Monday, February 29, 2016

Penny Foolish

Two weeks back, the prominent economist Larry Summers recommended that the U.S. Mint stop issuing $100 bills and even consider taking existing $100 bills out of circulation.

The reasoning was simple;  Much of the underground economy and many criminal enterprises operate on a cash basis.  Summers noted that 500-euro notes had come to be known as "bin Ladens" and added that the weight of $1 million would be 2.2 pounds in 500-euro notes, but much more -- 50 pounds -- in $20 bills.   This would make cash transactions less convenient for bad guys.

It makes sense to me.  I don't carry $100 bills generally.

But I have a better idea that would benefit all of us, including those who of us are not involved in illegal activities.

Here is my thought:   Let's get rid of the penny.

The other day I needed some vegetables.  (The younger person was coming for a visit, and he consumes approximately three pounds of same each and every day.)  I stopped at the farmers' market, filled one bag with broccoli and another with asparagus; I estimated the total cost would be just under $7.

I was wrong.  When I went to pay, the bill came to $7.24.  I had a $5 bill, two singles and a couple dimes in my pocketbook.  (This was unusual; generally there are many, many pennies in the coin section of my wallet.)

"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm four cents short," I told the woman running the stand.

"Don't worry about it," she said, and then waved me off so she deal with the next customer.

When I visit stores, I frequently encounter little bowls like the one in the picture at the top of this page.   If you think about it, people leaving pieces of money for strangers is quite odd.  It suggests that those currency units are more trouble than they are worth.

Here's another thing:  People will not pick up pennies they see lying on the street.  If a normal person sees a $20 bill on the sidewalk, he will pick it up.  A dollar bill -- yes; a quarter -- yes; a nickel -- maybe; a penny or two pennies -- never.  Even hungry beggars won't make an effort to pick up a penny.

That tells you something.

According to recent reports, the U.S. Mint has been fiddling with the metal composition of U.S. coins in the interest of reducing production costs, and good for that.  Between 2011 and 2014, for instance, the cost of minting a penny was reduced by about 30 percent.

This sounds great, except that making a penny still costs substantially more than a penny is worth.  Said another way, it costs 1.7 cents to manufacture a single penny.

My thought is this:  Why bother?


Canada and Australia also have dollar-based currencies.  Each has stopped issuing pennies.  Neither country seems to have suffered ill effects.   Maybe we can learn something from our friends, the Canucks and Aussies.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Customer Reward Programs

We learned today that Starbucks is changing its frequent-caffeinator program.  Where in the past you got a point every time you visited the place, now you will get more points, based on how much you spend.  Where in the past, it took 12 points (and visits) to get a free beverage, now it will take 125 points and a lot more dollars spent to collect your reward.

Like all companies, Starbucks said it introduced its program to cultivate customer loyalty.  The company still claims to love-love-love its customers, but it not surprisingly is mostly interested in goosing its revenue stream.

Frequent Flyer Programs

My understanding is that American Airlines kicked off the customer-reward trend some years back by introducing the first frequent flyer program.  At the time, most airlines had broad route systems offering regular service to just about every airport in the country.  The competition was such that there were few opportunities for any given airline to raise rates without losing business.

The American idea was to reward travelers based on how often they traveled on American flights.

At the time, many business travelers were stomping across the country, and around the world, on a regular basis.  American's program got those folks' attention with promises of free tickets and coveted upgrades to first class.

Given such incentives, executives naturally chose American over Delta or Continental or TWA any time they needed to make a plane trip.

Within a few years, all the airlines had frequent flyer programs.  This made many frequent travelers happy, but not all of them.

The saddest business travelers were those whose corporate travel departments booked them on flights with the best prices or the most convenient schedules. These unfortunate travelers had many miles scattered across multiple airlines' programs -- diversified portfolios, if you will -- but never enough miles to get seats in the front of the jet.

(Initially, these programs awarded benefits -- called "miles" -- based on the actual distances customers flew.  Then, as computer programs increased price discrimination, the "miles" became "points;" flyers who booked $1,000 tickets at the last minute got more points than people who planned ahead and spent $300 for the same flights.)

Programs Go Viral

Over the last 20 years, just about every retail business has adopted a frequent-customer program of some kind.

I have a punch card that, when filled, will get me a free carwash.  The Significant Other has a frequent-shoeshine card.  I used to have a frequent-coffee card at a spot in our town until it closed for renovation, at which point I threw the card out.

For a while I had cards for several drugstores and three supermarkets.  I had a Toys R Us card, a Sephora card and cards for I-don't-know-how-many other stores.  The cards strained my wallet, and so I got a circular wire key ring, punched holes in the cards, slipped them on the ring and carried that instead.

Then I lost my key ring.  I replaced my library card and gym card, but not the others.  My local grocery chain proved too incompetent to issue a replacement card, but it allowed me to sign in with my phone number to get those valuable discounts on canned goods.

I probably could have entered some of the rest of those lost cards into my cellphone, but my attitude was this:  Naah.


Have any institutions gone more totally berserk into the affinity-card game than banks?  No.

