Thursday, November 27, 2008

And Now We Say He's Dead

I discovered today that Richey James has finally been declared legally dead. His parents asked for the court injunction so that they could take control of his estate, which is worth a little over a million Canadian dollars. One could say that it closes a chapter in UK rock history, but it doesn't really, because there will continue to be Richey sightings and cult obsessions articulating themselves as long as there are people who come to love the Manic Street Preachers.

For those who don't know, Richey was a member of the Manic Street Preachers, and even though he was a terrible guitar player, he co-wrote the lyrics of all their songs during his time with the band. On their third album, 1994's The Holy Bible, he wrote almost all the lyrics, poetic statements of a man on the verge of complete collapse. Richey was dangerously depressed, anorexic, and prone to self-mutilation. His car was given a parking ticket at a gas station in Severn on February 15, 1995. It's conventional wisdom that he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge near that gas station. But since his body was never found, he was always considered missing. The band wrote their best album, Everything Must Go, while grieving Richey, and have been a three-piece ever since. After almost 14 years, he's been declared legally dead.

Oddly, Richey came up in a conversation I had Tuesday afternoon with a friend who was researching articles about pro-ana websites for the women's studies course she's TAing. "4st 7lbs" from The Holy Bible is the greatest song ever written about anorexia and the twisted mental state from which it arises. This video I found of the Manics' singer/ lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield and bassist/surviving lyricist Nicky Wire lets you listen better to the lyrics in Richey's songs much better than the album versions, which are equally raw, but much less sparse.

"She Is Suffering" and "4st 7lbs," both from The Holy Bible

Friday, November 21, 2008

New Doctors and New Movies (Goodbye David, Prematurely)

The news has been out for a while, confirmed by the company and the star himself in a mostly unsurprising interview. David Tennant is leaving Doctor Who when he finishes filming the tv-movies that will broadcast over the course of 2009. At the end of the movie broadcasting over Xmas 2009, David will regenerate (for real this time) into the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor. Naturally, I'll miss him, though we'll always have those dvd box sets.

He's been an excellent Doctor, comparable to William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Tom Baker in terms of the consistent quality of his Doctor performance. And his acting skills themselves are in the same league as Hartnell, Troughton, and Peter Davison. And as my friend Kelli-rae told me when I broke the news to her over the internet, her sexual fantasies are never going to be the same. It wasn't just the sexy characterization and plot structure of Doctor #10 that enraptured people. He was also one of the best looking actors to play the part.

I knew he was a huge fan of the show when he joined for the 2005 Xmas movie, and when his performance was good, it was so good that I hoped he would stay long enough to break Tom Baker's seven year tenure. But four years was long enough for him, and he's made some wonderful stories. His first amazing performance was season two's The Girl in the Fireplace, where he completely sold falling in love and losing her through a cruel twist of fate and time portals in one episode. Rise of the Cybermen was a multifaceted story that called on the Doctor to run through the full palette of his character. Then The Impossible Planet's chilling atmosphere and imagery, witty script, and genuinely intriguing philosophical investigation made me qualify it as the best Who story of all time.

Season three had a fairly consistent quality of writing aside from three mediocre stories and a rather silly final episode after a brilliant bait-and-switch and Doctor-on-the-run combo leading up to it. David's best performance of the year was in Human Nature, where he spent most of the story playing a fictionalized personality instead of the Doctor. But season four was undoubtedly the best of the revived show, arguably the best season since the legendary season 14 of 1977. Every performance from David was perfect, especially the horrifying desperation of the closing moments of Midnight. But the series hit its height with the terrifying, surreal, irreal, mind-bending, soulful, beautiful Silence in the Library.

Can Doctor Who get better than Silence in the Library? I don't know, and I'm hesitant to answer the question in either direction since I had asked that very thing two years ago after I watched The Impossible Planet. And I asked it the year before that when I saw the uncensored version of 1977's The Talons of Weng-Chiang on dvd the year before that. And I asked it as a kid when I watched Genesis of the Daleks on YTV.

Of course, David had his wince-worthy moments too, especially in his first year. At times, he articulated his Doctor's manic enthusiasm as a cloying mawkishness that bordered on the childish. This was especially evident in his almost idiotic performances in New Earth, The Idiot's Lantern, and at some moments early in Army of Ghosts. These were toned down quite a bit by the end of the season, and by The Runaway Bride, David had achieved a perfect balance of enthusiasm and gravitas that only became more nuanced as the next two years went by. Perhaps he found this as he delved into the subtleties of the philosophical and emotional conundrums in the script for The Impossible Planet, the last story to be filmed for season two, even though it was numbered episodes eight and nine.

