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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Great (modest, minute, tiny?) Leap Forward

I feel that I have not been as active in improving my Spanish as I have in the past. To this end I have decided to greatly increase my reading. To this end I purchased a copy of Ken Follet’s Los Pilares de la Tierra (The Pillars of the Earth), a 1,356 page (with small print I might add) leviathan of a novel about the construction of a mediaeval English cathedral. I found an audio book of it several months ago and began listening to it on my bike rides. I had to give up on it as the robot voice started to drive me nuts about a couple of chapters. I was already hooked a bit on the story and asked around to see if anyone had a copy in Spanish. I finally broke down a couple of weeks ago and bought a copy and started reading in earnest.

I don’t remember this book being very popular in the States but it is enormously popular here in Europe. In Germany it was a monster best seller and here in Spain it seems that most of my Spanish friends have read it. It’s one of those books that when you are reading it in public complete strangers will comment to you about their experience with it. I just find that it is fun to read, although rather difficult in certain passages that deal with the technical aspects of mediaeval architecture. By the time I finish I may not be able to design a cathedral but I could probably get work on a cathedral construction gang—one of my life-long dreams, right after giving the Pope a wedgie.

I am 500 pages into this thing and as far as novels go it isn’t anything to really write about. In one crucial part of the story a family is robbed in the forest and the thief outruns a man while carrying a pig under his arm? Almost nothing has happened that isn’t completely predictable and the characters are right out of the Microsoft Mediaeval Literature software program: a beautiful princess, a nasty little prince, corrupt and ambitious church officials, and a pious monk. It’s something I probably wouldn’t read in English but in Spanish I am quite enjoying it. I like the fact that I see new vocabulary over and over again which helps to reinforce memorization. I have learned a lot of new expressions besides all of the architectural terms, many of which I really didn’t understand I English. As I have said over and over, I just feel that reading is extremely important in language learning. If you like to read you are at a sharp advantage over nonreaders. This is true at least as far as building vocabulary is concerned. I remember having to learn lists of vocabulary in French class way back when. I didn’t really start learning French until I just started reading it.

It is great to be in the middle of a book that I just want to be reading all the time: when I first wake up in the morning, while waiting for a train, on the metro, and then in one or two cafés during the day. I have to go now, time to read.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Levante UD, Valencia CF, and Paella

What could be more Valenciano than watching a Valencia CF football game and having a paella at my house? How about going to watch Levante U.D.—the other Valencia football team—play, have a paella, and then watch Valencia CF? That was yesterday’s schedule for me—not the worst way to spend a Sunday. It was my first time to see Levante play and I had never even seen their stadium before, even though I used to live fairly close. It’s hard to miss, as it isn’t very big, and even if you do happen to miss it, you aren’t missing much—truth be told it’s pretty much a fucking eyesore. The stadium, that is. The one where Levante plays. They played Betis yesterday and it was a pretty good game, at least the second half when Levante scored on a great free kick. This was enough for them to get three points from Betis. It would be great to see Levante climb back up into the first division for next year. Valencia CF is trying to hang on to third place in the first division behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. They only managed a draw against Tenerife yesterday.

The Levante game ended at 13:45 which gave us just enough time to take the metro from the stadium back home, cook the paella, eat, and then walk next door to see the Valencia game at Bar Canadá which has turned into my new proxy living room. I go there almost every day now for a coffee or maybe a glass of wine in the evening. They show all the games there, the food is pretty good, and it’s a great place for me to read. It just so happens that this was also the first bar I entered in Valencia when I moved here over three years ago. After settling in a bit in my first short-term apartment my brother and I started walking towards the historic center of town when we came upon this bar on a palm-lined boulevard and stopped in for a caña. Now I live a half block away; it’s like god wanted me to move next to Bar Canadá.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A First-Rate Society


David Simon (creator of The Wire): The parting message is we are no longer a culture that can recognize our own problems, much less begin to solve them. We will accept the short-term solution, the juked statistics, the jerry-rigged profit over actual substance every time. This is the America we've built and paid for, and it's all we deserve. We have not paid the real cost of being a first-rate society. As long as we buy into the notion that you can build a just society with capitalism alone, it's not going to get any better. It was a critique. I am not anti-capitalist, but if you think that's the prescription for building a just society, you're just naïve. It was a real, angry critique of the last 30 or 40 years.

To me this should be the central message of modern liberalism. If you disagree with this statement (in bold) then you are just a fool who refuses to look at the facts in the matter. When people argue against socialized medicine I ask them to point to a health care system that works better for the people than the systems created in Western Europe. Conservatives will point to silly anecdotal stories where these systems have failed an individual but they won’t look at how our privatized system has failed most of our society. Imagine if we just allowed our roads and highways to be built by private enterprise alone with no help or guidance by the government? It is an absurd thought yet this is how we have chosen to run our health care in America with results every bit as tragic and pitiful as you would imagine coming from this make-believe highway system.

