Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For awhile now I've been posting links to videos, songs, and interesting articles on my Facebook page. I find little time or enthusiasm to write paragraphs about random songs I'm enjoying, but oftentimes, those are the things I want to share with my friends most--not just full album reviews and lists and such. Facebook offers a tweet's worth of text and a URL link, plus all of my posts automatically appear on my friends' newsfeeds, so it's pretty much perfect.

So if you'd like to follow me on Facebook, you should be able to see all my posts by following this link (if you're my friend) and this link (if you're not). Regardless of how you feel about Facebook, this page should remind you a lot of a blog...


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We're moving.

For the time being, Dave and I are posting on a blog called The Captured Perspective. It is a place chock full of talented writers with different interests and perspectives. Check it out here:

Please check back to Holland, 2002 in the future, as we may double-post on both blogs or retreat altogether. Thanks for reading.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why Leave America Behind?

This November, I am moving to Uganda to manage AssetMap Uganda, a project in the start-up phase that aims to foster collaboration among NGOs. Last week, someone asked me, “Why are you leaving America behind? Isn’t the nonprofit sector in the U.S. just as much in need of an effort like this?”

The first answer that came to mind was a utilitarian one: We ought to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The degree of need and the stakes of successful nonprofit collaboration are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world. Leaving America behind makes a lot of sense within the utilitarian framework.

Here’s the problem: I hate utilitarian ethics. Human beings are more than utility consumers and producers, and our responsibilities to one another cannot be whittled down to simple formulas. A utilitarian worldview leaves little room for the demands that culture, kinship, history, faith, and other aspects of our lived experience place on us.

Outside of a utilitarian approach, I had no idea how to respond to this rather pointed question. Instead, I babbled on about conscience and experience, trying to avoid saying things like:
  • They need my abilities (No, they don’t)
  • Nobody else will do it (Yes, they will)
  • I feel called (Sort of)
  • The need is so great (Welcome back, utilitarianism)
In retrospect, I didn’t have a good answer. How, then, do I justify leaving the country that I love, the community I hold close, to invest my time and energy in a place that is entirely foreign? It comes down to mutuality and innovation.

The phrase “leaving America behind” assumes that the value of my traveling to Uganda is a one-way street, that the U.S. is losing an asset and Uganda is gaining one. This is not only arrogant but also wrong. Instead, I hope to add-value to Ugandan civil society and, at the same time, be informed and transformed by the ideas and lives of Ugandans. This cross-pollination of cultures and people is crucial for thriving in a globalized world, we must learn from Uganda and they must learn from us.

Innovation often stems from having people with multiple perspectives and skill-sets thinking about the same problem (e.g. when engineers work with anthropologists to design a new product). Imagine if Americans never left the country, never engaged with ideas and institutions around the world, do you think we could stay innovative? Also, if Ugandans are going to find better ways to do things, then it might be useful to have me at the table as yet another perspective thinking about the same problem. In short, AssetMap will not be innovating for Ugandans, we will innovate with them.

When next asked why I am leaving America behind, I will say that I am not, that Uganda is doing America a favor by allowing me to learn from and innovate with them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part II

[This is Part Two of a Two-Part post. Part One can be found here.]

Today's post continues on where yesterday's left off, highlighting two more of 2009's best records from lesser-known artists.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Loyauté / Glassnote / V2]

Of the five albums on my "list," this is the one that doesn't quite fit the theme of "underdog albums." Veteran French pop-rock group Phoenix are indeed garnering a good deal of praise for this, their fourth full-length release in their ten-year history; a much blogged about appearance on SNL, an 8.5 from Pitchfork, and a #37 spot on the US Billboard 200 are certainly not indicative of "lesser-known artists." Still, few would have predicted Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would be the album to bring the band the global fame they seemed to be made for.

Back in 2006, after Phoenix released one of my favorite albums of the decade, It's Never Been Like That, I wrote in a year-end retrospective, "It's utterly shocking that French alt-pop band Phoenix hasn't been plastered on billboards, commercialized to no end, and replayed thousands of times on US radio stations." Pitchfork placed that album at #13 on their top 50 of the year, doing their part to boost the group's cred, but still it seemed no one would take them seriously.

What changed? First, they went bigger. Lead single "1901," which rivals their best tracks (and they have some absolute monsters), adds giant electro-flares to their trademark guitar/kick drum rhythms. Second, they finally nailed the consistency/flow thing. While Never got the former right, without a dud in the bunch, it still somehow felt weighed down. Wolfgang, however, is more carefully ordered. Some critics have claimed it's frontloaded, when in fact, the last four tracks, particularly the momentous closer "Armistice," make up a better stretch than the middle chunk. Last, they took an admirable risk with "Love Like a Sunset," a near-eight-minute, two-part behemoth that acts as an album fulcrum, that paid off immensely. Simply, Phoenix may be my favorite singles band of the decade, but this is pretty easily my favorite album of 2009.

