Thursday, February 23, 2012

Market-driven idiocy

So, I came across this interesting article from Al Jazeera, which goes into some detail about "peak oil" possibilities and the suspicion that most OPEC members have been drastically overstating their reserves in order to expand their sale quotas. Cue Capt. Louis Renault...

I posted it on the board because someone had earlier asked about the current jump in oil prices. The usual cavalcade of responses followed: some grim agreement, some questions, and the usual market-driven refutations about the limited knowledge of so-called "scientists" to understand how a "profit-making" venture really works.

To wit:
If it was more profitable to hold resources than sell them, oil companies would not hesitate to do that. So really, this article asserts that it understands the oil business better than the oil companies. I'll believe that when I see it.
 No. That's not what it's saying. It's saying that oil, the very cornerstone of modern civilization, the substance that is used (or the byproducts of which are used) for everything from energy (oil, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel) to lubricants to asphalt to plastics to resins to artificial fibers (nylon) to solvents will soon become harder to obtain and, thus, more expensive... which makes everything produced from it more expensive and/or more difficult to obtain. Understanding the oil business has little relevance to anything if there's less (or no) oil to be had.
If it was clear that supply really will be restricted, people would be acting accordingly. If you really believe what you say, you should research the oil companies with the highest proven reserves and buy their stock, because you believe those reserves are undervalued at current prices.
 OK. See, first off, I'm not saying anything. I'm passing along what Al Jazeera and geologists, government agencies, and the US Department of Defense(!) have all been saying for some time now: there's a problem a'comin' and it has enormous implications for society as a whole, the preparation for which has exactly zero to do with sticking one's head in the sand and suggesting that short-term profit anticipation would have reacted by now to a long-term problem (which is ridiculous even from a market-based approach.) I loved the suggestion that I should invest for the long-term, though. Forethought! Or maybe...
The market's not perfect. But least it's informed. They have engineers working the fields. They have an exploration and planning process. They are thinking about replacing supplies as they are used. If the market had a reasonable basis for believing that supply will fall substantially, the market would react in anticipation, just as it has reacted to the threat of war in the Middle East.

This makes me wonder about the breezy conclusion in the article that we know supply is going to plummet. At a minimum, that conclusion is not self-evident to market participants, no matter the degree to which it is an article of faith in much of the environmentalist community.
 Hm. How to put this simply...? Ah. Got it. Market no matter if oil no there no more. I realize there were two polysyllabic words in there but one has to make allowances when dealing with a complex topic.

To the market devotee (especially the "free" market devotee), everything is defined by short-term profits. To expect traders and their true believers to think beyond, say, tomorrow is folly. Their self-assured position that the unfettered market will react perfectly and rationally to all available information and, furthermore, convey that information in a perfect and rational way to all of society is absolute. This is Adam Smith's oft-misinterpreted "invisible hand" phrase pushed to the Nth degree. This is economics as science putting all lesser sciences (like, say, geology) to shame.  Except that economics isn't a science. It's a loosely understood set of supposed rules that depends largely on external factors that often can't be controlled. Like humans, most of whom are idiots and subject to whim and lack of information or the wisdom to know how to use it if they had it. Or, even more important in this case, greed.

Even better is the assertion that the market would react appropriately to an anticipation of lack of supply when the article is based on the idea that the producers of said supply are lying about that very issue and making profits based on that lie. If the market can only function perfectly with perfect information (something the aforementioned Smith mentions repeatedly and which is studiously ignored by most of his presumed disciples), then it can't react to the problem.

But that's OK because "They are thinking about replacing supplies as they are used." See, despite the fact that oil is a finite resource, the smart engineers and geologists that work for the oil companies are already thinking about ways to make it sustainable. The market clearly hasn't reacted, so it must be so. Paraffin candles for everyone!

