Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tweedledum & Tweedledee

Obama blew it.

I agree with Robert Dreyfuss who wrote in The Nation online about the debate yesterday morning (Bangkok time) that "Obama's performance was nothing short of pathetic, and only Democratic-leaning analysts and voters with blinders on could suggest that Obama won the debate. More important, he utterly blew a chance to draw a stark contrast with John McCain on America's approach to the world."

How many times did the Democrat say "Senator McCain is right" and "I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues"? Is this an attempt to pander to the centrists, those few remaining moderate Republicans? Dreyfuss' colleague at The Nation, John Nichols, thought that both men "offered indications that they buy into much of the current consensus in Washington with regard to foreign policy -- a consensus that agrees on bloated defense budgets and over-the-top rhetoric especially with regard to the conflict between Israel and Palestine." Much of the time Obama sounded like a hawk, agreeing with McCain that Russia and Iran are bad, that Israel is our "stalwart ally" (according to Obama), finding common ground on torture (despite McCain's approval of waterboarding), and each echoing that we should move our troops from Iraq (is the "Surge" really winning, Obama?) into Afghanistan, and, if need be, into Pakistan over their objections (Obama is the more hawkish on this). Sure, McCain came across as a grump, and he repeatedly accused his opponent of being naïve on the issues that his experience as a POW and a senator for 28 years somehow qualified him to be an expert. “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand” and “What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand” and “Senator Obama still doesn’t understand.” Through it all, Obama was cool, too cool. He reminded me of the glacial Adlai Stevenson, who was so smart and reasonable that he lost twice to the the the warrior Dwight Eisenhower (and McCain, you're no Ike) in 1952 1n 1956.

In the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote that McCain "came across as condescending and even rude to his opponent, a bit of bad behavior especially evident because Obama may have overdone the fair-minded bit in many of his remarks and answers." Shales noted that the Republican had threatened not to show up for the debate when needed for his Kodak moment in Washington, a bit of grandstanding apparent to all but the most dim-witted. And when the encounter finally got underway, McCain found it difficult to look at Obama even though Lehr encouraged the two to dialogue on the questions he asked. On the Democrat's coolness and politeness to his opponent after McCain had dissed him for being naïve, Shales wrote that "Obama supporters must have been displeased, then, to hear their candidate keep agreeing with McCain, a case perhaps of sportsmanlike conduct run amok. Doesn't Obama want to win?"

"Over all, Mr. McCain was more charming and more colloquial" wrote Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times, but when he disagreed with Mr. Obama, "he had a scolding tone. He seemed almost piqued that he had to share the stage with a man who had been in the Senate only four years." On the other side of the stage, Obama was "not particularly warm or amusing; at times he was stiff and almost pedantic," according to Stanley. He was "calm, still, poised and more businesslike than personable. He was trying to be like John Kennedy talking about the space race, but he often sounded like a technocrat." His best comeback to McCain was when he reminded the elder statesman that when the Iraq war started in 2003, “you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni, and you were wrong.” McCain's most interesting point was his factoid that "the average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean." Huh?

In the beginning, Jim Lehr tried to get the candidates to talk about the huge Wall Street bailout, but neither was willing to commit himself, or suggest changes in the Paulson scheme under intense negotiation in Washington today. Obama failed to convincingly lay the economic crisis at McCain's door where it belongs. Why can't the Democrats easily make the case that America has been heading towards economic disaster since the Reagan "revolution" which McCain so blindingly supports? But when Lehr switched from the economy to foreign policy, the ostensible topic of the first debate, Obama did not condemn the "Bush Doctrine" which McCain supports (and Palin can't define). They seemed embarrasingly close on U.S. objectives in the Middle East. Dreyfuss in The Nation asked, "What about casting the principle challenge of foreign policy in terms of hunger, disease, lack of housing and access to clean water, that plagues the Third World and drives desperate people to violence?" From this perspective, the world's major problem is not terrorism but inequality.

I rushed from watching the disappointing debate to a morning screening of Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" on the fourth day of the Bangkok International Film Festival at Central World's SF Cinema City multiplex. It's the festival's sixth year and over 100 films from all over the world are being shown. I couldn't pass it up. On the first day I sat through about an hour of Guy Maddin's experimental "My Winnepeg" (partly because that's where my mother was born) before walking out. While I appreciated his 2003 film, "The Saddest Music in the World," this b/w autobiographical mess put me to sleep. The next day I managed to stay awake during "Autumn" by Turkish director Ozcan Alper, about the slow adjustment of a man released from prison after nine years for a political crime, but mostly because of the gorgeous photography of the mountainous terrain along the border with Georgia. After skipping a day, I spent Friday at the movies, beginning with "Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers," an intimately moving documentary of Cambodian prostitutes by Rithy Panh, a 44-year-old filmaker who escaped from the Khmer Rouge (his whole family died in a labor camp) to Paris where he has made several acclaimed documentaries about his country. After lunch I saw "Alice in the Land (Alicia en el Pais)," a debut flm by Chilean director Estaban Larraín which recreates the 180-kilometer journey of a 13-year-old Quechua girl from her village in Bolivia to a tourist town in the north of Chile where she wanted to find work. There was almost no dialogue and the scenes of incredible desolation almost put me to sleep until I found the film's spiritual rhythm and basked in its beauty. In a Q&A session afterward, the director explained that indigenous people in the region have been making such long journeys for generations, a practice inscribed in their culture, but it also indicates the drastic measures that must be taken by the poor to survive. My final film of the day was "Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale)," a delightful French variation of "home for the holidays" featuring a deliciously dysfunctional family headed by matriarch Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin, the film has a terrific cast and showcases the irrepressible Mathieu Amalric as Deneuve's mad son Henri. I loved it. Allen's new film appealed mostly for the glimpses of Barcelona, one of my favorite cities, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a generous selection of scenes filmed in view of Antonio Gaudi's imaginative architecture. The story was a bit silly (two tourists in love with an exceptionally charming Javier Bardam), but I particularly liked the crazy ex-wife played by Penelope Cruz pulling out all the stops. I'm taking a rest today, but intend to see a few more films before the festival ends on Tuesday.

