Politics / Economics / Environment

Pro oil-and-gas constituencies are smelling blood in the water over Solyndra’s bankruptcy, and the vaporized $535 million federal loan guarantee from the Obama Dept. of Energy. Here are three well-written articles that articulate the boundaries of what we’ll be hearing over the coming months.

“Solyndra is not the first solar company to bow to Chinese competition. Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts closed its facility in the Bay State and planned to relocate to China, despite receiving $58 million in aid from the state of Massachusetts. But Evergreen Solar filed for bankruptcy on August 15. The truth is China will always be able to make solar panels (and wind turbines) more cheaply than U.S. manufacturers for the same reason they make iPods and iPads more cheaply than we can: low-cost labor and more access to raw materials. U.S. manufacturers can never hope to compete with these factors, or we’d still be making TVs.
“The shame of it is that the Obama administration could point to more promising initiatives in energy if it had the wit, especially the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, modeled after the Pentagon’s legendary Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) unit of the Department of Energy. ARPA-E is intended to conduct research into ways of overcoming the formidable technical barriers necessary to make alternative energy sources from batteries to biofuels scalable at a reasonable price. Like DARPA, ARPA-E is exempt from the usual civil service bureaucracy (and things like Davis-Bacon rules) to allow it to be nimble in ways that are exceedingly rare in the federal government. ARPA-E was set up by legislation passed in 2007, but wasn’t funded until 2009. ARPA-E’s total budget was only $400 million in its first year​—​less than the Solyndra loan. But the thing to note is that research efforts like ARPA-E aren’t about creating jobs, green or otherwise, which is why the agency has been of little interest to the White House. It is meant to expand our base of technical knowledge, leading to new and better options in the future.
“But since that future is open-ended and unpredictable, it won’t arrive before the next election cycle, and it doesn’t offer rewards for political supporters. American energy policy ought to be about generating the amount of energy we need and the kinds of energy we want, rather than being treated as a jobs program. By thinking themselves able to force the market, Obama and his liberal cheerleaders are achieving neither objective. Taxpayers are likely to be out nearly the entire $535 million of the loan, but private investors may lose close to $700 million ​—​ money that might have created real jobs had they resisted the green-jobs siren song emanating from Washington.”

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/president-solyndra_594151.html

“The proximate goal here is to bloody the Obama administration, so most of the rhetoric has focused on vague allegations of impropriety by the administration. Once they establish that this is a scandal, the step after that will be to try to kill the loan guarantee program for renewable energy. The House Republican leadership is now trying to cut the program in exchange for Tea Party votes for a bill to avoid a government shutdown.
“There are some Republicans, though, who recognize that this is a smart program. Of all people, [Rep.] Joe Barton yesterday said that Solyndra was not reason enough alone to kill the loan guarantee program. I don’t think a freestanding effort to kill this program in particular has the votes to pass the House. And even if it did, it would die in the Senate.”

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/09/24/solyndra_solar_industry/index.html

“Meanwhile, the Department of Energy brought in independent consultants to analyze the company’s technical, financial and market assumptions, and ultimately concluded it did have a potentially viable business. The new factory was on time and on budget. Sales were increasing steadily. And even if Solyndra failed, it would be much more valuable with a completed high-tech plant than with an empty box in Fremont, California.
“We were already in deep,” one official recalls. “We looked at every relevant scenario to maximize the recovery for the taxpayer. We did due diligence as if this were a brand new transaction…The takeaway is, at every juncture we did whatever we could to ensure the best possible outcome for the taxpayer. I think we structured a pretty impressive deal.”
“In other words: The operation was successful, but the patient died. Politically, it’s probably an impossible case to make. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
“The Obama administration has made bets on hundreds of clean-energy companies in dozens of clean-energy sectors; some of those bets in its portfolio are bound to go bad, just as Richard Branson picks an occasional lemon. It’s legitimate to question whether the government should have made this particular bet, or whether it overplayed a weak hand, or whether it should be making bets in the first place. But if we’re going to have a clean energy industry in this country, this kind of thing is going to happen. It doesn’t mean anyone cheated.”

http://swampland.time.com/2011/09/03/big-name-investors-to-recoup-losses-before-taxpayers-in-obamas-failed-green-tech-bet/

Economics

We had Glass-Steagall and pissed it away. Europeans are starting to realize the wisdom behind it, and are rightly considering instating ‘ringfencing,’ something that we don’t have the will or the balls to return to.

