Life in these United States

This happened in Missouri last week:

In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled against James Pittman, who had sued Cook Paper Recycling Corp. for discriminating against him for being gay. Though the direct harassment and overall hostile environment was well documented in the case, the court could offer Pittman no relief. “Because the Missouri Human Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” the majority wrote, “we affirm the circuit court’s judgment dismissing Pittman’s petition for failure to state a claim.”

While working for Cook Paper, Pittman was told that he was a “cocksucker” and subjected to other comments of a sexual nature. He was asked if he had AIDS. He was harassed for having a same-sex partner, and was mocked when that relationship ended. The workplace was, as Pittman described it, “an objectively hostile and abusive environment.” Cook Paper ultimately fired him.

Calling himself a victim of sex discrimination, Pittman should’ve had an easy time of it. Then the judges read the textbook definition of “sex,” whereupon the third judge gestured towards three other denotations, of which the fourth is most apt: “the phenomena of sexual instincts and their manifestations.” It’s not difficult. For years the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has protected homosexuals using the sex classification. But so long as Congress rejects bills like the Equality Act, gays and lesbians must move to counties and states with existing protections. A glance at the map shows, whaddya know, that the Florida counties in which we can work without fear of workplace discrimination are those with Democratic majorities — a reminder that to survive marriage needs an economic ballast.

‘Room’ can’t explain its deeper mysteries

How you respond to Room depends on your tolerance for the central performance. As five-year-old Jack, a boy who’s been locked in a garage with his mother (Brie Larson) his whole life, Jacob Tremblay gives an emphatic simulation of terror and wonder that got on my nerves after forty minutes. Listening to Tremblay’s singsong – the go-to intonation for child actors and the directors who shape them – had me squirming. Other than this and a treacly piano score, I can’t find major flaws in Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her own novel, a look at how adjusting to life outside a confined space is the real challenge. But some of us prefer the confined space.

Wisely, Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson disperse exposition in dribs and drabs. The wan glow from a skylight is Jack’s only exposure to the world beyond. With egg shells and cornflake box illustrations and the kind of toys you can find at Walgreens for five bucks, he constructs a fantasy world of sparsely populated essentials: eating, sleeping, exercises, bathing. Ma makes do with gross sandwiches made of processed cheese. On occasion their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) visits. It’s not clear whether Jack is his child – indeed, the mystery isn’t fully solved (fans of the novel will know). But he honors a promise never to touch or even see Jack (he sleeps in the closet when Jack curls up beside Ma). Punishment is swift. A scolding leads to Old Nick cutting the power in the middle of winter for two days. Desperate, Ma trains Jack to stay quiet and stiff while she envelops him in a carpet and asks him to play possum. Believing he’s dead, Nick falls for it, taking what he imagines is the boy’s corpse to its luckless interment. For the first time in his young life, Jack breathes fresh air, sees other people.

Adjusting to sunlight and toughening his immune system, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, pale beside learning that William H. Macy is his grandfather. The real start of Room happens when Macy and Joan Allen have to remind themselves that their daughter is seven years older and with a child. This proves too tough a challenge for Macy. Allen, though, hangs in there, and as Abrahamson puts the movie through familiar paces it’s a question of when she’s going to hear Jack finally say “I love you, Grandma” – as inevitable as new husband Leo (Tom McCamus, who looks like Kurt Vonnegut, in a nicely shaded turn) alludes to a dog and introduces the dog later in the picture. What Chekhov said about guns in the first act of plays applies doubly to pooches. But Chekhov didn’t shirk his duty either. Macy disappears from the movie after a tense dinner scene; whether he fathered Jack, as a woman behind me in the theater darkly muttered, lingers like a stink bomb. If he didn’t, then the motivations for his escape — disgust? thwarted love? — are ones that Abrahamson and Donoghue show no interest in exploring, to Room‘s detriment. Larson conveys Ma’s wiles, rather umbilical connection to her son, and anger at her thwarted adolescence. There’s no way anyone could have survived these horrors without emerging with severe post traumatic stress disorder. Room treats this phenomenon as steps towards recovery: with patience and love, things will work out. I doubt it. I haven’t read the novel and can only speculate whether flitting in and out of Jack’s point of view happens there too. Jack’s voice-over muddles the question — observe or identify with him. Conveying the horror of a living room table and a LEGO set is a simple enough task, but Abrahamson hurries through these sequences as if in shame.