We have already given over to the private realm the planning of our suburban population centers and for the most part they are completely awful and barely fit for human habitation. We have let the parking requirements at Applebee’s trump the needs of the people for a shared human space. In fact, we have gone so far to accommodate the retailers that we have completely forgotten how to even construct a livable urban area. It is no wonder that America has become a country of maxed-out credit cards and people stampeding after one new diet craze after another—we haven’t given people much else to do besides shop and eat.

This is the most important argument in the liberal ideal: How can we expect the needs of citizens to be met when they do not participate in the process? Where are citizens when the strip malls are being planned? I can’t imagine that even the most heartless individual would sign off on a plan that makes a parking lot of about 60% of his environment urban environment. They certainly wouldn’t if they had at least one other choice. It’s not even human beings who design these landscapes; it is committees and flow charts and sales figures that shape sprawl. The biggest problem, as Simon points out, is that we are incapable of even recognizing our problems. We seem to have all of the answers (especially if you ask a conservtive) but we aren't asking the right questions. Most people don’t even realize that they could be living in a much better environment because they have lived with the present landscape of sprawl for so long. To many people Applebee’s is real food and the strip mall is a real town.

I think that what has fueled so much of America’s conservative movement was born out of the mentality of suburban sprawl. Voting statistics will certainly back me up on this. People who live in cities are almost always more liberal than those living in the country or suburban areas. Sprawl has created separation and an unwillingness of many citizens to try to live together with disparate elements of our culture. Why bother to get along when you can just move to a gated community? Tolerance? Who fucking needs it when everyone in the parking lot looks just like you?

It’s difficult to see the benefits of cooperation when you live in the suburbs. There’s no mass transit, few common areas for people to congregate, and almost everyone around you mirrors your income and often your ethnic background. I like to ask conservatives to point out the sort of society they are trying to build. They often tell me that they want America to be more like we were before. They are pretty vague about exactly when their idyllic American society existed. What they really mean is they want us to roll back all of the things Americans literally fought in the streets to achieve and live like we did in the days before income tax, child labor laws, safety requirements in the work place and for products, back when citizens had little say in how the world was shaped, back in the days of completely unregulated capitalism. Man, those were the days.

What I have in mind for America isn’t some dopey utopia or an amnesiac’s cherry-picked view of our past. I can point directly to examples of how we should look in the future. You don’t need a crystal ball to see the kind of society I am talking about; you just need a passport and a couple of weeks of vacation. Take a look at The Netherlands, or Denmark, or Belgium, or France to see evidence of what Simon calls “first-rate” societies. We could learn a lot from Spain about how to build a better place for our citizens to live. Of course, anyone who suggests this is immediately branded as anti-American because America is the greatest country in the world. Period. End of discussion. Except we didn’t really have a discussion.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

My Top Movies of the Decade

First of all I must warn you that the following list is a list of opinions, and worse yet, they are my opinions. I am not much of a list-maker; I find them rather annoying in most cases, especially in the case of the other lists I have seen published on the best movies of the decade 2000-2010. These stupid lists of “great” movies are what prompted me to create my own top ten. I think that movie critics are about the lowest form of life—at least in the realm of writers. The critics for the major publications have their faces buried so deep in the asses of the big studios that they just aren’t worth reading for any reason. I’ll never forget when Anthony Lane for the New Yorker went on and on about what a fantastic movie Speed was. What a stupid cunt.

I especially hate it when critics tell me how I am supposed to feel about something, like Pete Travers for Rolling Stone saying about his list, “These are the 10 that deepened with time and dug their way into your head and heart.” Then he puts mostly shit on his list, at least in my opinion. The Departed doesn’t even rank in Scorcese’s top ten list let alone the top ten of the decade. You may feel differently but I thought that No Country for Old Men had nothing to say, the book and the film. I didn’t find it the least bit interesting. And There Will Be Blood at his number one spot? I couldn’t watch that movie twice on a bet, but that is just my opinion. Not one of my movies intersects with Traver’s list.

10) Munich (2005)
This is by far my favorite Spielberg movie which isn’t saying a lot. I read the book this was based on many years ago and I always thought that the story would make a terrific film. Believe it or not, the book didn’t have Spielberg’s depth of feeling about the nature of violence as a tool of politics.

