Wednesday, April 21, 2010

And now for something completely nerdy.

I'm almost embarrassed to have written this, to say nothing of posting it. But it's something that's nagged at me for a long time now.

If you're like me, you grew up loving the Star Wars trilogy. Whether these were brilliant movies or merely clever bits of candy that came along at just the right time for people of a certain age, is beside the point. Certainly they've had more sheer sticking power in most of our minds than, say, Gremlins or The Last Starfighter. Having to wait for three years to find out what happens to Han Solo, and speculating as to whether Darth Vader was really Luke's father and who was "the other one" that Yoda mentioned, were defining elements of my later childhood.

For better or worse, Star Wars was really important to a lot of people, myself included. Which is why it was such a bitter disappointment when the long-awaited second trilogy opened in 1999 with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I can't describe how utterly awful it was, or the sinking feeling I got as I sat through it, waiting for it to stop sucking, and realizing ten minutes from the end that it wasn't gonna happen. And--and let's get this out of the way--it wasn't just because I was an adult and seeing it through adult eyes. I've heard that before and it's a cop-out. The second trilogy in general, and The Phantom Menace in particular, is completely incoherent and unsatisfying from a story standpoint. Coming from someone who is so often trumpeted as a master of Campbellian mythic structure, it's baffling and inexcusable. It's all the more frustrating when you consider that Mr. Lucas had a filmmaker's dream setup to work with: complete creative control, bankrolling it out of his own pocket, no studio suits interfering and telling him to change stuff, a compelling and established backstory, and the dead certainty that no matter what he came up with, hundreds of millions of people would go and see it.

If the original Star Wars trilogy is characterized by childlike wonder and endless possibilities, then the second surely represents the bitter disappointment of adulthood. Take the long arc that goes from knowing in your bones that you will grow up to be Batman, to realizing you're a balding and divorced desk jockey and your best years are behind you. Compress it into two hours and that was The Phantom Menace.

Look, I don't want to wallow here. The point is this: The fact that the prequel trilogy was so badly executed kind of ruined the whole franchise for me. It used to be, I could watch the first Star Wars film--yes, even as an adult!--and hear Ben Kenobi tell the story of how Darth Vader turned evil and killed Luke's father, and feel like I was having a tantalizing glimpse into a story that had yet to be told, in an immersive universe of wonder and mystery and endless stories. Now I watch that scene and all I can think of is the utter narrative trainwreck, complete with cringeworthy dialogue, zero-dimensional characters and flat-footed pseudoscience, that is the Phantom Menace. A tale of sound, fury and CGI, signifying nothing.

So I wrote this to calm my own mind, and so I could imagine that there's a coherent backstory behind the films that I loved as a kid and still do. George Lucas couldn't tell that story so I did. If you feel like me, you might enjoy this.

This treatment/story edit of The Phantom Menace
is intended to stick to the original story and characters, as much as possible, while making characters and motivations and events and storylines make sense. If you're an aspiring screenwriter yourself (and if you are, God help you) this might be a useful reference for how to go over a wretched, sinking mess of a tangled storyline and turning it into something that makes some kind of sense.

Patton Oswalt said, on this general subject, "I don't care where the things I love come from--I just love the things I love." To which I would add, when someone else stomps all over them, I feel perfectly justified in taking them back and fixing them.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Goldman Sachs

I am far from being an investment banking expert, and so the ins and outs of the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs are perhaps better dealt with by other bloggers. But there are a few points I could make.

Firstly, the timing of all this this reinforces my sense that the Obama administration knows what it's doing. It's not the administration that's suing GS, but they've got a banking reform bill about to go through Congress and Obama has underlined the need to regulate derivatives trading, going so far as to say he'll veto any bill that doesn't include it. For the past year a lot of people have been complaining that the government isn't moving fast enough to get to the bottom of all kinds of iffy transactions with GS at the center. That inaction, combined with the presence of a lot of GS alumni in high places in the administration, contribute to the notion that the government is in bed with the banksters who crashed the economy.

Obama knows he can't fight a two-front war. The first year, he concentrated on health care reform and as soon as that's nailed down, the government moved against shenanigans in the financial industry. You can take on the health insurance industry or Wall Street, but try to do both at once and you'll get pulverized. I don't know if the SEC and the administration have coordinated the timing of their respective moves but it works out well this way.

Going into the midterm elections, the moves against Goldman Sachs will help to defuse the populist anger that Republicans have tended to mobilize in their favour. It's hard to criticize the current government as being in bed with big business when (a) it was your party that had near-total control of all three branches of government for most of the past eight years while the crisis was brewing and, in particular, failed to take serious action in the wake of Enron and Worldcom, and (b) your party is now obstructing the administration's attempt to crack down on securities fraud. There is some nonsense even Limbaugh listeners won't fall for.

That's the first thing. The second thing is that this initial move is a civil suit, not a criminal prosecution. Some may see that as a half-assed compromise, i.e. if successful, GS will get a slap on the wrist and no one will do any jail time. But as I understand it, criminal charges are much harder to prove than civil damages. The real effect of a civil suit is to get some relatively senior people on the stand and make them answer questions under oath--where, if they lie, they'd be subject to serious criminal charges on that basis alone.

So I think the civil suit is just a prelude to criminal charges down the road.

Which brings me to my third point. In the Yahoo News article on the GS charges, the following line jumps out at me:

"'The fact that the only individual charged here [Fabrice Tourre, creator of the allegedly fraudulent securities], after what was presumably a very thorough investigation, was a vice president rather than a managing director or higher, is relatively reassuring news for Goldman,' said Bank of America-Merrill Lynch research analyst Guy Moszkowski."

Thing is, whenever you move against some big organization, it's pretty standard to first aim at someone just below the guys at the top. That way you get someone who is in a position to give evidence on the real bad guys' involvement, in exchange for some degree of clemency or immunity. If I were Fabrice Tourre, and assuming the charges are ultimately proven, I would consider myself very lucky: it's the guy who gets targeted in the initial crackdown who has the most opportunity to cut a deal for himself by rolling over on his bosses. Unlike the actual Mafia, there is no omerta on Wall Street.