Sunday, October 30, 2011

Superman Returns - Bryan Singer

Back in the late 70s - early 80s, Christopher Reeve starred 4 Superman movies. The first two of them were OK, and the other ones are currently used as examples of everything a director must not do in a movie set.

In 2005, Warner decided to retake the Superman saga. One year later, amid a great promoting campaign, Superman Returns started being exhibited across the World. The movie starts five years after the second of the Reeve movies. That's probably the biggest problem of this movie: trying to emulate Reeve. Reeve was a great actor, but if you ask a random movie watcher, she will likely remember him as Superman, and that's it. And the reality is that nobody has been as good as Reeve in the role of Superman / Clark Kent. Brandon Routh could only aspire to be as good as Reeve, which he is far from accomplishing: he barely speaks, he's not dumb enough when he plays Clark Kent, and he's not handsome enough. If you watch the movie carefully, the hero of the movie is Lois Lane's boyfriend, who, funnily enough, is played by the actor who represents Cyclops in the X-Men movies...

The special effects are predictable, and the movie doesn't offer enough action to attract male teenagers full of testosterone or sci-fi nerds.

The other problem is that Superman is probably dated and has probably become a niche hero. He's one of the oldest superheros and has never been reinvented. What do I mean by reinvented¿  Think about Adam West's Batman. Now think about Chris Nolan's Batman. Got it¿ Since the late 1930's, Superman has been the same: a nerd journalist who is actually the most powerful living being in Earth. Probably Superman can't be reinvented for structural reasons: any fight against humans will be tilted in his favor. DC is trying to reinvent Superman (actually, it's trying to reinvent all its superheros); let's see if they are successful.

Finally, the original Superman movies were a metaphor of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the US fighting two unpopular wars, Superman Returns is no metaphor and has no coherent message. Superman Returns is nothing else than a mirror image of a superpower that tries to recycle old ghosts while wasting the golden opportunity of creating a new World order.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

La Mano Negra: Out of Time - Plusieurs Réalisateurs

La Mano Negra a marqué la fin des années 80 et le début des années 90 en France. Leurs concerts en banlieue, leurs positions politiques, et -avouons-le- leurs lettres en Anglais, ont bouleversé la scène musicale independante francaise, avant de faire tout de même en Amérique du Sud et au Mexique. Le DVD Out of Time reprend plus de six heures de matériel sur la Mano (dont un documentaire qui dure 92 minutes). Je n'ai pas encore vu ce matériel aux États-Unis, mail il paraît qu'il est toujours disponible en France.

L'impact de la Mano sur la musique francaise est encore plus étonnante lorsqu'on constate que la bande n'a joué comme un ensemble que pendant 5 ans, entre 1988 et 1993. La fin du groupe est venue lors de deux tournées "alternatives" en Amérique Latine: la prémière, avec Royal de Luxe, a consisté d'un voyage dans un vieux cargo dans sept pays de la région. La deuxème, qui n'a pas compté avec la présence de trois membres originaux, s'est déroulée en Colombie dans un train public, sans financement ou plan pré-établi.

Le dernier album de la Mano Negra, Casa Babylon, est assez éloigné des productions précédentes de la bande et trop proche du Clandestino de Manu Chao. L'enregistrement de Casa s'est étendu pendant 2 années, avec pas mal d'invités spéciaux et des départs des membres originaux du groupe. Il y en a qui considèrent Casa comme le prémier album solo de Manu Chao.

Lors de la fin du groupe, seul Manu Chao a continué à avoir du succès mondial, tandis que les autres membres du groupe sont toujours connus et reconnus dans la scène indie francaise. . Il n'est pas difficile à comprendre pourquoi: Manu Chao a été celui qui a envisagé les deux tournées qui ont accablé à la bande; les autres membres du groupe, tous des garcons issus des banlieues, n'avaient pas le baggage cultural pour comprendre et profiter des experiences alternatives: ils étaient faits pour devenir des rock stars, pas anthropologues. Il était quand même normal qu'ils en avaient marre des voyages sans air conditionné dans des endroits sauvages. Avec les références culturelles dans ses enregistrements, et son accent de francais qui a appris l'espagnol en Amérique Latine, on peut dire que Manu Chao est l'un des européens qui ont compris le mieux à l'Amérique Latine -et en ont profité le plus du point de vue commerciel....

