Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Month That Was - September 2010

The Month That Was - September 2010: Happy Birthday to me. Monday 9/13 was the big one. (As Jerry Pournelle would say, Friday the 13th fell on a Monday.) Half a century of banging about this world. Like everything else in life that is supposedly momentous, it passed without any great revelation or drama. The only actual celebration came two days prior when I was up on Mackinac for a 8-mile race around the island. More on all this below.

More exciting was getting the cover art for Misspent Youth completed, designed and executed by an exceedingly talented local artist named Ken Blaznek. I highly recommend him to anyone in the Ann Arbor area (or beyond for that matter). He was conscientious, creative, and a good listener and, as I said, quite adept at his work. You can see the cover graphic here. It's a 2 meg pdf so give it a chance to load. Comments welcome. Still some work to get the actual book out, but seeing the cover makes it seem awfully real.

[Rant] 50
[Movies] Flick Check: Movie Round-Up
[TV] Toob Notes: Knocking on The Pantheon Door
[Detroit] Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance

[Rant] 50

50: Fifty doesn't exactly sneak up and bite you in the ass. It's a slow train coming that you first see about four years earlier, when you can no longer claim to be in your early forties. It's just a number, right? That what you're supposed to say. But surprisingly, that's how it feels -- physically anyway.

I was thinking about running and fitness. Two days before my birthday I was up on Mackinac Island running in an 8-mile race. (The circumference of Mackinac is 8-miles so it's one loop of the island.) Eight miles is a long distance for me. I'm no great runner -- not even a very good runner. I would guess 8-10 miles is about where running turns from a fitness challenge to a pain endurance challenge. For me it's about fitness, so I'll stick to the middle distances. You couple this with my weekly mile swim and a 30-mile bike ride in good weather, then throw in that I weigh less now than any time since I was in college, and I can honestly say the cliche applies to me: I'm in the best shape of my life (although I should probably get a doctor to confirm that).

Still, healthy or not, it is impossible to be fifty years old and not face the likely fact that you have more years behind you than ahead. Again, this is not a bomb dropped from out of nowhere. It's just something that builds up over time. It presents itself by causing you great consternation over life changes that you previously took in stride. For example: Someone I care about very deeply recently moved away to New York -- really it was just the most recent and most heart-breaking of many friends who have moved on. When you are younger you don't have the fear that the good things in your life are gone forever. You always feel like there is a chance to recapture them, to experience more. It was similar when my beloved Miss Anna moved off to college. I have had some truly joyous times with her and her mother, traveling around, meeting up with them all over the country and beyond. Even though we all knew the time would come when it would end, it's still a sorrowful thing to face.

The question that manifests: "Is that all there is?" Not asked in the sense of disappointment and disillusionment with how life has turned out. Just the opposite, in fact. Said out of fear that the best times may be gone, never to return. You just don't see anything like those cherished moments of real joy in the future. "Is that it? Don't I get more?"

Fortunately your intellect, your sense of reason, guides you to keep such fears under control. Giving in to despair makes it self-fulfilling. Life is still happening even if you don't see it going on. Really, there is no alternative but to continue working your way through the world and hope for more.

You also have perspective on your side. Twenty-five years ago, I was a bartender at a marginal chain restaurant. All my friends were starting to get real grown up careers, settling themselves into corporations and marriages and mortgages. I was staying up until all hours, carousing with my coworkers, and generally being a complete wastrel. I would run into my friends and feel somewhat embarrassed about the state of my life and how I had no design or was making no progress.

Of course, my life subsequently unfolded in such a way to make me feel phenomenally lucky, and as I look back on those years of slackerdom, I don't really regret them at all. In fact, for all the subliminal pain and worry, I certainly wouldn't trade them for five more years on my career now. I can't imagine why I wasn't reveling in the uncomplicated pleasures of life at the time. But when living it, I felt like a pathetic failure. So with that perspective, I can anticipate myself at age 75 thinking back to that wonderful time of my life when I was fifty, and healthy enough, and wealthy enough, and wise enough to appreciate what I had, even while pining over my losses.

Bottom line: I'm 50. It hurts a bit, but I'll live.

[Movies] Flick Check: Movie Round-Up

Flick Check: Movie Round-Up: It must have been ten years since I had a remotely positive outlook about movies. And it gets worse every year. I am decidedly not one of those who goes around complaining that things aren't what they used to be. I know full well the change is mostly in me (and perhaps in the entertainment industry in general) not in the movies themselves. Still, there you are.

Every year movies come out that win awards and praise and are generally raved about, but whenever I get around to seeing them, they just seem utterly inconsequential and contrived. Not bad, you understand, just mere entertainment. The movies don?t tell me or show me anything new anymore--they don't even try. There are only so many formulas that can fit into two and half hours, and I've seen them all. This is, like I said, me, not the movies. Anyway, here are a few impressions of what I've seen recently.

Inglorious Basterds -- I'm afraid I found this dumb and bit dull. The characters were just silly. The concepts were juvenile. The dialogue over-wrought. None of this would be bad had it contained the insane violent artistry of say Kill Bill. But it didn't. It was just sort of "meh." Although Brad Pitt did a good and showed he has some impressive range.