First it was cards for your alma mater.  Then came gas station MasterCards, department store VISAs and countless others.  Some of these companies, like Target, give automatic discounts at the cash register; others send price-off coupons by mail or email; and some provide gift certs for every $1,000 spent at the store.

It probably is fitting that airlines, which started this whole thing, now seem to run the biggest programs out there with bank-affiliated credit cards.  In my family, we have several.  With each one, we usually get a first year free of fees, thousands of points for spending a certain amount of money in a short period, and also free checked bags when we fly.

(I actually have more credit cards than I want or can use.  Recently, I called to cancel one airline card when the first annual fee was about to come due; I was immediately offered the same deal, again free of fees, just to keep the card.  This does not seem like a smart way to do business.)

Too Much

If you are a regular Starbucks customer, go ahead and keep your customer reward card or Apple Pay equivalent if it makes you happy.  I am not here to tell you what to do.

But as for myself, I say the whole "frequent" business has got out of hand.  I wish all these companies -- airlines, retail stores, banks, coffee joints, the lot of them -- would quote us their best prices and then leave us alone.

Businesses and customers are not loyal to each other; they just want to get things done as efficiently as possible.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Michael Heizer

The other day I discussed "Levitated Mass," a large stone on display at a California museum.

Michael Heizer is the artist who conceived and organized "Levitated Mass," which in fact is his second work that carries the name.

The earlier "Levitated Mass" was installed in 1982 at the base of a Manhattan office building. Carved grooves denote the location - 5 and 6 grooves for 56th Street, 13, 1, and 4 for the letters M, A, D, Madison Avenue.  Water rushes under the 10-ton granite rock, giving the impression that it hovers in space over the fountain.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Manhattan, but I have never heard anybody mention this work. If I have walked past it, I have not noticed it.

(To be fair, people walking in Manhattan are more intent on reaching their destinations than enjoying the scenery.  On the other hand, the sculpture and its fountain may be too subtle for ordinary humans to appreciate.)

Michael Heizer

Heizer is the son of a professor of archeology and anthropology; as a boy, he spent time in remote areas where his father did field research.  This background seems to have interested Heizer in rocks and isolated areas, drawing him into "land art," a designation he sometimes rejects but that seems to describe much of his work.

Heizer's first big effort was "Double Negative," a 1970 etching of two large trenches that are 50 feet deep, 30 feet wide and a quarter-mile long in the open space of Nevada.

This seems to have been a prelude to his defining project, "City," which also is large enough to be seen whole only in satellite photographs.


"City," is a series of large-scale edifices that eventually will stretch for a mile or more on privately owned land in Nevada.  The land is surrounded by a 750,000-acre national monument conservation area that was created by presidential decree last year.

One arts writer described "City" as “a collection of enormous ceremonial mounds and abstract forms made of earth, rock and concrete that evoke both ancient ruins and industrial technology."

Last year, Heizer said this: “It epitomizes a fusion of ancient and modern forms. It’s huge in size, but antimonumental in its relentless horizontality and its sinuous, continuous curves. It’s also unphotographable and impossible to capture in its totality. It has to be experienced in time and space — over time, and distance.”

Heizer is nothing if not a hard worker.  Building "City" has consumed almost 45 years of his life and the efforts of many other workers as well.

In a 1977 interview with ARTNews, Heizer explained what "City" meant to him.

     “The work I’m doing out in the deserts has to be done, and somebody has got to do it.
     Where in hell are all these artists? I mean, we live in an age of obligation. We live in an
     age of the 747 aircraft, the moon rocket—objects that are constructed by man that range
     from the most minuscule complex electronic dial to airplanes that have wings weighing
     45 tons on them. So, you must make a certain type of art. Of course, there are limits.
     If you take your work too far, you end up with entertainment.”

He raises interesting questions.  Should art be scaled to the size of major commercial endeavors?  Has too much art -- like, say, Pop Art -- turned into entertainment?  Are our acknowledged entertainments ("Fifty Shades of Grey," video games, superhero movies, presidential debates) taking up so much attention that we are losing sight of the bigger questions?

He also spoke of the need for new art.

     “Basically, what I’m saying is that the European option is closed. The European tradition
     has to be honored, but that area is finished—it’s over with. The kind of art I’m involved
     with hasn’t really been done before. What I mean is, it’s the kind of art that was originally
     Indian art, then it was Pilgrim art—art by all those various visitors. That’s the tradition
     I’m interested in—the tradition of regionalism. That’s essentially what I try to do.”

Here is where I have to question Heizer's argument. The European project may be ending, as other civilizations have ended.  Those former civilizations left behind their structures and monuments, including the Terracotta Army, Roman ruins, the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge -- but in their time, those edifices were elements of actual cultures and actual communities.

By contrast, Heizer's works are expressions of his own personal convictions.  These ideas are perhaps shared by some art collectors and dealers, but they are not manifestations of broad cultural themes.  The isolation of "City" in the middle of a huge conservation area assures that it will stand as it has been built but also that it will not be taken up as part of a larger cultural discussion.