Aujourd'hui, personne ne parle d'une rencontre de la Mano. Les rencontres, ca c'est pour les bandes Anglo-Saxonnes...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Understanding the Process of Economic Change - Douglass C. North

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Kant's perpetual peace and institutionalism in International Relations -institutions understood as "the formal and informal set of rules accepted by States", per Robert O. Keohane. One of the topics I was interested in was institutional change, specifically how do institutions change in the international arena? What kind of process made the belief in sovereignty as an unalienable right to give place to responsibility to protect, just to mention one example

I eventually found that international institutionalism did not offer an answer to this kind of questions, which are very basic when you think about it (I ignore if IR theory has evolved on this matter since I finished my thesis*). As I advanced on my thesis, I also discovered that IR does not really produce any theoretical work: in the best case scenario, it adapts the work done by "serious" social sciences to international affairs. Realism is nothing else but an adaptation of Hobbes; Robert Jervis does nothing else but mixing Freud with Hello!. Likewise, IR institutionalism does nothing else but taking the Douglass C. North's New Institutional Economics and use it as an analytical framework.

In order to finish my thesis, I thought it might be a good idea to look at North's work for answers on institutional change. That was to no avail. North considered institutions to be efficient, hence unchangeable. The fact that North, the father of New Institutional Economics hadn't thought about institution change came as a surprise. I later thought that, since IR theory scholars only copy what other disciplines do, I should have hinted that, since they had not copied any argument on how institutions change, such an argument did not exist.

Eventually, I changed the focus of my thesis and finished it. I also moved into economics, where I have found North more often than not; after all, the man is a Nobel Prize on Economics (his autobiography here, and his Nobel speech here). I have recently discovered his book Understanding the Process of Economic Change, where he deals with the issue of institutional change in economics (the book was published in 2005, so IR scholars have probably heard about it by now). North does mention how institutions change initially, but he later acknowledges that, since institutions are dynamic -and hence endogenous- it is not possible to come up with a general theory of institutional change. An extensive knowledge about culture, and the institutional matrix of a society are conditions sufficient but not necessary to understand its institutions and how they can change or improve.

North is a Marxist.** Hence, he believes in political economy, does not take rationality for granted, and attaches a great weight to power relations within societies. This is probably the right way to see life; the problem is that reality becomes too complex to be analyzed and to come up with policy conclusions or recommendations. I guess that the lesson of this book is that policymakers need humility and not to rely extensively on their neoclassical economics knowledge.

And IR theory should disappear as a discipline.

*To be completely fair, constructivists did offer an answer, but it was, like the entire constructivist argument, insufficient and tautological: since international relations are what states want it to be, institutions change because states want them to change. Constructivism is also, by and large, unintelligible.

**From a theoretical perspective. Don't forget that Marxism can be seen as an ideology, an analytical framework, and an economic theory at the same time.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mañana Forever? - Jorge Castañeda

"Few countries have devoted so much time and energy as Mexico to dissecting and debating, to hailing or regretting their 'national character' "
-Jorge G. Castañeda

Every 20 - 25 years, some Mexican intellectual (or some immigrant who falls in love with the country) publishes a book trying to explain what is the essence of Mexicans and Mexico. A friend says that this interest for Mexico's soul derives from the fact that Mexico is a nation with a manifesto -unknown to everybody so far. I say that this passion for Mexico's character is due to the fact that Mexicans are full of themselves. 

In any case, what happens with these books is the following: that book is hyper-publicized and sold, and it usually ends up shaping the vision on Mexico of the generation next to the intellectual's. That's what happened with El Laberinto de la Soledad by Octavio Paz in the 50s, and with Roger Bartra's La Jaula de la Melancolía in the 80s, just to mention the two most recent examples.

