Friday, August 13, 2004

Collateral (Mann) -- B+

It's no accident that one of the best scenes in Collateral centers on a conversation about Miles Davis, since a good alternative title for this movie would be Kind of Blue. Washed in cool blues (in lighting reminiscent of classic jazz cover art), Michael Mann's moody nocturne is, like Miles' playing, emphatically quiet and most beautiful in the unexpectedly long silences. Collateral's at its best in those impressionistic stretches, when Mann hides himself in the terrifying shadows cast by the City of Angels much as Claire Denis had done one Friday Night in the City of Lights. Mann's familiarity with the dark corners of Greater Los Angeles, making such excellent use of vibrant but invisible-in-movies neighborhoods as Pico Rivera (hometown of my galpal Jo) and Koreatown (one of the most happening areas in LA), lends his film a stark, realistic beauty.

This being a Tom Cruise summer flick, the urban romanticism has to be draped over an interesting but flawed thriller script that gets more preposterous as the movie goes on (though it pulls neat surprises along the way, like the resolution of the retarded police investigator thread). In that way, Collateral brings to mind the even more implausible In the Cut, another thriller high on jazzy lyricism, a dreadfully romantic mien, and auteurial personality. Now if Mark Ruffalo hadn't played the same guy in both films, I might've not noticed this. But just as Campion's uses stale serial killer conventions to explore questions she cares about (like how to find the right guy amid all the wrong guys), Mann returns to the thriller if only to launch his own macho inquiry into the nature of man.

Mann's films are focused on men who do their job well. Pros. But unlike Howard Hawks, who shares this interest, Mann's men toil away alone and isolated. They sacrifice love and family for sustained excellence. Often, a Mann film will pit an obsessive pro who is existentially comfortable with his job and condition (De Niro in Heat, Pacino in The Insider, Cruise in Collateral) against a pro yearning to break out of his misery (Pacino, Crowe, and Foxx, respectively). They're two sides of the same coin, Mann thinks, but one side's got the existential dilemma. Even among this phalanx of tortured souls, Jamie Foxx's Max might be the most fleshed-out, a taxi driver proud of his mastery of roads but actually an entrepreneur at heart. The guy's just been too paralyzed by routine and risk-aversion to make the jump. Max's more psychologically interesting than the usual Mann-ly man, and Collateral's most provocative when Cruise's Vincent acts as Max's Tyler Durden, prodding Max about his life choices and snickering at his feeble response to life. Max wants to be One With His Job, like Vincent. He just couldn't find his way there. This focus on character and atmosphere -- with excellent work from Foxx and Cruise (whose impenetrably preening self-confidence is perfect for about half the movie) -- makes the first half of Collateral the most compelling thing Mann's done, until the film gets bogged down by plot mechanics.

Until fairly recently, I've been a very qualified admirer of Mann's work. A superb craftsman, he had the unfortunate habit of conducting every minor-key sonata as if it were the 1812 Overture. A heist film like Heat turns into an interminable crime opera. In Ali, his one unqualified success, the explosive material matched his bombast. I didn't think he could succeed again at modest material, but I was pleasantly surprised by Mann's restraint here -- by concentrating so much on mood and location, Mann's able to crank it all the way down to something approaching the volume of Jules Dassin's Naked City, which is to say, only moderately self-important. Ultimately, Collateral is an old school auteurist B-movie made by a masculine, obsessive pro who knows what the job is and does it right.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Leave no white girl behind

Here's the Village Voice, weighing in on a subject of particular interest to me. Maybe to you, too.

Also, is this site for real?

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

So 15 minutes ago

So whatever happened to flash mobs? Or better yet, let's not talk about it, else someone might try to revive that dumb dadaist prank. Too bad LA Weekly isn't helping by having a cover package that includes an interview with the man behind the mob.


Also, there's an article on the troubles ailing something called Friendster. What a stupid name. Wait, that name kinda sounds familiar. Friendster, Friendster...oh, that's right! It's that networking site, the source of endless hours of amusement last summer, topic A of any conversation out on the town, and the place where I first came into contact with my present love. That Friendster!

Man, it was only a year ago that Friendster seemed to have reinvented a new form of social interaction. Last July, I checked the site every hour, scanning friends' profiles for jokey updates or new testimonials and trying to locate old crushes or just hot girls. Many other friends did the same. We'd talk about it, send weird profiles to one another, I even blogged about its social rules. Whenever I changed my profile, I could be sure to elicit a reaction from somebody. Then, about six months ago, the collective interest just dwindled to nil. Now, I might go on once a week, just to check bulletins. And it's not just my crowd. The site has gotten a diminishing number of hits and page views, bewildering the site's management and investors. (Check out what network guru Danah Boyd says.) Why the hasty demise? Was it because it got too big? That's partly true. But I think the LA Weekly piece is onto something: Friendster catered to new users instead of its base, the techies and hipsters that first created buzz for the site.

The folks I know who joined the site late were non-internet types or those focused on their careers or families. They weren't the urban single types that obsessed over the site. Friendster actually offered nothing to them, except some kind of interesting-for-a-minute cyber-map of their friends. Many late users just signed up and never logged on again. For the old hardcore users, Friendster just failed to innovate. While Friendster clones like MySpace and Google's Orkut added tons of new community-oriented features like interest groups and personal blogs and even basic functions like page-views, Friendster stood still. They were too busy adding servers to accomodate the new users.

