Monday, January 31, 2011

The horror of 'Black Swan'

Didn't do much research before seeing "Black Swan," except asking the concessionaire if she had seen it and what she had thought.

"Interesting." she said. "Not what I expected. I don't think I would see it again."

Not exactly a rave review from someone who works at a movie theater, but her analysis was right on.

"Black Swan" is a garish horror movie about a ballerina going bonkers as she prepares for the biggest role of her life in "Swan Lake."

The film is, at turns, riveting and revolting.

The director, Darren Aronofsky, is a favorite of many actors since he revived Mickey Rourke's squandered career in "The Wrestler."

Natalie Portman, the star of "Black Swan," will likely win the Oscar for her performance and rightfully so. She's extraordinary.

But, it's a wonder why Aronofsky didn't trust his actors more in "Black Swan." (Quite the contrast with "The King's Speech," which is a celebration of pure acting.)

Why did Aronofsky need to use a distracting hand-held camera during the opening sequences to convey a sense of edginess. The actors were quite capable of establishing the portent themselves.

Also, was it necessary to show a hospitalized ballet dancer, not Portman, stab herself repeatedly in the face with a nail file? The theme of self-mutilation was firmly established without this scene.

I believe that when a director disrespects his audience in this fashion, the offending scene should be described in every review of the film so that viewers know what to expect.

No, this is not Hitchcock's "Psycho," which pushed the boundaries of screen violence 50 years ago even though most of the violence was implied. In fact, the bloodshed in "Black Swan" is probably tame to most fans of recent slasher films.

To me, though, the hospital scene was not only gratuitous, but also unwatchable. When that happens, the filmmaker fails. I expect horrific violence when watching a World War II film like "Inglorious Basterds," but not when viewing a movie about the graceful art of ballet.

It tarnished what, in many respects, is a disturbing, thought-provoking film about a sheltered girl becoming a woman by raging against her upbringing in the physically and emotionally demanding world of ballet.

To be sure, we see the crudity behind the beauty of ballet in "Black Swan."

There are the backbiting dancers, the pathetically sad stage mom and the ballet company director who exploits his ballerinas. It has a graphic lesbian scene and harsh heterosexual interplay.

It is not pretty. It would drive anyone crazy as it does Portman's character.

In fact, "Black Swan" could do for budding ballerinas what "Slumdog Millionaire" did for Indian tourism. In other words, it's far from a ringing endorsement.

Ballet, under Aronofsfky's direction, is a nightmare, rather than a dream.

Still, "Black Swan" shows that behind personal breakthroughs in art lies an element of madness.

In order to achieve "perfection," rebellion -- in this case against your mom, yourself and everyone around you -- is necessary.

It's a lonely world when that happens.

And, as they say, it's lonely at the top.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vote 'No' on Bend's road bond

Since the city of Bend is $20 million in debt, it needs to beg voters for money.

In May, they'll ask for $27 million, or about 10 percent of what is really needed to fix our current road problems.

This $27 million is a band-aid, make that a butterfly band-aid, for the open sore of Bend's beleaguered road system.

Most of the bond money will go toward installing a multi-lane roundabout at 18th and Empire. This isn't a pressing need, but city officials are pushing the roundabout because of traffic issues surrounding Juniper Ridge, the mixed-use city-owned boondoggle on Bend's north end.

Way down the list is Reed Market Road, which was identified as Bend's most urgent need 5 years ago. Since then, Reed Market is the forgotten road because the city refuses to even patch potholes on the busiest city street in Bend.

Some of the bond money would, presumably, be used to patch the potholes on Reed Market.

But, do we really need to saddle all property owners in Bend to pay at least $54 dollars a year just to patch potholes?

The answer is a big NO.

Bend rejected the common sense approach in 2009, which was a local gas tax of 3 cents per gallon. The city of Sisters adopted a local gas tax and have made enough money from its three gas stations to pay for road maintenance.

But, the petroleum industry put the heavy hand, filled with money no doubt, on state legislators to prevent any city from passing a local gas tax after the state's 6-cent increase per gallon went into effect this month. (Actually, the deal stopped cities almost 18-months ago.)