Friday, February 17, 2012


I play a lot of games. That being said, I don't play Risk because it's a little too simplified for me. I'm all about complexity, so that makes me an elitist about my boardgames, my beer (I generally avoid American mass-produced swill; I drink because I like the taste of it, not just because it's there), and my fiction. If you're going to try to hand me something recycled from 20 years ago with 2-dimensional characters and monosyllabic dialogue, but with flashier special effects, you will likely lose. On the one hand, this looks good: Guy Pearce, some witty banter, grim future; I'm all about it. On the other hand, it's Escape from New York in space and I'm betting that it lacks the moody direction of John Carpenter that made the latter rise above its B-movie level. The story overall simply lacks complexity. There's no risk inherent in presenting it because it likely doesn't push the boundaries of anything that's been presented before.

No one will ever be Snake Plissken again. That's probably a good thing.

I like risk-taking because I think it encourages original thought. Game design is a sterling example of how it can be done well and done poorly. Games Workshop is notorious for including minor rules in its games that presumably reward risky play. What they don't get is that, in the framework in which they provide such things (turn-based wargames that already involve a substantial amount of risk known as "dice"), those risks will preclude their participation because they create scenarios that go beyond individual choice. It's not a case of "If I make this move, I could win the game." It's "If I do this, there's a solid chance it could go horribly awry because of a die roll over which I have no control and I could lose what should be a sure win in this fight... or I could just do well in the fight." This is a risk-reward system predicated too heavily on the risk. (Why does a lifelong peace activist play wargames? Dichotomy, baby.)

That guy in front is a good guy. Fer reals.
WoW has been the same way over much of its development. Warlocks, historically, have been saddled with many abilities that focused largely on their traditional "attempts to control forces beyond their ken" (this is a recurring theme in GWs approach, as well, as many of the major "drawback" rules appeared in their games for Chaos (read: the bad guys.)) The problem is that, if you're into organized play, like raiding, you don't want random factors or large drawbacks to impede your progress. If that warlock summoning that demon is going to tip the balance against you in a tough encounter, most players will not engage that ability and would rather just work through the problem with abilities they know either won't damage them or will work more reliably. Blizzard, to their credit, has deemed said abilities "not fun" (i.e. no one uses them) and has been gradually weeding them out over the years. GW is a little slower on the uptake...

Should I sacrifice a friend to summon this thing that might attack me... or just grind through it? (rhetorical!)

This whole process is similar in a political vein: risk-taking encourages original thought because it often is original thought. By the same token, it also encourages knee-jerk, reactionary, and often hysteric responses. That's the risky part. Should we continue down a path of ever-dwindling and increasingly-dirty fossil fuel extraction or should we make a serious effort at transforming our economy and our infrastructure into something sustainable, despite the fact that the capitalist model of ceaseless economic growth will likely stall while this development takes place? Should we persist in demonizing (warlock term!) "non-traditional" lifestyles in the name of protecting the sanctity of outdated traditions or should we put all of that aside and pay attention to some problems that really matter? The answer to both of those is both more complex than a one word answer (which is one reason you'll rarely hear them addressed in an honest fashion by major party politicians) and perfectly obvious if approached in a logical and reasonable fashion (which is the other reason.)

Most political figures can't answer them in one word because they'd have to explain them. Explaining things requires context, which opens one up to being misquoted or having things taken out of context and then used against you. The reason that tactic works is the other reason you can't stop to explain things: the American electorate, by and large, is neither logical nor reasonable but, in fact, dumb as a bag of hammers. Containing complex concepts to three word soundbites ("Drill, baby, drill!") is a way of both staying on message (no matter how stupid said message may be) and risk aversion. Why doesn't anyone want to take the risky approach with their Chaos Lord or warlock? Because people are naturally risk averse; even moreso when presented with a bad choice (e.g. where one selection is not clearly more positive than the other(s).) There's a brilliant book on this sort of behavior that we're all subject to called Scorecasting. It contextualizes the concept of risk aversion into sports and makes it clear(er) why officials, coaches, and players often do what they do. Politicians, like most humans (speaking very broadly here...), are subject to the same psychological tendencies.

