*Songs from the Second Floor*: Occupy Stockholm

I recommend this film (from 2000) which I somehow completely missed until now; had never heard about it and the name of the director rang no bells.   Roy Andersson’s first film, A Swedish Love Story, was a hit & won several prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in 1970.   Subsequently his second movie was less successful and he spent the next 25 years as a successful director of commerical ads.  Songs from the Second Floor, his long-delayed third movie, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000.

The movie is difficult to describe.  Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes to mind, maybe Lars von Trier’s Zentropa (although I don’t recall that being at all funny).  It doesn’t have a plot, exactly, though does have a few central characters who inhabit what seems to be a nameless contemporary European city within a society undergoing apocalyptic collapse.  Traffic jams last for days, and businessmen stride in unison through the streets, flagellating themselves and one another in rhythm.  The government’s financial technocrats take recourse in soothsayers’ crystal balls and eventually to child sacrifice, which is presented as a thoroughly rational (albeit desperate) last recourse.

Each of the film’s scenes is a kind of stylized tableau that looks very much like a still life.  Here are a few factoids about the film’s creation (taken from this piece, which is good and includes several clips): “The film consists of 46 scenes, all rendered in static tableaux (the camera moves once), and it took about four years to produce;” “None of the scenes were scripted or storyboarded. They were constructed under Andersson’s direction, on two giant soundstages, with non-professional actors;” “Some scenes took as much as five weeks to set up and required as many as 100 takes.”

Our protagonist Palle has cheated his best friend and has burned down his own furniture store for the insurance money.  He moves through the city and the subways with his face streaked with soot from the fire.  His son is a poet who has been hospitalized for catatonic depression. Palle is followed the the ghost not only of his friend (dead of suicide) but of several others, somewhat plaintively trailing him through the city.

He now tries to get by selling crucifixes, but no one is buying.  In the final scene, a fellow salesman angrily unloads his unsold collection, throwing them on a garbage pile, asking “what made me think I could make money on a crucified loser?”  In a sense many of the film’s character can be seen as “crucified losers” within a stagnating European economy that has left them stranded and hopeless.  In an early scene, a man who has been laid off simply grasps his boss’s ankles, repeating “but I’ve been here thirty years…” as his boss awkwardly moves away from our perspective in a long hallway, dragging his burden.

“Ingmar Bergman meets Monty Python” is a line that people keep citing about the film (from the Village Voice I believe) and it does capture the feeling well.  On the one hand, this is challenging foreign film art, with austere style, grim themes, and a forbiddingly erudite range of reference and allusion to film, visual art, and literature (the film begins with a dedication to the Peruvian poet César Vallejo and this line of his is a recurring manta: “beloved is he who can sit down”– his work is given to Palle’s hospitalized, catatonic son.)  But, it is also often quite hilarious and filled with deadpan physical humor and absurdist wit.

I will admit that although I loved it, I started to fall asleep on Friday night and had to stop halfway through, then we finished it on my laptop the next night; I think I preferred it with the greater intimacy and closeness of the laptop in bed.

As the author of the Onion article I cite above suggests, the film, although made 11 years ago, feels very of the moment, very Occupy Stockholm, a depiction of a world/Europe collapsing under the strain of capitalist shock-doctrine tactics, greed, failed economic plans, mass underemployment, magical thinking of a sometimes pernicious kind.  Many of the characters are pasty, overweight white men with pancake makeup that can make them look either or alternately like vampires, or silent-film or theater clowns.  Mechanical rats scurry through the streets.

This was one of our favorite scenes, as inhabitants flee the city, trying to make a train, burdened by their enormous piles of their possessions.  The film is filled with  spectacular set-pieces like this one, in highly artificial, sterile, painstakingly constructed stages.  The laid-off businessmen in their suits struggle, grunting and heaving, to move their piles of junk as their own golf clubs fall down on them.

In what seems an allegory of panicked 21st century neo-liberalism, one of Pelle’s fellow displaced workers, shuffling his possessions like an injured turtle towards escape, shouts to him, “There’s a time for misery… But it’ll soon be over.  Just a few more yards, and we’ll have left this damned dump under the clouds for good!  As free men… Free at last!  And then we’ll only have ourselves to think about.  And we’ll do what we feel like.  Do we not deserve that?  Aren’t we worth it, when we’ve worked so hard?”

