Friday, October 28, 2011

Triangle Fire: or is it mis-fire?

I found it odd watching this documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and then seeing the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. These two events, although seamlessly unrelated, are actually much closer than we think. The common thing about them is the story of the struggle of the common people against those who put pursue wealth above everything else.
The documentary is not so much about the fire and the aftermath. It is rather about the movement and strikes for better conditions and unionization that came before it. The documentary talks about the social conditions of the workers. It describes their lives in early 20th Century New York. The documentary also goes into the aspirations of the workers and why they migrated to America. This sets us up for us to better understand the motivations of the workers. It also is partly to juxtapose it against the tragedy itself.
That is where the documentary falls apart. It does not say that the tragedy could have been avoided had the efforts of the strikes succeeded but it does go a long way to suggest that demands for better conditions were not all achieved and that had something to do with the tragedy. In fact, even if all of the workers' demands were met, that wouldn't have prevented the fire. Success of the strike wouldn't have changed the conditions that led to the tragedy. What would have changed the conditions? Either an enlightened factory owner, aware of the humanity of their workers or specific laws defining the rights of workers for a safe workplace. Guess which one is more likely?
The documentary goes into this narrative mode, where we are presented with the musings of the workers. It gives an insight into their thinking. It makes us understand what the workers were going through. However, I have my doubts that the narrative is factual. Some could have been culled from other workers in other factories. That is ok when talking about the general condition of society and describing the New York of the era. But then the narrative continues into the event itself and some of the narrative were just impossible to have been written because they describe the writer's ultimate demise.
That takes the documentary into a grey area. It is a legitimate documentary at times because of the experts who were providing insight and information. It presents little known facts about the strike efforts. It even discusses the relationship between the women's suffrage movement and the strikers. But when it ventures into the often dramatic narrative, it begins bordering on non-fiction. It this a non-fiction documentary? It has too much drama that threaten the documentary's legitimacy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Conscience of a Liberal: Behind the Occupy Wall Street movement

It has been one month since the Occupy Wall Street movement began. It is now spreading and gaining national attention. Although the news on TV focuses on the mixed messages the movement seems to be sending out, the real story nobody is asking is where did the movement originated.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is born out of a certain form of dissatisfaction. Specifically, it is born of disenfranchisement. It is a feeling of being left out. It's the feeling you get when you think what should be yours is denied. Rightly or wrongly is not the question of disenfranchisement. It is perception as well as in actual fact. You can feel disenfranchised when you think a right that you think is yours is taken away from you. Like the right to text while driving. Or like the right to vote. Some feelings of disenfranchisement are justified while others are not.
I am going to expand the definition of what this blog is for. I did this in a way when I did the post on TWiT because in reality I listen to TWiT more than I watch it. This post is about something you can only listen to, an audiobook. This audio book is an unabridged version of the book The Conscience of a Liberal or The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America from the Right by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Read by Jason Culp, this book begins by explaining the history behind the recent, as in past 100 years, events in the economy, society and the political process as seen by the author. It is his narrative and his conclusions. The book lays out what it sees as the condition of the society at the time the book was written and draws up arguments to explain how it got to that point. It goes into great detail about it's arguments. It supports them with facts and figures that rarely require re-interpretation by the author. I don't agree with all of them but you have to respect an argument backed by facts and figures. If you can accept Freakanomics and it's conclusions from those statistics, this is a shorter leap and lot easier to understand.
This is not an academic text. There is a strong narrative, a story being told. The language is simple to understand and told in a fashion that draws you into their argument. Rather than offering a narrative that tries to invoke emotional responses from you to make you agree with the author, he offers logic and reasoning and a lot of history. It is not like the story won't invoke an emotional response.The picture he draws is of how the country has been hijacked, politically and economically by a small group of people with a very specific agenda. He talks about income inequality and the runaway rich. He describe the rise of a self-sustaining system to ensure that the rich become richer at the expense of everyone else while controlling the political process, the one force that is able to counter their influence effectively. It makes us think whether we want to or not. What is chilling is that if we look around, the book describes the world we live in right now.
The book is far ahead of it's time. It is relevant today and you can draw a line from where the books ends to the unregulated and ultimate near-collapse of Wall Street in 2008 to the Occupy Wall Street movement. This book clearly illustrates where the feeling of disenfranchisement comes from and comes about while emphasizing the reality of that source.