Are solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy sustainable? Yes. Are they cleaner than fossil fuels? Yes. Will they create new industries and technological innovation? Yes. Can they be achieved on a national scale quickly? No. (There's risk.) Will it be an easy transition? No (There's risk.) Are there enormous moneyed interests working against it? Of course (biggest risk of all...) From this perspective, the idea that a politician may be abandoned by an enormous source of campaign cash and political influence (the fossil fuel industry) is indeed a warlock's bargain for him or her. It's a good risk for the rest of the world, but a bad risk for the short-term profits of BP and the short-term prospects of most American politicians; not to mention their personal short-term profits that BP would love to pay them as soon as they leave office.

Is fighting against gay marriage a waste of time and money...? Seriously, do I need to go into this? If you're concerned that the sanctity of your marriage might be threatened by the relationship of two other complete strangers, I'm sorry, but you're an idiot.

To be honest, I'm not sorry. You're just an idiot.

Risk and risk aversion are essential concepts in a lot of the things I enjoy. In many cases, I tend to focus on them because I like to see how other people are willing to engage or avoid them. As I said, I appreciate risky behavior because it often means people are thinking "outside the box" (to overuse an aphorism that should probably be killed by now.) Do I engage in it myself? Sure. I even tried using some of those horrible choices presented by GW and WoW; mostly because I just wanted to see what happened. It doesn't make me particularly good at playing said games. As a case example, I just played a couple games of Twilight Struggle (games and politics!) with Brian this past weekend. My risk aversion led to a play in our second game that likely sealed the loss for me. If I'd been willing to be more risky, things might have turned out differently. (The fact that I won the first game because he led the world into a nuclear war will go almost unspoken...) Are you considered more of a success at life if you take the safe path and are good at what you do or if you opt for the less traveled road, as it were?

The final example of risk today goes to the following clip, because it's the most beautiful political rant I've heard or seen in 20 years. Napolitano was already getting cancelled, so the risk is whether he'll ever land a TV job again. Bet he could get a few votes for public office at this point...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"The Catholic Church is not a democracy."

These were the words posted on the board in response to this poll, which indicates that 61% of Catholics in the US support the idea of mandatory coverage of contraception in insurance plans provided by religiously-affiliated employers. I'm sure you've heard about the controversy, since it's been rebounding from the walls of the newsosphere for the past couple weeks. The opinion proffered by the title comment was that it didn't matter that the majority of US Catholics supported the idea. The Church is against it and the Church is not a democracy, so people will just have to suck it up and live with medieval philosophy for a while longer. A quick response was that it was too bad for the Church, because the US is a democracy. In a democracy, we don't cotton to the idea of a bunch of old, rich, white men making decisions about what happens with women's bodies without even consulting the women.

Anti-abortion bill signing, because all of them are worried about being forced to have one.

Oh. Right.

What I always find amusing is the ability for the same people who regularly rant about "government control infringing upon our freedoms" to instantly accede to the idea that "the Church is against it, therefore we must obey." This isn't even a case of drawing some barely contextual example from the Bible to "prove" that "God said so!". This is following a dictate set down by a bunch of guys who are extrapolating from that presumed word of God and giving it their own shine (in the same way that a lot of people like to extrapolate from the Constitution... but let's get back to that later.) "Go forth and multiply" becomes "Thou shalt never not run the risk of having kids if thou art performing the evil, evil deed that God intended thou perform to have kids." And that's it. They said, therefore everyone must follow. This is the same institution that used to pressure scientists to not talk about things that contravened Church opinions, even though those discoveries soon were proved true and are accepted by everyone today. But most of those, of course, were about physical phenomena and this issue is about social engineering, which has always been more important to the proponents of organized religion.

Much of said engineering occurs on the strength of one idea: the Pope is the direct conduit to God. Everything the Pope says is what God says. Even the councils to choose the next Pope must be divinely inspired (omniscient and omnipotent, remember?) because that's how they got the right guy, of course. Believe what you'd like to believe, but it stretches credulity for intelligent humans in this day and age to completely subsume themselves in the concept that someone can be a regular, pious individual one moment and be speaking the Word of God in the next; especially in a day and age when the Church is losing members. It's as if they feel like they're in an arms race with other religions and everyone has to do their part. Repeatedly. And without end. The arms just happen to be human and most have two of them (the concern over the loss of "cherished cultures" as a consequence of low birth rates (in comparison to less cherished (i.e. non-white) cultures) has been prevalent for some time.)