We have puzzled for centuries over the meanings of Egyptian pyramids and the Stonehenge monoliths.

 If mankind destroys itself and other beings come to earth several eons from now, they will discover "City," but they will have a hard time figuring out what, if anything, it meant to people of our day.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Is It Art? "Levitated Mass"

Above is the biggest exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  It is described as a sculpture, and its name is "Levitated Mass."

As you can see, it is a very large rock -- a 340-ton piece of granite.  The artist located it when it was exposed on a blast site east of Los Angeles in 2007.  He proposed moving the rock to the museum, and the museum director, a major fan of the artist, agreed.

The relocation was accomplished in 2012 in a major effort that involved transporting the rock in a journey that took 11 days and required moving and then replacing electrical lines, traffic signals, cable wires and other impediments all along the route.

Below is a sketch of the contraption that moved the rock very, very slowly on the 105-mile trip to its new home.    

The original plan was for the boulder to seem to float in air above the walkway.  Seismic concerns intervened, unfortunately, and the rock now is secured by guy wires and metal buttresses attached to the trench walls.

Since no actual "sculpting" was performed on the boulder, "Levitated Mass" might be described more fairly as a triumph of engineering.  It took a lot of careful planning to lift and move the rock, as well as to design the trench and secure the exhibit in its new home.

The artist has compared "Levitated Mass" to emplacements like Stonehenge, and said he expects the boulder to last 3,500 years.  Nature formed the rock 150 million years ago.

Total cost of the installation, which was paid by donors, was about $11 million.

Levitated Mass Today

Last week I went to see "Levitated Mass."  Here are some pictures.

People arriving at or leaving the museum walked through the trench.  It seemed to be most popular with children, who do like to run and make noise before or after museum visits.  (LACMA is not the largest museum in the world, but it is darned big and requires at least several trips to absorb its various collections.)

An item as large as the boulder requires a large site to itself, and so "Levitated Mass" sits on a 2.5-acre lot covered with crushed granite.  The only vegetation is a line of 24 palm trees that define the area's boundary.

When I was there, people were coming and going in small groups.  Most walked through the trench to the far side and then back again.  Nobody set foot on the desert-like grounds, which may be appropriate for such a display but are also rather unwelcoming.

One fun trick when visiting the sculpture is to pose for a photograph in which you appear to be holding up the boulder.  Many, many of these have been posted on Instagram.

Two full-time museum guards keep watch over "Levitated Mass."  Their chief job is to tell children to stop running on the narrow sides of the concrete trench; the guards also ward off skateboarders and graffiti taggers.

I asked one of the guards what she thought of the display.

"I like it," she said.  "I don't have 340-ton rock in my backyard."


Last year, a local arts writer reflected on "Levitated Mass" after many trips to the museum during its three years on the site.   

"Each time, I'm impressed by its power and weightiness — by its sheer neolithic presence," she wrote. "Often, it can make objects in the galleries seem almost trivial. What's a 400-year-old painting when you're staring at geological time?"

Still, she declared herself "underwhelmed by the walk underneath 'Levitated Mass.'"   Her favorite view of the sculpture was out the windows from inside the museum.  


My art education is limited, and this display raises questions for me.  Here are a few:

     ---Is the big rock art, or is it something else?

     --Is its artistic merit greater when viewed from a human-constructed building or on its
        own in the middle of an artificial arid site?

     -- What about all those rocks in Zion National Park or Yosemite or the Sandia Mountains;
         are they art or nature?

     --Does human participation in the form of joke photos validate "Levitated Mass" as an
        artistic expression or turn a granite boulder into something more like the exploitation
        of a caged animal at a zoo?

Next:  The Artist

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Trending -- Prosecco

At the moment, the Significant Other and I are in Southern California enjoying a pleasant break from the polar vortices and icy roads of winter in the Northeast.

A couple weeks ago, we met for a meal with a California friend who works in what is known here as "The Industry" -- entertainment, sports, etc.  He ordered a glass of prosecco with his dinner.

Since then, I have noticed proseccos on several other restaurants' wine lists.  This is new in my experience.

In short, prosecco seems to be the coming thing in an area where many trends begin.  Look for proseccos the next time you visit a cool restaurant; my guess is that there will be at least one recommended by the waiter or sommelier.

Naturally, I decided to do my own research.  At dinner several nights ago, I ordered a glass of prosecco.  It was so delicious that I asked the waiter to write down the name of the brand, which I pass along.

Here it is: Borgo Magredo Extra Dry.  I recommend it heartily, but I am sure there are many fine proseccos.

Let us enjoy the moment.


Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from grapes grown in the Veneto region north of Venice.

It sometimes is compared with French champagne, but the two are different.

French champagne gets its fizz from a more involved process than prosecco does.  Prosecco tends to be a little more sweet and to have fewer bubbles than champagne.

French champagne is typically much more expensive than prosecco, and it is more likely to be poured at expensive meals and big celebrations.  Prosecco is a simpler pleasure that can be enjoyed even on a weekday evening out.

