Republican Lie of the Day.

September 26, 2008

You know, I like the concept of the Republican lie of the day so much that I might just start another blog for that alone. 

To the point: John McCain has already won tonight’s debate.

No, really. Seriously. They already posted an ad that said McCain won a debate that hasn’t happened yet — a debate he didn’t even want to participate in (ostensibly because he wanted to work on a bailout solution, but more likely because he wants to avoid debates that aren’t in the town hall format). Oh, and it hasn’t happened yet.

I’m toying with the idea of live-blogging the debate, just because it promises to be just as damaging to the McCain campaign as Palin’s interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric were. 

Did you (yeah, you!) see Palin with Couric? Oh, boy, it was painful to watch. The fact (if it’s actually a fact) that the Russians would fly over Alaskan airspace if they decided to run combat missions in the United States and the fact that Alaska is next to Canada — these are, Sarah Palin feels, really legitimate foreign policy credentials.

The point: The McCain campaign will say anything, regardless of whether it’s provably or even possibly true.

When Barack Obama said, “They must think you’re stupid,” boy was he right.

Film Review: “Towelhead”

September 23, 2008

Sometimes when a movie’s done and the credits roll, all you can do is sit there and wonder why this film exists and what you were thinking every moment that you didn’t walk out of it. “Towelhead” is such a film.

With further consideration, I realize what I was thinking: There must be something good that happens in this movie at some point. Unfortunately, there isn’t; “Towelhead” just drags its characters and the viewer through the mud for 116 excruciating minutes. The film is, in short, a series of events that our society — and its 1991 iteration, in which the events take place — would consider not just wrong, but downright abominable, and certainly illegal.

“Towelhead,” based on the identically named novel by Alicia Erian, is about the sexual awakening, if you can call it that, of 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil, who was actually 18 when the movie was made), the product of a Lebanese man and a white woman, neither of whom is in line for any parenting awards. The mother, Gail (Maria Bello), sends her daughter off after discovering that Jasira allowed Gail’s stereotypical dirtbag boyfriend, Barry (Chris Messina), to shave her bikini line. Jasira’s dumped on her father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi, best known for his work in “Six Feet Under,” in his first major big-screen role), a man with two defining characteristics: traditional (read: backwards, racist and hypocritical) views on family life and an extreme hatred for Saddam Hussein.

Rifat lives in a suburb of Houston where everything looks the same, but not in the generally friendly way of, for example, the town of Agrestic in “Weeds”; rather, the houses and their lawns have a bare and uninviting aura around them that must make coming home every day a good deal less than pleasant. Rifat and his Army Reservist next-door neighbor, Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart, who plays a conflicted man about as well as anyone), are in an ongoing patriotism competition. Each man plants a nice, big American flag front and center on his lawn, leading to a couple lingering shots of the houses side by side, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you which house is whose.

Soon after moving in with her father, Jasira discovers pornography and masturbation while babysitting Mr. Vuoso’s son, Zack. The audience is subjected to the image of Jasira sitting in the same room with Zack, rubbing her thighs together and quietly whimpering while fantasizing about topless ladies, as they both read (for the articles, of course) Mr. Vuoso’s porno magazines. At this point, it’s very easy to say, “Ah, I see where this story is going. She’s going to become a lesbian and come into conflict with her father’s traditional values and come of age!”

No.

Jasira does indeed like men, or at the minimum she comprehends that she’s supposed to like men, and so she goes through the motions of liking them. They like her, too, particularly Mr. Vuoso and Jasira’s boyfriend of sorts, Thomas (Eugene Jones III, another actor far older than 13). Without getting into too much detail, let us just say that there is conflict.

The thing is, that’s essentially the problem with the film. It’s an amalgam of tenuously connected conflicts that are just dumped on this poor young girl, who somehow manages to remain rather stoic through it all. The sexuality that pervades the entire thing is presented in a graphic, unpleasant manner; “Towelhead” is so cold and unfeeling in its dealing with its touchy subject matter that the film itself is in conflict with the viewer, constantly challenging the audience to keep watching despite the powerful desire to go do something more pleasant, like visit the dentist.

This all serves to obscure some noteworthy acting performances, particularly by the always reliable Eckhart, no stranger to playing a character in moral conflict. Mr. Vuoso spends much of the movie battling his shameful desires for Jasira, giving in just twice. The odd thing is that he never seems to be particularly ashamed of having or acting on his desire for her; only the consequences bother him. Eckhart and Macdissi have limited screen time together, but in that time they almost entirely silently convey a palpable mutual hatred. Unfortunately, that’s very nearly the only strong emotion that appears in the film.

Bishil is the main victim of the film’s cold treatment of the subject matter; she doesn’t overwhelm in the role of Jasira, but it’s hard to say that she had the proper role or direction to make the most of her acting talent. The performance rings of sincerity, but the fact of the matter is that Jasira doesn’t express much in the way of emotion for the duration of the film outside of the rare outburst. For the most part, Jasira is a wide-eyed observer of her own whirlwind of a life, and Bishil captures that effectively, but I can’t help but feel that director Alan Ball missed out on properly utilizing his young star.

At the end, the overwhelming feeling is that Ball missed out on a lot of things; most grievously, he failed to make a film that is in any way aesthetically or intellectually pleasing. “Towelhead” simply fails to justify its existence, which is right about the worst crime any movie can commit.

Mad as hell.

