Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Blog

I know, I have never done one of these before, and if I was going to, shouldn't I be doing it two months from now?

As it is, I have seen more of the nominees than usual, and so that had me a little more interested--not interested enough to watch them, mind you--and seeing some things that others have written, I thought I would weigh in myself.

Actually, I did have a Facebook post earlier that even though I felt like George Clooney had better odds for Best Actor than Brad Pitt, I kind of wanted Brad to win after hearing about their bet. Sure, it would only be for one night, but that's a lot of kids. Anyway, I thought it was most likely that Jean Dujardin would win, and that's what happened, and I have to consider it fair. He had to convey everything with facial expression and body language, and he managed beautifully. And he can dance!

I feel pretty good about The Artist winning Best Picture as well. We loved Midnight in Paris and The Descendents as well, but of those three, I would pick the The Artist. In the case of Midnight in Paris, it just feels a lot lighter, and that lightness is probably deceptive, and also the tendency of more serious films to win may not be fair, but that's just how it feels.

One thing that was great about Midnight in Paris was how tight it was. With the last Woody Allen film I had seen before, Scoop, it was clever and well-written and there were good scenes and acting, but it felt a little loose, and The Descendents had the same issue. It didn't make it a bad movie, and that it did a certain amount of wandering may be appropriate, but as far as cohesion goes, The Artist nailed it.

Because of my love for the other two, I am thrilled with their wins for Original and Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, I have not seen Moneyball yet, or read the book, and I suspect that turning a book about using statistics in team management into an enjoyable movie is a pretty slick trick, and maybe they deserved it more, but I am happy for The Descendents.

On the topic of cohesion and tightness, it's time to turn to Hugo. I was disappointed with Hugo. It's not that it was a bad movie. It was a good movie. The reviews tended to make it sound like it was a great movie, and I didn't find that, and I believe it was because of the way it rambled.

Let me be clear that I am totally down with three of the wins that it did get: Art Directions, Cinematography, and Visual Effects. It also won Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and I don't remember anything special about the sound, but it seems like it may not have been the strongest field anyway. Visually, though, that movie was beautiful. From the blue color palette, the tracking through the secret recesses of the train station, and the opening shots where it looked like a pop-up storybook coming to life, that movie was gorgeous.

However, there is editing to make things visually look good, and there is editing to tell the story well. Hugo went beyond could have been tighter into just sprawling. The dream sequences were completely unnecessary, the scene where Isabelle falls in the crowd really made no sense in terms of how it happened and how it was resolved, and a lot of the chasing was unnecessary. Now, the shots were interesting, and I assume that's why they were included, and there are all these visual connections, where the dream of the train crash corresponds to the early film of the train scaring the viewers, and the climax where Hugo is on the tracks, and when he has to hide on the outside of the clock, it references the film seen earlier. I get all that, but the end result is that instead of getting lost in the film, the film kept losing me.

Add to that the enormous plug for film preservation, and the whole thing felt remarkably self-indulgent. In thinking that, I have to consider that maybe film-making in general is just remarkably self-indulgent, because to decide that some vision of yours is worth all the time and effort and manpower that goes into making even the simplest movie could be kind of egotistical, but then it can be so transcendent sometimes. Maybe the point is that given everything that goes into it, you owe it to the crew and audience to try not to let your ego cloud your perspective. Any good writer has had to cut things that they liked for the greater good of a piece, so maybe that needs to be true with directors and producers too.

I don't think I have strong feelings about anything else. I was supposed to see Pina Saturday, and had to postpone, so if it goes as I hope, I may come away feeling that it was robbed of Best Documentary, but without seeing the others, how would I know?

Friday, February 24, 2012


This is a stupid title, but it's deliberate.

About a week ago I tweeted "I wish people could get over Lin's heritage and just enjoy him as a good basketball player." This was in the wake of the "two inches" and "chink in the armor" issues, which is what brought Jeremy Lin to my attention. I know there have been other things, but it was really these two that caught my eye. I haven't really followed the NBA for years, but sometimes I will wonder about something and look things up (like that time Greg Oden got me wondering about Sam Bowie's draft year).

Anyway, a good player, coming apparently out of nowhere and revitalizing a team, is a good story, and so I am totally down with Lin-mania and Lin-sanity, and I would only have found out about them by accident if not for the other things.

For Jason Whitlock himself, without knowing anything else about him, I suspect that he is on the mean-spirited side, and doesn't understand that nasty and vulgar don't automatically equal funny. Actually, a lot of people get confused over that.