The Current Moment

It may be just me, but my sense is that current events are making us feel less festive these days.    Consider these facts:

     -- We are well into a nasty presidential campaign that almost certainly will not be resolved
         until November.

     -- Many famed musicians and authors have died in the last few weeks.

     -- The Middle East and parts of Africa are caught up in violent political strife, causing
         the worst humanitarian crises in at least 70 years.

     -- The health of children has been put at risk by a mosquito-borne virus in Latin America
         and by lead in the water supplies of American cities.
     -- The world economy seems very fragile, with Sweden and Japan announcing negative
         interest rates and worries that another recession is imminent after what has felt like
         a weak recovery from the last one.

In short, this is not the moment to crack open a bottle of champagne.

But a few sips of a quieter sort of bubbly may not come amiss.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Robert Indiana and LOVE

This statue sits next to a building in midtown Manhattan where the Significant Other used to have his office.

The first time I saw it, I said to myself, "Oh, it's one of those LOVE statues."

The last time I saw it, I said to myself, "Wow, it's still there."

The statue, one of about 20 in the US and many others -- in various languages -- around the world, may be the most iconic piece of pop art ever.  Some say that it is more recognizable than the "Mona Lisa."

"LOVE" is the work of Robert Indiana (he replaced his given surname with his state of birth), who rendered it originally on paper in 1966 or so.  Then the image was made into metal statues, a popular U.S. postage stamp and, unfortunately, a plethora of knock-off products from posters to paperweights to cufflinks.

While art critics weren't excited by  "LOVE," the public was.  Art writers ever since have lamented that Indiana did not copyright his image and so did not make really, really big money off the design.

In fact, "LOVE" captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s:  love, peace, hippies, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," etc.  Some offshoots:

      --  Lore has it that seeing an exhibit of framed "LOVE" images caused
          a friend of John Lennon's to say, "You're surrounded by love," and
          Lennon to respond that "Love is all you need," which led to the
          famous Beatles song.  Brian Epstein, then the group's manager
          said, "It was an inspired song and they really wanted to give the
          world a message. . . . It is a clear message saying that love is
          everything. "
      -- Then came the execrable book, "Love Story," with an Indiana-
          inspired cover, that bequeathed us the line, "Love means never
          having to say you're sorry," and then a three-hankie movie that
          I doubt anybody has watched for 30 years or more.
      -- Many years later, the Lennon song was incorporated into one of the
          worst movies of the 21st century, "Love Actually."

We can't blame Indiana for all this twaddle, of course.  He was producing art before "LOVE" struck, and he has continued to produce art ever since.

Other Indiana Works

This pair of works from the early 1960s combine the last word his mother spoke before dying -- "Did you have something to eat?" and the fact of her death.

Then Indiana fashioned a lighted "EAT" sign that was posted either near or on the New York Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair.  People got the wrong message and followed the sign, expecting to find not Art but a restaurant.  Fair officials ordered it turned off.


These numerical metal sculptures from the early 1980s have been disaggregated and arranged in ones and twos, as well as issued in single-digit silk screen copies and other flat compendiums like the one below.  They're colorful, and any four-year-old would be delighted to see them.


Like other artists, Indiana revisits his themes.  The large statue below was made in 2000 and based on a design from 1972.


In 2007 or 2008, Indiana repurposed his most famous creation for a series of sculptures and posters that raised more than $1 million for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.


Indiana created the large silkscreen below in 2014, also in an apparent return to earlier themes.

Another piece from 2014

And from last year

In All

Who could be opposed to messages of love, art, hope or peace?  

I am not schooled in the visuals arts, but I find it hard to see Indiana's work as more than typography, occasionally with light sloganeering.  It makes my yesterday's post of Oldenburg/vonBruggen sculptures seem novel and fresh by comparison.

Like all art forms, I guess, pop has its limits.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Public Sulpture in the Pop Period

A Short History of Sculpture

Sculpture began in pre-history.  From that period, it mostly represented known forms like animals and the human body.  In Western cultures, the highlights came from the Greeks, the Romans and the Renaissance, deifying beauty and religious imagery.

Then, as nation states formed and battled each other, sculptures were employed to elevate leaders and warriors.  This reached its apex in the 20th century with depictions like the one below, which glorified human monsters like North Korea's Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

This rather ruined the deal, although it persists in certain places to this day.

Non-hack sculptors continued to produce works of integrity -- Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi -- and a contemporary favorite of mine, M.J. Anderson, an Oregonian  illuminates human meanings she discovers in marble.

Pop! -- Sculpture in the Late 20th Century

As literal representation gave way to abstract expressionism, sculptors also worked in this area.  But what really set the sculpting world going was Pop Art.

You know Pop.  Its famous early practitioner was Andy Warhol, who gave us images of Campbell Soup cans, three-dimensional Brillo boxes and artificially color-enhanced photographs of famous figures.

The adoption of identifiable imagery -- without the burdens of myth, religion, politics and hard-to-decipher abstraction -- recognized the beauty (or at least the centrality) of small things.  It made its own statement by making those things large.

Pop, shorthand for popular culture, gratified viewers by elevating images they recognized.  After tangling unsuccessfully with abstraction, people unschooled in the fine arts appreciated pop, if only because, finally, they were being let in on the joke.