Jorge Castañeda, author of a biography of Ché Guevara hated by the Cuban government, author of a book on Mexico's presidential succession process during the PRI regime, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and current member of the board of Human Rights Watch, has recently authored a book that tries to explain the main cultural traits of Mexico and how they shape the country's development and modernization. (he has also dated this, this, and this lady)

However, contrary to Paz and Bartra, Castañeda is unlikely to shape the vision of the current students of Mexico's soul. On the one hand, Castañeda is highly unpopular within the center-to-the-left academic community, which is the ideological allegiance of most Mexicanologues. Part of it is because as a minister of foreign affairs, he was seen as too pro-American for Mexican political correctness. Part of it is also that he is too arrogant for Mexico. When asked whether he would like to run for president, he answered "sí, pero me da hueva; es que me encabrona que me toque la gente", which can be loosely translated as "yes, but I would get sick of it, because I get fucking upset when people touch me."

But the most important reason why Castañeda will not shape the generation-in-making of Mexicanologues is because Mañana Forever? was not designed for the Mexican market but for the US consumer, who actually buys books. Mañana Forever? ranked as number 1 in Amazon's foreign affairs list for around 3 weeks. This should be seen as a sign by people in Mexico who complain that the US public does not care about Mexico; it does, but not in the way Mexicans would like. 

In fairness, Castañeda issued the book in Spanish too, but it contains so many American cultural references, and is written in a style deemed as "informal" in Mexico's academic circles, that its failure is almost assured. In addition, there are countless blogs and books about Mexico written by Mexicans in the way Mexicans like, that this is not such a tragedy. In the past, "Mexicanologues" have mainly talked to Mexicans (Mexico is a country that loves to speak with its navel), so the mere fact that Castañeda is mainly addressing a non-Mexican public, explaining them how the country works, the differences and nuances within the regions, and how the country has changed in the last 25 years, is perhaps the biggest contribution of this book. 

Castañeda's argument is very straightforward: he describes what the previous "Mexicanologues" thought about the Mexican character, matches their arguments with recent data, describes how Mexico has reluctantly and slowly become a middle-class country, and mentions how the Mexicans' character is a drag on the modernization process. All of this is done with passion, sadness, admiration, love, and sometimes frustration. 

In his conclusions, Castañeda says that the agent of change is Mexican women in the United States. According to Castañeda, There is anecdotic and empirical evidence that Mexicans who migrate to the United States change their mores and become "more American than Americans," meaning that they are law-abiding. According to Castañeda, Mexican women also become more liberated and modernized than their peers in Mexico and male immigrants in the United States. Migrant women are, according to Castañeda, living a process similar to Western women after WWII: liberation, full integration in the workforce, etc. Following this logic, modern women will induce modernization in their peers back in Mexico and male migrants in the United States.

This is the least solid part of the book and the saddest one, at the same time. There is nothing that allows to conclude that Mexican men in the US will follow women in the US other than Castañeda's wishful thinking. Considering that most immigrants in the US stay for good, thinking that this will influence people back in Mexico (through twitter or visits every 2 or 3 years...) looks more like a long shot than anything else.

But at the same time, poor Castañeda. He's a guy who has been involved in politics and academia in Mexico for more than thirty years, who has seen how all the projects to accelerate Mexico's modernization, from institutional reform to economic liberalization, passing through the creation of intellectual and civil society groups, have fallen apart. He now teaches in NYU. When he's asked if he'd be interested in running for president again, he says that he has a very good life there... I guess that the immigrant women thing was something he had to come up with when he realized that everything else had failed.

In any case, this is an ideal book for non-Mexicans interested in having a modern and succinct introduction to Mexico.

The video below is an interview to Castañeda about the book (in Spanish). If you go to the youtube site, you will be able to see how much Mexicans dislike him.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Soft Parade - The Doors

What was that promise that you made?

The Soft Parade is The Doorsfourth studio album. It was received with harsh critiques. The album was pretty much written in the studio in its entirety, and was very experimental: "Runnin' Blue" breaks into barndance bluegrass in the chorus, "Touch Me" includes horns and strings.