In the end, it's hard to escape the idea that this is all really about sex, as opposed to the sanctity of human life and/or associated organisms.

Sin of Onan and all that. The funny thing about that skit is the line in the song where he says that "Catholics will take you as soon as you're warm", when most know that the anti-choice movement in the US is far more concerned about human life when its connected to an umbilical cord and for not one second after that cord is cut (especially if you're not, you know, white...)

There are two things that humans in general and men in specific like to do: screw and kill each other. Given the choice, most would prefer the former. Why that's always been a problem for organized religion is enough to fill a couple dozen more posts but let's let it rest with the idea that if people favor "earthly pleasures" over "serving God (and especially the Church!)", many think that religion kinda loses its verve. While humans have proved at times that they're fully capable of engaging in multiple pursuits with abandon, monotheism is monotheism for a reason. If you piss off the one God, you can't go running to another like Taygete (even though she didn't really anger Zeus; it was all about the sex (again!)) Therefore, sex should be about procreation and it's enjoyable because you should be multiplying. If you take away the threat of procreation, it's just enjoyable and you forget about serving God. See how easy? And you don't even have to get into that whole conflict of interest wherein a desire for sex may preclude you from killing each other or, preferably, those the Church would have you kill. That's too complicated. Deus vult!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Land of memories

I spent a week in Hawai'i in 2002, one decade ago this May. Watching The Descendants and its presentation of "trouble in paradise" and the contrast in attitudes between the business-like Matt and his "native-like" (as it were) cousins was redolent with memories about the place. It was the last real vacation I've taken that didn't also have purpose in something else (political meeting, etc.) As an aside, since I've now been able to mine the film for three posts, I'm thinking it may be even better than I first gave it credit for.

We went in May, which is a low period, tourist-wise and, to some extent, temperature-wise. We spent the whole time in shorts and sandals, but it was cooler than you'd expect the typical "tropical paradise" to be. I saw many locals in long pants and jackets. We were going to spend around 5 days on the Big Island and then the last couple on Moloka'i. This was right in the  middle of my tenure with the Green Party and I had a ton of responsibility with the campaign season about to gear up, but we had seen a brief bit on the Travel Channel about the Moloka'i Ranch and it had sounded really inviting. My ex, never one to pass up researching a possibility, poked around and found a travel agent who landed us a pretty good deal, so we decided to go. This was before venturing into the American Dream™, so we actually had money (read: "credit space") to make the trip, even though it took a while to pay off.

This was the first flight I had taken since 9/11 so, of course, the "heightened security measures" were still the order of the day. Remember the "random" searches of passengers?

Between flying out, to and from the Big Island, to and from Moloka'i, and flying home, we had six flights. With my tattoos, long hair, and presence on at least one security list (protesting the elder Bush in 1991; long story), I was "randomly" selected to be plucked from line and put through an additional search every, single time. It was comical by the fourth time, as I'd seen the attendant at the desk in Honolulu take a look at her monitor, look straight at me, and then start the boarding call. I was the walking vision of menace and I didn't even have a keffiyeh.

We had decided to stay on the Hilo side of the island, to avoid most of the tourist traffic which tends to occupy Kona. The difference in climate on the two sides of the island is pretty remarkable, as Kona is "desert island" to Hilo's rain forest. Of course, since you can also ski on Mauna Kea, the Big Island has the gamut of climate covered, I think. We stayed at a bed and breakfast about 15 minutes away from Hilo, up in the hills in the midst of a couple dozen acres of macadamia trees. We arrived pretty late in the day and it was already dark by the time we ventured up the dirt-and-gravel road... without signposts... or lights... and with plenty of hairpin turns and dropaways. So, that was fun. We had taken a room that supposedly looked right out onto the Kulaniapia Falls and a deep pool that the inn was ensconced next to. When we crashed for the evening, we could hear the water. This was the sight right outside the window in the morning:

Yeah. I think we'd arrived.