Visit Phoenix's official website here.
Watch Phoenix play "Lisztomania" & "1901" live on SNL here.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit [Lightning Rod]

In 2007, much fuss was made about Jason Isbell's exit from Southern/alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers. Credit Isbell, formerly one of the group's three lead singer/songwriters, for two of the band's best tracks in their final two albums together, "The Day John Henry Died" and "Daylight." As such, I wasn't all that surprised that his debut solo record, 2007's Sirens of the Ditch, was pretty damn tight. "Dress Blues," in particular, which told the story of US Marine Corporal Matthew Conley who died in the Iraq War, was the type of tune that makes grown men cry.

I was surprised, however, to find his 2009 follow-up, named in honor of his new backing band, the 400 Unit, was twice as good. Even casual fans of alt-country -- say, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, earlier Wilco, or My Morning Jacket -- will be drawn to the sound of this album, which is more consistent than the scattered recordings of Sirens allowed for. More importantly, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit manages to do what so many of the Truckers' albums have failed to: remain balanced from start to finish. From the uptempo "Good," to the beautifully simplistic guitar lick in "The Blue," to one of the best closing tracks of the year, "The Last Song I Will Write," this is such a listenable record, I often find myself playing it two or three times in a row.

Visit Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit's official website here.
Listen to the band perform on World Café Live here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part I

[This is Part One of a Two-Part post. Part Two can be found here.]

Today is June 30th, the year's halfway point. Dave and I have agreed that we need to post more than we have been of late, so let's kick things off with some of my favorite records of 2009. Instead of regurgitating information you're likely already privy to (yes, the Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear records are top notch), here are a three excellent releases (I'll post two more tomorrow) from artists who mostly continue to float under the radar:

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns [Parlophone / Astralwerks]

Try as she might, Natasha Khan seems destined to not be taken seriously. Perhaps its the gaudy album art, the lazer shooting wolf videos, the regular exaggeration of the "concept" behind Two Suns, or the fact that Kate Bush is referenced in every single review of her work. It is true that like Bush, Bat for Lashes transforms what might otherwise sound like cheesy electronic music into majestic songs, but Khan's voice is much closer to Chan Marshall's of Cat Power. Khan's vocals on Two Suns are at times shockingly good (see: "Glass"), an enormous step up in range and ambition than what she displayed on her debut record, Fur & Gold. But more than the mere technical craft that went into this album's creation, the most impressive aspect of its 45-minute runtime are its eleven songs. If Fur & Gold hinted at Khan's talent as a songwriter, Two Suns announces it loud and clear from its kickin' first single "Daniel" to the crescendoed "Siren Song," her most ambitious track to date.

Visit Bat for Lashes' official website here.
Watch the must-see performance of "Daniel" on the Late Show with David Letterman here.

A-Trak - FabricLive.45 [Fabric]

A-Trak release reviews almost always mention his tenure as Kanye West's tour DJ, among his many other impressive credentials (e.g. youngest ever winner of the DMCs at age 15, and first ever to win all three major DJ competition titles). As they should; A-Trak should first and foremost be appreciated for his proficiency with his instrument. But where artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches pushed the envelope of what people thought turntables could be used for, A-Trak is simply doing what DJs have been doing for years, better than just about anyone else.

His Dirty South Dance mixtape was probably the record I listened to most in 2007. Despite consisting almost entirely of the most over-used and tired technique in the business, mash-ups, his layering of hip-pop and crate-dug electronic gems improved on every song in the bunch and flowed seamlessly from beginning to end. His newest mixtape, commissioned by London's Fabric nightclub, is as simple as they come: save for a single mash-up to start the tape, FabricLive.45 is just 25 killer tracks and remixes, perfectly beatmatched and mixed. Even if you're clueless as to the technical skill required to mix records as well as A-Trak does, his selection of bass-throbbing electronic jams will interest anyone hunting for the year's best summer driving album.

Visit A-Trak's official website here.
Preview tracks from FabricLive.45 here.

Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies [Bloodshot]

The way I see it, music lovers can hope for two types of records, those that push boundaries or explore new territories and those that execute a style to a tee. Justin Townes Earle, son of prolific country musician Steve Earle, has perfected the latter technique. Eight months ago I posted about The Good Life, his debut album and one of the finest releases of 2008. Less than a year later comes his sophomore effort, Midnight at the Movies, which continues on down the "traditional but damn good" road. The thing is, "traditional" country music is pretty hard to come by these days. So when Earle's twang takes front and center on "Walk Out," or when the harmonica on "Halfway to Jackson" mimics a southbound train, I guarantee you'll be more pleasantly surprised than you expect. Most impressive are the record's early stand-outs, "Mama's Eyes" and "Can't Hardly Wait." The former is a brief but sobering account of his dysfunctional relationship with his father, while the latter is a straightforward countrified cover of one of my favorite Replacements' tracks. Both succeed because they're exemplary of Earle's forté: uncluttered, perfectly-executed, memorable country.