But the problem with the album was not that it was experimental. The problem with The Soft Parade is that it showed the first signs of breakup. In the previous three albums, the songs are credited collectively, while the songs in The Soft Parade are credited to Morrison and Krieger (four singles were taken from The Soft Parade, all of them written by Krieger). And in fact, The Soft Parade sounds like two completely different albums, with intertwined songs. The songs written by Morrison reflect his search for his inner soul and basic instincts -also his problems with alcohol: "Shaman's Blues", "Easy Ride", and "Wild Child" are valuable thanks to the lyrics. Krieger's songs are more Beatles - like (which is probably why they were issued as singles).

I don't think any of the songs are that great, but the band recorded "Push Push" at the same time. That is the appropriate song to close this post:

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Strategy for Development - Nicholas Stern

After joining the World Bank as Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President, Nicholas Stern published A Strategy for Development, which deploys the vision of the World Bank during the last decade.

Development and development assistance have been perceived in different ways since World War II. Originally, it was thought that creating infrastructure would be enough to unchain the economic forces of developing countries: a bridge over there, and a dam in the next river, would be enough to bring prosperity and higher standards of living across the World. The problem with that was that developing countries contracted tremendous amounts of debt (with the World Bank, obviously) and eventually went bankrupt (the World Bank obviously refinanced their loans). In the 1980s, the focus of development moved from the microfoundations of a sound infrastructure to the macroeconomics: discipline in fiscal and monetary policy, in addition to an open capital account, would tame inflation, attract foreign investment, and would allow mrkets to clear, creating employment. The problem with that was that austerity was not popular within the population, and that developing countries did not have the technical skills or the political weight to survey capital account movements.

At the end of the XXth century, it became evident that a combination of a state that could address market failures with somewhat efficient markets would alleviate poverty across the World.  Creating the legal and economic infrastructure that would avoid the excesses of the sixties and crowd in the private sector became the priority of the development community. Terms like "governance" or "smart state" became common places and attractive funding projects in Washington. Two natural experiments were hailed as examples of what the right mix of state and markets could achieve in terms of poverty reduction: India and China, both of which did more to alleviate poverty and inequality than the rest of the World during the eighties and nineties, most of the time disregarding the policy advice of the World Bank.

A Strategy for Development is an argument in favor of having a strong and smart state that could create the conditions for business development. There were two problems with this argument: the first is conceptual: having a smart state sounds great and of course it would help enormously to alleviate poverty. The problem is that having a state that avoids capture, cronyism, and delivers infrastructure, and provides rule of law at the same time, is a characteristic of a developed country. A country does not become developed by creating a smart state; in fact, a country has a smart state because it is developed. The classical egg and chicken problem, or to put it in economic terms, the causality determination problem.

The second problem is probably more important in practical terms. Stern has a blind faith on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as engine of growh. The problem with the argument is that it rests on the premise that small is beautiful. That is wrong. SMEs have a structure of costs that make them inefficient and not prone to innovation. SMEs are important as long as they are allowed to grow and, eventually, become huge conglomerates that trade in the stock markets.

The World Bank is now in the middle of an intellectual crossroads: we have liberalized trade and the capital account, and the problem of poverty is still prevalent (we could liberalize migration, but rich countries do not like that idea). In addition, it is becoming evident that governance sounds fantastic as a concept (I mean, once you define it), but getting good governance is the final part of the development process, not the first one.

Now that everyone likes to be alternative, some Bank economists actually play with some ideas that used to be anathema until recently: maybe property rights actually hinder industrial development in developing countries; probably natural resources conservation is great for tourists from developed countries, but people in the field would actually benefit from harvesting corn or commercial crops. Governance might be great, but rich countries had terrible governance until after World War II: the political process of the United States was co-opted by corporations most of the first half of the XXth century; London was an awful place to live in the XIXth century, just like Ciudad Juárez or Islamabad today. Getting governance right might actually take some centuries and needs to be a bottom-up process...

By the time Nicholas Stern left the World Bank, the institution created a set of indicators dedicated to evaluate governance and ease of doing business. The governance indicators used to be the flagship of the World Bank, but are now forgotten and underfunded for political reasons (basically, African countries do not like to be in the last places). The doing business indicators are loved by governments of developing countries, which use these metrics as an excuse to promote vested interest of the corporate sector.

Nicholas Stern eventually authored a famous report on climate change.

Sic transit....