As inapposite as the comparison looks let me suggest Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and its acute concentration on the physicality of objects and the people who use them. Heartwarming in the conventional ways (Abrahamson directed Frank and Adam & Paul), Room falters at the point when the tale’s biggest enigmas need a lighter touch. The entrapment is more interesting than the escape and subsequent recovery. No one who breathes oxygen can wish doom on Jack and Ma. But drama is a stern and inexorable god.

Singles 10/30

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A fivesome from Hokkaido recorded one of the year’s best rock songs using the simplest of means — “their name reflects a wish to act quickly and lightly, like fish in the water,” according to the Wiki. Hurrying the tempos with the faintest of pressure on the pedal, “Shin Takarajima” heads towards a climax no less thrilling for being expected. Listen to it. The week’s other score was a female duo’s fun bedroom politics in a banda stomper called, according to my translation, “I’m In Bed With Another Man.” The real hotline bling. Take that, Drake.

Click on links for full reviews.

Sakanaction – Shin Takarajima
Ty Dolla $ign ft. Future & Rae Sremmurd – Blasé (7)
Los Horóscopos De Durango – Estoy Con Otro En La Cama (6)
J. Balvin – Ginza (6)
Dënver – Mai Lov (5)
Kacey Musgraves ft. Willie Nelson – Are You Sure (5)
iKON – Rhythm Ta (5)
KDA ft. Tinie Tempah & Katy B – Turn the Music Louder (Rumble) (4)
The Vamps – Wake Up (4)
Brett Kissel – Airwaves (4)
Rishi Rich Project ft. Jay Sean & Juggy D – Freak (4)
Adele – Hello (4)
Drake & Future – Jumpman (3)
Enya – Echoes In Rain (2)
Andy Grammer – Good To Be Alive (Hallelujah) (2)

Big party self-pity

CNBC, a literal network — the one with Rick Santelli allowed to rant about market shares and the network employing Jim Cramer and his endorsements of bull(shit)markets. To me the catastrophe of Wednesday night’s GOP debate wasn’t the questions — it was the moderators’ ignorance. Two of them were caught flatfooted, unable to adduce data for the questions they asked. Where were their well paid staffs? Thinking that the audience and candidates would greet their questions with docility, the moderators sought to create histrionics. Paul Waldman:

Sometimes they do it by saying “Let’s you and him fight,” encouraging the candidates to criticize each other. Sometimes they do it with the old Tim Russert technique of accusing candidates of hypocrisy and seeing whether they can worm their way out of it (which is no more enlightening now than it was when Russert was employing it). Sometimes they do it by asking candidates who are behind or falling in the polls why things are going so badly, which never yields anything more interesting than the opportunity to watch the candidate squirm a little. Sometimes they do it by asking trap questions of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety, which have no good answers. Sometimes they do it with inane personal queries (“What’s your favorite Bible verse?”) that test nothing more than the candidate’s ability to say something forgettably banal.

In every case, the question involves more of a pose of confrontation than actual journalistic toughness, which would involve taking the candidates’ ideas seriously, forcing them to be specific where they’d rather be vague, and holding them accountable for not just their gaffes but the consequences of what they propose to do.

And these questions get asked with the intention of destroying the front runner and crowning a new one.

Meanwhile the GOP bubble inflates. Fresh from being schooled on the evolution of the Democratic Party’s commitment to civil rights, Kevin Williamson proffers another golden idea:

I still like my idea of the eventual Republican nominee naming his Cabinet in advance and running as a slate. Not because I necessarily think it’s good politics — who knows? — but because it would be an interesting and entertaining exercise. And I suspect that a Cruz-Rubio/Rubio-Cruz ticket might benefit from putting together a superstar team: Bobby Jindal, who has actually reformed a health-care system, at Health and Human Services; Rick Perry, perhaps, at Defense; Jeb Bush at Commerce or Treasury; Larry Kudlow at the Council of Economic Advisers or the Fed; Donald Trump in some critical diplomatic position, such as second assistant deputy ambassador to Burkina Faso; etc. Feel free to share your nominations in the comments

Williamson, committed to weltschmerz like seniors are to diapers, hasn’t considered the consequences of eight or ten or fifteen putative Cabinet appointees getting reamed by opposition research, or those same putative Cabinet appointees undermining their putative boss with comments on the campaign trail, or the likelihood of John Riley in Des Moines thinking, “Shoot, John Kasich is heading the Department of Agriculture? I’m voting for Rubio!” This idea not only fails to reflect the realities of the American voter, but is stupid and also designed to appeal to the nicely painted corridors of the GOP echo chamber. Next!