Meanwhile the uniformed railway employees wait silently.  We doubt Pelle and his friends will make it.

It is a pretty one-of-a-kind movie!  And, I have a feeling I did not capture this, but hilarious.

Drive-by Truckers The Big To-Do

Re: the newish Drive-by Truckers album The Big To-Do.  I get the sense that the Drive-by Truckers are slightly underestimated or perhaps ghettoized, ignored by listeners who presume they’re too Southern rock/country for their tastes.  For my money the Drive-by Truckers are probably the best rock band over the past decade, or at least have produced the most consistently excellent music.  Maybe living in Southern Indiana has slightly conditioned me to ‘get’ them in a way I might not have as much in Boston or wherever.  They definitely articulate a working-class Southern perspective that feels pretty authentic here.  E.g., from Brighter than Creation’s Dark, “You and Your Crystal Meth”:

I ain’t exactly a no-drug guy, Don’t dig the way that you get high
Hope your kids don’t see you throwing up, Hope they ain’t there if the house blows up
Hope you ain’t murdered in your sleep, Up all night with that cranked out creep
You ain’t eaten and you ain’t slept; You and your crystal meth
Indiana and Alabama, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Texas, Florida, Ohio, Small town America, right next door
Blood soaked your pillow red; You and your crystal meth

My favorite DBT songs are a bit less bleak than that one, though: “Heathens,” “Marry Me,” “Dead, Drunk, and Naked”(! one of their mythologizing tracks from the concept album Southern Rock Opera) and “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” about a guy who dies and realizes, up in heaven or wherever he is, that of all the little memories that replay in his mind, the ones he most remembers are: “Laying round in bed on a Saturday morning/ Two daughters and a wife/ Two daughters and a beautiful wife,” and he ends up thinking, maybe that’s what heaven will turn out to be.  “Heathens” is maybe my all-time favorite: “We were heathens in their eyes at the time, I guess I am just a heathen still.”

Anyway, the new one’s good too, more sometimes-joyful songs about death, diminished expectations, alienated labor, family, and self-medication, as ever very well-suited to our recessionary times: “The Fourth Night of my Drinking,” “Daddy Learned to Fly” (that one’s a real weepie, told from the POV of a kid who doesn’t understand his father has died, shades of “We Are Seven”), “This Fucking Job.”

Here they are performing “Daddy Learned to Fly” in Baltimore:

Recycling the World of Interiors


Sarah was coveting Matt and Miranda’s subscription to The World of Interiors.  This is a high-end, expensive (at least $100 for the year’s subscription) British design/decoration/architecture magazine.  The photography is beautiful and they somehow seem to avoid the typical design-porn cliches — it’s not just a sequence of rich person after rich person’s predictable homes.

Some articles:

His studio a fisherman’s carrelet on a jetty by the Aquitaine coast, artist Richard Texier draws inspiration from the ceaseless roll of the ocean. Catherine de Montalembert reports

The Spanish legation once used mirrors to signal the mainland from this Tangerine dream house now owned by a bohemian design duo. Marie-France Boyer enters their prism

Combining architectural salvage with subtle erotic details – from carnal curtain rails to titillating toile – Sam Roddick’s Hampstead home sins with originality

Sixteen scruffy sketchbooks filled with keenly observed watercolours of Indian life shed light on a widowed Edwardian adventurer – and the colonial mindset, say Annabel Freyberg

The magazine seems to take its name seriously in that it really does focus on “interiors,” rather broadly understood, including quirky spaces like the artist’s houseboat-studio.  Not really my thing, but I can appreciate it to a degree.  Anyway, the reason I’m blogging about it is Sarah’s innovatively thrifty means of consuming it.  Miranda mailed her the entire 2008 run, all twelve issues.  She allowed herself to read January and put the rest of the top of a high shelf.  On Feb. 1 she took down February 2008.  So, barring weakness of will, she’ll go through the year like that.  Pretty clever, although these magazines are heavy so it was probably somewhat expensive for Miranda to mail them (but hey, that was on her dime — just kidding, Miranda, we appreciate it).

Of course, Sarah’s design schemes for our house will be a year out of date, but I suspect that for us that would be a big step up.