With ESPN, though, maybe it was just a lapse in judgment. Possibly the lapse was related to someone irritated with the hype who was glad to see a loss, or something like that, but probably not with an intention to offend. That's my guess, but that this compulsive need to somehow work in the reminder that "Hey! He's Asian!" is where it went wrong, and that's where my tweet came from.

I have sort of changed my mind after reading the following:

Actually, it's kind of a demonstration of racial insensitivity. I am thinking of white people focusing on color, and wishing they wouldn't. It never even occurred to me that on the other side of the color line, Lin could be extra-inspirational.

That's normal. I'm in the racial majority--less so now in terms of sheer numbers now, but certainly still in power. I can remember precisely two times when I felt judged on race. My friends of color don't have it so good, and yes, the Asian-Americans do face less overt prejudice in many situations, but they do still get it, and often with less remedies in place. And even though I have heard them tell me about it, and I have seen other people demonstrate it, it still does not automatically come to mind for me, because I'm not the one living it. It's an oversight with no malice, that's just too easy to do.

Keeping that in mind, I could just look at it as okay, the focus on race can be reasonable, but the problem is that some people are being stupid about it. Ah stupidity, my old nemesis--I could be very comfortable with that as a scapegoat. It doesn't feel like enough though.

I think the reason for this is that because of all the stupid and ugly things in the world, there is something especially nasty about racism. It hurts my heart on an emotional level. It's hard for me to speak rationally about it because it hits me in such an emotional place. On an intellectual level I know racism is often used by the greedy and powerful to manipulate the ignorant against their own best interests (as well as the best interests of humanity), and that frustrates me to no end.

Becoming smarter people would help. Becoming kinder people would help. If you take away ignorance and spite, there shouldn't really be much left of racism, right? But getting people to change is hard, and probably anyone who reads this and agrees with it is not really a big part of the problem anyway. But stopping and thinking about things is helpful, right?

Not every racial story is inspiring. Clarence Thomas is a black man in a prestigious position, and I do not find it one bit inspiring. However, Lin's story is, and I'm glad that he did not let consistently being underrated stop him from pursuing his dream, and I'm glad that it paid off. If it can inspire other people to believe in themselves and keep going, great. If it inspires one blockhead to re-evaluate his understanding of who can be good at what, even better. I'm not sure why we didn't get over that with Yao Ming, but okay. Maybe there's a really good reason and I just wasn't paying attention.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

On My Way Home

Yesterday was kind of an interesting journey from work, mostly in aggravating ways, but not all, so I thought I would write about it. There's a lot about stupidity in it, so that will tie in to some of my upcoming topics nicely.

I was walking down 2nd, as I do, and less than two blocks away from work I noticed a persistent blaring of a horn. Even before I could see what was going on, I remember thinking that it was excessive. There was no way the person being signaled had not noticed and the blast was not letting up at all. This was not honking--this was holding down the horn.

There were flashing blue lights further down the road, perhaps an accident or a traffic stop reminding us to all share the road legally and civilly, but the horn persisted.

The actual issue was at 2nd and Madison. I walked past the car with the horn, and noticed that the driver was indeed resting on the horn, and looking bored. My first thought was, Really, buddy? You think that's helping? This was quickly replaced, though, by my concern at noticing that there was an infant in a car seat in the back, and wondering about possible hearing loss. At least the baby wasn't crying.

On to the truck that was holding up Horn-guy. Once I could see past the corner the problem was obvious: Hawthorne Bridge was backed up all the way to the corner. Truck-guy needed to turn, but there was no room for him, and by the looks of things there wasn't going to be room any time soon.

In that situation, I probably would have given up on turning, gone straight, and figured out a different route, rather than leaving people trapped behind me through multiple light changes, so I do understand the frustration of Horn-guy a little, but Truck-guy is also in a frustrating situation, and again, the horn is just not helping.

I wondered if I should do anything, but the police station is right there, and there were people all around, so I kept going.

Suddenly the horn stopped and shouting started. Horn-guy had gotten out of his car (leaving an infant alone, in a running car, on a busy street full of frustrated drivers) so he could yell through Truck-guy's window.

Again, I wondered if I should intervene, but a police cruiser had emerged from the underground parking, and a guy who was on the sidewalk was talking to the driver, so it seemed covered. I kept walking.

The horn started again, so Horn-guy had returned to his car, but nothing else appeared to have changed. I did notice that the cruiser had not pulled out yet, which seemed odd. The left lane was moving--only the right lane was stalled.