Chameleons and elections

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Brian Beutler with a smart observation:

Obama was rusty and under-prepared, which contributed to his poor showing that night, but a big reason he lost the plot so badly is that the Mitt Romney he had prepared to debate was a composite of public statements, briefing papers, and other documentation from the past. The Romney who showed up was a shapeshifter adapting to his immediate circumstances.

So when Obama attacked Romney, accurately, for proposing to cut taxes on the affluent so dramatically that the middle class would have to pick up the tab, Romney simply and dishonestly denied this was the case…

But Hillary has a problem:

…When Obama ran for re-election, he enjoyed a reputation for trustworthiness. He could point out that Romney was bluffing about his tax plan, and people took it seriously. The likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, enjoys no such presumption of good faith from either the public or the media. Republicans are preparing to run against her next year by disclaiming the most controversial things they propose to do to the country and calling her the liar. If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, and nobody figures out how to counter Romneyesque debate tactics, the problem will grow.

Based on Wednesday night’s weaselly performance, Rubio has the best chameleon streak, powered by his survival instinct. But his voice trembles like a college freshman answering a question asked by a Ph.D lecturer. This Jell-O is supposed to battle Hillary?

‘The Assassin’ brings medieval China to marvelous life

I can make a case for Hou Hsiao-Hsien as the best director of the nineties. From A City of Sadness to The Flowers of Shanghai, Hou examined tensions between his native Taiwan and Red China as well as the (male) power structures from which it stemmed centuries ago, always with an attention to the nuance of ritual. In the 2000s his best films showed women in states of crisis, notably in the limpid Cafe Lumière. 2008’s Flight of the Red Balloon, his take on the children’s classic starring Juliette Binoche, was intended as a Western crossover. The Assassin returns to Chinese history seen through the prism of wuxia. Martial arts and bits of sorcery and a revenge tale it’s got, but Hou’s compositions — reaching a new peak of subtlety and meticulousness, their surfaces ashimmer with color — wring out the melodrama. Foregrounding art direction and costume design situates Hou in a genealogy that includes Luchino Visconti and Douglas Sirk without the overwrought narrative filigrees of the former and the latter’s death’s head ironies. For most of The Assassin‘s running time he wrings out everything else. Viewers looking for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or even House of Flying Daggers will be as baffled as my screening audience. Surrender to the film’s formal beauty or reject the thing entirely.

In theory The Assassin has a plot, set in the last years of the ninth century Tang Dynasty. Taoist nun Jiaxin orders Yinniang (Shu Qi) to murder governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) and those closest to him: “Cut him down expertly. As if he were a bird in flight.” Holding his two actresses in the frame, Hou emphasizes their determination, and against the sylvan backdrop they’re like demons come to earth, all the more chilling for remaining stationary. Tian has his own problems: the emperor is administering death by a thousand cuts with a guerilla campaign.

That’s that as far as narrative goes. At its best The Assassin has the tension of any action picture – the tension between Hou’s insistence on the pastness of the material and the imminence of the setting, architecture, actors in his compositions. It’s a contemplation picture. Hou and his first class cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin concern themselves with how storybook events can boast the texture of the present: the honking of geese, the low howl of a breeze through beech trees. Filming the martial arts scenes in long shot and in one instance through weeds adds to the distance. For a while I resisted it, and on a message board I frequent I admitted to impatience during moments which on first viewing dawdled. Gestures that I filed away, however, blossomed in recollection: Tian’s obvious affection for his son, not dependent on primogeniture (for example: the way he lays his hand on his shoulder). To dramatize the fraught Yinniang-Tian relationship, Hou shoots a nighttime confession scene between Tian and his wife through a shimmer of candle smoke and curtains, a judicious complement to the simplest of gestures: Lady Tian’s laying her head on his shoulder as if to say, “That’s your memory; you’re mine anyway.” Opaque for a while are the assassin’s motives. Yinniang, played by Shu with a fluency of gesture belied by her stillness, is often lit in isolation, like Yo Hitoto Cafe Lumière a study in melancholy.