Battery-operated Guinea Pig Unfortunately Does Not Poop

There’s this one detail from the NY Times article “Our Love Affair With Shopping Malls is on the Rocks” that Sarah and I were laughing about because it seemed such a sadly apt emblem for the U.S. economy.

The economic crisis has caused shoppers to go into an essentials-only mode. But the mall has never trafficked in essentials. You can’t, for instance, fill a prescription at the Mall of America, because it doesn’t have a pharmacy. You can, however, buy a vanilla hazelnut fragrance candle in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet. Or a $13 baseball hat that looks as though it’s made of cheddar cheese. A store called Corda-Roy’s sells a variety of bean bags that convert into beds. Magnet Max sells a battery-operated guinea pig that runs continuously on a spinning exercise wheel.

It’s the battery-operated guinea pig that stuck in my mind as a little icon of pointless/wasteful U.S consumerism (and maybe of the U.S. consumer too).  We went on a post-Xmas expedition to the Indianapolis “Fashion Mall” a few weeks ago and I had the thought that 80% of what was on offer constituted a sort of money-laundering operation, just in the sense that it really only exists in order to have something to spend your money on.  (The heavily marked-down Christmas gifts and paraphernalia especially conveyed this impression.)

A different article in today’s Times mentions the popular iPhone application iFart: “as you can pretty much deduce from the name, it enables your $200 to $300 mobile device to emit a variety of noises simulating flatulence.”  Compared to the vanilla hazelnut fragrance candles in the shape of a miniature cooking skillet, etc., though, at least the iFart application is cheap (99 cents) and will not end up in a landfill.

By the way, speaking of guinea pigs, when we got home last night at 8:30 or so we stepped over a big garbage bag in front of our front door.  It says something about our housekeeping that no one commented on it; I assumed it was something Sarah had left there for some reason.  As soon as we got in the door, the phone rang; it was Steve across the street letting us know that the bag contained a load of guinea pig poop from their pets, which Sarah covets for our backyard compost heap.  There’s quite a lot of traffic in guinea pig poop between the two households, although unfortunately Steve will not accept the contents of Pot Luck and Daisy’s litter box in exchange.

Feckless Budgeting and Bad Math


This is an amusing article (with a poignant side):

Kathy Peel, a Dallas-based family manager (that is, a life coach whose niche is training families to run their homes like businesses), said that incidences of feckless budgeting and bad math seem to be on the rise, at least judging from the reports of coaches trained in her system. Leslie McKee, a Peel-trained family manager in Pittsburgh, has noticed a pattern of “people signing up for discount stores that sell in bulk and over-purchasing ‘bargains’ that are so enormous they will not live long enough to use the item,” she said. “Then they call me and spend more money to help them organize it all into mini-malls inside their homes.”

I wonder if we could re-train in order to run our house as a profitable business.  Is there a market out there for products like cat poop, platefuls of rejected frozen peas, and avant-garde stagings of kittens being born out of eggs?

Alan Greenspan/ Thomas Gradgrind

Sorry for all the Dickens-related posts, but this amazing scene of Alan Greenspan admitting the failure of his free-market ideology reminds me of Thomas Gradgrind’s anguished confession to his daughter Louisa, whose life he has destroyed with his inhumane utilitarian philosophy:

“I have proved my — my system to myself, and I have rigidly administered it; and I must bear the responsibility of its failures.  I only entreat you to believe, my favorite child, that I have meant to do right.”

Here’s the Ayn Rand acolyte Greenspan admitting to Congress that his ideology didn’t really turn out so well:

Published: October 23, 2008

Facing a firing line of questions from Washington lawmakers, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman once considered the infallible maestro of the financial system, admitted on Thursday that he “made a mistake” in trusting that free markets could regulate themselves without government oversight….

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” Mr. Greenspan said.

Referring to his free-market ideology, Mr. Greenspan added: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”

Mr. Waxman pressed the former Fed chair to clarify his words. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Mr. Waxman said.