Since then, big pop sculptures have been a big, big thing in public spaces (among others.)

Certainly the most famous practitioners of scaled pop sculpture, at least in the U.S., have been Claes Oldenburg and his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen (who died in 2009.)

Here are some of their famous works.

The "Batcolumn" in downtown Chicago.

"Clothespin" in downtown Philadelphia.

One of four statues known appropriately as "Shuttlecocks" outside a museum in Kansas City.  Each is between 17 and 18 feet tall.

"Spoonbridge and Cherry" a 7,000-pound sculpture with a fountain that spurts occasionally from the end of the cherry stem, in Minneapolis.

"Free Stamp" in Cleveland.

"Crusoe Umbrella" and "Plantoir" in Des Moines.

"Flashlight" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  (It is much too subtle for the Vegas Strip.)

"Split Button" at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  It is interesting to see the mundane in elevated form.  It invites consideration of many things -- chiefly, the imprint of commercial design on virtually every aspect of lived modern life.

Tomorrow:  One pop design that went too far.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Antonin Scalia, RIP

We learned Saturday that Antonin Scalia had died in his sleep after 30 years on the Supreme Court.

Within hours, Donald Trump put his foot down and insisted that Scalia should not be replaced until after a new president takes office in 2017.

Shortly afterward,  the president -- who as a senator voted to filibuster a Supreme Court nomination in 2007 -- said he absolutely planned to replace Scalia with his own nominee before the end of the year.

Yesterday on our cultural despoiler, Facebook, one of my "friends" posted this: "Thankfully, Scalia's life has ended."

All weekend long, the political discussion was which party would select the next Supreme Court justice.  It made me think of two teams of hyenas fighting over the carcass of a dead gazelle.

The gazelle was this --  will the new justice be a right-wing hack or a left-wing hack?

Both Democrat candidates have said that, if elected, they will nominate only court candidates who satisfy one or more "litmus tests."  For all I know, the Republicans have done the same.

Political battles used to be framed as competitions of ideas, as efforts to reach compromises that satisfied the majority.  Now it's just flat-out warfare.

I find this wearying.

All Politics, All the Time

I do not do politics on this blog.  I am not a legal scholar.  I disagreed with a number of Scalia's decisions.

Still, even I know that he was an honorable man and an estimable legal scholar.

Scalia did not choose friends based on politics.  He and his wife were close to liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her late husband; he welcomed Elena Kagan, an Obama-nominated justice, to the court because of his respect for her legal intellect.

Ginsburg, left, and Scalia, in cravat, as extras in "Ariadne auf Naxos"

He took his work seriously.  He typically included a liberal scholar among his clerks -- one said recently that Scalia did so because he wanted to understand arguments against his point of view.

Many who argued against his Supreme Court opinions acknowledged that his rigor exposed the shortcomings of their own arguments.

And we have learned that at least a few leftist journalists were surprised that Scalia did not treat them with disdain.  He was genuinely interested in them and their points of view.  (My guess is that Ginsburg is not so different.)

Oddly, members of the press commented, Scalia did not support a Texas law to ban flag burning.  Scalia supported the 7-3 decision without comment.  No comment was needed.  The matter was as easy a First Amendment issue as could be imagined.

My hope is that the Supreme Court justice who replaces Scalia will be someone of similar intellect, curiosity and generosity.

Decorum and Etiquette

What bugged me most about this weekend's discussions is the failure of our politicians simply to recognize Scalia for his many years of serious and honest service to his country.

His death was announced on the Saturday of a three-day weekend.  There was no chance a new name would be brought forward before the opening of business Tuesday.

This offered a moment to recognize the man respectfully.

But no.  The vultures were circulating within hours.

It was all "who is the next Scalia" all the damned time.

I wish we were better people.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Oscar Talk: Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance in the "Bridge of Spies" first scene

I have been a little surprised by the apparently muted reception that "Bridge of Spies" has received in the run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony.

At first I thought maybe this was because the movie was released much earlier in the year than other best picture nominees, most of which came out in November and December.  But then I checked; "Bridge of Spies" had an October release.

(Studios seem to favor this late-release strategy, hoping that movies that win top awards will sell many more tickets after the Oscars.  It did not play out for last year's best picture, the quirky "Birdman," which sold $37 million in U.S. tickets the year it was released and only $5 million more after the Oscars; 60 percent of its $103 million gross came from foreign sales.)

So why is "Spotlight" favored for the best picture award while the also-nominated "Bridge of Spies" is seen as a non-starter?

Consider the differences:

"Spotlight," is a straightforward good-guys-going-after-bad-guys morality play whose ending is never in doubt.  Its environment in Boston is mostly a newsroom -- a white-collar workplace of computers and fluorescent lights -- public records offices, coffeehouses, parks and parking lots, plus several social events.