We spent the next few days running from literally one end of the island- the Waipi'o Valley of the Kings (reputedly where many of the kings of Hawai'i were buried, as with Egypt)

to the other - the green sand beach (the sand is olivine, a volcanic byproduct), which is on a peninsula that is the southernmost point in the US. I called Leigh, who was watching the clan, from there.

The hike to the latter is pretty arduous and begins with a long drive from Hilo, a young boy sitting in a shack and attempting to extort money from people who choose to park in a dirt lot and walk (he said he would "make sure nothing happened to the car"), as we did, rather than drive overland some distance north, and a three mile trek over very uneven lava fields. My wife was in a walking cast at the time, having broken her foot shortly before we left, and I managed to tear my feet up pretty well by the time we got there (a couple groups before us had already turned back.) Getting down to the beach is no easy trick, either, as there's no path and you essentially have to slide down on your butt to get to the cove. Getting back up is a matter of balance and momentum. Once we'd gotten out, I turned to take a picture of the cove which was a perfect replica of one we'd seen in a couple tour guides but that I can't find anywhere on the Web. The camera was a standard film device and had been borrowed from my then-brother-in-law. It was the best camera I've ever used and I have no idea what happened to it.

The journey up to the Valley had its own little quirks, as the guy driving the tour horse-and-cart had been something of a world wanderer whom I mentioned in another post, as he'd been in AA the night Michigan won the national title in basketball. The town in the valley was only a few dozen people and most had generators for electricity, but he was the only person who had an Internet connection so, over the course of a week, everyone in town would drift through his living room to check their email...

We also spent a fair amount of time in and around Hilo and traipsing across Kilauea. After eating dinner that first night, I'll never be able to appreciate mahi mahi again until I end up somewhere that they've caught it a couple hours before it's in front of me. We spent most of the time eating local fare on the run, though, and filling in gaps with a large bag of macadamias that we bought on the first day. I have a hard time feeling satisfied with those out of a jar, too.

Finally, we ended up in Moloka'i.

The island is very much the model for "desert island" as the interior tends to resemble backcountry Wyoming, while the coast looks very much like the above, although often quite mountainous. The Moloka'i Ranch, the biggest hotel on the island, had set up a beach village on the western end with solar-powered, canvas bungalows and self-composting toilets ([shrug] Greens... whattaya gonna do?) which was the initial point for our being interested in the whole trip. Our bungalow was 50 yards from the Pacific and I could see the beach as soon as I opened the door... about 35 yards past the hammock strung between two palm trees. There was a central tent where they cooked meals three times a day and an activities director who tried to entice us into half a dozen different things (it was the off-season, so I think she was pretty bored; there was only one other occupied bungalow out of 40 while we were there.) I pointed to the book in my hand and that hammock and said: "After hiking all over Hell's half-acre for the past week, that's where I'll be for the duration, thanks."

Of course, me being me, I couldn't resist using the main tent's Internet access to check in on the party doings (it was operating largely with Yahoo lists at the time.) I stayed off the lists but emailed the usual series of "Jeebus, no. Don't do that."s and other warnings to a few people, who promptly admonished me for working on my vacation. I find that my memories of the couple days on Moloka'i are pretty dim, as I mostly just remember reading a treatise on Roman legion organization in the hammock, falling asleep in the hammock, waking up to read some more, going to eat, and then coming back and falling asleep again. Nevertheless, I remember thinking that I could do that for just about the rest of my life... Sadly, when the locals resisted the aggressive development plans of the owners, the Ranch closed up shop and left in 2008.

I'm not sure why that trip resonates with me so much, other than the obvious aspect of it being my last real vacation. I suppose it was a period, not only of dramatic difference with most of the locales I'd stepped into in my life, but also when my marriage was still kinda working and the party was near its peak and everything seemed like it held some degree of promise, as opposed to now when it resembles nothing so much as The Road Warrior. I'd still like to go back someday. I wonder how different it will feel.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting the most out of it before it's gone

So, I mentioned George Clooney's recent interview with James Lipton on the latter's Inside the Actors Studio. During the discussion, Clooney mentioned his tendency to do the pictures he likes for scale or a little more and to do advertising in order to make real money because that combination allows him to live a "nice life", as he put it, and still enjoy his career by doing the movies that he wants to do. In other words, he doesn't have to put up with typical Hollywood crap in order to pay bills or to live said nice life a la the typical big-time star.