“Absolutely, precisely,” Mr. Greenspan replied. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

Whether McCain Deserves Blame for the Meltdown

Matt Taibbi and Byron York Butt Heads Over Whether McCain Deserves Blame for the Wall Street Meltdown

This is hilarious and great:

M.T.: I’m saying that you’re talking about individual homeowners defaulting. But these massive companies aren’t going under because of individual homeowner defaults. They’re going under because of the myriad derivatives trades that go on in connection with each piece of debt, whether it be a homeowner loan or a corporate bond. I’m still waiting to hear what your idea is of how these trades work. I’m guessing you’ve never even heard of them.

I mean really. You honestly think a company like AIG tanks because a bunch of minorities couldn’t pay off their mortgages? …Tick tick tick. Hilarious sitting here while you frantically search the Internet to learn about the cause of the financial crisis — in the middle of a live chat interview.

B.Y.: Look, you can keep trying to make this a specifically partisan and specifically Gramm-McCain thing, but it simply isn’t. We’ve gone on for fifteen minutes longer than scheduled, and that’s enough. Thanks.

M.T.: Thanks. Note, folks, that the esteemed representative of the New Republic has no idea what the hell a credit default swap is. But he sure knows what a minority homeowner looks like.

B.Y.: It’s National Review.

I now ♥ Matt Taibbi, who I think went to high school with Sarah — gotta read his book The Great Derangement.

Kudos to Paul Krugman

I was psyched to learn that Paul Krugman has won the Nobel Prize.  Reading his NY Times columns, it’s sometimes been easy to forget that he’s not just a pundit/commentator but a world-class economist.  He must have a swelled head now.  He and Al Gore can have private little “I Won a Nobel Prize on the Side” parties.

I recently went back and, to help my mother win an argument with a friend who denied that Krugman had correctly predicted the financial mess, pulled together some especially prescient columns from the last six years:

Aug 2002 — discussing our housing bubble

March 2003 — who lost the US budget

May 2003 — the lunatics are in charge of the asylum — our fiscal train wreck

May 2004 – our looming oil crisis

May 2005 — our housing bubble

From May 27, 2003:

How can this be happening? Most people, even most liberals, are complacent. They don’t realize how dire the fiscal outlook really is, and they …imagine that the Bush administration, like the Reagan administration, will modify our system only at the edges, that it won’t destroy the social safety net built up over the past 70 years.

But the people now running America aren’t conservatives: they’re radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need…. [W]hen will the public wake up?

Perpetual Garage Sales in Elkhart, Indiana

Sad NY Times article about hard times in Elkhart, Indiana:

To understand just how grim things have gotten in this northern Indiana town, consider a new law passed last month by the City Council that limits residents to one garage sale a month.

It seems the perpetual garage sales — which for scores of people in this town are a sole source of income, and for others the only source of clothing — were annoying some residents. The restrictions will make the financial pinch that much tighter.

“I have no other option,” said Todd Baker, 34, who lost his factory job in July right before his wife gave birth to their third child. Friday was his last permissible day to sell old children’s clothing, muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree, stereo speakers and dozens of household doodads out of his garage…

Elkhart, near the Michigan border in an area known as Michiana, is the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy. Its main industries, the manufacturing of recreational vehicles and motor homes, have fallen apart over the last year because of high gasoline prices. That has taken down ancillary businesses like R.V. parts suppliers and storage warehouses.

The jobless rate in Elkhart has increased more than in any metropolitan area in the country; it rose over 4.8 percentage points from August 2007 to August 2008.

This obviously shows why/how Indiana is in play for Obama.  There are probably a lot of desperate people in Elkhart and elsewhere in the state whose natural instincts would, in normal circumstances, lead them without question to the white P.O.W. air force fighter pilot over the black Hawiian/Kenyan former Chicago community organizer… but these aren’t ordinary times.

I taught Dickens’ Hard Times last week and kept thinking about resonances between the novel and our moment.  This article made me think about the role of entertainment and “amusement” (to use Dickens’s term) in our economy.  Hard Times puts a traveling circus at the heart of its imagery as a symbol of the need for imagination, play, and entertainment in everyday life.  Part of what I found sad about this article is the way the fate of this town has been linked to the manufacture of Recreational Vehicles.  Of course the 7 m.p.g. R/V is as good a symbol as any of the arrogant recklessness of the U.S. over the past several decades in terms of energy use.  But if you can bracket that, you can also see the R/V as an embodiment of American optimism and the middle-class promise of a retirement filled with travel and modest adventure/exploration.  That promise is now basically lost in such a dramatic way that people aren’t simply selling their R/Vs at bargain-basement rates, but the whole industry is disappearing into an economic black hole of “perpetual garage sales.”