"Bridge of Spies" is more subtle.  Its setting is earlier, during the Cold War, when people worried about the existential threat of American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. The unease is personalized in the lead characters, played by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (the favored supporting actor candidate), who recognize each other as serving different governments, but also as human beings.
     The atmospheres in "Bridge of Spies" are nuanced and support the movie's themes -- New Yorkers' anger at due process protections being given to a Russian spy, and then cold, gray Berlin, where citizens in the eastern sector are being effectively imprisoned by a wall and a thuggish Russian-sponsored regime. The good guy-bad guy element is there, but it is established by what is seen in the movie.

Interestingly, a common complaint about "Bridge of Spies" is that it lacks tension.  I think this is more true of "Spotlight," but I may be the only one.

Maybe we're just so used to Steven Spielberg turning out great movies that we take him for granted.
He's won Oscars for best movie ("Schindler's List) and best director ("Saving Private Ryan") plus seven and five other nominations, respectively, in those categories.

"Bridge of Spies" has been nominated for four other Oscars -- its Coen bothers/Matt Charman screenplay, music, sound mixing and production design.

Meanwhile, "The Revenant" has 12 nominations.  It is a novel story, of course, and Leonardo DeCaprio is getting both support and resistance in his siege/campaign for best actor.  Certainly the movie is ambitious in its locations and story, but even with all that, people complain that it's just too darn long.

Perhaps what distinguishes "The Revenant" and "Spotlight" is the level of promotion that has been generated for each of them.  This happens in all kinds of election procedures, as any American voter can attest.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oscar Talk: The Big Short

You've probably seen "The Big Short" by now, but if you watch this short preview, everything about it will come back to you.

It's all there -- the outsiders who question the received wisdom that home values only go up, that homebuyers never default on mortgages and that ever-increasing churn in the housing market was no threat to anyone.  It pins the blame on clueless greedy bankers and bond rating agencies.

We know how that worked out.

This is a curious movie about a more serious book.  Director Adam McKay, best known for the "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" comedies, brought an almost slapstick comedic slant to the story.  This, plus a talented cast of stars,  make "The Big Short" by far the most watched film treatment of the origins of Great Recession eight years ago.

The movie has been nominated for five Oscars:  best picture, best direction, best supporting actor (Christian Bale for a not very convincing performance), best adapted screenplay and best film editing.

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post said this in her reivew;

       A wacky montage of expository speeches, hyperventilating meetings, revelatory
       encounters with corrupt brokers and their hapless marks . . . . "The Big Short"
       will resort to anything to grab the audience's attention, even if means having a
       character deliver his lines while brushing his teeth, or stopping the movie
       dead in its tracks for a celebrity tutorial on subprime mortgages or debt

       McKay takes viewers by the lapels and shakes them until dizzied and dumb-
       founded, allowing the cinematic equivalent of look books and mood boards
       to do the heavy narrative heavy lifting for him.

This is all true but, as I said, it may have been the only way the film could have reached a broad audience.

So we have a champagne-sipping blonde in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages, a famous economist sitting at a blackjack table while Selena Gomez describes synthetic CDOs, and Ryan Gosling using a block-stacking Jenga game to demonstrate how defaults on risky home loans could crash an enormous bond market.

The cinematography is fast-paced and clogged with jerky scene-shifting shots, all the better to hold the attention of viewers with limited attention spans, which is most of us, I suppose.

The only plot line, really, is the developing understanding of several quirky Wall Street outsiders that masses of mortgages are likely to go into default, sooner rather than later, and to take much of the financial system down with them.

These characters are portrayed as thoughtful, insightful guys.  They made bets that seemed outlandish at the time but that made them very rich when the markets collapsed, a point that the New Yorker's Anthony Lane emphasized at the close of his review.

          So expert are the performers that you wind up rooting for Burry, Baum, and the
          others despite yourself, knowing full well that they are fueled by cynicism—by an
          ardent faith that the system will and must fail. They are little better than the bankers
          whose downfall they so gleefully engineer. “The Big Short” is a feel-good film about
          doom, and it pays the price. It bets on our indignation, and loses.

I'm not so sure I agree.

My reservations about the film concern its focus on a single part of the larger process that led to the Great Recession.  This may be understandable, given the complexity of the larger story, but the oversimplification makes "The Big Short" feel a bit like a two-hour Bernie Sanders ad.

The Bigger Story

The bad guys in "The Big Short" are greedy Wall Street bankers and ratings agencies that paid more attention to getting business than issuing honest opinions.  Certainly these folks deserve much blame.

But the deepest roots of the the mortgage crisis rest in Washington, D.C.  Twenty years ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was tasked with promoting an "ownership society" that was championed through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  The idea was noble, maybe, but the results were harsh, not least for the intended beneficiaries.

In 2008, the Village Voice ran a hit piece on Andrew Cuomo, who ran HUD in the 90s and by 2008 was planning to run for governor of New York. Whatever you think of Cuomo or the Voice, the article's tracing of the policies that lit the flame of the mortgage mess is worth a read.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Movie Stars as Advertising Pitchmen/women

One thing we learned from the movie "Lost in Translation" was that American movie stars were more willing to take advertising gigs in other countries than on their home turf.  Until that time, the thought was that serious actors needed to protect their "brands."