Bend is a tourist destination. Yet, tourists who drive pay no costs for any impact they have on roads here. We have no sales tax and most of the room taxes that are collected are shuttled pack to the local tourism industry to promote itself.

So, our roads take a beating. In addition, we have no new road connections to handle our ridiculous growth of the past decade. We don't have them because so little is asked of developers to provide these connectors. The road fees for new construction are a pittance of the actual cost of impact these developments have on our current road grid.

Yes, Bend needs to fix its roads. And, it needs to raise money to do so. The most equitable way to do so is with a gas tax. Those who drive, including tourists, should pay the freight. Those who ride bikes or walk or take the bus shouldn't subsidize vehicle drivers. Nor should property owners.

Yes, gas prices are rising and gas taxes further increase the cost. Oregon's state tax is 30 cents per gallon and the federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.

It's true that 48.4 cents per gallon in taxes is a lot. However, it's dramatically low when compared to the effect that cars and trucks have on our roads, cities, towns and our entire society. It's also incredibly low when compared to Europe where taxes amount to about 50 percent or greater of the cost of a gallon of fuel.

But, in America, we're used to paying less than what the true cost should be. That is a main reason why we're trillions in debt.

And, it's why our roads in Bend won't get fixed anytime soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Joblessness and homelessness

With the national count of the homeless this week and with local unemployment rates ranging from 15 percent to 19 percent, it's time again to look at why.

Here's a story that encapsulates what I've bemoaned before: The income disparity in America is approaching Third World status.

Whatever President Obama says in his State of the Union address, he won't touch this issue because he extended the Bush tax cuts that ensure the further decline of the middle class.

Yes, the stock market is bouncing back, corporate profits are zooming ahead and bonuses at Goldman Sachs are averaging $435,000 per employee.

Cold comfort, though, when the jobless rate is 10 percent nationally or when banks are foreclosing on homes like whack-a-moles.

Meanwhile the homeless numbers are expected to rise this year as much as the NYSE has.

Last year, the tri-county area of Central Oregon, which is considered rural, reported 2,402 individuals as homeless. That number should rise to more than 2,600 this year.

Nationally, estimates of the homeless range from about 700,000 to 3 million people, mostly in urban areas.

So, we have more empty houses than ever and more homelessness than ever.

That is the state of the union.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Oregon PUC should investigate Bend

The state's Public Utilities Commission is supposed to shield Oregon residents from outrageous increases in water and power rates.

Well, it needs to stop the city of Bend from extorting exorbitant increases for water and sewer services from its residents.

Recently, the local paper caught up with the story I've written about before: that the city has jacked up water and sewer rates at unprecedented levels - far greater than the rate of inflation.

Check out these numbers:

In 2010, water rates increased by 8.3 percent while sewer rates jumped 14.5 percent. This added $7 to the average monthly bill.

The rate of inflation last year was 1.6 percent.

For the past decade, Bend routinely raised water and sewer rates at a minimum of double the inflation rate.

For water this past decade, rates increased in percent by: 7, 7.8, 7.8, 7.8, 4.8, 5, 5.5, 8.3, 8.3 and 7.1 for 2011. For the average user, the net increase in dollars was: $19.64 per month.

For sewer this past decade, the rates increase by percent were: 4.5, 3.3, 6, 6, 3, 6, 6, 14.5, 14.5 and 8.75 for 2011. Again, for the average user, the net increase in dollars was: $17.95 per month.

Together, water and sewer rates have escalated this past decade by $37.59 per month.

In addition, the city assesses a $48 annual fee for storm drains. Builders and developers, by the way, pay no impact fee for storm drains.

The city pushed rates so high so fast that it needed to create a fund to help people who couldn't pay their water and sewer bills.

Of course, all this came about because builders and developers paid "impact fees" (known here as system development charges) far below what that they should've been.

The consequences were terrible. The city is now $20 million in debt, with no way of ever paying for any improvements to roads, water, sewers or storm drains aside from bonds approved by voters.