He mentioned that the event that really put him on that course was one time when he was doing a shoot in Europe and he was staying at this nice villa on Lake Como in Laglio, Italy. It was actually undergoing some remodeling at the time and the owner asked Clooney if he liked the place and, if so, would he be interested in buying it. Clooney really liked the area and the villa and then stopped to notice the construction workers on the site walking off for lunch. He said they looked like typical construction workers that you might see anywhere with lunch in hand... but lunch was a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine for each of them and they were singing as they walked down to the water. Right away, he realized, those guys were enjoying life a lot more than he was and he resolved right there to enjoy what he was doing or to not do it. Ever since then, he's avoided dreck like Batman and Robin and turned his career in the direction of major critical and commercial success. He also bought the villa.

There's a man who knew what he wanted and had the talent and drive to get what he wanted and is now enjoying seemingly every moment of every day. I have no idea what that feels like.

I've already mentioned my inability to feel happy about most things. That's not to say that I can't take joy out of events. This past season for Michigan was one of the more enjoyable in recent years, as the team overachieved and the coaching staff put to rest most of the fears of a return to the Carr malaise. The funny thing is that there's one moment from the season that sticks in my mind more than any other and it actually took place right before the season officially started. I had joined a number of Victards on the golf course south of the stadium and we had decided to pack up and head in for the first game against Western Michigan. The south side of the course has a number of rolling rises as the terrain generally elevates to the intersection with Scio Church Road. Upon cresting one of them, I had a perfect view of the stadium, with the monstrous brick luxury boxes and the new oversized scoreboards. I felt positive about the team, the season, and going to see the game at that point. So positive, in fact, that I remember thinking that I was looking at a cathedral of the game. Here was Michigan Stadium and here was the moment in which things were going to return to their historical trend of victories, the joyous throng of 100K, and the team, the team, the team. No matter how insipid it sounds, this truly felt like a communal event where people were gathered in appreciation of the game itself, the great, young players that currently make up the team, and the past glories that the program had enjoyed again and again.

I was inspired enough by the scene and that moment to begin composing a description in my head that could have been verse or could have been an essay akin to one of those that Spencer at EDSBS or Johnny at RBUAS have written so many times; an emotive appreciation of the near-gladiatorial spectacle that many of us likely spend way too much time orbiting. But I never wrote those words because I realized at some point that I don't have the talent that Spencer and Johnny have and I really had no outlet with which to convey them, so it likely would have been a waste of time. Once again, emotion quails in the face of reason and pragmatism.

Would I have done better to have simply grabbed my loaf of bread and bottle of wine and pushed on through to enjoy the process of it all? To enjoy life as it lay before me? I don't know that it would have been enjoyable as soon as I got to that whole "realizing I don't have the talent" moment.

Clooney's life is emblematic of someone that has found his path. He does what he dreamed of doing and he does it the right way, in a manner that he loves, and on projects that speak to him and from him. That's a path that anyone from an engineer to a bureaucrat to an athlete to a construction worker can potentially walk. It's obviously a bit more emotive and obvious coming from an enormously successful (and wealthy) actor, but it's still something that bespeaks joy, regardless of occupation or walk of life. I've often thought that various life events and/or my own failings or poor choices have kept me from finding that path and enjoying that walk. But now I'm not even sure that I could find the path even without any obstacles in my way. I'm not just constrained any longer. I'm basically lost in the woods and so much so that I'm not sure it's worth the effort to try to find my way out.