Things have changed since then.  We have seen Alec Baldwin promoting Capitol One and a whole series of cheesy DirecTV ads featuring cool guy Rob Lowe.

Several more recent ad campaigns suggest the trend is continuing.

Matthew McConaughey

This guy for years was typecast as the boyfriend in silly romcom movies.  Finally, in 2013, his breakout performance as a dying AIDs patient in "Dallas Buyers Club" won him a best actor Academy Award and allowed him to turn himself into a big-deal, bankable, serious actor.

So what did he do that autumn?  He signed on to make television commercials for Lincoln automobiles.

The Lincoln ads surprised people.  Almost immediately Jim Carrey did a spoof on Saturday Night Live.  Another joke segment aired on the Ellen (DeGeneris) show.

Also, last year, McConaughey took $135,000 to make a college commencement speech in his home state of Texas.  At the time, I wondered if McConaughey's agent wasn't sabotaging him.  Where would the actor show up next, I wondered -- doing the opening act at Tony Robbins seminars?

But McConaughey seems to be getting serious movie roles still, including the lead in a Gus Van Sant picture, coming out in April, that is set in Japan's famous suicide forest.

Robert Duvall and Kevin Spacey

This one is even weirder.  Duvall won an Oscar for "Tender Mercies" and has been a serious, careful star since he played the Corleone family lawyer in the Godfather movies.  Spacey also is a serious actor, known most recently as Frank Underwood in the very good "House of Cards" series.  He did a good Richard III on Broadway in 2012, and he also ran the Old Vic theater in London for several years in the aughts.

So why are these two heavyweights promoting E*Trade, the online company that enables day-trading, a fad that ran its course years ago?

Remember, this is the company that was known previously for talking-baby ads; that campaign was very cute and designed to appeal directly to customers -- if this baby can buy stock with an iphone, so can you!

The baby ads were very popular for years, but I think they jumped the shark with the one that was broadcast during the 2013 Super Bowl.  (It is below; see if you don't agree with me.)

Maybe E*Trade hired the two heavyweights to make itself look like a serious, relevant company.  I don't see what's in it for the actors, though.

Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston

There are a couple of Middle-East-based airlines that are trying to break into, or perhaps establish, the super-luxury air travel market.  Both are using prominent actresses to sell their amenity packages to rich travelers.

In the first case, Oscar winner ("The Hours") Nicole Kidman promoted glamorous Etihad Airways jets.  Etihad, based in Abu Dhabi, has a broad international route map.  Kidman's ads showed her relaxing in its jets' first-class "apartments" and "suites."

Then came Jennifer Aniston (star of the long-running "Friends" show) to promote Emirates, the Dubai airline that is aggressively seeking slots and code-share partners worldwide.  Aniston's ad, like Kidman's, promotes the ultimate first-class experience -- in-flight showers, big rooms, etc.

I don't understand why these airlines think such advertising is a good idea.   I know, I know, the actresses are attractive, sophisticated women, and maybe the typical super-high-end flyer is a guy who likes to think he will meet others like them in the bar on such a flight.

But still.  Very few television viewers can or will pay many thousands of dollars for staterooms on commercial jets.  (It would be much cheaper to reach the rich with personalized mailings and little tchotchke gifts of classy-looking  pens or business card cases.)  And, in an election year when much of the talk is about the evil rich, such ads are unlikely to impress the larger audience of lumpen proles who fly in crowded discomfort at the back of the plane.

Etihad and Emirates -- and now their star spokeswomen -- also have earned the enmity of unions that represent U.S. airline employees.  These groups actively oppose making more landing slots available at domestic airports to non-union airlines from other countries.

It's hard to see how watching actresses enjoying luxury flights will change minds, let alone sell tickets.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Other Shows at the Super Bowl

The Superbowl sometimes seems like a medium-sized sporting event set in the middle of an ocean of television commercials.  Certainly the Madison Avenue gang takes this game very seriously.  This year, as usual, there were many innovations.

Singing sheep bleated out the Queen song, "Somebody to Love," to encourage us to buy Hondas.

Alec Baldwin, Dan Marino and Missy Elliott promoted a new cloud-based music service for Amazon.

Arnold Schwarzenegger led an action scene for a new video game.  The Coca Cola Company recruited Marvel Comics stars The Incredible Hulk and Ant-Man to sell little cans of soda.

There was even a commercial for a prescription drug that treats Opioid-Induced Constipation, which may say more than we want to know about the current level of painkiller use these days.

Here are a couple Super Bowl ad campaigns that struck me funny, and a note on the halftime show.


The world's second biggest brewer always purchases lots of air time on the Super Bowl broadcast.  As usual, its Budweiser team of Clydesdale horse put in an appearance, among others.

Early in the game,  Anheuser-Busch aired a Bud Light Party ad starring Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen -- "I've seen the light, and there's a Bud in front of it!"

Then came a non-celeb Michelob Ultra commercial suggesting that MU is the preferred nectar of sweaty, panting athletes everywhere.