Visit Justin Townes Earle's MySpace page here.
Watch the KEXP interview and performance, which includes "Mama's Eyes" here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Last Two Months of My Life... and the Next 12

I can't speak for Dave, but personally, I've been a bit too swamped these last couple months to worry about the blog. Here's a snip-it of what I've been up to, and what the next 12 months of my life will be dedicated to:
Curiously, history provides concrete evidence that the world’s most capable democratic states do not respond to instances of genocide with consistent behavior.  The principles of nonintervention and sovereignty, a state’s self-interests, and an array of internal and external pressures, can cause action, or be completely ignored.  The primary puzzle to be investigated is thus, ‘What motivates advanced democratic states to politically commit to genocide intervention?  This project will investigate the argument that states have made calculated responses to recent acts of genocide based on national self-interests, internal and external pressures, and their normatively influenced identities.  Contributions will therefore be made to the existing literatures of genocide research, humanitarian intervention, and international relations.
Being a grad student has its perks, but it can also be quite frightening. I envy those with stable 9-to-5s and a family life. What if my research turns up nothing? What if no one even reads the damn thing? How in the hell is this going to help me get a job?

For me, the easiest answer to the above questions is another question: 'Who cares?' There are few things in life more gratifying than committing yourself 100% to a goal and seeing it come to fruition. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. For now, I'm taking things one step at a time, which means I've got just one more week in England before my first year is kaput. Then: iced coffee, sand, sunshine, music, and Lake Michigan.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

2008 Film in Review

Let me start by acknowledging the awkwardness of discussing the films of 2008 at the close of April 2009. I realize that many of these movies are long forgotten, the Golden Globes and Oscars having beaten any remaining interest into the ground.

I for one, however, still have not seen all of the films released in 2008 that I had originally intended to. What's more, I have little doubt that the vast majority of individuals that voted on the aforementioned awards would say the same. Nonetheless, I have finally reached the point where I have seen enough to merit this post. So that's that.

Now, I've heard every argument in the book against making "stupid, pointless lists" at the end of the year, but fuck it, I like them. So here's mine. These are the films I saw from last year and the grade I would give them. Yes, grades are somewhat arbitrary. Deal with it.

The List
The Wrestler -- A+
In Bruges -- A
I.O.U.S.A. -- A-  [see my review here]
Frost/Nixon -- B+
The Reader -- B+
Waltz With Bashir -- B+
Marley & Me -- B
The Dark Knight -- B
Man on Wire -- B
Vicky Christina Barcelona -- B-
Slumdog Millionaire -- B-
Milk -- B- [see my review here]
Changeling -- C+
The Fall -- C+
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- C
Iron Man -- C
Ché, Pt. I -- C-
Quantum of Solace -- D+
Defiance -- D+
Bolt -- D

Films I Have Not Seen, But Would Like To:
Revolutionary Road [see Dave's review here]
Gran Torino
Burn After Reading
Tropic Thunder
Pineapple Express

More on Five:
1. The Wrestler (director: Darren Aronofsky; starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood)

The best film I saw in 2008, hands down, and probably the best movie I've seen in recent memory. Much of this is due to Mickey Rourke's realistic portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up semi-pro wrestler, living in a trailer park and searching desperately to reclaim some purpose in his life. Credit must also be given to director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) who finally made a movie I didn't just "appreciate," but enjoyed. In particular, there's an insanely brilliant scene where Aronofsky's camera follows Rourke from an upstairs bathroom in the grocery store where he works, down the stairs, across the stockroom, through a pathetic plastic curtain, and into the deli. It's all done to the faintly heard rumbles of a crowd cheering, apparently heard in his head, and this short description doesn't do it anywhere near the justice it deserves.

The movie's real triumph, however, is the story itself, which comes courtesy of Robert Siegel in his writing debut. Siegel's protagonist is a complete fuck-up who sleeps with twenty-somethings instead of remembering to meet his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) for the dinner date they'd planned just a few days prior. He claws tooth and nail for a date with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and continues taking steroids after a serious bout with death. And yet, no matter how far he falls, you're always on The Ram's side. I could go on, but just: see this, please.

97% on RottenTomatoes / 8.4 on IMDB / Trailer]

2. In Bruges (director: Martin McDonagh; starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)

What makes In Bruges so unique? For one, it's dark and violent. There are a couple of graphic shots you'd expect from Saving Private Ryan, not a slapstick comedy about two dudes hiding out in a scenic European city. In fact, those dudes (Colin Farrell as Ray, Brendan Gleeson as Ken) are hitmen awaiting instruction from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Ray's new to the biz, and on his first and only job, he accidentally shot a little boy. Harry informs cheery Ken, who's delighted with the sight-seeing, that he must kill the sorrowful Ray, who's burdened with the guilt of murdering an innocent child. On a night out, Ray meets and falls in love with a drug dealer (hot French chick from the Harry Potter fliks) on the set of a movie starring a midget.

The plot summary should take care of answering the question that opened this review: Bruges' script is tremendous. Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, his first full-length feature film, Bruges is smart, surprisingly human, and funny as all hell. Now I toiled over which quote to choose, but I think this gem sums up the humor well:

Ken: "Oh we shall strike a balance between culture and fun."
Ray: "Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance shall tip in the favor of culture... like a big, fat, fucking retarded, fucking black girl on a seesaw."