“As regulators join the Swiss bank (UBS) in scrambling to figure out how a single suspect could have racked up as much as $2 billion worth of rotten bets over three years, analysts and politicians say the catastrophic losses reinforce the case for divorcing retail banks from their investment arms.
“(John) Vickers’ 363-page report argued that Britain’s retail banks should be split off by 2019 to reduce the risks of taxpayers having to bear the cost of any future bailouts, saying that “the risks inevitably associated with banking have to sit somewhere, and it should not be with taxpayers.”

http://news.yahoo.com/ubs-trading-losses-fuel-push-split-banking-134641240.html

Movies – Mysteries Of Lisbon

Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries Of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (Portugal / France, 2010) is 4-1/2 hours long, with subtitles, which, these days, seems daunting; and yet you’re pulled through it effortlessly, compellingly, graciously, by the uncommon cinematic storytelling artistry Raúl Ruiz puts on display. There are no monumental military battles, nor history-changing events, nor massive-scale cinematic feats. And yet, its stories are so intriguing, its characters so identifiable, and its presentation so generously craftsmanlike, you’ll wish it was longer.

In many ways, it made me long for the days of movie-epics-with-intermissions like ‘Gone With The Wind,’ ‘Ben Hur,’ ‘Lawrence Of Arabia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ (many musicals, back then), or Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time…’ films – when movies aspired to be good novels by different means, when you could fill whole book-chapter-long expanses of the narrative with rich, sometimes momentary, visual choices; or focus on one particular eccentric thing that stops the story in its tracks but pays exponential dividends later. William Wyler’s Rome, David Lean’s Russia, Sergio Leone’s New York – we just understood, took for granted, that a really long movie, with an intermission, set in these places, was going to be (or would, at least, aspire to be) something special. We’d know everything we needed to know about each character, story arcs would swoop past each other gracefully and logically, and, three-and-a-half hours later, stiff and butt-sore, we’d feel satisfied anyway; we’d know that was time well spent, and that we’d gotten our money’s worth.

Which is why I’m heartened that the two best movies I’ve seen this year are over four hours long – ‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ and Sion Sono’s ‘Love Exposure’ (a box office megahit in Japan, by the way) – and between the two of them, there’s honestly not a single wasted minute. I feel for them how Roger Ebert felt in 2005 about Marco Tullio Giordano’s wonderful ‘The Best Of Youth’ – “When you hear that it is six hours long, reflect that it is therefore also six hours deep.” I like an efficient 90 minute thriller or comedy as much as the next moviegoer, but there are incomparable pleasures to be found in films that need, and take, three or four hours to thoughtfully express the breadth and richness of the ideas behind them.

‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ can be viewed in traditional terms, as a lush 18th-century soap-opera or an exquisitely presented historical fiction. But it’s also, undeniably, a genuinely modern film, incorporating contemporary ideas about the limits of cause-and-effect linear storytelling, and the inherent surreality of selecting and isolating particular pieces of reality to express particular ideas and events. Narrative subversion abounds, but those subversive strategies are so interwoven into the whole that you won’t notice them if you aren’t looking for them. You’ll just lose yourself in a generational story about royal-court intrigues, l’amour fou, the value of human memory, and the legacies each of our lives leaves behind.

The seed of this fascinating story is a young man at a religious boarding school, João (João Arrais), who, later on, will be known as Pedro da Silva. A polite and industrious boy, he’s nonetheless isolated by his ignorance of who his parents are (the first of the numerous ‘mysteries’ we’ll encounter). He’s derided by his schoolmates, who see him far more as bastard than orphan, but he’s defended throughout by his stern but wise headmaster, Father Dinis (the astonishingly good Portuguese TV actor Adriano Luz). Events transpire that slowly reveal the truth of João’s parentage, and gives bloom to the stories behind those characters, who became who they were based on the actions of yet another set of characters, who, in league with these people set these events in motion, etc., etc.. Don’t despair, though – the ever-expanding panoply of characters, events, flashbacks and revelations are, thanks to Ruiz and fellow screenwriter / adapter Carlos Saboga, always easy to follow. Throughout the chronicle of rich families, social hierarchies and moralist go-betweens, we discover heroes with dark pasts, villains with noble origins, heinous crimes perpetrated for righteous reasons, charitable acts masking self-serving opportunism, and that a number of the most interesting characters all seem to have two or three aliases, past lives, genuine identities.