Toward the end of the game, also from Budweiser, came a somber Helen Mirror sitting with alone with a burger basket and a beer  -- like that happens a lot -- telling people not to drive drunk.  "Don't be a pillock," she concluded.  ("Pillock" is English for stupid,  by the way, somewhat akin to recent years' version of "wanker.")

Taken together, the three were a little nutty:  Drink this, drink that and don't drink too much.  Not inappropriate, of course; brewers don't want drunk drivers to give their products a bad name, and drunk driving is a serious problem.

But you have to wonder whether beer-drinking Super Bowl fans will take to heart a moderation message from a woman who looks one of their mothers  They likely have heard this advice from their own mothers already.


Stephen Tyler, now 65 years old and with a net worth of more than $130 million, promoted Skittles candies in a commercial that featured a singing Skittles portrait of himself, complete with a caricature of his pouty lips mouthing the Aerosmith anthem, "Dream On."

Skittles, I thought.  Really?  Isn't that a children's candy?

Then I did a little research.  Turns out Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks is a big Skittles eater, has been since childhood.  Turns out kids aren't the target Skittles demo after all.
An outfit called InfoScout offers this market analysis:

        Skittles & Starburst is preferred by very high-income consumers and African Americans
        who tend to be upper middle age. Shopping trips containing Skittles & Starburst products
        are more likely to be a part of larger pantry stocking trips and contain other brands like
        Frito-Lay, Hershey's, and Kit Kat.

So Skittles are right in Tyler's demographic.  I learn something new every day.

Halftime Show

The Super Bowl organizers really should consider eliminating the halftime show.  There are few if any musical stars prominent enough to appear, and, worse, the small scale of individual performers is always overwhelmed by the size of the venue, which this year seated 75,000 people.

This year's show included two acts for double the fun.  One was Chris Martin and his band, Coldplay. Martin, in a knit shirt and long pants, sang upbeat songs that could not be heard and jumped around the stage a lot.

The other was Beyonce, the self-described feminist in tasteful black leather with what looked like a couple of cross-body bandoliers, fishnet stockings, black boots and a black garter. Bey -- who does Whatever She Wants -- paid homage to the Black Panthers,  the Black Lives Matter movement and Malcom X, an interesting and complex man whose story deserves more careful attention.

The contrast made Coldplay's routine look like something aimed at the preschool set.  Maybe that was the point.  I don't know.

I think people would be just as happy to sit through more commercials or, if that cannot be done, maybe the halftime show should be split into two segments, one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans with both parties coming together at the end to perform a Kumbaya number.  The presidential debates seem to be drawing good audiences, and we certainly could use a little less political animus.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

To Have a Fine Hand

The signature below is probably the most famous in the history of our country.  It is that of the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, a prominent and wealthy Massachusetts patriot.  John Hancock also possessed what used to be called a "fine hand."

The look of this signature was so emblematic that an American insurance company adopted his name and signature as its logo in 1862, presumably because it suggested steadiness and good citizenship.

For many generations and well into the 20th Century, when the moment came to write one's name on a legal document, the request was "Please put your John Hancock here."

(Nowadays we are not asked to sign so often, but rather to state our birth dates and recite our "socials.")

Handwriting in History

Back in the day, it was important to have legible handwriting.  Yes, documents and newspapers and books were set in type for printing and distribution, but the writers did not do the typesetting.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence out longhand, signed his name thus:

George Washington's signature also was recognizable.

Fine novelists also turned out handwritten scripts.  Here are a few of their renderings of their names, all perfectly readable.


It has always been important for artists to have recognizable signatures, given the occasional
incidents of false provenance in the art game.    Here are a few:

Signatures Today

Even the luminaries who converted us all from hot type to computer printing seemed to know their handwriting.  A couple examples:  

But, over time, the fine hand seems to become less fine.  Below is what appears to be a signature of Mark Zuckerberg, a younger billionaire.


 I do not know whether this is good or bad, but it does seem to be a trend.

Current Leaders

I would say that our current president has a good hand.

Personally, I prefer not to examine all our politicians' signatures.  This is an election year, and it is going to be a long enough one for us as it is.  

But I will raise the following point:  What about our currency?


I do not know believe the signature of our first Treasury Secretary was on our continental currency.  That estimable fellow, Alexander Hamilton, had a fine hand, like others of his group.  Here is a quite readable fragment I found online.

If my research is correct, and I believe it is, American currency did not carry the signature of the U.S. secretary of the treasury until late in the 1860s.

Here is a signature from our current Secretary of the Treasury,  Jacob (Jack) Lew:

I have looked online and found other purported Lew signatures, including the one below.

Interestingly, this same signature has been attributed to Johnny Depp, the actor who played Jack Sparrow in the Caribbean Pirates movies.

Certainly Mr. Lew, whatever his attributes, cannot be said to have a "fine hand." Perhaps neither can Mr. Depp, and it behooves us all to be skeptical of "information" posted on the interwebs.

But how are we to tell which is which?

It would not be amiss for us to check our wallets (as I will soon) and for the Department of the Treasury might want to look into the matter.


Perhaps there is something to be said for a having a fine hand, after all.