[80% on RT / 8.1 on IMDB / Trailer]

3. Frost/Nixon (director: Ron Howard; starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon)

A few years back, I would have told you Ron Howard was the biggest hack in Hollywood. The Da Vinci CodeA Beautiful Mind? Splash? Yawn. Across the board, this guy was making sappy garbage and being touted as one of the most prominent directors in the industry. But since he signed on to Arrested Development, I simply haven't been able to look at lil' Opie Taylor the same way. Frost/Nixon is Howard's best film since Apollo 13, and is decidedly un-Ron Howard. He takes a subject that even I -- a student of political science -- had little interest in (a series of post-Watergate interviews with former President Nixon conducted by British TV personality David Frost) and makes a fairly compelling story of it. It's certainly overdramatized at times, but the film's casting director deserves an AIG-style bonus for giving Frank Langella the role of Nixon. In a year when everyone (including myself) was commending Sean Penn for talking with a lisp and kissing James Franco, Langella fills the shoes of one of America's most recognizable and notorious faces with ease. Rourke was better, yeah, but hell if I saw a more gripping scene all year than a drunken Nixon yelling into a phone in the dead of night.

[92% on RT / 8.0 on IMDB / Trailer]

4. Marley & Me (director: David Frankel; starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin)

If you saw a billboard for Marley & Me, it probably looked like this. Result: most people, myself included, assumed it was some shitty kids movie about a cute dog. To my surprise, this stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston (note to studios: put mega-celebrities on billboards, not dogs) in a story that relies on "Marley the dog" as a framing device more so than the central plot focus. The real story, based on this book, is about a just-married couple and the hardships that accompany the standard American life. We watch Wilson & Aniston as they transition (deteriorate?) from youthful, sex- and career-driven optimists to mature, family-juggling suburbanites. I was amazed at how much I connected with and cared for the characters as I watched them grow in and out of love. There's also a solid supporting cast, which includes Alan Arkin, Eric Dane, and that older guy from The Wire. The movie ends predictably -- the studio's horrendous marketing campaign even used this to target sympathetic viewers -- but if you've lost a dog in your lifetime, it's worth seeing the film simply to remember the unmatched joy our pets bring us. Miss you, Bob.

[60% on RT / 7.1 on IMDB Trailer]

5. Waltz With Bashir (director: Ari Folman; starring: Ari Folman, Dror Harazi, Ronny Dayag)

A foreign, animated documentary is like the film equivalent of a blind, one-legged midget. All things considered, Waltz With Bashir got a substantial amount of press last year for its grim portrayal of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The protagonist is director Ari Folman, and the plot is essentially his effort to remember the events of the war, which he has perhaps not-so-curiously forgotten. The narrative is thus told first-hand by a series of real life interviews with soldiers, journalists, and friends of Folman's that were involved in the conflict.  The stories told by these interviewees are depicted by a unique form of animation that is absolutely stunning, to say the least. The technique used, which resembles "rotoscoping," the meticulous process of drawing over live film frames (as famously used in Waking Life), was developed specifically for Waltz. The process began with a 90-minute live film shot in studio, which was then laid out on a storyboard. Next, the storyboard was used to draw 2,300 free standing illustrations. Then (this is the cool part): "Each drawing was sliced into hundreds of pieces which were moved in relation to one another [in a computer program], thus creating the illusion of movement." But the film's strengths reach far beyond its mere look. In particular, it's difficult to forget the utter silence of the theater in Waltz's closing two-minutes, which personally ran chills down my neck. Finally, I mustn't neglect to mention Max Richter's brilliant original score, which actively and effortlessly supports this unique and commendable film.

[96% on RT / 8.1 on IMDB / Trailer]

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Solo & I.O.U.S.A.

The Oxdox International Documentary Film Festival is one of the more exciting events I've taken part in since moving across the pond.  70 documentaries are being shown in just seven days, many of them accompanied by question & answer sessions with their directors, producers, and stars.  Just halfway through the festival, I've already been lucky enough to catch two incredibly well-executed films, Solo and I.O.U.S.A.

Solo is the story of Andrew McAuley, an Australian adventurer, and his attempt to paddle a regular ol' kayak (solo) across the Tasman Sea, from Australia to New Zealand.  I went into this film thinking it would be hugely inspirational to see a man, one who clearly had ten times the gall and strength than me, leave his family for a dream.  I was moved, incredibly so, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

What I saw was one man's obituary.  The great majority of Solo is comprised of two sources: a video journal McAuley kept while on his 30-day trip, and interviews with his wife, Vicki.  And what these videos document is a man who pushed himself beyond the limits of what he even thought possible -- and lost.

The film opens with McAuley's distress signal, sent to the New Zealand coastguard just 30 kilometers from shore -- within eyesight.  Viewers are then treated to the story of McAuley's life, the preparation that went into his trip, and finally, scene after scene of his battle with one of the most treacherous expansions of ocean on Earth.  You see him cry repeatedly, promise his wife he'll never do anything so stupid again, and yearn to hold his baby boy.  What you learn is the sanctity of human life, and the very demarcations of what man is capable of.  It is no doubt one of the most depressing films I've ever seen, but one that's worth every second.