9) Tapas (2005)
I had to include at least one Spanish film on this list and I add this one unapologetically. The simplest of small stories which give us a bird’s eye view of life in this Barrio of Barcelona. Why does Hollywood have such a difficult time making movies about the lives of people who actually have to work for a living? Hollywood’s idea of a normal job is an advertising executive. This movie was probably made on less than what it cost to make the trailer for The Lord of the Rings.

8) Gladiator (2000) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
I wanted to have at least one blockbuster on my list just to prove that I’m not against the idea, it’s just that I hate shitty blockbusters. This made the list because it received a solid thumbs-up by dozens and dozens of bar patrons around my neighborhood this afternoon. I had to run a few errands around Ruzafa this afternoon and I noticed when I looked into a bar that Gladiator was playing on the television on the local channel Canal Nou. Not only was it on the TV but I noticed that all the patrons were watching it. I did what I had to do and then stopped in for a café con leche at my corner bar called Bar Canadá. I was just I time to see the final scene. There were about ten customers in the bar and everyone, including the bartender, was watching the movie intently. I’m sure we had all seen this movie at least three times but it is hard not to watch it whenever it is on the TV..

I was reminded of Master & Commander and had to quickly withdraw Gladiator, sorry. I couldn't possibly leave M&C off this list so I'll have to shoe-horn it in here. I love the Patrick O'Brian books and this was a remarkable adaptation of two of them.

7) High Fidelity (2000)
A great movie from a great book, one of the better novels from the 1990s. I even liked Jack Black in this movie but it was the first time I had seen him.

6) The Dark Knight (2008)
I think that what I like most about this movie is that they took a genre that I despise and that I think is mostly for booger-eaters and made a decent movie that isn’t too retarded. I guess this makes two blockbusters on my list—I’m practically in the mainstream. I hate critics who feel that they need to fill their list with hoary little indie films that no one has seen (and probably for good reasons).

5) The Lives of Others (2006)
It’s tough for me to really love a movie in a language that I don’t speak at all, and I have seen few German movies in my life, so this film really made an impression on me. A good man triumphs over the pettiness of the state. I saw this during the tail-end of the disastrous Bush era and one line at the end of the movie almost floored me with its relevance.

I watched this movie again after reading Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland, about life in East Germany under the paranoid psychopaths of the state security police. The film is a masterpiece of tragedy and hope and the triumph of good.

One of the most moving scenes in this and in any movie is when he discovers that his copy of Brecht is missing which, of course, has been nicked by his nemesis/deus ex machina in the Stasi. We cut to him reading it at home.  “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?”

From what I have read about the Stasi I doubt that anyone would have talked freely on a telephone line in this era but I could see how the writer, after years of keeping within the party lines, would think that his home was not under surveillance.

“To think that people like you once ruled a country.” I had the same thoughts during the Bush/Cheney years in America.

4) Michael Clayton (2007)
I just thought that the acting in this was brilliant. A legal thriller but this movie is so much more than that. What makes this so remarkable is how the director makes you put the pieces together while giving you just the minimum of information. The personal relationships are explained in the briefest fashion yet if you do the work you can cobble together an incredibly complicated story. Just think of the interaction between Michael Clayton and his two brothers in the film. Hardly anything is revealed yet there exists a rather profound depth to their relationships if you connect the dots. This is a movie that makes you pay attention and then rewards you for your effort.*
*This just in: Up in the Air is every bit as brilliant as Michael Clayton. One of the more quotable movies that I may have ever seen.

3) The Pianist (2002)
This movie was brilliant on so many levels, an epic film about the horrors of Nazi Europe with a good portion of it from the perspective of a guy peeking out of a window in an apartment where he is hiding. I thought it was much better than Schindler’s List.

2) The Hurt Locker (2009)
A really stupid title for a really great movie. I have no idea what the title means and if this movie did poorly at the box office I would place the blame on the label. This movie was about a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq. As a child I remember watching the news about Viet Nam and seeing lots of helicopters. That war seemed to be defined for me by helicopters. The war in Iraq has been about IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. The film only delicately addresses what a piece of shit the war is and instead it focuses on the dedicated soldiers we send to do our dirty work. The director really got the whole military scene. Everyone looked and talked like soldiers. There wasn’t a single cliché in this movie (except one time when a soldier screamed, “Fire in the hole!” but I can forgive that). There wasn’t any “Do we cut the blue wire or the red wire” bullshit that you see in every movie about bombs. There wasn’t some Al Qaeda mastermind pitting his wits against the good guys. It was just a movie about men doing their jobs in a hellish situation. At one point one of the soldiers admits, “I fucking hate this place.”