September 22, 2008

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad, everybody knows things are bad: It’s a depression! Everybody’s out of work, or scared of losing their job; the dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shop-keepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street; nobody anywhere seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it! We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. We sit watching our TVs whilst some local newscaster tells us that “today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes” as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be! We know things are bad, worse than bad: they’re crazy! It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore! We sit in the house and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is “please, at least leave us alone in our living-rooms — let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything! Just leave us alone!” Well I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest, I don’t want you to riot, I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write, I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street – all I know is that first you’ve got to get mad! You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being goddammit! My life has value!’ So, I want you to get up now, I want all of you to get up out of your chairs! I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

You oughta know this quote from the 1976 film “Network.”

1976.

What part of this quote (aside from the steel-belted radials, perhaps) doesn’t apply to today?

Just food for thought.

Upcoming when I have time: a review of “Towelhead.”

Yes, I’m alive, faithful blog readers (both of you). I was in Europe, is my excuse.

While I was there, I had plenty of talks with plenty of my fellow cruise ship passengers on the topic of American politics and the sorry state our nation is in. Yes, we’re in the kind of sorry state where Sarah Palin, a purely politically motivated VP choice who brings absolutely nothing to the table, can give John McCain a big, although relatively short-lived, boost in the polls. Turns out that at least some of the American people finally noticed that she doesn’t actually know anything or have anything meaningful to say.

But that’s sort of the issue with our politics, then, isn’t it? People don’t vote based on information, but rather on vague soundbites and tidbits of misinformation that they get, for example, out of cable news (that’s right, Fox, I’m talking about you, but you’re not the only one). They vote based on what their preachers tell them, what their unions tell them, what the TV tells them, what the internet tells them. As a result, the American people have fallen into the miserable habit of not voting in their own best interests, and this is a problem. There is also a secondary (and surely related) problem, which is that many American people have become so disenchanted with the political system that they don’t turn out to vote.

But for every problem (except perhaps the Israel-Palestine conflict) there is a solution. Here is mine.

It’s necessary to preface the following with this: For my voting system to work, the government (probably the federal government) will need to invest in electronic voting machines for the entire nation. And when I say that we will need to invest in electronic voting machines, I mean three things: no outside contractors, no involvement of elected officials except to authorize and fund the program, and emphasis on the best possible security. Without these, there is no electoral system. That said, carry on.

All registered voters in the United States will receive in the mail a card with, for the sake of argument, 20 statements on it, in the style of this website. That is to say, the card will ask you for your position on these 20 issues — not race, religion, family, whether you’d like to have a beer with the candidate or any of the other meaningless claptrap that invades our elections — by having you to indicate whether you agree strongly agree, disagree, strongly disagree or feel neutral with regard to each and every statement. You can also indicate what issues (up to five, let’s say) are of particular importance to you. The (presidential) candidates get cards too; they submit their views before the election takes place. 

The statements will be created by an independent, non-partisan commission, and will include all the most pertinent contemporary issues, as decided by the commission. They will be clearly worded so as to avoid confusion. Finally, they will require approval by a bipartisan Senate committee where neither party has more members than the other and each party is represented by senators whose views are in line with their party’s platform (yes, Joe Liebermans and Zell Millers of the world, that means you’re out) — and the way we do this is that each party’s committee chair picks the committee representatives.

When the American people go to vote, they take their cards with them. They feed their cards into the voting machines. The voting machines calculate to what degree their views are in line with those of the candidates and display the proper match by percentage. You’re not required to vote for this person; it’s just telling you whose views and priorities are most in line with your own. Then you vote.

Here are the pros and cons of the system as I see them:

Pros:

  • Helps eliminate voter fraud by requiring voters to have the card, which contains identifying information.
  • Should motivate more voters to engage in research on the issues they’re not well informed about. I’m not so naive to think that it would make everyone do this, or even the majority of people, but “more than before” is a pretty good goal for the time being.
  • Lets voters know how they match up with the candidates on the issues rather than on meaningless “issues” created by the campaigns or the media.

The downside is that these statements can be vague; this is probably the biggest problem. If, for example, you had a question that went, “The United States should engage in offshore drilling for petroleum,” many people would say, “Oh, yes, reducing our dependence on foreign oil! Let’s do it!” But that statement doesn’t factor in that it’d be decades before the oil came out of the ground and that even then the potential supply is not very big. Of course, if you included all the details in the statement, things would become much too muddled and confused, and Republicans would of course object because the statement becomes worded in such a way that voters are inclined to indicate the Democratic view. So if you do it one way it’s not fair, but if you do it the other way, it’s still not fair. Problems like this will apply to issues such as taxation as well.

The best possible solution I see to this is to include some manner of pamphlet in the mail with the voting cards that gives verified, fact-checked numbers on every issue that requires it, and statements by the candidates on every issue that isn’t about numbers (or sometimes a combination of the two). And I do mean by the candidates, not by speechwriters or advisors. The most important thing, I think, is that the numbers are independently verified by expert economists and submitted to the public domain so that they can be rejected if there is a legitimate error. Factual accuracy is the top priority here. People can choose to read the pamphlet or not, but either way they’ll have all the facts there for the reading. What they do with those facts is their own concern.

So there you go. It won’t be easy to implement, and the political establishment in our country probably won’t like it, but this is, in my view, the best way to stimulate the American people to vote based on reality. It’s not exclusive like an intelligence test would be and it doesn’t force you to vote in any one way; it just lets you know where you’re at.

I think the American people deserve that.