You can watch the preview for Solo below, and get details on when it will air on the National Geographic Channel here.  McAuley's blog remains intact here.

I.O.U.S.A. is another in a series of excellent documentaries released this decade that aim to wake up the American public.  Some have been tremendously popular with the common moviegoer (e.g. Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth) while others have gone regretfully unnoticed (e.g. Why We Fight).  Regardless, each of these films -- and you can add I.O.U.S.A. to this list -- takes a subject that Americans have some cursory knowledge of, and claims that we've got a substantially larger problem than any of us may realize.

This documentary, directed by Wordplay's Patrick Creadon, tackles the issue of the US National Debt crisis by focusing on former Comptroller General, David Walker.  Walker's "four deficits" are highlighted: the trade deficit, the savings deficit, the budget deficit, and the leadership deficit.  The moral is frightening: if we the nation of America continue down the road we are on, we will be unable to sustain ourselves, and like the empires that came before us, we will crumble.

Creadon mixes media effortlessly -- interviews, news stories, animation, speeches -- and, critically, presents what I found to be a neutral and informative take.  I would strongly suggest all Americans see this film precisely because there aren't too many practical day-to-day fixes provided.  Instead, solving this problem will take a shift in attitude and political lifestyle that can only be accomplished on a national level.

The full-length film is 85 minutes in length, but if you only have a half hour, they've made a "bite-sized" version that's freely available to watch on their website here, or on YouTube here.  Watch the trailer:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Protestantism, Capitalism, and Discontent

I want to identify three forces that I find interesting and perhaps related: 1) American society is guided by the self-regulating market and a culture of individualism; 2) We are the most Christian and religiously devout nation in the west; and 3) Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily less happy over the past 100 years despite living in one of the most opulent nations in modern history.

I recently picked up the Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell in which he writes:
I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: “Weary of earth and laden with my sin.” In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.

This is due in large part to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self.
This speaks strongly to both my life experience and frustration with the church, but also hints at a potentially inherent antagonism between capitalism and Christianity.

The primary religion of our culture emphasizes the depravity of the human nature. The institution that has largely guided American social transformation for the past two-hundred years, market capitalism, is centered in the primacy of self-interest. With our economics leading us to focus on ourselves, and our religion on how fallen and broken we are, is it surprising that we aren’t getting any happier?

Despite my frustrations, I am a Christian and believer in the usefulness of markets – seeking an alternative way to understand faith and society through a lens of human flourishing, not depravity and selfishness.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Revolutionary Road

There have been many potent critiques leveled against the American Dream. From Death of a Salesman to American Beauty, the darker ‘untold’ story of American suburban life has been told. While joining this long list of criticisms, Revolutionary Road departs from it in some important ways.


Like many, this story begins with a young couple that falls in love, marries, has children, and finds a house in the suburbs. The husband, Frank, takes a job he hates and is ‘too talented’ for and his wife April feels trapped and bored in her role as suburban housewife. Sounds typical, right?

Wrong. Most other stories have frustrating but likeable characters who end up sticking it to the man or living the life they always imagined upon an enlightening/ empowering experience. Lester Burnham of American Beauty fits this bill well. In Revolutionary Road, nearly everyone is despicable, blind, and completely lacking in courage. The one man who sees clearly the world Frank and April find themselves in is John Givings, a recently released psychiatric patient and former math professor. Here are a couple of his more powerful insights:

In speaking about the suburban way of life, he says, "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

Then, in an argument with Frank about April's second (surprise) pregnancy and why Frank took a promotion at a job he hates instead of moving his family to Paris to start over as he had planned, Givings remarks, "I wouldn't be surprised if you knocked her up on purpose, just so you could spend the rest of your life hiding behind that maternity dress."

Unfortunately, Givings sees only ugliness, so much so that he is completely incapable of finding a role in society. Herein lies the underlying theme of the movie: There is no alternative to a seemingly absurd world. While one leaves the film convinced about the futility of suburban married life as an end in itself, a deeper angst comes from the film’s intentional failure to articulate an alternative. I left asking myself, “If no this, then what?”

It’s a tough pill to swallow but, once taken, I think it unearths our deepest insecurities as young American hopefuls.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Impotence, not coincidentally, is the unifying theme of Watchmen. I've posted before that the story, as told by Gibbons and Moore, is essentially a freudian analysis of the psychosexual complexes that motivate people to dress in leotards and fight crime, and (therefore) that motivates readers of the genre to commune with the medium with fervent intimacy. When you look past all of the story's remarkable trappings, it is ultimately a tale of freaks and failures, of men and women who believe they're heroes and villains but in the end are little more than slaves to their own subconscious feelings of powerlessness. It is here that I take issue with Snyder's adaptation.