I never have read the book before and I am glad. Without the amazing and interesting reading by Jason Culp, I might not have made it to the end. If the voice sounds vaguely familiar, Jason Clup's father is Robert Culp of the Greatest American Hero fame and many outstanding roles on TV series and movies. His reading makes the book sound like an interesting extended lecture. A lecture given by someone who knows what is talking about, passionate about it and wishes to share the knowledge and passion with you.
Listening to this book enables you to understand why Paul Krugman sound like he does in his newspaper columns. It explains the history of the American society, mainly about the economy and politics in a way that no political TV commercial could capture. Politicians understand that we are so used to commercials for information. They assume that we find anything else hard to understand. However, some things just takes time to explain because it is just complex.
What is frightening is that the book depicts the society that this small group of people are working for, the return of the Long Gilded Age. And if no action is taken by the masses, this is where we will be headed. The books shows the origins of disenfranchisement but also shows how it can be created to motivate a group of people to act. It shows of how politicians take advantage of change to create a sense of disenfranchisement and channel that energy towards their own causes and continued election success. 
In a way, the polar opposite of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is in fact a reformation of the anti-Obama groups with the christian conservatives. They hide behind a common show of hatred torwards the government. Guess what? They feel or being told they should feel disenfranchised. This feeling, fanned by political rhetoric, spurred people against the government. The book talks about how politician gained control over similar feelings of disenfranchisement in the past. It explains that it is not about ideology but specific actions suggested by politicians. The blind implementation of these actions regardless of consequence results in unintended outcomes. What the people don't realize is that the message they receive from these politicians has been carefully crafted to gain their support. But once in power, these ideas are discarded for the true agenda. Often the result is an increase in disenfranchisement towards minorities and the middle class. I wouldn't be too far to say that the their true goal may just be the eventual creation of a citizen class vs civilian class, those who can vote vs those who can just live here, those who have power and those who will always be without (or at least not without a cost or being co-opted with those in power). 
The Tea Party rode on the feelings of disenfranchisement to put themselves in power and then turned around and sought to create a wider gap between them and their the general public. The efforts to roll back Union and Voter rights and the effort to remove government regulations on business are the results. The books talks about the anti-union, anti-voter right and pro-business results in other efforts in the past, showing that while the Tea Party is new, their agenda is not. 
What is strange, once you have heard the book, is how it proves general prosperity is so closely tied to the prosperity of the middle class. If this is so, why the strong effort to hold the middle class down? The answer is right there: general prosperity is not the goal of the Tea Party and their partners. It is really about making people work and pay without giving them political power, a new form of taxation without representation. This time the taxing is being done by large corporations who pull the strings of politics in Washington. The last bastion is the election of the president. This is where the people have the most direct effect on the nation.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is driven also by this strong feeling of disenfranchisement. This time it is the feeling of losing the ability to contribute and participate in the democracy (at least enough to take effect). This impending voting restrictions makes it feel worse. Is is also driven by the feeling of losing the ability to participate in the country's economic prosperity. How is this so when everybody says the economy is in the toilet? Because they are still people making money and becoming and remaining rich. And where are those people? In Wall Street.
So the goal of the Occupy Wall Street should be the polar opposite of the Tea Party: achieve general prosperity. Efforts to do so will help dissipate the feelings of disenfranchisement and strangely enough, as the book points out of events in the past, will make people feel less inclined to both politicians.
This books makes you think. And that is a Good Thing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Good Guy: Definitely Not

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Scott Porter, Bryan Greenburg
Category: Drama
How would you market a movie about something that everybody hates? Find that redeeming quality and shine a light on it, darkening everything else? Focus on an angle that would make it appeal to the widest audience to get the most number of people through the door on opening day?
This movie is hard to like because it is about stockbrokers and the lives that they lead. It is harder to like because it came out after the crash of the market. What made it almost impossible to like is that it is about the type of people who would give themselves bonuses after being bailed out by the government because of a problem they created. Even if the movie was partly true, it would have made people upset. Problem is, it probably just scratched the surface because it focused on the traders lives, which are extravagant themselves, rather than their bosses.
Beth (Alexis Bledel) is in a relationship with Tommy, an experienced stockbroker. She is introduced to Daniel, an up and coming broker who Tommy has decided to take under his wing. Tommy wants Daniel to be one of the guys. Why? Maybe he saw a part of himself in Daniel. And wants to beat that part of out him.
Needless to say that the movie is really about Tommy. It begins with a seemingly heartfelt moment when he goes and begs for Beth. We then get to see the events leading to that moment. Needless to say, it is not what it seems to be. Tommy begins the movie as the Good Guy. He seems like it. He is nice to Beth. He vouches for Daniel. But he has an agenda. To understand what Daniel wants to be, you have to look at Cash, Tommy's boss and idol. He is on his way to becoming Cash.
The other characters were largely supporting and stereotypical. I will admit I watched this because of Alexis Bledel. Anna Chlumsky of My Girl is in it too. The movie tries hard to be one of those selling New York as a great place to live and work. What made the movie worst is that it literally shows us that New York is a great place to live and work if you got the cash. Which was Tommy's problem at the beginning/end of the movie.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Charlie Valentine. Mob movie unfinished

Starring: Raymond J. Barry, Michael Weatherly
Category: Action
It is a story of an aging mob enforcer who has no qualms as to who he is nor what he does. He knows he is just a thug in nice clothes. There is no pretense of glamour. He likes the life though. The money, the girls. He understands that his skill for violence is a tool and does not let it consume him. He appreciates that his style and the image of the mobster is attractive to some but shrugs them off knowing well that the image is not real. He knows that he is a survivor and that the most important thing to him is to keep living, to keep surviving. Deep inside, he knows he is a coward.
He decides to hit his boss for that last score to go off and retire. He gives specific instructions to not carry guns which everyone in his team ignores. Although an odd request, he knows that if they get caught without guns, they may be in for a beating but will probably live to see another day. It goes wrong and everyone but him is killed. He makes a run for it with his 'retirement plan': His boss's prize Cobra sportscar. With no place to go, he reconnects with Danny, his son. Danny is a former convict who idolizes his father. He works for Ferucci a low level mobster running a strip club. Finding a new lease on life and being in the odd position of being looked up to, he begins to groom his son into his image.
But is he redeeming himself? He may be reconnecting with his son but he is bringing him deeper into the underworld. Charlie teaches him reluctantly at first but is energized by his enthusiasm. He knows he has made all the wrong choices but will he let his son see them as the right ones?
This low budget mob movie is gritty and focuses on the reality of a mobster. It strips away the glamour and polish, leaving the violence and broken lives of the people living by crime. The violence is graphic and obviously where most of the budget went. I never though I'd ever say this but they should have spent a bit more on the set. The locations were great. There warehouse where Rocco makes his office is a telling reality of his life. The cash he deals with maybe a lot but it doesn't buy him the luxury you would expect a mobster at his level would have. But that is reality. In a crime organization, only the top tier live anything close to the mobsters in Scorsese movies. Rocco may collect a lot of cash, but he has to hand it up to his bosses as well as to pay for the people around him (who pay others below them). I guess that is why respect, another form of currency, is so valued.