The Informant -- Clever, fun, a little over the top on the dark comic irony. Truthy story of an Archer-Daniels-Midland corporate golden boy who began snitching to the FBI with the ulterior motive of advancing in the company once his enemies are disgraced. Only it turns out he was as corrupt as the rest of them and ended up sabotaging the case and doing more jail time than those he snitched on. Kind of lost as to whether it wanted to be a farce or a morality tale, but well paced and sharply written. Matt Damon is a total stitch.

Sherlock Holmes -- Impeccable combo of action and comic timing, not surprising coming from Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). Great chemistry between Jude Law and the legend that is Robert Downey Jr. For the Holmes purist in me (I read and internalized the entire canon back in the day) it is a complete travesty, but how can you not like this movie? Probably the only one on of these three that I would stop and watch while flipping channels. Looking forward to the sequel which will star Stephen Fry as Mycroft and Jared Harris (Lane Pryce from Mad Men) as Moriarty.

And to draw final contrast, there were a couple of articles the popped up in honor of the 20th anniversary of Goodfellas. When pressed for what I think is the best of all movies, I usually throw out Goodfellas, although I am not one to give much thought to what my personal hierarchy of likes are. There's a fabulous "making of" piece at GQ. Wonderful info and reminiscences. And you can test your Goodfellas knowledge by taking a quiz over at Mental Floss (I got 18 out of 20). Then you can weep for the late Martin Scorcese when you compare Goodfellas to Boardwalk Empire

[TV] Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door

Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door: In contrast to movies, TV continues to kick out bits and pieces of real art. The current triumvirate of Mad Men (season 4 almost over), Dexter (season 5 just starting), and Breaking Bad (between seasons) are generating some remarkable drama. Interestingly, and instructively, all of them are variations on a single theme: the destructive affect of secrets.

Dexter Morgan is a serial killer secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Walter White is a meth cooker secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Don Draper is just secretly pretending to be Don Draper. In each case, a big secret wends it way through the character arcs and plotlines wreaking death and destruction to all who encounter it, whether they are innocent or guilty, loved or hated. Dexter's wife was murdered and children traumatized. Walter's wife is now complicit and his brother-in-law crippled. Don's marriage and family and business are in shambles while he has panic attacks. Lump in plenty of anguish for ancillary characters and the point gets hammered home.

Mad Men does the best of these three because 1) It's much more realistic and 2) it's the only one where the supporting characters can carry a scene, never mind an episode. This season of Mad Men has been riveting; probably the best yet. Matt Weiner has done astounding work developing these characters. Very few missteps (I'm not sold on the Joan/Roger plotline) and the temptation to go whole hog into sneering at the poor pre-sexual revolution Neanderthals has been ably resisted. There is a renewed sense of purpose that was absent last season, so I assume Weiner has a good grip on how he's going to eventually resolve this, but I have absolutely no idea where all this is leading.

Dexter and Breaking Bad found wonderful new twists and turns in their storylines, but didn't break any new conceptual ground. Still wonderful entertainment. A cut above most everything else.

That said, I can't let any of these, even Mad Men into the pantheon yet. (The pantheon is Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire -- in that order.) Mad Men is oh so close, though. The problem is that "secrets = destruction," no matter how artfully done, is not enough of a human insight to bust through the pantheon's steel reinforced doors. We know the deal with tangled webs and innocent victims. We live it and see it every day. It is entertaining to watch and identify with, but it really doesn't take an angle we haven't already internalized.

Let me explain further with an example. The Sopranos. There were certainly secrets in the Sopranos but the show wasn't really about secrets, it was about self-delusion. (You could argue that amounts to secrets kept from yourself, but you'd be overly semantic.) It was portrayed in a very full robust way. Everyone deluded themselves, and these delusions brought them pain and suffering and destruction, but they also allowed them to survive. Without her delusion, Carmella would have been living in a low-rent hovel with no hope for her children. The trade off is being a housewife-whore but her daughter is going to Columbia and her half-wit son has a shot at supporting himself. In which life would she have been better off? If Christopher didn't delude himself that he was really just a soldier and Tony earned his loyalty, he would have been the hopeless white trash, which is what he saw at the gas station when Adrianna told him of her betrayal. The point of the show wasn't just that everyone deludes themselves and suffers for it, it was also pointing out that self-delusion is inherently human and necessary and helpful at times in leading a net positive life. That's the insight into humanity raises it above the crowd. And while the personal conflicts are resolved, the conceptual ones are left open.

Translated to the current crop of shows, we would look for some indication that secrets have their purpose, they are a necessary fact of human civilization, and that they may do as much good as bad, that there is no clear resolution to the conflict between the inner and outer lives of these people. As I said, Mad Men is close -- you could argue it's there and I am just missing it and I wouldn't be quick to dispute you. Both Dexter and Breaking Bad seem to make the case, but only in the purpose of refuting it, not just letting it rest unsettled.

Regardless, my overwhelming evaluation of all this is that Television is the most vibrant contemporary art form. Not even movies match its vitality. Certainly nothing else comes close (including novels and pop music and anything else).