Dave Gibbons' name appears in the credits of the film; Alan Moore's does not. This is appropriate, but it is not because Snyder failed to attempt to preserve the integrity of the text. Indeed, both authors' work, as it appears in the ink on the page, is preserved with remarkable fidelity here. Scenes from the novel are regularly reconstructed panel-for-panel and line-for-line. The problem is simply that Gibbons' vision is well-served by the big-screen costuming and special effects; Moore's is not.


To show Night Owl and Spectre engaging in kung fu heroics is not only an exaggeration of the text, it is a fundamental misreading of their characters. These aren't action heroes; they're people who get their capes caught in revolving doors and are brutally gunned down. Moore's greatest insight with Watchmen was to realize that if flawed people choose to engage in heroics that are infinitely beyond them, the results of their efforts are not comic (as was, and is, so widely popularized in comedies of bungling superheroes), but tragic. Snyder seems to be completely oblivious to this. These aren't people who are uniquely endowed to be heroes, as the Night Owl/Spectre fight sequences would imply, but are either tormented into doing so (like Rorschach and the Comedian, the moral centers of the work), or are looking to get off (basically everyone else).

(via Mark)

Watchmen (the book) benefits in a variety of ways from its medium, but the comic format has its drawbacks. Because of the ease with which its pages turn, one can miss the many subtle themes Watchmen has to offer. As the above highlights, the movie's greatest flaw is not that it gets the story wrong (J. Hoberman actually argues it gets it too right) but that it misses one of Alan Moore's fundamental points.

Thus, there are two things anyone should do before seeing this film: (1) read the book, and (2) read it again. This is not a suggestion so much as a prerequisite. To see this film without understanding the novel's underlying themes is to reduce its real substance to mere plot.

Having fulfilled the above requirements, I left the movie theater last Saturday feeling elated in the knowledge that this movie was probably as good as it could have been. It was true to the book, Snyder's stupid camera tricks never bogged down scenes the way they did in 300, and besides a couple of miscasted roles, the acting was more right than wrong.

And yet, this film's greatest success has nothing to do with what occurs between its previews and closing credits. Unlike the multitude of superhero films released this decade -- Spiderman, X-Men, and Batman among the most popular -- Watchmen serves not to supplement, but to complement (or even advertise) its source material. Since the buzz began for Snyder's adaptation nearly a year ago, the book has seen record sales, and it is currently sitting at the top of Amazon's bestseller list.

Ignoring the merits of  the film altogether, Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. Pictures deserve one helluva pat on the back for igniting a new interest in both a twenty-year-old comic book and the graphic novel medium itself.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where’s the love?

The nonprofit sector is a strange world. I would like to take this moment to reflect on my experience this year working for a nonprofit among 30 other recent graduates doing public interest work in Chicago. For the record, I am not against nonprofits, but I do think good ones are the exception, not the rule.

Nonprofits are typically built in the following way:
1) Someone has a “new idea” that will solve the “most pressing issue” of our time
2) The founder uses their charm, close networks, and good luck in raising money
3) They operationalize their idea by developing programs and filling an office
4) They find ways to show how well their programs are doing without actually addressing whether the world really looks any different because of their programs
5) The cycle continues: restate the vision, get more funding, run programs, overstate impact...

The following are a few of my high-level critiques and observations:

1) There is no rational process that incentivizes real impact

Every nonprofit has a “unique approach” that validates their existence ad infinitum (though they all claim to be working to put themselves out of business). This leads them to have entirely different and thus uncomparable metrics of success, which also undermines the prospects of real partnership and collaboration. If everyone can define success differently, then there cannot be a mechanism that consistently rewards more impactful organizations. This means that funders do not maximize dollar for dollar impact, but instead rely on their gut, being wooed by emotional appeals, or personal pet interests and friendships.

2) “At least we’re doing something” usually means rationalized mediocrity

Nonprofits often have unbelievably audacious visions and rarely hold themselves accountable to audacious impact goals. One example is Teach for America (TFA). TFA is often discussed as a best-in-class nonprofit, and I would agree; they definitely attract top-talent (read John Boumgarden). However, I think they too fall into this category of huge vision with dissonant impact. Wendy Kopp’s vision is “One day, all children...” The average impact of a Corps Member is one tenth of one grade level better than the average (see study). Are we really to believe that this is the strategy that will lead to “One day, all children?” But hey, at least they’re doing something.

Did Gandhi start a nonprofit? Did King? The two most impressive civic leaders of the 20th century impacted world structures without the nonprofit apparatus. There are obviously many great nonprofits out there (see Harlem Children’s Zone), but I think we have become too quick to channel our desire to do good into the segmented, weakly accountable, and largely unimpressive nonprofit sector.

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and politician, offers us an alternative to the typical nonprofit approach. He says:

We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, and new institutions to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, and institutions [...] We cannot discover a law or theory whose application will eliminate the disastrous consequences of the application of earlier laws and theories.

What we need is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered.

We have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate such forces as a natural, unique, and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be universal [...] The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions. Instead, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

How do we implement Havel’s call for a transformed human consciousness based on justice, compassion, and responsibility? I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a nonprofit.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Birds, the Bees & the ICC

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, President of Africa's largest country and home to the infamous Darfur conflict, Sudan. This post is an attempt to consolidate what is no doubt an array of confusing information and names for those unfamiliar with the infant institution. My hope is to offer insight into this watershed event in international human rights.