As kind of a side note, I even started talking to a friend, late of the Michigan theatre department, about acting schools. As I've noted before, I'm fascinated with (good) films and I did some Shakespeare way back in the day (but, as Slim Charles noted: "the problem with back in the day is that it's back in the day.") It's funny because you watch those Lipton interviews and, when they do the crowd shots, you see people of all ages attending the class at Pace University. The vast majority are quite young, but I frequently see people as old or older than I am. So, in that moment of positivity, you think: "It's not impossible to start at this point, is it?" until that wave of reality and reason comes crashing in and you start to wonder if it's not just another pipe dream because no other path seems feasible or worthwhile right now and hasn't for quite some time.

I have three little lives depending on me and that's what keeps me wandering in the woods, I suppose, but it's hard to say for how long or when I simply give up on the idea of ever singing my way down to Lake Como. Of course, Orpheus kept singing even after meeting up with the Maenads. I had a story idea about that once...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Find the gems where you can

So, I had planned on doing another "Oscars" post like last year because this remains my favorite time of year for seeing films, but 2011 seems to be coming up short in that respect. The nine listed films for Best Picture are pretty uninspiring for me, as only one or two of them hold any interest at all and a few are laughable inclusions. I realize that the Academy felt like they had to expand the category to deal with years where there are more than 5 films that really deserved consideration, but this slate seems to reinforce the popular (and not entirely erroneous) idea that the Oscars are just a way for the glitterati to pat themselves on the back, irrespective of what audiences and serious film critics actually think.

To date I have seen precisely one of the films in question and may get around to seeing one or two others, but that will be about it. What would often occur in years past is that the raves from critics and friends would encourage me to see films that I wouldn't otherwise have given much consideration (like The King's Speech last year) and I'll appreciate catching a gem that I would have missed. But even with the apparent deluge of positive appraisal coming forth for films like The Artist, I have little interest in seeing it.

I'm not a fan of French cinema, in general, as much of it seems to fit the phenomenon discussed last year on the Victors' board of Trying Too Hard. I've seen one too many French films that seem to be very eager to demonstrate that they are "relevant" or "daring" or "innovative" without actually being so in any significant fashion other than basic shock value. The notorious extended rape scene amidst the reverse chronology in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible is a perfect example. Another good one is almost any Woody Allen film since Annie Hall, where he seems to have been TTH to be Woody Allen-like. As luck would have it, Midnight in Paris is also on the list for Best Picture and is being widely hailed as the best Woody Allen film since... Annie Hall. But after 20 years of Woody TTH, I'm not particularly compelled to sit around for two hours to see if the critics are right.

With that in mind, it's particularly interesting to note the inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on the list, given that there's usually not such a division between Academy voters and mainstream critics. The latter film has a rating of 46% (rotten) on Rotten Tomatoes, yet there it sits on the list for Best Picture. I don't recall seeing that kind of divide, even before easily accessible indices like RT and Metacritic existed. Were the voters reaching because the field is so weak? Are they making some kind of political statement about a movie that most assume to be overtly political?

Other choices like Hugo and War Horse are easily dismissed. I like Scorsese, but he's been subject to fads in the past and Hugo is an example of the same. I'm at the point of ignoring any film shot in 3D. It's a pointless money grab by the industry and not even Scorsese using it as a point of promotion, suggesting that "actors are more upfront emotionally" being shot in 3D, is enough to change my mind, as it sounds like so much promotional horseshit. The sooner that craze winds to a close, the better. War Horse is another in the long line of films glorifying the idea of brutal combat; this time by using what is essentially a Muppet as a main character (memories of the thousands of personal emails sent to Barbaro...). I'm not a Disney-style film fan to begin with and it's not like Spielberg has ever been consistently high-minded in his approach but this seems like a particularly low reach for him.

As for The Help, The Tree of Life, and Moneyball... eh. The only one I'll probably see is the last, as I read the book and I appreciate Pitt's talents in quirky roles. I also really appreciate the concept as a whole, in which age-old methods of "scientific" assessment were proved to be ridiculously ham-handed and short-sighted (a recurrent topic on MGoBlog in the field of football) but, again, I'm not setting aside time to watch it on Amazon because it's just not that compelling. The one film on the list that I did seek out (finally... again, compelling or not?) was The Descendants.