I kept walking, but constantly looking back, and Horn-guy was angling out into the left lane, and other drivers were letting him. As soon as he made it through the intersection, the cruiser lit up and pulled him over--I am guessing for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct or something like that. All the bystanders erupted in cheers. By then, everybody hated Horn-guy.

So there I was, really irritated with human stupidity, and obnoxiousness, especially with a baby in the back, and then I just see the most amazing rainbow. It made a complete arch across the sky, and was bright and vivid. There was a building blocking the middle, but I rounded that and could see the whole thing, and it was just amazingly beautiful, and it was perfectly timed as a reminder that not everything is ugly and stupid.

Of course then I got on the train, which was really crowded and some people were kind of jerks about that, but it smelled better than the day before, so that was nice.

Then when I got off the train, some guy started yelling at someone who got on his bike to ride away that he was not supposed to ride there, ("Screw you!" "Oh yeah? Come back here and say that!"), but the guy did not come back, so another fight was averted, and without any involvement by me or police.

I got on the bus, and the crowding was compounded by a family of three taking up twice as many seats as they needed, and making fun of the mentally handicapped person who complained about there being no seats again. However, someone else moved over for him, and I don't think he knew that they were mocking him, so that could have been worse. And then the one girl moved her enormous purse to let another person sit down, and I thought, okay, they're coming around, but it was someone they already knew. But you know, they had a rough day. They’d left at 6 AM to get to the plasma donation center, and then only two of them could donate, delaying plans for eating deep-fried shrimp.

Eventually I got off the bus, and was able to make dinner and enjoy it with my family while regaling them with stories of public transportation and thoroughfares. And today wasn’t nearly as eventful. There were seats, and the smell was only medium-bad. And I passed a guy who looked just like a Samurai, but he was not picking any fights.

I guess the moral is that people can really suck, sometimes things are cool, and nature is pretty. Maybe that’s why some people like camping.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

I know I don’t usually start with a quote. Classy, huh? It seemed appropriate in this case though, because I am writing specifically about how my study of the past has affected my understanding of the present. Specifically, I am writing on how reading about the Civil Rights movement has affected my understanding of the current protests.

Actually, the full quote is: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Progress then depends at least in part on remembering what has come before—not just as a way to measure, but also as a foundation to build upon. Failures of the past can be repeated by forgetting, but success from the past is unlikely to be replicated if it is forgotten.

Looking at the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically those programs undertaken by the Drs. King and Abernathy, there were a few factors that were always important to success: there needed to be clear goals, and there needed to be economic pressure exerted to motivate those who could accomplish those goals.

With the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they wanted to change the rules of segregation on the buses, and so they boycotted the bus company. To integrate the lunch counters, you hold sit-ins to disrupt business, yes, but also the stores were boycotted. That was the pattern over and over again. You deprive those in power of funds, because ultimately the business needs the consumer more than the consumer needs the business, and because you have clear goals you know when you are done.

The sit-ins and the marches had another purpose, in terms of image and publicity, and this was important. It garnered some financial support, as others from outside the key areas contributed funds for legal expenses and other things, like replacing shoes for the citizens of Montgomery who had to do so much extra walking during the boycott, and that was important.

Also, these efforts had an important effect upon the hearts and minds of others. It showed strength and gave outsiders a look into a world that they could not imagine. It wasn’t a multiracial paradise outside of the South, but I have talked to people who could not believe what they saw—they never suspected that things were like that. So I don’t want to take anything away from the protest side, but without clear goals and economic pressure, it would not have been enough.

With that being said, let’s turn our attention to Occupy Portland. Inasmuch as they have an ideal of more financially equitable society, I am in agreement. The growing gap between rich and poor is a big concern for me. I just don’t think they are doing any good.

Do they have clear goals? Not really. Are they applying economic pressure to a key area, in line with their goals? Even if they had a clear goal, the answer to that would generally be negative. There was a recent dock shutdown, which caused several laborers who would be part of the 99 to lose a day’s wages, but no corporations were harmed. Are their protests winning financial support, and the hearts and minds of those around them? They had been getting some financial backing, but for the most part no.

Occupy Wall Street might be accomplishing a little bit more, because maybe they are disrupting the lives of some of the people who led to the current financial issues through their greed and lack of integrity. I have doubts, but it’s possible. Occupy Portland? Not so much.