A (Very) Brief History of the ICC
With the intent to try perpetrators of international humanitarian law, tribunals were created on an ad hoc basis following WWII (the Nuremberg Trials), the atrocities of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), and the Rwandan genocide (the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The results were mixed: while the ad hocs represented successes for the international human rights regime, as well as the victims of some of the most tragic events of recent history, they were also marred by bureaucracy, incompetence and corruption, and were accused of being a form of victor's justice. Some important figures were successfully prosecuted; others, most notably Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, "got away" (Milosevic died of a heart attack after almost five years of criminal proceedings -- no verdict was delivered).

The ICC is a permanent court based in The Hague with the mandate to prosecute individuals for the "world's worst crimes," including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Its creation in the late 90s was an attempt to solve the ad hocs' shortcomings -- to reduce costs and inefficiencies, as well as deter future violations. Most critically, the ICC can prosecute anyone from Joe the Plumber to Barack Obama, which is huge: if this thing works, heads of state will be unable to allow atrocities to happen on their watch, a massive leap -- not a step -- forward for international human rights.

The ICC's founding treaty was ratified by the required 60 states in 2002, and today, more than 100 member-states compose its Assembly of States Parties (ASP). And yet, some of the world's most influential states -- Russia, China, India, and oh yeah, the United States -- have thus far refused to join. But that was Bush, and this is "stem cells are alright" Barry.

In all seriousness, it does seem probable that Obama will eventually sign the US up for the ICC, because frankly, Bush's primary insecurities were largely unfounded. I'd be happy to flesh this out elsewhere, but it's not what this post is really about. So...

What Happened with Bashir?
Who doesn't love bullet points?:
  • Early 2003: Violence begins in Darfur, a conflict that continues today. Roughly 300,000 people have died, more than 3 million people have been displaced, and 4.7  million people now rely on humanitarian aid for food, water, and shelter. It is the world's largest humanitarian crisis.
  • March 2005: In a sly move at the UN, France essentially corners the Bush administration, and the case of Darfur is referred to the ICC.
  • April 27, 2007: The ICC issues arrest warrants for Ahmed Haroun, Sudan's Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb.  Both remain at large and are therefore classified as "international fugitives."
  • July 14, 2008: ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo presents a case against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur.
  • March 4, 2009: The ICC issues an arrest warrant for Bashir on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes, but not genocide as Moreno-Ocampo suggested. It is the first arrest warrant for an active head of state issued by the ICC.
  • In the last week: Bashir is totally not cool with the arrest warrant. The guy's literally dancing in the streets of Darfur and laughing at the ICC's absurd allegations.

Does the ICC have a case against Bashir?

On the one hand, he has presided over wartorn Sudan since 1993. There is a myriad of evidence that his government aided Janjaweed militia in the systematic destruction, rape, and murder of the peoples of Darfur. Most notably, it is well documented that combat training and planes were provided. And back in 2004 when the governments of the world actually seemed to care about Darfur (Bush and Co. even called it a "genocide"), Bashir's government consistently prevented humanitarian agencies from entering Darfur, claiming that they had it all under control.

On the other hand, Sudan does not provide first year Poli Sci students with a particularly strong example of separation of powers. Sure, Bashir's the President, but the ICC is "arguably chasing the wrong person." Moreno-Ocampo has made him out to be an all powerful dictator, but experts have confirmed the government has numerous centers of power. It is quite possible that others in the chain of command had greater knowledge and authority over the situation in Darfur.

The Unknown
Best Case Scenario
Optimists hope that moderates within Sudan's government will turn Bashir over to the ICC, negotiate a solution to Sudan's multiple conflicts, and that human rights will eventually be prevail.

The Financial Times' William Wallace rightly concludes this would be "somewhat of a miracle."

Worst Case Scenario
Pessimists say hardliners will rally around Bashir, non-political humanitarian aid agencies will be forced out of Darfur, and old conflicts (i.e. a North-South civil war that precluded the violence in Darfur) will reignite.

While arguably overstated, this scenario seems far more likely. In fact, the licenses of 13 humanitarian agencies have already been revoked, and four peacekeepers were "ambushed" and injured earlier today. Simply put, it's not only possible, but probable, that the ICC's warrant could undo the positive work that has been done in the region since the beginning of the crisis.

The Challenge
I would argue that, regardless of the current situation, the ICC has four primary impediments: distance, enforcement, investigation, and politicization. All four prove problematic in the current Bashir case and must be considered if the Court is to be successful.

First, the Court is situated in The Hague, far from the impoverished villages of Darfur. This has two main implications: (1) Bashir and others have deemed the ICC another of the imperialist world's attempts to meddle in African affairs -- in short, it is portrayed as a "White Man's Court"; (2) The separation of the Court from the far reaching locales it has jurisdiction over does little to educate and thus deter would-be criminals from committing crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, I personally believe the Court's permanence is vital to its success and that its seat in The Hague will encourage impartiality (the ad hocs arguably suffered from a biased, regional perspective).

