running, market manipulation, insider trading, and "spreading rumors." But hedge funds couldn't spread rumors, trade on inside information, etc. to any considerable degree without the cooperation of the major investment banks that they all use to clear their trades. There are already rules in place against these practices by the banks; it's just a question of enforcing them. (I should also note that a hedge fund is most likely to be hurt by front running, etc., by its investment banking counterparties, which is why most of them favor stringent enforcement of the existing rules.)

2. Second, there's the idea that the small investor would somehow benefit from increased disclosure by hedge funds. However, any "small" investor (meaning any investor worth less than five million dollars) can only obtain exposure to hedge funds through large institutional investors, such as pension funds or funds of funds. These institutional investors, many of which already have a fiduciary responsibility to invest prudently, have lots of money and clout, and are usually given access to as much information as they need to make a well-informed investment. Hedge funds may not be required to reveal information about their positions or methods, but in practice, they need to provide a lot of information to the institutional money managers who are actually writing the checks. If these large investment advisers aren't giving their clients the information that they need to invest prudently, this isn't the fault of the hedge funds, but a breakdown of the advisory relationship, which already falls under the jurisdiction of the SEC.

Anyway, it just seems that the SEC's time would be better spent by enforcing the existing regulations against mutual funds, for example, where there is an argument that small investors need to be protected.

12 April 2004

William Safire has a column in today's New York Times entitled "Watch the Hedgehogs." It begins with the line: "In a future remake of The Graduate, the phrase replacing "plastics" to be whispered in the ear of the title role is 'hedge funds.'"

Well, that's a lovely thought.

Anyway, I work for a hedge fund in New York, and although I had no desire to turn into an apologist for the industry, Safire's column was so misinformed that I originally felt obliged to correct him on a couple of points. However, this turned into a monster post that would, most likely, be of no interest to anyone but me, so I decided to skip it. If you really want to read it, shoot me an e-mail. Or start a petition in the comments section.

However, since I'm pretty sure that nobody from work reads this blog, I might as well say that most hedge funds are overpriced investments that probably won't beat the market over the long run. (I don't include my own company in this statement, of course.) In reality, although many investors hope that they will provide excess returns, hedge funds are useful mainly as a way of diversifying one's portfolio, and there's a whole world of other stuff out there that will do the job at a much cheaper price. In fact, I'd say that there's no need to invest in hedge funds unless you've diversified into the following asset classes and still hunger for more: investment-grade bonds, U.S. stocks, foreign stocks, real estate investment trusts, commodities, inflation-protected securities, high-yield bonds, gold, and timber, in that order. (Believe me, I'm looking forward to the day when I finally buy my own timber fund.) Then, maybe, you might want to think about hedge funds. But probably not.

11 April 2004

For an amusing net snafu that should get my home page more Google hits, go to the Berkeley grad student directory and click on the letters A, E, M, N, and R.

10 April 2004

A lot has been said in recent days about the private security firms like Blackwater USA that are roaming Iraq, mainly protecting foreign contractors.

Some commentators have called them mercenaries, which I don't think is quite fair. They aren't in Iraq to achieve a military objective -- their goals are generally defensive. Still, the statement on Blackwater's website (see link above) shows that the lines are blurring. The fact that Paul Bremer has a private security detail makes the lines even blurrier.

One final note -- these guys make $100,000-$200,000 a year. Let's say they average out at $150K. There are approximatey 20,000 of them in Iraq right now. Let's also assume that overhead (guns and other equipment, transportation) is equivalent to salaries, which is an extremely low estimate. That means that over the course of a year, Six billion dollars are being spent on private security guys (and it might be a lot more). That is a huge sum of money, and it indicates that the companies hiring the security firms must have a lot more than that at stake.
Al Franken Al Franken Al Franken...Another reason why not to bring up the PBK thing: now we have a banner ad on the blog for a mediocre humorist from Minnesota. I am trying to get the google robots to replace him with a better humorist from Minnesota: Al Franken! Al Franken Al Franken Air America Al Franken.

09 April 2004

Things have been so quiet on this blog that I figured I'd finally see The Passion and post my comments. Having seen it, however, I'm left with surprisingly little to say. I wasn't offended and I wasn't transported; I was left on the outside, looking in. This isn't really a criticism, just a regretful observation. Still, the fact that Mel Gibson has made a movie that speaks only to other true believers suggests that whatever The Passion is, it isn't cinema.

There is a great movie to be made from this material, and it's The Last Temptation of Christ. The crucial difference is Paul Schrader's incredibly literate and intricate screenplay, which I think is one of the best ever written. For obvious linguistic reasons, The Passion needs to be written in broader strokes, but there's still something vaguely troubling in Gibson's refusal to place his movie in any kind of context, or to specify who, precisely, his Jesus is supposed to be.