In other posts I have hinted at how it was important for the Civil Rights Movement in the South to go with non-violence, but haven’t really talked about why, because it is too ugly, and I don’t want to talk about it, but it may be instructive here. For years there was this idea of the Negro as an ignorant brute who needed to be kept in line (and down) or he would kill all the white men and rape all the white women, be bloody savages.

As the protesters stepped out of line, they were none of these things. They were well spoken, and well dressed, polite but firm. They suffered horrible indignities and violence and they did not return them. They were strong and intelligent and orderly. People could still try and cling to the old beliefs, but the facts were against them. (Yes, today ignoring facts is a national pastime, but more on that later.)

If the 1 percent thinks of the 99 as rabble, ignorant and uncouth, disorganized and incapable of making good decisions on how things should be, what has the current movement done to dispute that? Many participants can speak intelligently when given the opportunity, but there is no unifying message and their actions are often destructive. It’s nice that Portland has been able to avoid the violence of Oakland, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable under the current model.

The Civil Rights marchers could take police clubs and fire hoses and thrown items because they had workshops where they practiced being yelled at and intimidated and threatened. The only thing they were not prepared for were the police dogs, which even then did not lead to violence, but it did disrupt things for that day. Maybe our police force is more tolerant than Oakland’s (I’m sure the mayor is), but it’s playing with fire. And I don’t mind taking risks and causing or putting up with discomfort if it will do something good, and right, but that brings us back to no clear goal, and therefore no good plan.

I do have some sympathy for this, because I can see how it would be really hard to come up with a plan. With everything that has gone wrong since September 2008, with the financial crisis, or take it back farther if you want, where do you start? It is hard to pick a place. Much of what would be needed is legislative, and to get that done when corporate interests are so entrenched with government is hard, and there will be a little more on that in the next few posts.

However, if you can’t tackle the big problems, tackle a small one. One of the newer protests is a woman being foreclosed on. Okay, how about holding a fundraiser to keep her in her house? Or working to pair up people who are in danger of losing their homes so they can share expenses? Or starting a co-operative business to start some income going?

Not all of the Occupy problems are their fault. Their camp getting inundated with homeless people is a result of us not fixing the homeless problem, which is strongly related to us ignoring the mental health problem. So maybe get some mental health workers donating time, or get lawyers and financiers to help people with their economic problems.

One thing I’ve learned from junior high health class, and observation has borne out, is that letting anger out doesn’t get it out. It actually increases the anger. (This is why road rage is self-perpetuating.) Working anger out, however—resolving issues and taking action—does work. If you are concerned about social justice, be productive instead of destructive.

I know it could be discouraging, but here is an encouraging little piece:

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Black History Month 2011

No, that’s not a typo. I just recently finished the books I had intended to read last year for Black History month. You would think that this would mean that I could start on this year’s reading on time, but I am in the middle of Native American Heritage month 2011, and then I have a few books to try and make our pets happier and better behaved. I think I can finish Black History month 2012 in April, and really, for me that’s pretty good.

So let’s go over what was read, and I will do it in the order of the books I liked least to best, rather than order read. (I read the best one first, which in some ways made the rest of it kind of disappointing.)

My least favorite book was Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, by Tony Martin. Now, if that title seems overly academic to you, that’s actually the root of the issue right there. The book is based on a doctoral dissertation, I believe, and while this type of work is necessary, it’s often a little too dry to make compelling reading.

It is dry, and also it breaks down into several topics where there is overlap between different sections, that makes the whole a little confusing and a little repetitive. Some of the other figures mentioned could truly use some more explanation. This topic is not well known, though it probably would be more so to the review panel that decided to grant the degree.

One thing that I really have to credit is that even though it results in dryness, the absolute seriousness with which the topic is handled is really important. I think it’s easy to view Marcus Garvey as a joke because of the uniforms and pomp and yes, because of the hat. Martin does not include a single picture of Garvey in the hat. Sure, he goes over the philosophies that led to the adoption of the more elaborate outfits, but he does not reduce Garvey to either his outfit or his failures, and that’s important.

Marcus Garvey did accomplish a lot, and his philosophies of why the independent endeavors were necessary were exactly correct. Going over the book, it really seems like if he had just left the Black Star Line alone, and concentrated on manufacturing and job creation, he might have been okay. While having the fleet was a huge mental boost, and it would have been important for migration, it’s greater level of complication became a huge vulnerability, leading to abuse over and over again that drained cash.