When I left the theatre after seeing it, I knew that I liked the film, but I wasn't entirely sure why. On the one hand, I'm a huge Clooney fan. I think the work that he has done and his approach to the film industry as a whole over the past 15 years has been incredibly positive. In his recent discussion with James Lipton, he mentioned that he does most pictures for scale or near scale these days, in an effort to not inflate their budgets and, instead, takes 1 or 2% off the back end to make a return. Since many of them don't rake in huge amounts of cash, he also does narration for coffee and car advertising, much of it overseas, in order to be able to live a nice life and be able to run around finding financing for niche pictures. In short, in order to do the films that he likes, he makes allowances for how they'll get made. He further reinforced that with a story about his home in Italy that I'll get to in another post.

On the other hand, I'm not a huge fan of the introspective films that seem to be a prevailing trend lately. While I certainly don't object to films that show how people react to sometimes mundane but trying circumstances, I guess I'm more of a fan of films that at least slightly elevate the situation to another level. Using Clooney as an example, Michael Clayton is more than just the story of a man discovering that he really didn't like what he was doing for a living. Eastern Promises is more than just a story of a dead prostitute and the child she left behind. Rashomon is more than just how a few people see the same event. They're trying circumstances that any of the people in those worlds could have encountered at any time, but they're also elevations of "the everyday", as it were. They're concept films, in addition to being stories of relatively normal people in tough times (admittedly, Eastern Promises is a bit of a conceit here.)

It took a few days for The Descendants to really gel for me. I think that's part of what makes it a good film. I continued to think on it well past the two hours of watching it. It resonated and not because it struck me personally, because it really didn't. But I continued to mull over the whys and wherefores of its telling. There was certainly some personal impact; having visited Hawaii a decade ago and having certainly felt the atmosphere of the place quite strongly. A statement that Clooney's character makes at the onset of the film is meant to emphasize the fact that while most non-residents tend to view the islands as some version of paradise, the people there are just like everyone else and have the problems and minor to major traumas that everyone else experiences. Of course, this little venture into comparative existence rings a bit hollow or even hypocritical when it takes a moment to show the everyday life of Honolulu and then steps right into the life of a very wealthy family enduring a personal tragedy that doesn't quite reflect the struggle for existence of the less financially endowed among the population. Intentional? Hard to tell.

The performances of Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller as the grieving family are all excellent. Just watching Clooney in a very atypical role, where he is clearly not in control and striving to catch up to his far more self-assured daughters, is a treat. But it's in watching the transformation of all three of them as they go through the process of grieving and learning to live with each other through that process is where the film makes its bones. Matt King is suddenly confronted with the reality of having to be a father to his two daughters to whom he was more of an absentee landlord up to that point. Watching the contortions of his face as his older daughter (Woodley) gives constructive advice to his younger daughter (Miller) in a very profane manner ("She's a little twat! Say it!") should be a moment of profound insight to anyone who has ever been a parent or worked extensively with younger people. I have no such personal experience, which may explain why it took a little bit longer for those moments to ring true to me.

It was interesting to see Matthew Lillard in a genuinely dramatic role, post-Scream ("Peer pressure! I'm weak!") and the contrast drawn between people like King, acknowledging that Hawaii is still part of the real world, and the behavior of his daughter's friend, Sid (Nick Krause), and the various cousins (most notably Beau Bridges) who continued to be laid back in the midst of personal chaos (since, after all, they're in paradise, right?), putting the lie to Matt's assertion that all of this matters. The film even gets away with a double ending, which is often seen as the inability of the director to know when to close up shop (Return of the King is notorious for this: "And we're done... No? Ok. And we're done... Really? Alright. And we're done... Seriously?"), but here's it's almost essential to the conclusion of the story. There are very few times when I appreciate "feel good" moments in a story, but this one felt wholly appropriate.

So, there's my vote for Best Picture, as I really don't think the rest are worth my time. I guess I'll never be a real film critic. Having failed to see almost all of the nominated performances, there's no sense in tossing out votes or guesses there, either. Better luck next year, I suppose.