That's not to say there aren't stinkers and disappointments. The late Martin Scorcese's Boardwalk Empire, for example. In contrast to Goodfellas (referenced above), I don't think anyone will be reminiscing about Boardwalk Empire in 20 years. It may not last 20 weeks. It's formulaic organized crime stuff, poorly cast (Scorcese's casting in his last few crime films has been dumbfounding), dispassionately acted, and stuffily written. I'll watch the full season for a turnaround, but I don't have high hopes. Sad. I guess David Milch is our last best hope for a return to HBO's former glory.

[Detroit] Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance

Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance: It's been a awhile since I busted on the city of my birth, but a recent article in the WSJ irritated my pet peeve. At first glance it seems like one of those optimistic takes on a supposed turnaround in Detroit, a city which has been poised for a turnaround for the entire half-century of my life. But credit the WSJ for not completely falling for the happy camper story.

Centering on the massive influx of filmmaking projects in Detroit (and all of Michigan) since the implementation of a 42% tax rebate on any instate expenses incurred by production companies, the usual sunny but shallow comments abound:
So far, the entertainment industry has produced 7,000 production jobs, though many of those are part-time and without benefits.
[S]ays Mikey Eckstein, whom producers hired to help relocate actors-a job that includes everything from finding a math tutor and trumpet instructor for Mr. Imperioli's children to finding an apartment that can accommodate large dogs. "I paid off my mortgage before they even started shooting."
Well, that's one mortgage paid.

Let's think about this, though. If that 42% tax credit is actually a net financial positive for the state wouldn't it make more sense to broaden it? Why not extend it to, oh I don't know, say, the auto parts industry? How about tech? Offer the same credit to any electronics company that will relocate from Taiwan. Or any sneaker-maker who will relocate from Vietnam. See where I'm going with this? If a lower effective tax rate really spurs growth, why not do it for all businesses?

In all honesty, the business tax climate in Michigan is not the worst in the country. It is simply below average and probably a mild disincentive to bringing in new business. In Detroit, one of the few cities in Michigan with the hutzpah to carry an income tax, the climate is very bad. But whether State or City, as demonstrated by the film industry, reducing the tax burden brings development. So again, why not take it to the next level?

There are two reasons why broad and drastic business tax incentives won't be implemented. First, the cynical reason: it shrinks the control politicians have over which industries get started and which don't. This is not to suggest they are sitting around, twirling their mustaches and plotting to keep central control over the peasant economy. It's just human nature in general and the nature of those who get into politics particularly. No matter what your agenda, you cannot implement it without power so protect your power above all else. (Read your Machiavelli.)

The second reason it won't happen is the specific form of the justification they have manufactured to explain their power protection in polite society. To wit: They seem to believe Detroit's problem is primarily one of public relations:
"Without being too romantic and starry-eyed, this is a dream weaver industry and if storytellers can't bring hope to a region, no one can," says Scott Putman, executive producer/unit production manager on "Hostel: Part III."
Unlike jaded denizens of Los Angeles and New York, Detroiters are enjoying celebrity sightings. Last month, Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, in town to shoot her new movie "LOL," attended a Tigers game. Around the same time, Ms. Moore and actor Gerard Butler, who was in town shooting "Machine Gun Preacher," were spotted at a local bowling alley. Hugh Jackman stopped by the polar bear exhibit at the Detroit Zoo. "That all helps reshape our image and show people we're turning the corner," says Carrie Jones, director of the Michigan Film Office.
"We're done being sad," he says. "We're trying to build a new industry."
This is the sort of thing that presses my button. Whether it's the Ren Cen or new sports stadiums or movie lots, every generation has its own magic pill to save the city by changing its image. We learn nothing. We just ride the loop-de-loop of futility into oblivion.

So what am I, some sort of tea-party type who thinks a tax cut will solve everything? No, a tax cut for businesses will not solve everything. But it's part of creating an environment which allows all sorts for businesses to thrive, not just the glamorous high profile ones that can get politicians re-elected. Included in that environment are public safety, education, and infrastructure -- in all those areas, Detroit is an epic failure. What doesn't help? Celebrity sightings, movie locales, PR campaigns, and other agents of a "change in perception." Put more simply: You're not fooling anyone putting lipstick on a pig.

As to what long term affect these movie shoots will have:
"Hollywood follows the money," says Mr. Belding, the location manager. "If Ohio had a 50% rebate, we'd all head 100 miles south and find Paris there."
In other words, this change in perception amounts to paying people to be our friends.

The bit of good news is that for the first time in recent memory there is a Mayor who seems to have a realistic outlook. I don't know if it's enough -- in fact, I doubt it is -- but I hope Dave Bing can pull something off in the realm of intelligent downsizing that is always discussed.

For a less polemic look at Detroit I highly recommend David Byrne's recent journal post. He spent a fair amount of time biking around the city on a recent visit and seems to have been fascinated by it from an aesthetic point of view - which I heartily endorse. Despite occasional points of naivete, his observations are acute, passionate, and quite well expressed.