Maybe that’s a subject for a different post, but until a year ago we lived in a slightly more modest neighborhood in town where there was a bit of the perpetual garage sale phenomenon.  For a while our neighbor across the street, a U.S. mailwoman we were friends with, had one every weekend — or she let some friend or cousin or something who lived in the country outside of town use her driveway for one.  It drove me a little crazy, this weekly sale with something of the quality of a Dollar Store — a lot of random cheap stuff (“muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree,” etc.) some of it presumably purchased to sell here.  It’s a big class divide: the yard sale as a fun, very occasional family ritual, on the one hand — a chance for the kids to sell some of their old toys and clear out the basement — and on the other, as a serious opportunity to eke out an additional $100 or whatever for the week.

Going canvassing again this afternoon…

Shopping at Aldi

Do you know Aldi Foods, my yuppie friend?

They are basically Trader Joe’s for non-yuppies.  We were on the West side for some reason a month or two ago near our local Aldi and Sarah mentioned that her deeply-broke painter friend Annie loves it, so we decided to give it a try.  I was a bit weirded out by the whole experience but had to admit that it was very, very cheap.  Later I read this article about it in the NY Times where I learned the whole fascinating Aldi saga.

The chain’s low-key style reflects its reclusive, elderly founders, the octogenarian German billionaires Theo and Karl Albrecht, who reportedly live on the island of Föhr in the North Sea, where they are said to collect typewriters, play golf and tend to orchids. In 1971, Theo was kidnapped for 17 days, and the brothers have kept a low profile ever since.

The brothers split the business in two in the early 1960s, after a disagreement over whether to sell cigarettes. There are now two companies, Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud, which owns the United States division. In 1979, Theo Albrecht bought the Trader Joe’s chain, which shares Aldi’s small-store format, its reliance on private-label brands and its reputation for value, albeit in a hipper and more upscale way.

So, it’s not that Aldi is like Trader Joe’s, it’s that Trader Joe’s is the latest incarnation/secondary rebranding of Aldi.  Trader Joe’s is just Aldi with more attitude and better graphic design.  To quote the Times again,

Its stores are small and spartan, with minimal décor and a limited selection of products. They are often found in nondescript shopping strips and lack the flashy signs and window displays of some competitors. Grocery carts cost a quarter apiece, which is refundable after the cart is returned….What makes Aldi so special is that, quite simply, its prices are cheaper than just about anyone else’s, including Wal-Mart’s.

We returned to Aldi this weekend, and I will testify that, yes, the prices are really low.  Like, I am used to paying $3.50 or something at the organic co-op for a jar of raspberry jelly (the girls go through that stuff at a frightening rate as it is one of the 5 or so food types they will eat); maybe at Kroger’s I’d pay $2.79 for a larger jar.  At Aldi it was $1.49 a jar.  Now, I haven’t tried it yet, so maybe it’s crap [note: it turned out to be excellent], but the ingredients seem fine and the Times article reassured me that the food at Aldi was not there because it was lead-contaminated or anything like that, but instead because those typewriter-collecting octogenarian German billionaires drive a hard bargain, get bulk discounts and do not indulge in any frills like free shopping bags, free use of grocery carts, credit cards (debit only) or much shelving.  Nope, they basically stick the crate of food on the floor with a little sign and let the thrifty customers do the rest.

Some of the items are a bit sketchy-seeming and you’re definitely not going to find organic food here — we didn’t buy any meat — but on the other hand, you do find some surprising little European items like those chewy candy Haribo raspberries (for 75 cents a bag or some such).  There’s only one kind of most items and the corn flakes are not the brand you’re used to, but they are $1.15 a box.

Being a real cheapskate, I kind of dig the no-free-shopping-cart or shopping bags atmosphere, which almost feels East German or something.  It’s almost perverse — how much money do they really save by making you shell out the quarter for use of the cart, which you get back if you return the cart properly?  They need fewer employees, I guess, so it sort of makes sense.

I should buy some Aldi stock.

This post inaugurates a new category, btw: Livin’ in the Recession.