Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Reading

The Middle Class on the Silver ScreenNew York Times film critic A.O. Scott looks at how the economy is reflected in what we see at the cineplex.

The characters in, let’s say, a typical romantic comedy or family drama are blander, better-looking reflections of what the members of the audience are imagined to imagine themselves to be: hard workers and eager shoppers, neither greedy nor needy. Those airbrushed mirror images draw from a common well of (reasonable) aspirations and (mild) anxieties. The people on screen are ambitious but not obsessively so, educated but not snobbish about it. Mostly they want to be happy, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy too.

Right at the moment, though, we may be feeling a little grumpy, and otherwise inoffensive movies (“How do You Know,” for instance, or “Love and Other Drugs”) can look more clueless than playful in their genial assumptions of material comfort and financial security. More than that, the cheery, harmonious universalism that Hollywood has promoted and relied upon for so long seems out of tune with the surrounding cacophony. And lo and behold, the screen suddenly bristles with something that looks like class consciousness.

Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” takes on the ultra-privileged Winklevoss twins. The real-life Micky Ward in “The Fighter” takes on the world and his own family, just like the fictitious protagonists of “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town.” Denzel Washington, a heroic working stiff in “Unstoppable,” takes on a mighty train (and the corporate fat cats more concerned with the bottom line than with public safety). A howl of anti-Wall Street rage sounds through Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” and, more bombastically if less coherently, through Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” To the barricades!

But — if I may sloganize further — which side are you on? There is no doubt that in the past year, through seasons of economic malaise and political anger, there has seemed to be a lot more division than consensus in American life. And this friction is often articulated and analyzed in what sounds like the language of class. Not in the old European (or, God forbid, socialist) sense of the word. The history of the world might be, as Karl Marx said, the history of class struggle but the history of American exceptionalism insists otherwise. So we have instead, at this moment in history, a culture war, a battle between populism and elitism, a sectional conflict between the coasts and the heartland and ideological dispute between liberals and conservatives.

More below the fold.

Goodbye, Charlie — The one term of Florida governor Charlie Crist comes to an end next week with a sigh.

He rode a wave of optimism into office four years ago, but Gov. Charlie Crist leaves behind a very different Florida when his term expires next week.

Crist himself has changed, too. Long stripped of his once-sky high popularity and no longer a Republican, he departs as a failed United States Senate candidate with his political career finished for now, his future uncertain.

As Florida’s 44th governor, Crist goes down in history as the first who could have sought reelection and didn’t, an option since 1968 when the constitution was amended to allow a second term.

He chose instead to pursue ambition over a long-term policy agenda, with devastating personal consequences. As a result, his record has an unfinished feel.

Crist cites the economic downturn that steadily worsened during his four years in office as the defining moment.

”It was a very difficult time to govern,” Crist said as he flew over North Florida on the state aircraft recently. ”But it’s also a great joy to try to steer the ship of state in turbulent water. It was bouncy. It was rough.”

It’s still rough.

Foreclosures and bank failures still plague the state, and the economic impact of the Gulf oil spill is not yet fully realized.

The unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent is more than three times as high as it was when Crist took office, and above the national average. Crist will soon join the ranks of the jobless, but with extensive connections and a law degree, he won’t be out of work long.

No single accomplishment of Crist’s shines above others.

The self-styled “people’s governor” will largely be remembered for style more than substance, for making the capital a more civil place and for treating others with respect and dignity, except for the insurance and power companies that Crist bashed regularly with populist abandon.

Radio Waves — Joe Cardona remembers the life and times of Neil Rogers, a legendary Miami broadcaster.

In the spring of the bicentennial year (1976, for the history challenged), a radio host from Rochester, N.Y., hit the Miami airwaves on WKAT-AM and not only went on to set the radio dial on fire. More important, he branded South Florida humor and political discourse over the ensuing 30 years. While the myth of Howard Stern was spreading through syndication, Neil Rogers berated, shamed and entertained a brigade of ”Neilies” (as his loyal listeners were known) to become the most significant talk radio icon this town has ever seen.

Neil Rogers’ long-standing reign over Miami’s radio ratings war ended the summer of 2009 as he left WQAM, where he had spent the last 12 years of his career. Recently, ”Uncle Neil,” as he was affectionately known by his fans, returned to South Florida after suffering a stroke and heart attack in Toronto, where he was living. The news from a statement prepared by his attorney and friend, Norm Kent, was that Neil was suffering from “progressive vascular dementia.”

Rogers died Friday morning at Florida Medical Center in Broward County of congestive heart failure, Kent said.

In an ironic sense, given that Rogers so often put his agnostic schtick on gleeful display, this is an appropriate time to celebrate one of radio’s most biting, irreverent, insightful minds.

I discovered Rogers some time in the mid-1980s while in college. What immediately caught my attention was his clever irreverence. His quips were razor sharp, and his dramatic pauses while reacting to a disagreeable caller revealed unique comedic timing.

As prickly as Neil was when I first heard him, he had an uncanny way of making his show accessible to a cross-section of people. Young or old, white or black, Latino or not, Neil was going to ridicule you and yet at the same time make you feel like a part of the milieu — an accomplice to his tirades. While most hosts desperately tried to mask their shortcomings with phony, dulcet, broadcaster voices, Neil was belching, coughing and eating on the air. It was honest and sincere. He was self-deprecating and shamelessly insecure. and by openly discussing and exposing his neuroses, he made us all feel like we weren’t completely out of our minds.

Doonesbury — Prithee hark, milord.