As soon as his departure was confirmed, the bookies were on the job, ranking odds as to the probable successors. David Morrissey leads the pack, already cast in the upcoming Xmas tv-movie as the title character, The Next Doctor. But this is so obvious, it has to be a red herring. The preview clip of Morrissey's performance broadcast as part of a BBC charity special this month illustrates it as well. Morrissey's "Doctor" plays like the arrogant manic moments of #10 in season two, dressed in the Victorian outfits of Paul McGann's #8. My own theory is that he'll turn out to be an imposter, perhaps a con man or a superfan who decides to emulate his hero. There's an old audio play (The One Doctor) where the Doctor meets a man who pretends to be him, and I think this would be the rough source material. It wouldn't be the first time an audio has served as loose inspiration for a tv story. Look at Dalek (Jubilee), and Return of the Cybermen (Spare Parts).

But the real story has to do with a slip of the tongue that has worked its way onto the internet as an actual plausible clue: Paterson Joseph. One of his co-stars recently let it slip that he's been in negotiations with Steven Moffat the new showrunner for 2010 onwards. And he's been interviewed by BBC Entertainment, and said he would relish the role if he had it. Joseph has even worked with Moffat before, as a scenery chewing villain on his series Jekyll. And he's worked on Doctor Who before, as a scenery-chewing dick in the first season finale. In fact, the Jekyll connection supported the rumours that Jekyll star James Nesbit would be up for the eleventh Doctor. But Nesbit doesn't want it anyway.

You can probably guess what I think Paterson's weakness will be in his characterization if he does get the part: his propensity to chew scenery. But there's also a villainous edge to him, a harder quality in his voice and his manners than David, or even Christopher Eccleston had. Paterson has the potential for a contribution to the Doctor's character that we've never really seen before. William could pull it off when the situation required, but he couldn't put the physical force into it. Colin Baker could lose his temper, but this is more than just anger. Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was written this way, but he could never quite sell it in his performance.

I'm talking about menace. To his enemies, the Doctor is a villain, and Paterson Joseph can sell villainy. It would be an interesting companion dynamic too, because Paterson has an icy quality that could seriously alienate his friends simply from seeing it. The Doctor can be cruel sometimes, and Paterson would give his cruelty an extra cold spice, a menace, and a sneer. It could make for one of the most intriguing and enrapturing Doctor performances yet.

This is all incredibly premature, of course, since David has the role for another year, during which we'll see him in four tv-movies. But the fact that we know of his departure so early will just build up the expectation to that moment at the climax of Xmas 2009 when we'll say goodbye and hello. After all, there's a black President in America. Why not a black Doctor in the TARDIS?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Financial Crisis in a Picture

The inimitable Jeffrey Rowland of Overcompensating and Wigu posted on his blog recently an excellent account of the global financial crisis and the housing bubble that precipitated it. Well, he linked to the graphic that lives on, the financial blog.

The graphic is here.

And this is why I think it's particularly cool, in addition to explaining so simply an incredibly complex situation. The graphic culminates in the bailout and situates the reasons for it, and it pretty much explains itself. But I think the most interesting element of this graphic is that it shows that purely mechanical processes were not entirely responsible for the housing bubble bursting. In fact, many of these mechanical processes were started by a very contingent human activity: belief.

This was the belief that "Housing prices never fall." So housing is automatically a sound investment, no matter how insane the mortgage package might be. This belief was at the centre of the mania for home ownership, because real estate was seen as a guaranteed investment. There was no real worldly evidence for this perception, only the belief that operated as its premise: "Housing prices never fall."

If you believe that housing prices never fall, then any investment in housing will eventually be profitable. In order to have more real estate to invest in, more and more houses are built. Eventually, the number of houses outweighs the number of people able to buy them, even under subprime paradigms of mortgage. When the supply outstrips the demand, then prices fall. But no one thought about this because there was a belief among so very many people that "Housing prices never fall."

But the supply of houses was outstripping the demand, so housing prices were falling. And when you have to pay more on your mortgage debt than the actual value of your house, you can't afford that debt anymore. You'll have to borrow against your house to pay off the debt on your house. But that just creates more debt on your house. The result of this conundrum is default. And when homeowners default, the banks lose their money. And banks had integrated these mortgage debts into almost every investment package they sold, every investment agency ended up losing a ton of money. Investment agencies including Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros, AIG, Merrill Lynch, for example. With no lenders having any money, there was no source for loans or investments of any kind. Since big purchases are driven by loans and credit, no one could make big purchases, and the economy constituted from those purchasers (us) ground to a halt.