Second, the Court has zero means of enforcement -- no police force, no soldiers, notta. The primary responsibility of enforcement therefore lies with its member-states to deliver those who have been issued arrest warrants to The Hague post haste. Again, two problems: (1) What state is actually going to deliver its current President? (Sudan ain't even party to the ICC); and (2) Other states party can only arrest Bashir should he leave Sudan, something he's not bloody likely to do.

Third, the Court relies on state cooperation in regards to investigation. For Moreno-Ocampo to succeed in bringing Bashir to justice, he will almost certainly require official documents and transcripts of meetings and/or phone calls that prove Bashir intentionally committed these crimes. Moreover, he has to prove these crimes even occurred, something that may prove difficult without unfettered access.

Finally, just like the ad hocs, the ICC is at risk of becoming entangled politically. Personally, I would argue that there was ample foresight in this area to prevent anything fishy from occurring. Even so, we must resist the temptation to assume Bashir is guilty simply because Moreno-Ocampo has brought a case against him. Like they say, "innocent until proven guilty." Ardent supporters of the ICC should see the warrant as a success, regardless of the outcome.

So What?
Even if the arrest of Bashir is somehow orchestrated, Moreno-Ocampo's got a tall order. He'll have to prove the crimes occurred, that Bashir organized them, and that he had the proper intent. Something of this magnitude will take extraordinary patience and conviction on the part of the ASP (read: time & $). Forgive me for being less than optimistic.

More importantly, we must ask ourselves whether this is really worth the risk. It is true that the outlook seems bleak. But it's been nearly seven years since this conflict began, and despite its highly publicized nature, repeated outcries of civil society, and the promise to prevent another Rwanda, children are still dying in Darfur. Can we afford not to try a new approach?

If I sound conflicted, it's because this is some seriously heady stuff with no clear cut answer. Regardless of the outcome, as a student and proponent of human rights, I recognize the tremendous strides that this week's events represent. Their importance cannot be understated.

I remain ever hopeful that sovereignty will be strengthened, not weakened, by a robust system of international law, that crimes against humanity will one day be prevented, not prosecuted, and that the ICC will be successful in its ambitious goals.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Top Chef Season 5 Wrap-Up: Suck Mountain

On a 1-10 scale of suckiness, the Top Chef Season 5 Finale was a 9.4, with Gail's rudeness and Carla's cryfest each accounting for roughly .3 points towards the not-suck end.  Here's a frankenstein recap from Gawker's Joshua Stein and comedian Max Silvestri:

After drawing knives, Hosea picks first. He picks Blaise. Stefan picks Marcel. Carla is stuck with Casey. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! WE DESERVE TO BE EXPLAINED WHAT IS GOING ON. Here I'll help: Hosea fucks Stefan by taking all the foie gras. Hosea fucks Stefan by taking the caviar. Hosea gleefully eats a cake—he's a fucking fat whore—in which he finds a golden baby. This translates into his using the golden baby to fuck Stefan some more by giving him alligator meat whilst choosing the less challenging red fish from himself. Hosea continues to demonstrate a creepy and malevolent obsession toward Stefan that transcends the competition and delves into deep, if well-founded, insecurities on Hosea's part concerning his lack of intelligence and skill.

The chefs rush to finish their dishes. Carla says it's like the last 6.2 miles of a marathon. Hahaha, oh man, I totally know what you mean. Those last 6.2 miles are such a funny and well-known thing about the marathons we all run.

At the judges' table, they have harsh words for Carla being so out of character. She breaks down in tears and breaks my heart in the process. Stefan, the tenderest villain ever, hugs her and I literally wept. Hosea's dishes were consistent, but Stefan's highs were higher and lows were lower. The frozen fish and "pedestrian" dessert were a mistake. Each chef gets a chance to plead their case. Not fair! Stefan's got a language barrier. It's unclear whether a better defense would have helped. The new Top Chef? Hosea.

What a disappointment. The look on Hosea's face and subsequent gleeful "who's the next Top Chef? Oh just little oh me, Hosea" gloating sucked all the joy out of this for me. Stefan's a gracious loser, and he somehow manages to not punch Hosea in the face when Hosea says "You were really close at the end, man" or whatever. No class, Hosea. Speaking of, did you see when Leah ran up to Hosea and tried to kiss him but it got so weird and awkward? Here's a diagram on how of how lamely this season ended.

To anyone watching the entire season, it is clear that Hosea wasn't the Top Chef. He was inferior to both Stefan in terms of technical skill and Carla in terms of imagination and passion. 

After watching an entire season of an uncharacteristically untalented field of competitors repeatedly underwhelm and underperform, I was hoping for less uns and a well-deserved win for either Alpha-Male-Douchebag Stefan or Batshit-Crazy-Sweetest-Woman-Ever Carla. Instead, I suffered through Carla dropping the ball in Casey-esque fashion, the least exciting judges' table ever, and Blow-sea's pathetic defeat over his ridiculous obsession, Stefan.