Also, with artificially low impact fees, Bend became grossly overbuilt with new homes, many of which are now empty. And, higher impact fees would've modulated the building frenzy. Construction accounted for more than 30 percent of our economy when it should've been around 10 percent.

Consequently, our local economy suffered more than the rest of Oregon and most of the country. Our unemployment/underemployment rate is close to 20 percent.

This week, the city caved to developers' demands by not making them pay for infrastructure improvements. Whatever they pay per household (around $13,000 and those fees are now deferred), are then given back to developers.

In other words, ratepayers are subsidizing developers and we're not seeing any improvements to our infrastructure.

The state must put a stop to this.

Please, PUC, roll back these extreme rate increases.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The real health care reform issue

Now that the Republican-controlled House is voting symbolically to repeal the health care reform act signed into law last year, it is time to revisit what is truly wrong with health care reform.

The single greatest problem in health care is health insurance or what is referred to in the business as "denial of claim."

Huge profits are made and executives are rewarded millions in bonuses by how much an insurance company refuses to pay for legitimate medical expenses by its subscribers.

For example, I need to have surgery on my foot. ODS, my health insurance provider, will pay 80/20 for the surgery whether it's done at the doctor's office or as an outpatient at a hospital.

But, ODS will not pay for a facility charge from the doctor, which means it would cost me between $1,000 and $1,200 out of pocket on top of the doctor's fee.

ODS will pay the facility charge at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, but the procedure there costs between $8,000 and $10,000, which would cost me about $2,000 out of pocket. The insurance company would be on the hook for roughly $6,000 to $8,000.

So, ODS will gladly pay 6 to 8 times what is necessary in order to not pay my doctor a facility fee, which is a legitimate expense.

To put it mildly, this is counter-intuitive.

It is the No. 1 reason why our health care system is worse than much of the developed world. We pay more and get less health care.

For-profit insurance companies wrote much of the health care reform legislation and they protected their turf.

Until we have a non-profit, single-payer insurance system in our country we will never have true health care reform.

This won't solve all the problems associated with health care, but it will go a long way to making it better.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lawmakers out to ruin Bend's livability

If you like the north end of Bend, with its traffic lights, choking traffic and plentiful accidents, you'll love what your legislators want to do.

They want to share this dangerous section of roadway with the rest of Bend and Central Oregon.

Or more precisely, they believe all of Central Oregon should look like this, but current ODOT rules prevent such terrible planning from happening again.

Bend city planners showed such ineptitude when the Parkway was finished earlier this century, that the state had to come in and create the new rule that requires road improvements be done concurrently with growth, not decades later.

But, our local Republicans legislators claim this rule is hurting business growth and economic development.

Of course, there is absolutely no evidence that the state's common sense approach to road safety and efficiency is preventing Central Oregon from climbing out of its economic crater.

Quite the contrary. We already built it all and they didn't come.

Bend and Central Oregon depended so heavily on new construction during the boom years, that there are thousands of homes needing buyers in the region. Also, businesses are closing every day here.

There is no demand in Bend to add more homes or more big-box retailers or other business buildings.

By approving any and all development during the frantic Aughties, the city of Bend was left with inadequate infrastructure including clogged, decaying and dangerous roadways.

This is most evident on Bend's north end that now includes the most congested and perilous section of highway in Oregon east of the Cascades.

Consequently, Bend's and Central Oregon's quality of life has suffered because of such poor planning.

Ironically, Bend uses the "quality of life" issue to attract new businesses and residents.

The city went out of its way to try and kill the goose that laid the golden egg of "quality of life."

Now, local legislators want to kill that goose for good.

In doing so, these numskulls will ruin what made Bend and Central Oregon special in the first place, i.e., "quality of life."

Let's hope the state has the good sense not to let this happen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What the Ophiuchus?

Yes, that's right my life is completely changed.

I used to be Sagittarius, but now I'm an Ophiuchus. I'm not even on the cusp with Sagittarius.

The planets shifted about 200,000 years ago and they're now getting around to correcting the astrological chart.

Of course, this means I must find a new career path, mate, city, passion, hobby and shoes.

It's not like life wasn't complicated enough.