Ruiz and Saboga’s script is based on a revered novel of the same name by the Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco (which I don’t believe has ever been translated into English, sadly). Their adaptation is a real gift for us; concise and well-structured, but malleable enough for substantial creative flourishes. They are assisted impressively by a superb cast of Portuguese and French actors who don’t see much exposure on this side of the pond: Maria João Bastos as João’s tragic mother, Angela, the Countess of Santa Barbara; Rui Morrison as her father, the Marquis of Montezelos; Ricardo Pereira as the noble rogue Alberto de Magalhães; Albano Jerónimo , Carloto Cotta, Maria João Pinho, the radiant French actress Clothilde Hesme, and the aforementioned Adriano Luz, who acts as a fulcrum underneath the array of characters and histories that make up the tale. Performances like his are what supporting actor Oscars are for, but I suspect he’ll never get within miles of one. A shame.

Raúl Ruiz’s singular filmmaking skills are what really distinguish the film, though (his recent passing in August is a genuine loss to world filmmaking). Assisted by cinematographer André Szankowski, Ruiz’s lush, painterly (digital 35mm) imagery and scrupulously natural lighting result in some of the most gorgeous film photography I’ve seen since ‘Barry Lyndon.’ The art direction and costuming are superb, while somehow never drawing attention to itself. But how Ruiz shoots the story – where he places the camera, how he follows the characters through the environment, the almost total absence of close-ups or over-the-shoulder dialogue shots – displays profound inventiveness. There are times the camera’s view feels like an actual additional character in the scene; it peers between curtains, witnesses events through doorways, windows, eavesdrops from other rooms, and establishes isolating distances or furtive intimacies. There were three or four times where the movement of a shot literally dropped my jaw – how did he think to do that?! But, again, they’re never conspicuous, never draw undue attention. They’re just seamless visual choices that add real depth of meaning to each scene.

There are also some terrific devices that unify and expand the stories as well. Particular events are introduced, intermittently, with short depictions in a miniature toy theater of João’s, with cardboard cutout characters. When Don Álvaro de Albuquerque flees with the Countess de Viso to Venice, we see their cut-out figures on a toy gondola in the canals, even though João himself would have no knowledge of this part of the story. Clock faces become skulls, characters are reflected unnaturally in cups of tea, candles glow in otherwise brightly-lit rooms, blindfolded children appear and reappear in backgrounds – Ruiz is discreet, but clearly comfortable with adding overt surrealist elements to the naturalist proceedings – this is the kind of movie Peter Greenaway’s been trying to make for years. But what’s also important is that Ruiz chose to take the time it took to incorporate all of these seemingly disparate, but ultimately unifying, elements into the whole, deliberately, patiently.

‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ is a masterpiece, and may be one of the finest mainstream European films I’ve ever seen. Not only do I consider this to be an unmissable event for American moviegoers, but I also point to it as yet another indicator of how far our own cultural aspirations have fallen. ‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ didn’t need fifteen producers shelling out $250 million dollars; it just needed inventive artfulness, some courage and ambition, and 2% of that money. If it’s a great movie, a uniquely great movie, no one will care how long it is. It’s sad to think that Hollywood can’t be bothered to self-generate these kinds of films anymore. We should be grateful for the small companies willing to distribute them for the filmmakers who did take the risks, while the major studios spend their best efforts on the next unfilmed Marvel comics character, Oscar-bait vanity project, or foreign / independent film that everyone else at Sundance or Cannes already likes.

‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, September 16th.

Socioculture

Of the multitude of 9/11 remembrances, Chris Hedges’ is my favorite:

“Those of us who were close to the epicenters of the 9/11 attacks would primarily grieve and mourn. Those who had some distance would indulge in the growing nationalist cant and calls for blood that would soon triumph over reason and sanity. Nationalism was a disease I knew intimately as a war correspondent. It is anti-thought. It is primarily about self-exaltation. The flip side of nationalism is always racism, the dehumanization of the enemy and all who appear to question the cause. The plague of nationalism began almost immediately. My son, who was 11, asked me what the difference was between cars flying small American flags and cars flying large American flags.
“The people with the really big flags are the really big assholes,” I told him.

“The dead in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were used to sanctify the state’s lust for war. To question the rush to war became to dishonor our martyrs. Those of us who knew that the attacks were rooted in the long night of humiliation and suffering inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians, the imposition of our military bases in the Middle East and in the brutal Arab dictatorships that we funded and supported became apostates. We became defenders of the indefensible. We were apologists, as Christopher Hitchens shouted at me on a stage in Berkeley, “for suicide bombers.”