All following from a single concept: "Housing prices never fall." Remember the power of thought.

Friday, November 14, 2008

This Is the Most Chauvinist Song I Have Heard in My Life

The first time I heard "Long Black Veil" was when I was 17 years old. I was volunteering with the organizing committee for a now-defunct music and arts festival in St John's called Peace-A-Chord. As one meeting at Bannerman Park downtown petered off into a strictly social gathering, the festival coordinator, Jeff, played this song on his guitar. I remember that he played it well, with a particularly soulful tone in his voice which hinted that he was playing the song just as much to impress the attractive women on the committee as much as for his own enjoyment. I knew it was a song made popular by Johnny Cash, but I didn't really know my music history at the time quite as well as I do now. The song was pretty good, but it didn't impact me enough to make me discover more about it.

Now flash forward to this winter when I first acquired The Band's classic debut album, Music from Big Pink. I had no idea that they too covered "Long Black Veil" on this album. And for the first time, I listened to the lyrics all the way through. Everybody in The Band was a great musician and singer, but that song is mortifying to anyone with sane sensibilities. Let's walk through the lyrics, shall we?

Verse one
Ten years ago on a cold dark night,
someone was killed 'neath the town hall lights.
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed,
that the one who ran looked a lot like me.

Pretty standard scenario for a tragic song. A murder happens and a mistaken identity leads the wrong man to prison and/or the electric chair. 

Verse two
The Judge said son, what is your alibi,
if you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life,
for I'd been in the arms of my best friends wife.

So on the night of the murder, he's screwing his best friend's wife. So he has an alibi, but it would probably wreck his friendship, so he says nothing. When I realized this was the scenario, I was amazed. The protagonist is so totally indifferent to his friend that he has an affair with his wife, but is all of a sudden respectful and remorseful when he has to admit it. Now that public record is involved, he has so much respect for his friend that he's willing to die rather than humiliate him in public.

Verse three
Now the schaffold is high, and eternity's near.
She stood in the crowd, and shed not a tear.
But some times at night, when the cold wind moans
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones

And the wife stands there and says absolutely nothing. Forever. Meanwhile, no one has mentioned anywhere in this song that the protagonist's suicidally misplaced machismo has resulted in the actual murderer going free.

And now, the chorus
She walks these hills, in a long black veil.
She visits my grave, when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows, but me

In fact, she's so distraught that she makes regular pilgrimmages to the protagonist's grave. He was perfectly happy screwing around with her when there was no public consequence, but ultimately still had more respect for the friend he was betraying than the woman who, judging from these scenes of devotion, had fallen in love with him. But her feelings didn't matter in this situation. The important thing was that he finally did right by his friend. As for the wife, she doesn't factor into this story as anything other than a cause and an awkward situation, never as a person with genuine feelings that mattered.

I can barely listen to this song anymore now that I have once. It's similar to when my friend finally deciphered the lyrics to one of his favourite punk bands and discovered that they were anti-semitic. He couldn't listen to them after that, and couldn't even sell their cds, fearing that someone else might be exposed to what he thought was repugnant. Thankfully, the rest of Big Pink is still awesome.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Most Fascinating Figure in That Election

No, it's not Obama. I'm talking about John McCain. This piece, The Fall, in the New Yorker really spells out McCain in 2008, and the immense tragedy that his presidential run really amounted to. Here was a man who had developed a sense of politics as heroism, as the same activity as his life as a soldier and war hero, except with slightly less risk of assassination. He built a career based on standing up for his principles and not backing down on them. And he had paid for his highly principled political approach with continual defeat, yet he was never humiliated because he never compromised on what he thought was right.

The attacks he endured from the Bush camp in the 2000 Republican primaries were probably the most abuse McCain had ever received in his political career. Rove-style political smear tactics based on fear, hatred, and divisiveness derailed his presidential ambitions. As a result, America ended up with the most catastrophic president in its entire history. And John McCain could return to the senate, confident that he had at least gone down in a fair fight. If the McCain of 2000 had won the nomination, he would probably have soundly defeated Al Gore, would have run a White House not beholden to the neoconservative ideologues of Project for a New American Century, and actually put the care and effort necessary into the war against al Qaeda. John McCain, if he had been elected in 2000, could have been a brilliant president.

But by this year, his ambitions completely derailed him. One by one, all the stands of principle that had dominated his senate career, he let fall away so that he could secure the nomination and compete for the presidency. It got so that many of his old colleagues came to consider the upstanding bipartisan just a front to build up a strong coalition who would back him for president. He spoke so much about whether we know the real Barack Obama. But when you look at what he did during the campaign, people wonder now if they ever really knew the real John McCain.