And they still don't have a plan to make a profit. Social cyber-networking, I think, is here to stay, but by doing nothing for a whole year, Friendster just might turn out to be the model's Betamax.

The Corporation (Achbar & Abbott) -- B

If I were a benovolent despot, I'd decree that every college student must take at least two classes in economics and two in critical theory before graduation. In that world, you're sure to have less fucking Hummers on the road -- and also more leftist documentaries that evince at least a basic understanding of market economics.

The Corporation, the most provocative and visually impressive of the leftist docs currently out, achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve: it offers up a comprehensive leftist critique of corporations. As you can expect, the movie's most potent when its criticisms are on target, such as when it details ecological damage done from the "externalizing" of corporate costs, aided immeasurably by the interviews with born-again eco-CEO Roy Anderson. Also, there's eyeopening stuff on Monsanto and the Fox News story detailing the public health dangers of the bovine hormone put out by that company. Environmental and public health hazards, dangers of media concentration, and the pervasiveness of advertising and marketing to create demand for useless products -- those are all trenchant critiques of the Age of Multinational Corporations.

The doc also wants to be a description of the role and effect of corporations on contemporary life, and in that it's far less successful. For all the interviews with "the other side", The Corporation can't come to terms with a simple truth that capitalism, for all its ills, is the most effective and efficient form of production and distribution we have, creating wealth and improving standards of living across the globe. It doesn't begin to acknowlege that often times market-based solutions are often the most effective way of dealing with certain external cost problems. It poses the "commons" as some sort of collective utopia without acknowledging the very real problem of "The Tragedy of the Commons". And that for all its romanticization of the "people", consumer choice and shareholder pressure remain the best and most effective ways of holding corporations accountable.

Most egregious is the discussion of the corporation as a "legal person", which the film uses as an organizing conceit. As a legal matter, that designation is made for the purposes of standing, with legal rights somewhat different from that of individuals. As an economic judgment, every industrialized nation has decided -- rightly, in my view -- that a form of business that limits liability to individual shareholders promotes capital investment and increases growth. For example, if you invest $5,000 in Unocal stock, you won't lose your house if Unocal goes under. You'll only lose your $5,000. If you risk the shirt on your back, you probably wouldn't invest. Such basic economic principles are ignored at the service of nonsensical radical rhetoric, which ends up weakening the movie's points.

The film diagnosed the problem correctly: that economics has trumped politics, concentrating power on corporations that are not accountable to citizens directly. But that's as much a political problem -- politicians need for corporate campaign money to maintain power, the "people" have trouble organizing due to collective action problems and information failure -- as it is a problem of corporate malevolence. I wish the film addressed the real problem with more rigor, instead of just romanticizing "the people". On the other hand, there are few movies that are even willing to tackle this problem, and even a half-successful thinkpiece like The Corporation is much appreciated.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Kerry as Barak?

Tired of all the comparisons made between the 2004 election and (take your pick):

(a) the 1980 race, when a beleaguered incumbent president lost decisively as the undecided all broke to the challenger in the last few days;

(b) the 1992 race, when an Iraq-conquering president named Bush was defeated by a Democrat assaulting his poor economic stewardship;

(c) the 1972 race, when the incumbent Republican war president won in a landslide by appealing to the nationalistic, socially conservative Silent Majority; or

(d) the 1988 race, when an aggressive Bush campaign successfully tarred a Massachusetts liberal as out of touch with the mainstream?

Leave it to the New Republic to start comparing the Kerry-Bush race to elections in other countries. They print two articles. (Subscription required to read the articles.) The pessimistic one draws a parallel between Kerry and the hapless, charisma-challenged Neil Kinnock, who squandered Labour's advantage on the issues and couldn't withstand the negative attacks from John Major in the 1991 British elections. The more persuasive article argues that Kerry's playing Ehud Barak to Bush's Bibi Netanyahu. Barak was the war hero whose biography-intensive compaign hardened Labor's dovish image; Bibi is a reflexively hawkish wingnut who's loathed by the center-left. Though the Israeli electorate was closely divided in 1999 and polls fairly close for most of the race, Barak pulled away at the end and whipped Bibi by a 56-44 margin.

If you're interested with historical comparisons, check out the Barak-Kerry article. I haven't seen a better case for a historical parallel. Then again, maybe such comparisons are fundamentally flawed.

Also, I keep running into folks who remain skeptical that Kerry's in a strong position. Don't take my word for it. Check out what Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato, two of the most respected election analysts in Washington, say about the state of the race. And these guys aren't Democratic shills.

Added for all my Costco-loving buds: A Brooksian piece on Kerryesque Costco v. Bushian Wal-Mart. The piece is better than it sounds.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Will Ferrell's Anti-Bush Ad

Will Ferrell stars in this hilarious anti-Bush ad sponsored by America Coming Together, the most important and active of the 527 groups supporting the Democrats (they're gonna key the get out the vote operation). If you want to give money this election cycle, there is no bigger bang for your buck.