The brief flashbacks to Jesus's life in Nazareth offer glimpses of a much more interesting movie that could have been, even if they recall Woody Allen's line, "If Jesus was a carpenter, I wonder what he charged for bookshelves?"

In any case, I can't add much more beyond what has already been written, and of course, it's only because I'm a coastal American, insulated from the popular current that has already made The Passion one of the ten highest grossing films of all time, that these observations seem at all timely at this late date. I'm not sure if any of my friends, except for one, have even seen this movie. It isn't often that I feel like a cultural pioneer for seeing a movie that is on track to outgross Star Wars.

06 April 2004

An exchange from last night (edited slightly):
Them: You're from Minnesota? I love "A Prairie Home Companion!"

Me: Yeah, me too. I saw Garrison Keillor speak at our Phi Beta Kappa ceremony, and he was awesome.

Them: Yeah, I got Phi Beta Kappa too.

Me: No no, it was my junior year, and--

Them: Ooh, aren't you special, you got Phi Beta Kappa as a junior.

Me: No no, there are two separate events, the induction and the speaker, and you don't have to be Phi Beta Kappa to watch the speaker.

Them: Oh, so you didn't get it as a junior. That makes me feel better.

Me: Well actually I did. But that's not the point!

Them: (Asshole.)
The moral: if you ever feel like telling someone you saw Garrison Keillor speak, say that he spoke "during Commencement week."
Finally, the wait is over. Baseball is back! And with an exciting win over Cleveland tonight, the Twins' magic number is down to 162! Tune in here throughout the season for more exciting updates.

04 April 2004

I just won the semifinals in my fantasy basketball league by a margin of one assist (I still have two players with a quarter left so I might pad it a little, but it's Brand and Kirilenko so not by much).

This means I'll have the greatly anticipated showdown with my kid brother in the finals.

All thanks to my picking up Tony Parker of waivers yesterday who proceeded to put up 31 points and 9 assists. Tony Parker will now always have a warm place in my heart.
Apparently the Cartoon Network cancelled Home Movies and several of my friends are very sad and asked me to pass along the info for the pettition to get it back. I'm not sure if any of you are fans, but if you are surf over here.

I'm just waiting for Family Guy to come back on Fox.
More sports: the various baseball pundits seem to be playing a massive cruel joke on Boston fans, as they do every year. ESPN argues here that Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke somehow put the Sox ahead of ARod and the Yankees. Yes, it's true, the Yankees lost a bit of pitching, but it's ARod! And honestly, the Red Sox weren't even that close to the Yankees last year. At least SI didn't get in on the act.
What do you do if the best player in the country picks up 2 fouls in the first four minutes of a national semifinal game? You sit him for the next 16 (even if it results in you losing at halftime), according to Jim Calhoun and a growing chorus of college coaches. My feeling is that if you have Okafor you want him on the court for more than half the game, but it's tough to second guess a winner.

03 April 2004

On the other hand, Google does seem to be doing something right: my home page is now on the first page of results.
The trailer for Garden State is finally up at apple. It was showing before Eternal Sunshine and it just blew me away. I just want to sit in my room at watch this trailer over and over again, and I'm not sure why.
Seems the Googlebots haven't quite been perfected yet: the current banner ad at the top of this page is advertising "Kubricks," which according to about.com "are made by Medicom Toy of Japan and are about two inches tall, resembling a cross between LEGO and Playmobil figures. Medicom makes Kubrick sets based on anime titles, Bruce Lee and a range of movies."

02 April 2004

I've had the damndest time trying to find a copy of the original video clip at the center of the David Letterman/White House dispute. Anyway, here it is, along with Letterman's response. It's definitely worth a download.

01 April 2004

Nat, I'm gonna kill you.
There's a great conversation archived here between Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars von Trier, where they talk about Dogville and other matters. Here's my favorite part:

PTA: Do you remember movies well? I never remember movies well, but I can remember the ones I love, and which meant something to me. I remember Breaking the Waves--I was in the middle of editing Boogie Nights, and I was by myself and it was a Sunday night, and when I saw it, it was really like the clouds opening up--suddenly the sun started to shine, as gray as that movie was. But I don't remember details of that movie.

LVT: That is because what you like and what I like in a film is not a whole. We look at films differently than most people, and that's why we don't remember the whole thing properly. But I like, very much, some of the films that I didn't like when I saw them the first time.

PTA: Like what?

LVT: Barry Lyndon is still one of my favorite films, you know. It's a very strange film, but it's still monumental.

PTA: When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, "This is fucking hilarious!"

Which is exactly right.