Clocking in comfortably under two hours, The Assassin is being promoted as difficult. The programmer of the theater where I screened it last weekend pleaded for our forbearance. The trailer is at best a mischaracterization. It would help if the curious watched Flowers of Shanghai as an appetizer. The proceedings aren’t static. I won’t forget a scene in which the pregnant Lady Tian wraps herself around a pillar hoping for self-immolation (her body is smoking when Tian finds her). If not, sit and puzzle out The Assassin as it unfolds. Then let it cohere in your head for a couple days. It’s about as expansive a moviewatching treat as I’ve seen this year.

Say goodbye on a night like this: 55 golden greats

Here’s the complete list of my fifty favorite albums, with caprice as my muse. Thank you for the comments and love.

1. Electronic – Electronic
2. Sinead O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
3. Bryan Ferry Roxy Music – Street Life: 20 Great Hits
4. Public Image Ltd – Second Edition
5. Peter Gabriel – So
6. Aaliyah- Aaliyah
7. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
8. Sleater Kinney – The Hot Rock
9. Rosanne Cash – King’s Record Shop
10. Prince – Controversy
11. Steely Dan – Gaucho
12. Pet Shop Boys – Please
13. Aretha Franklin – Spirit in the Dark
14. Rene and Angela – Street Called Desire
15. Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night
16. Wire – The A List
17. The Cure – The Head on the Door
18. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
19. The Go-Betweens – Oceans Apart
20. Change – The Glow of Love
21. DJ Quik – The Book of David
22. Joni Mitchell – Hejira
23. Suede – Dog Man Star
24. Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded
25. Kylie Minogue – Fever
26. Crowded House – Woodface
27. Willie Nelson – Shotgun Willie
28. The B-52’s – Cosmic Thing
29. Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now
30. Garbage – Version 2.0
31. Eno/Cale – Wrong Way Up
32. Duran Duran – Rio
33. Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice
34. Ghostface – Supreme Clientele
35. Dolly Parton – The Essential Dolly Parton
36. Sugar – Copper Blue
37. The Chills – Submarine Bells
38. Earth, Wind & Fire – Raise!
39. Human League – Dare
40. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter II
41. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
42. Amy Grant – Heart in Motion
43. Roisin Murphy – Overpowered
44. 808 State – Ex:el
45. Ice Cube – Amerikkka’s Most Wanted
46. Utah Saints – Utah Saints
47. Pete Rock and CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother
48. Gilberto Gil – Expresso 2222
49. Miles Davis – Get Up With It
50. Nona Hendryx – Nona
51. Jay Z – Vol. 3: Life & Times Of S.Carter
52. Merle Haggard – Serving 120 Proof
53. T.I. – King
54. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
55. King Sunny Ade – Aura

‘Jeb Bush Inching Podium Closer To Center Of Stage ‘

The Onion‘s on the case:

Speculating that he might be nudging it just a tiny bit with his foot or something, Americans viewing Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate said that candidate Jeb Bush appeared to be inching his podium closer to the center of the stage during the commercial breaks. “I definitely don’t think he was standing that close to the middle before,” said Phoenix resident Jim Rawson, adding that over the course of four commercial breaks, it seemed as if Bush had closed the gap between himself and the center-stage candidates by at least a foot. “I mean, I’m not imagining this, am I?” At press time, Bush was hastily dragging his podium to its original spot after audibly scraping it against that of fellow candidate Ben Carson.