From the film festival, with a sidetrip for a lunch of sushi at Fuji in MBK, I continued on to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center across the street to see the new venue's first major international exhibition, "Traces of Siamese Smile: Art+Faith+Politics+Love," with over 300 works in a variety of media on four of the new buildings floors. The curator described the exhibit as "controlled chaos," but the space is so large that it was never claustrophobic, including the video installations behind black curtains. I particularly liked a large sculpture in porcelin that turned Big Macs and Pepsis into religious and cultural icons. There was a small house filled with cartoons and a pond with real fish, and everywhere were various small sculptures on the floor of primarily faces and pets. Some of the smiles represented were not at all what the tourist agency must have had in mind when it co-sponsored the show, for they were more fearsome than friendly. The art centre remains mostly empty but it is beginning to draw Thais as well as tourists and I have no doubt that it will evolve into a major anchor for the Bangkok art scene.

One morning a week ago I got up early to watch the 60th annual Emmy awards from Los Angeles and was pleased to see my favorite, "Mad Men," take the Outstanding Best Drama prize. "In Treatment" is another show I've grown to love (suggested by Dr. Holly), and Dianne Wiest won for her supporting actress role of a psychologist. Unfortunately Gabriel Byrne missed the lead actor nod for his equally fine performance in the same excellent drama. Glynn Turman deservedly won a guest actor Emmy for his riveting portrayal of a father mourning his son, a suicide victim, in the same show. "Weeds" missed the awards for which it was in contention. Because they were big winners, I've downloaded "Recount" and "John Adams," two highly acclaimed specials that won Emmys. I continue to gather American TV shows that I can watch at my leisure, like "The Office," now in its 5th season, and the quirky "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." I'm trying to like "30 Rock" as much as its fans, but I think it's an acquired taste. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin won for their roles in that show. The awards show itself was a bit of a bust, particularly the five reality show hosts who supposedly were co-hosts. But I did like the confrontation between Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell, competing stars of the British and American versions of "The Office." I loved seeing Tommy Smothers finally get an award for his politically contentious 60s show, and Tommy is still having the last (funny) political word. Have I mentioned that I saw Tommy and Dick entertain at a Berkeley fraternity party when they were first starting out in their career?

If you've hung in with this blog post until the end, you probably want to know about what's happening with Pim and I. Well, she's still here. Not that we've abandoned plans to separate. It's just taking a while. She says she can't rent a room until the end of the month, which would be in a couple of days. Pim neatly packed her possessions into boxes she brought from the Post Office. I had put everything in bags and it was a bit messy. It still takes up a large portion of my small living room. I see more of her now that we're separating than I did when we were supposedly boyfriend-girlfriend. She cooks dinner for me, does the laundry and irons my shirts, and cleans the bathroom.

Last night we talked about what it means to "lose face." It seems to be a combination of embarrassment and shame brought on by going against the expectations of society, family and friends. I said it wasn't common in America where people are socialized to go it alone, ignoring for the most part the feelings of others and the rules of culture. Pim said a girl who got pregnant outside of marriage would lose face big time. We are separating because she believes she would lose face if her friends found out she were living with an old farang. I find it difficult to believe that love cannot transcend such limitations. Approval for Pim will mean a much harder life. The other day she said she could not ask me to take her back, after I had said I would not, because she would lose face. Thais do not risk asking for anything unless they are certain they will get it. I've seen this in other circumstances. But I did not argue the point with Pim because I don't want to make her decision any more painful than it is for both of us.

And, finally, R.I.P. Paul Newman. Other than early TV shows, I remember seeing you for the first time in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," the story of boxer Rocky Graziano, in 1956, watching from the balcony of the Crown Theater in Pasadena. You were Butch Cassidy, a couple of Tennessee Williams' studs, Henry in "The Sting," Eddie Felson in "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money," Hud and Cool Hand Luke.
Your acting brought me many hours of pleasure and insight, and your example of leading a life of integrity has been a great light to us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Take it easy - remember that BO has to tread a fine line against appearing as "angry black guy".

I thought he blew it too till I saw the polling results showing most of America thought he did better than I did. When the topic of debate is really "Is BO fit to be commander in chief?" I think his tactic of appearing unflappable and on top of the issues served him well in the end.

Tracking polls continue to go in our direction - we may just win this thing after all....