I could go from a 5-star day in Sagittarius to a 4-star day in Ophiuchus or worse.

It's just too much.

Tombstones in Arizona

Obviously, the massacre in Tucson was committed by a deranged man.

We may never know his motives, but if it was apolitical he would've probably killed his parents or neighbors or some strangers with no connection to politics.

He didn't.

He murdered a nine-year-old girl and five others at a political gathering. He wounded 14, including a congresswoman who is a conservative Democrat in a swing district.

The local sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, noted this coincidence and offered some points to consider:

The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital,” Dupnik said last Saturday at a press conference about the shootings.

"We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” Dupnik added. “The fiery rhetoric that has taken hold in politics may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

“To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with,” Dupnik said.

Naturally, he created a firestorm among conservatives and allowed liberal pundits to pile on.

Now, we don't know if the "fiery rhetoric" had anything to do with the tragedy in Tucson, but the fundamental truth of Dupnik's comments cannot be denied.

It is also true that this "fiery rhetoric" comes almost entirely from the right wing, be it Republicans, Libertarians or teabaggers.

On one side you have MSNBC, which few Americans watch. On the other, you have Fox News, which a lot more viewers watch, plus the extensive range of "hate radio." (Newspaper punditry doesn't matter because newspapers' influence these days is minuscule when compared to TV and radio.)

In Bend, we have three AM radio stations. One is all sports. The other two feature lineups of conservatives from Limbaugh to Hannity that spew hate 24-7. Judging by the sheriff's comments, I'm sure Tucson mirrors Bend in this regard.

In Bend, though, we don't have a Democratic representative in Washington and haven't had one for decades.

If we did, gauging from the hostile letters printed in the local paper since President Obama was elected and all the angry anti-Obama bumper stickers around town, I wouldn't be surprised if we did have some sort of horrific incident here.

But, Oregon isn't Arizona, not by a thousand miles.

In spite of the general crankiness of ultra-conservative rural voters in Oregon, the state is run by progressives on the west side of the Cascade Range in Portland, Salem and Eugene.

In Arizona, a red and red-meat state, Republicans dominate state government and routinely stumble over issues like illegal immigration and Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Arizona State University waffled on whether or not to give Obama an honorary degree when he gave a commencement address there.

For a thorough background on Arizona's legislative wackiness, check out this piece from Harper's Magazine.

But back to "fiery rhetoric."

You would think that people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin and others would tone down their hateful rhetoric after what happened last Saturday. Rep. John Dingell read aloud on the House floor some of the violent political rhetoric uttered this past year.

I don't think that will happen. In fact, this shooting of a Democratic representative will somehow be turned on its head. We'll hear how "freedom-loving" gun owners and "hate" radio hosts are under siege.

Palin, in fact, posted an ill-advised video on the internet. As Lincoln, and others, said, better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Check out this story from the NYT or this from Slate on the reaction to Palin's comments. Joan Walsh at Salon slams Palin's narcissism. Or for an absolutely brilliant takedown of Palin and Beck, check out Stephen Colbert's segment "The Word" from Wednesday night's show.

What is most shocking about the terrible events in Tucson is that these mass killings have become so commonplace in America that our local paper treated it as if it were a bus crash in India. On Sunday, the local paper teased the massacre at the bottom of the front page and ran a story inside.

It is also shocking that these shoot-em-ups don't happen more frequently.

Afterall, we are a nation that believes less in God than in Glock, the type of gun used by the shooter. Glock sales have escalated since the Tucson mayhem.

And the super-sized ammo clip used by the gunman was made illegal under the assault weapons ban in the 1990s, but Republicans let that ban expire under Bush II.

A Republican lawmaker now wants legislators to be able to pack some heat on the House floor.

Uh, we not only need to tone down the "fiery rhetoric," but we would also be better off with fewer guns out there rather than more.

But, the NRA would have none of that. Neither would Republicans who successfully defeated a bill last year that would have blocked gun sales to individuals on the terrorist watch list.

It's a sad commentary in our country when a mentally disturbed individual can't get any help from our diminishing social services, but he has easy access to firearms.