1) The Wire (2002)
Yes, I know this wasn’t a movie. What it should have been was a wake-up call to the movie industry to get their shit together and start making better feature movies. The days when TV takes a back seat to films are over. I can’t remember a movie this decade that I looked forward to seeing with as much relish as I looked forward to seeing every new episode of this fantastic series. I could say the same for other series like Generation Kill, Entourage, Dexter, and The Shield, to name just a few.

Forget about James Cameron and his big budget, 3D science fiction extravaganzas (although I’m not really knocking Avatar, I’d love to see it), The Wire was much more groundbreaking and innovative. It is as close as cinema has come to duplicating the power of a novel.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

My Cinema Manifesto

I just want to put into one essay a lot of ideas and observations that I have about movies. It always amazes me just how few good movies are made in any given year. I realize that everyone has different tastes. The world is certainly a much better place because so few people have tastes like mine. With this said I find it hard to believe that anyone likes Sandra Bullock. Even her parents and other relatives must hate her movies.

I would like to begin by saying that although I pick on Hollywood movies a lot I don’t think that they in any way have a monopoly on shitty movies. There are dozens and dozens of bad independent and foreign movies made every year. I pick on Hollywood because they have the monetary resources to make the best movies yet they often fall back on the most tired clichés and gimmicks in the movies they produce when they should be constantly breaking new trails and upholding the highest standards in quality. I don’t believe that people want to see lousy movies and if by chance a really lousy movie makes a ton of money it’s only because the producers spent a ton of money to market their shitty movie. People will basically see what they are told to see. I could doctor up a security video from a convenience store with good music and editing and get a bunch of people to pay to see it if I had a big enough budget to market my film. To say that people like lousy movies is a self-fulfilling prophecy made possible by good marketing.

Movie trailers are made in order to convince or trick people into shelling out the cash for the tickets to actually see the movie in a theater. Making a good trailer is an art in itself but in general the quality of the trailer reflects the quality of the movie. If there is more than one explosion in the trailer of a movie then it will almost assuredly be a piece of shit. If you have no idea what the movie is about after watching the trailer then you probably won’t after seeing the entire movie.

As far as I am concerned, as soon as the lights are dimmed in the theater until they come back on at the end the director should entertain the audience. This means that the opening and closing credits should be worth watching. You have a very fixed amount of time in feature movies with most clocking in at about 90 minutes. This means that you don’t have time for 10 minutes of boring credits. Every frame of the movie should advance the story in some way. The closing credits aren’t as important as the opening credits simple because you can walk out without watching them. If I were making a movie I would want to hold people in their seats until the very end and you aren’t going to do this if you just have a bunch of names up on the screen. I usually find that boring opening credits signal that the movie is also going to suck.

One of the most unoriginal gimmicks in film making is when they use a song to convey to you with the lyrics exactly how you are supposed to feel in that particular moment. Music should be used as a compliment, not to corroborate a bad story. Musical clichés are also annoying as hell. For example, say there is a scene at a fancy black-tie party. About nine out of ten times the music will be Mozart’s A Little Night Music because this is the cliché for classical music. Just try a little harder to be original is all that I am asking.

If the great television in the past few years—mostly compliments of HBO—has shown us anything it’s that there are a lot of really good actors out there that we have never seen before. I always thought the acting was superb in shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Entourage, and The Shield, to name just a few. So why does Hollywood act as if there are only about 15 people qualified to star in movies? We have actors that made one mildly successful film in their youth and then we are saddled with them for the rest of their lives, like we owe them some sort of pension plan in the movies. They are harder to fire than a federal employee. I say we implement the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” rule for actors. They get three movies and then they have to go do something else for a living for at least five years. This will give us time to forget about them which will make them more believable in their next role.

There is nothing worse than hearing movie dialogue that sounds like it was lifted directly from another movie. This is just lazy writing. How many dumbass dialogue clichés have you heard over and over again like broken records? I can’t even count how many times I have heard the line “Fire in the hole!” screamed in a war movie. Even if soldiers actually say this in combat—and I doubt they do—I just don’t ever want to hear it again in a movie. I wrote a whole comedy essay about buddy cop clichés I could probably extend it to book length. The problem is that most writers in the movie industry do little besides watch movies. Even if cops do say all of the dorky lines you hear in cop movies it’s probably because they are just parroting the films they see. As a writer a lot of times you should be inventing your own lingo.

Think of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. He invented practically an entire language because he didn’t want to use the slang of his day for fear that it would very quickly sound outdated. Instead, he created a new language that still sounds cool and fresh today almost 50 years after publication. We have actually incorporated a lot of the dialogue from this novel in our speech. A lot of film dialogue is just taken from other movies. It’s like a tick that is so fat that it doesn’t realize that it has its fangs sunk into its own ass.