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Babylonia en Guagua - Manu Chao

Babylonia en Guagua présente quelques chansons interpretées par Manu Chao en Septembre 2001 à Paris. Ce DVD est la version courte de l'album Radio Bemba Sound System. L'édition de Babylonia en Guagua est très mauvaise: les coupages entre les chansons sont très évidents et la qualité de l'image n'est pas très bonne.

La valeur ajoutée du DVD sur l'album, si il en a une, c'est les behind the scenes et les tournages à Gênes lors du sommet du G-8 en 2001, où l'on peut voir comment les jeunes était pour un Monde plus ouvert, sans discrimination, et sans frontìeres. Rien à voir avec les "indignados" et les "Occupy Wall Street", ou, encore pire, avec les émeuttes à Paris en 2005 et Londres en 2011: les uns veulent une retraite assurée par l'état et le retour à une utopie idyllique; les autres veulent piquer l'Ipod de leurs vosins.

Même Manu Chao a changé: il ne faut que comparer Radio Bemba Sound System avec Baïonarena...

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote

"For all here chic thinness, she had almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday."
-Truman Capote

Nobody knows for sure how much of a disguised autobiography Breakfast at Tiffany's really is. Half of the women that Truman Capote knew claim that Holly Golightly is based upon them. What we certainly know is that Miss Golightly embodied the aspirations of American women. It is not hard to track the pretentiousness of Lady Gaga to the lightness and carelessness of Holly.

Holly Golightly is like a modern Madame Bovary: both of them are naïve women who think that they are liberated when, in fact, they are nothing but pieces of exchange in the males' games of honor. The only difference between them is that Holly succeeded -that's why she's not considered a whore.

The humor and mood of Breakfast at Tiffany's turned out to be the basis of modern TV series. Back in the 1940's it was almost impossible to see the word lesbian published in any book, or even said in any city outside NewYork. Today we at least can watch a show called The L-Word.

There's a Hollywood version of Breakfast at Tiffany's. I still have to see it, but I'm sure that it's a decaffeinated version of Capote's book. That's Hollywood's specialty.

You can find a preview of the book here, via Google Books.

And below is Capote himself reading an excerpt of the book: 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Joaquín Sabina y Viceversa en Directo - Joaquín Sabina

"Mola más tu Madrid que el Aranjuez de Rodrigo"
- Joaquín Sabína, "Aprendiz de pintor"

Este album / video fue el que catapultó la carrera de Joaquín Sabina de los bares madrileños a los teatros de toda España y, después, al continente americano. Las canciones son tan viejas que probablemente muchos de los fans de Sabina menores de 30 años no hayan oído hablar de ellas. El video contiene sólo dos canciones que Sabina canta regularmente en la actualidad: "Princesa" y "Calle Melancolía" (con Luis Eduardo Aute en los coros). Como observarán los que vean los links, la forma en que Sabina interpreta estos temas ha variado considerablemente: "Princesa" se ha convertido en la canción de despecho que originalmente pretendió ser, y "Calle Melancolía" finalmente suena como una canción triste. Quitarle protagonismo a los malditos teclados ochenteros sin duda ha contribuido a la mejora de estos temas.

Además de temas que están en el baúl de los recuerdos, en esta producción vemos a un Sabina con voz, capaz de llegar a notas altas. La corista es sólo eso, y no ocupa un papel protagónico como lo hizo en su momento Olga Román. La única balada es "Pongamos que hablo de Joaquín", tema interpretado por Aute; el resto de las canciones pueden ser catalogadas como pop-rock, o de plano rock. Veinticinco años no pasan en vano. 

Tampoco pasan en vano para Madrid ni para la sociedad Española. El video y las letras de las canciones son un retrato del Madrid de La Movida, esa bocanada de aire fresco que tomó una sociedad asfixiada por 40 años de franquismo. En la movida hubo de todo, además de drogas: oficinistas que salen del clóset, bigotes, ropas moradas que ya nadie, ni siquiera ese refrito de los 80 llamado Lady Gaga, usa, y, sobre todo, luces de neón, esa cosa tan ochentera.

Joaquín Sabina y Viceversa valen la pena tanto musical como históricamente. La mayoría de las canciones del video están disponibles en youtube.