Marco Rubio, working man

“If you work at the VA, and you aren’t doing your job, they get to fire you,” Marco Rubio said last week. “I think people are shocked that that doesn’t actually exist in the entire government, since there’s really no other job in the country where if you don’t do your job, you don’t get fired.” Digby compiles the Florida senator’s excuses over the last few months:

Excuse #1: It’s normal for presidential candidates to miss votes. (Des Moines Register)
Excuse #2: He gets briefed on hearings by his staff. (Washington Post, Politico)
Excuse #3: He would never miss a vote where he would have been the deciding one. (USA Today, Reno Gazette-Journal, Roll Call)
Excuse #4: He’s leaving the Senate. (Republican Primary Debate in Simi Valley, CA)
Excuse #5: Votes he has missed are “show votes.” (Breitbart, Huffington Post)
Excuse #6: He wants his votes to be meaningful. (CNN’s State of the Union)
Excuse #7: He is frustrated. (Washington Post)
Excuse #8: He feels as if he is standing around and doing nothing. (Washington Post)

As the bulb in the Christmas light called Jeb Bush burns out, the moneymen will look to the junior senator from Florida. They don’t care that he has the charm of an empty aquarium and the facility of a plastic wire hanger. It’s so fucking rank when “strategists” think putting a guy with a funny name who speaks Spanish on the national GOP ticket will attract Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Argentines, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. Oh, sorry — I was talking about Rubio, not Bush.

The big deal

Aware that the GOP-controlled House loves the White House’s negotiating posture enough to request Joe Biden whenever it wants more caviling from the president, I was alarmed when I read reports on the deal that will make Speaker designate Paul Ryan a happier man. But Greg Sargent has promising data on the debt ceiling deal. What the Democrats got:

— $40 billion in additional non-defense spending, over and above the caps imposed by the sequester, over two years
— a debt limit hike through March of 2017, meaning no more conservative-manufactured debt limit extortion through that date
— an end to conservative-manufactured government shutdown drama through the election and beyond
— a solution to a glitch in cost-of-living calculations that threatened to hike premiums for millions on Medicare Part B
— a reallocation of Social Security funds that Dems had sought to keep disability insurance solvent.

What Republicans got:

— $40 billion in additional defense spending, over and above the caps imposed by the sequester, over two years, plus an additional chunk of defense spending in a side contingency fund. That is to say, an increase in defense spending overall that is higher than the increase in non-defense spending
— Medicare cuts, but (according to reports and experts) only on the provider side
— A tightening of eligibility requirements to the Social Security Disability Insurance program that experts say does not qualify as a benefits cut
— a debt limit hike through March of 2017, meaning no more conservative-manufactured debt limit extortion through that date
— an end to conservative-manufactured government shutdown drama through the election and beyond
— a solution to a glitch in cost-of-living calculations that threatened to hike premiums for millions on Medicare Part B.

Public education and its discontents

The most insistent strain of neoliberalism in Barack Obama’s DNA is his commitment to charlatans in the educational testing system — the Michelle Rhees whose commitment to high scores doubles as a way to transform public schools into fiefdoms managed by private companies (Diane Ravitch has played an estimable role explaining how the grifters work). As high schoolers my students enter universities overconfident, thanks to grade inflation, and ignorant, thanks to the obsession with tests. Not all of them. Those who can afford private schools or who qualify for a “magnet” education are in better shape. But here is an example of social Darwinism at its subtlest. Who doesn’t believe in better schools and teachers? Who doesn’t want merit pay?

As his power wanes, Obama starts to rethink seven years of No Child Left Behind vehemence:

State officials have pointed out that federal requirements that remain in place under the No Child Left Behind Law are a big part of the testing problem. The Florida Department of Education also highlighted that the state already has a testing cap in place, and that changes in state law helped cut back on required testing last year.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’ve already taken some steps in our state,” Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said. “That’s something that’s ongoing; we’re always looking and listening and making changes as appropriate for our students.”

On Saturday, the Council of Great City Schools also released a two-year long study of testing in urban districts that found students spend up to 25 hours a year taking standardized tests – not including time spent practicing, which was not studied. From pre-k through 12th grade, students will take 112 tests, according to the report, which included data from Miami-Dade.

The report coincided with the release of a lengthy list of testing recommendations by the U.S. Department of Education, which included a call to scale back exams so that it only consumes 2 percent of the school year. Together, it all signaled a sharp change in tone from the Obama administration. The president even took to Facebook in a video message to say the pressure of tests has taken the “joy” out of teaching and learning.

Ravitch is unimpressed. Watch her speech at Wellesley at 28:02. Pullquote: Governors and legislators “don’t attack police for crime rates. You don’t see them closing police stations because of crime waves.”