“We have still not woken up to whom we have become, to the fatal erosion of domestic and international law and the senseless waste of lives, resources and trillions of dollars to wage wars that ultimately we can never win. We do not see that our own faces have become as contorted as the faces of the demented hijackers who seized the three commercial jetliners a decade ago. We do not grasp that Osama bin Laden’s twisted vision of a world of indiscriminate violence and terror has triumphed.”

http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/nationalism_in_the_aftermath_of_9_11_20110910/

Politics / The Law

A few weeks ago, Ari Berman wrote a splendid expose on the Republican crackdown on voter fraud. Which is interesting, because voter fraud in recent history has been practically non-existent.

“To hear Republicans tell it, they are waging a virtuous campaign to crack down on rampant voter fraud – a curious position for a party that managed to seize control of the White House in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. After taking power, the Bush administration declared war on voter fraud, making it a “top priority” for federal prosecutors. In 2006, the Justice Department fired two U.S. attorneys who refused to pursue trumped-up cases of voter fraud in New Mexico and Washington, and Karl Rove called illegal voting “an enormous and growing problem.” In parts of America, he told the Republican National Lawyers Association, “we are beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses.” According to the GOP, community organizers like ACORN were actively recruiting armies of fake voters to misrepresent themselves at the polls and cast illegal ballots for the Democrats.
“Even at the time, there was no evidence to back up such outlandish claims. A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. “Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere,” joked Stephen Colbert. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, quantified the problem in stark terms. “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning,” the report calculated, “than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gop-war-on-voting-20110830

Movies

The New Republic has reposted Pauline Kael’s review of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Band of Outsiders’ from 1966. Needless to say, she was quite a writer.

“(Godard) has said, “As soon as you can make films, you can no longer make films like the ones that made you want to make them.” This we may guess is not merely because the possibilities of making big expensive movies on the American model are almost non-existent for the French but also because as the youthful film enthusiast grows up, if he grows in intelligence, he can see that the big expensive movies now being made are not worth making. And perhaps they never were: the luxury and wastefulness that, when you are young, seem as magical as peeping into the world of the Arabian Nights, become ugly and suffocating when you’re older and see what a cheat they really were. The tawdry American Nights of gangster movies that were the magic of Godard’s childhood formed his style—the urban poetry of speed and no afterthoughts, fast living and quick death, no padding, no explanations—but the meaning had to change.
“An artist may regret that he can no longer experience the artistic pleasures of his childhood and youth, the very pleasures that formed him as an artist. Godard is not, like Hollywood’s product producers, naive (or cynical) enough to remake the movies he grew up on. But, loving the movies that formed his tastes, he uses this nostalgia for old movies as an active element in his own movies. He doesn’t, like many artists, deny the past he has outgrown; perhaps he is assured enough not to deny it, perhaps he hasn’t quite outgrown it. He reintroduces it, giving it a different quality, using it as shared experience, shared joke. He plays with his belief and disbelief, and this playfulness may make his work seem inconsequential and slighter than it is: it is as if the artist himself were deprecating any large intentions and just playing around in the medium. Reviewers often complain that they can’t take him seriously; when you consider what they do manage to take seriously, this is not a serious objection.
“Because Godard’s movies do not let us forget that we’re watching a movie, it’s easy to think he’s just kidding. Yet his reminders serve an opposite purpose. They tell us that his aim is not simple realism, that the lives of his characters are continuously altered by their fantasies. If I may be deliberately fancy; he aims for the poetry of reality and the reality of poetry. I have put it that way to be either irritatingly pretentious or lyrical—depending on your mood and frame of reference, in order to provide a critical equivalent to Godard’s phrases.”

“The world of Band of Outsiders is both “real”—the protagonists feel, they may even die; and yet “unreal” because they don’t take their own feelings or death very seriously, as if they weren’t important to anybody, really. Their only identity is in their relationship with each other. This, however we may feel about it, is a contemporary mood; and Godard, who expresses it, is part of it. At times it seems as if the movie had no points of reference outside itself. When this imagined world is as exquisite as in Band of Outsiders we may begin to feel that this indifference or inability to connect with other worlds is a kind of aesthetic expression and a preference. The sadness that pervades the work is romantic regret that you can no longer believe in the kind of movie you once wanted to be enfolded in, becoming part of that marvelous world of beauty and danger with its gangsters who trusted their friends and its whores who never really sold themselves. It’s the sadness in frivolity—in the abandonment of efforts to make sense out of life in art. Godard in his films seems to say; only this kind of impossible romance is possible. You play at cops and robbers but the bullets can kill you. His movies themselves become playful gestures, games in which you succeed or fail with a shrug, a smile.”


http://www.tnr.com/article/film/93946/tnr-film-classics-band-outsiders-september-10-1966