And of course he was being fought by people who shouldn’t have been fighting him. It’s amazing how often the NAACP comes off as the problem over the course of all of these books—usually just for being too conservative, but in this case being downright suppressive of other organizations that could have been viewed as allies but instead were viewed as rivals. This is especially an issue with W.E.B Du Bois, who does not come off looking well at all, either in terms of Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X.

That leads to my second-least favorite book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. I was surprised at the negativity of the book. My understanding was that he had modified his views, and then as I approached the end, I realized that this was happening in real-time. I had not understood how little time passed between his break with the Nation of Islam and his death. Then it became kind of fascinating to think about, and ultimately very sad. It was clear that he did not really have enough time to find his new direction, and for a man with his abilities you can’t help but wonder. Where would he have gone?
The other thing common thread, besides the NAACP being useless, was how everyone knew each other. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were viewed as opposites, but they had the same people at their funerals. That brings us to Ralph Bunche, for whom I read Ralph Bunche: An American Life, by Brian Urquhart.

Initially the book started out really slowly, and I felt like it was going to be a chore to read. Why is it second favorite instead of third-favorite then? Well, it really picked up. The author worked with Bunche at the United Nations, and so for the early life, and even later family life, he really was not doing a great job, and it kind of dragged. However, when he got to various UN endeavors, it was fascinating. I still feel like Urquhart could have done a lot of things better, like sometimes his decisions on which facts to include and which to omit seemed questionable, but there is some fascinating history there, and sometimes it is well told.

One overarching theme of all of the books is how easy it is for those with bad intentions, or even just ignorance, to destroy the work of those who are trying to do good. That has come up a lot, in many of my studies, and is one reason why I need to make sure to break up some of my more serious reading with lighter fare, just to try and keep from hating the world.

Another theme is that even though events might be interesting, or important, or people might be good, books don’t always match that. A book that is a pleasure to read is a joy regardless, and when it also covers important events, and teaches you something, well, that is a find. And that’s why I covered the books in order of how much I liked them, so that I can just gush over the last one: And the Walls Came Tumbling Down by Ralph Abernathy.

Seriously, it’s almost embarrassing how much of a fan girl I am for this book. I love it. It works on several levels. First of all, Dr. Abernathy has a rich, warm voice that really comes through in the book. He’s someone you want to spend time with. It would be good for that alone.

In addition, he lays out the Civil Rights campaign in such a logical and orderly manner that it is a joy to read. There is a natural progression in terms of what works, and what doesn’t, and why. He had the advantage of hindsight to review the events, and it is masterfully told. I could barely put the book down, and I would dream of it at night, finding myself in the middle of marches. It’s vivid.

Perhaps because I did care so much, the book took on a real heaviness as Dr. King’s assassination approached. This was somewhat true with Malcolm X as well (and I do have a friend who has not finished Autobiography because she can’t bear to get to that part), but more so here. I like Dr. King better on my own anyway, and Dr. Abernathy loved him so much that you share his grief.

One compensation for my constantly being behind schedule is that sometimes things will come up that tie in well that I could not foresee. For example, during my last Native American Heritage reading, I ended up seeing two plays (Ghosts of Celilo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) that related. This time a movie came up, Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, featuring interviews with people from the Black Power movement. It was interesting and related well to much of the reading.

One benefit of reading these books together is that it affects how you think about it. First of all, we tend to associate the term “militancy” with violence now, but the SCLC considered themselves militant, as well as non-violent. For them it meant the level of organization, and the drilling (as they practiced being assaulted and being insulted and being arrested), and all of the other things that they did to prepare. Also, we think of Malcolm X as condoning violence, but it seems to be more that he did not rule it out. Now that does have an impact as you may have individuals feeling more justified in acting violently, but how much organized violence really happened? Later generations may have impressions that don’t fit the facts.

It was also interesting reading Dr. Abernathy’s explanation of why non-violence was so important, and in the context of the South, and how African-Americans were perceived, and what white fears were, it made total sense. In the urban North, dynamics were so different that the same approach would not necessarily have been best, though what would have worked is still open for debate. And it still totally relates to today.

So, that’s it for 2011. For 2012 I was feeling a desire to read the really old history of the Americas, like if I could read about Crispus Attucks (Boston Massacre), and Ford (Lewis and Clark Expedition), and Estebanico (Spanish expeditions in the early 1500s), but there isn’t really good information on them. Then I started thinking maybe I would read more about the Harlem Renaissance, and Du Bois, and see if he could redeem himself a little. I think I will be heading towards more medical history though. Likely candidates include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Bad Blood, and King Leopold’s Ghost. We’ll see.