I believe that McCain really is the principled man who worked the senate floor for three decades. I could tell by his concession speech on election night. His words were calm, conciliatory, looked forward to a challenging future, and were spoken without recrimination or resentment. I doubt Sarah Palin's planned speech would have been quite so honourable. McCain is a figure of classic tragedy, an honourable man ruined by his ambition. Sarah Palin is a cackling supervillain, a self-obsessed bigot who will bring the Republican party to disaster with her 2012 run. Perhaps even more than his own personal fall from integrity, John McCain will regret that he brought this wretch to national prominence.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Short Post Lamenting Technology

Nothing big or philosophical here. My computer's hardware has been tetchy since a fumble in the airport on the way to Hamilton this June. The only real problem was that the jack for external speakers no longer worked, and I had to buy an external sound card that connected to my computer through a usb cable. This wasn't a serious problem, and there certainly could have been worse damage to my computer, lovingly named Michel, from that fall. The sight of one of my students' internally shattered laptop screen (my continued condolences, Heather) showed me just how lucky I was.

Yet tonight, in the amount of time it took for me to get a glass of water from my kitchen, a scratch has appeared in my own screen. The scratch is about four inches long and one inch high, a higher level of brightness on my screen starting from about the centre at the very bottom and streaking out to the right. There is also a roughly circular patch where the scratch begins at the base of the screen, half an inch in diameter, not quite as bright, and not visible from most angles other than directly in front of the computer. I have no idea what could have caused this anomaly, since I came back from my kitchen a few minutes ago, and it had appeared.

I think it's going to be an expensive Xmas this year.

UPDATE, 10.40. As of this morning, the anomaly on my screen is gone. That was strange, though.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why Barack Obama Must Win Tuesday Night

A book I just finished reading was Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. It was a document in miniature of a nation that was paralyzed by a national trauma, trying to come to grips with what had been inconceivable. Terrorism was something that happened on small scales of street corners and car bombs. The incredible scale, force, and the power of the symbolism of Sept 11 was like no other terrorist act before or since. It was an act with a purpose few people could understand. National traumas of a similar scale in the United States like Pearl Harbour or the Civil War at least had reasons that people could comprehend. The politics of an act like the destruction of the World Trade Centre, at the moment of its happening, seemed to transcend reason for the American people.

The first reaction of such an incomprehensible act is fear, and resolve in the face of fear. Yet that fear also encourages irrationality, a fear of self-doubt, the inability to think through one's actions. I do not mean to say that the Iraq occupation that began in 2003 was an entirely irrational act. The neo-conservative policy-makers in the executive branch (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz chief among them) had entirely rational plans. But these plans were written in the 1990s, under the think tank Project for a New American Century, and not in the chaotic national mood of the years after Sept 11. Dick Cheney and his ilk hijacked the American people when they were still too traumatized to understand fully what was happening to them. The lie was swallowed so easily because, with the ability to think critically still paralyzed in many Americans, people believe what they are told, what is suggested to them.

Throughout the immensely, unbelievably long campaign for the Presidency in 2008, the Republican party has returned again and again to fear. In the primary season, it was the fear of women, of a reversal of sexual traditions; then the fear of the black man, of the mysterious dark race that, in the words of Rev. Wright, damns America. And there was the return to fear after the candidates were chosen: fear of Russia, fear of economic collapse, fear of terrorism, fear of socialism and communism.

But Barack Obama asked Americans to put aside their fear. I first understood how special he was when I listened to his speech about Rev. Wright, A More Perfect Union. Instead of the easy denunciations that were coming from the Republicans, and from Hillary Clinton (who, progressive as she is, gendered as she is, remains a traditional American politician), Obama asked Americans to listen to each other, listen to themselves, and understand. Instead of hiding behind denunciations, he accepted the complexities and paradoxes of his own life. When we are overcome by fear, we seek simplicities to reassure us, to return us to easy security. Obama never offered people that.

He continues to offer a way forward for America out of its trauma, out of a political discourse based on fear and aggression. Instead of lashing out at enemies wherever they are perceived to be, he offers calmness, calculation, and understanding. The American people have cowered under the rubble of Ground Zero for too long, fretting about the next attack, their perspective dominated by the terror seared into their bodies. Obama offers no easy answers. He extends to the American people the opportunity to face the paradoxes of their lives, to understand their lives, their society, and their country. He calls this the perspective of hope. I see him offering an opportunity to heal the wounds that have been bleeding into the eyes of the American people for over seven years. He offers the opportunity to live again, not in ignorance of their trauma, but because of their trauma.

That is why Barack Obama must win Tuesday night.