Twisted Spitzer

New York governor Eliot Spitzer gave his statement of resignation on Wednesday after his involvement in a prostitution ring was made public. His wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, stood solemnly next to her husband as he delivered this difficult speech.

“Over the course of my public life, I have insisted—I believe correctly—that people, re-gardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself.”

But Spitzer hardly made this decision because of an overpowering conscience. After the story of the scandal was released to the press, he lost respect from fellow politicians and the citizens of New York State. Facing impeachment and an overwhelming decrease in popularit, he had no other choice but to resign.

Reports reveal Spitzer spent $80,000 on prostitutes. fine use of the taxpayers’ money, right? However, Spitzer isn’t the first authority figure we’ve seen caught in a scandal.

In August 2007, Idaho Senator Larry Craig was arrested for lewd conduct in the men’s bathroom of a Minneapolis airport. Craig pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct and later refused to resign. He still holds his position but claims he will not run in the 2008 election.

Then there’s Bob Allen, a Florida Republican accused of offering to pay a male police officer for sexual favours, and Kevin Shelley, former California Secretary of State, charged with “sexually explicit gestures and remarks” towards his assistants while laundering campaign funds. And who can forget the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal? There are hundreds of other examples, because as long as there have been politicians, there has been political scandal.

It’s no secret that politicians are rewarded generous salaries and other “perks.” Blinded by his cash, Spitzer wasn’t considering the consequences when he spent the night with a prostitute last month.

In his failure to stay loyal to his wife, he has proven untrustworthy to the public as well. His daughters (aged 18, 14, and 12) must also be affected, as the call-girl he was caught with, Ashley Dupre, is 22 years old—only four years older than his first-born child. A politician who has no respect for his family cannot be expected to care for the welfare of his people.

In addition to the impact of the scandal on his family and the public, we must consider the prostitutes employed by infl uential and “respected” members of society. Some might recall that Spitzer’s latest callgirl was the only one left unmentioned in his public apology. Despite the misconception that high-class prostitution is a glamorous profession, prostitutes continue to be abused as “part of the job.” Their clients treat them as if they are mere objects being rented out.

Eliot Spitzer’s behaviour would not be considered tolerable from anyone, let alone an authority figure. The eradication of such immoral acts by those trusted with elected positions can happen only because we regret their mistakes—not simply because they are forced to face them.

Around the bases: 2008 MLB Preview

Toronto Blue Jays

With their strongest team in years, the Jays pitching staff have been dealt a major blow with the loss of Casey Janssen for the year, due to a torn right labrum. Janssen’s loss hurts even more because of his effectiveness against division rivals Boston and New York in 07. Even with the additions of David Eckstein and Scott Rolen from St. Louis and Vernon Wells’ shoulder all healed up, Toronto, like New York, will live and die this season with their pitching. Their hopes lie in Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan improving on solid ‘07 campaigns, and how well closer B.J. Ryan will perform, missing nearly all of last season due to a Tommy John surgery.

Boston Red Sox

Despite losing out on the Johan Santana sweepstakes, last year’s World Series Champs countered by adding 2005 Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon. Even if Colon doesn’t pan out and none of their top players go down due to injuries, the Red Sox will have all the ingredients to win their third championship in five years. 2007 Rookie of the Year, Dustin Pedroia, adds more firepower to one of the league’s most gifted offenses. The Red Sox have a strong rotation, solid bullpen, and an overpowering closer that should make it tough for the Blue Jays or Yankees to dethrone them from the top spot in the American League East.

Cleveland Indians

They’ve had all winter to recover from the mental trauma of their self-destruction to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, taking a 3- 1 series lead. The reigning Central Division champs look to take a page out of the Red Sox book and exorcise their World Series demons by ending a 53-year drought. They return with the same team that put up a major league best 96 wins in 07, stronger this year thanks to last year’s valuable post-season experience. They will once again boast two potential Cy Young Award winners in Fausto Carmona and the 2007 winner, C.C. Sabathia. Key to their drive to the World Series will be whether designated hitter Travis Hafner bounces back from a disappointing ‘07 season and playoffs.

Detroit Tigers

In 07 they boasted one of the scariest batting orders in the majors. The Tigers led or were second in nearly all offensive categories in the American League. With the addition of slugger Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins, look for Detroit to put up some really crooked numbers this season. Last season’s downfall was their pitching, close to the bottom of the league in several important categories, including walks, runs, and earned-run-average. That’s where Dontrelle Willis, the other major player acquired in their trade with Florida, comes into play. Statistically, Willis had a terrible 07 season, putting up career worst numbers in wins, innings pitched, ERA, losses, walks, and home runs against. Still, Willis is only 26 and a change of scenery was just what he needed after enduring the penny-pinching Marlins ownership for years. Look for him to bounce back in a major way as Detroit becomes a series contender this year.

Americans love nothing more than condemning a politician that they view as immoral, and we all love nothing more than watching a powerful person’s empire crumble

Governor Eliot Spitzer may be pinned as the “ethical crusader” of modern politics, with his tough stance on white-collar crime and corruption, but he certainly wasn’t immune. His story is another tragic tale of a rising star whose ego-driven escapades led him to public humiliation and an end to his gubernatorial career. This past week, Mr. Spitzer was charged with patronizing an illegal prostitution ring and money laundering, after the FBI was asked to conduct a federal wiretap on the governor’s questionable transactions. Once the evidence came forward, a media firestorm was unleashed. Late-night shows and pundits alike chimed in as coverage of made its way across the Atlantic.

Eliot Spitzer was poised for greatness early in his career as a New York attorney, despite harsh criticisms of his temperament. Many of his former colleagues portrayed him as a dif- ficult man to get along with: aggressive and authoritarian, as he fervently tackled fraud in corporate America. Spitzer came across as a trustworthy and honest politician, with an approach to ethics reform that was almost “Obamaesque.” He won the praise of many of his associates and even made the front cover of Time. As a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, this former prosecutor knew the intense scrutiny placed on prostitution rings. In fact, while in office, he established a law that would enforce stricter sentences for those involved.

Unbeknownst to his family and the public, Governor Spitzer kept a dirty little secret, involving several high-priced call girls and the illegal transferring of funds.What happened to the honest-to-goodness governor from New York? Did he really think that he was immune to any litigation? As far as I know, there isn’t one set of laws for the common people and another for the elite. Perhaps Mr. Spitzer dozed off in one of his classes in law school and missed that point.

It’s still unclear what truly motivated this man to commit adultery, trash his reputation, and put his family into years of therapy, but one can only assume that an individual of such a stature believed himself to be invincible and fully entitled to a little self-indulgence.

The governor has not been tried in court, but could face possible jail time if convicted. Many of his opponents have called for his impeachment, but as of last week, the governor stoically announced his resignation. It’s appalling to see how far some will go to remove this man from office when it’s obvious the crime doesn’t fit the punishment. With the U.S. military death toll looming at 4,000, millions of displaced Iraqis, a volatile economy with an imminent recession, and an out-of-whack immigration system, perhaps the ones who should be facing impeachment are George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Meanwhile, we have the luxury of sitting comfortably on our couches and watching the pundits tear Eliot Spitzer apart. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a politician’s empire crumble to the ground, especially when there’s a sexual twist. Let’s face it—when a tempestuous scandal involving a prominent figure erupts in the media, we eat it up. Perhaps it’s the self-satisfaction we receive from knowing that even political leaders—as glamorous a life as they may lead—have fl aws and inner demons they must battle, Whatever the underlying reason, as long as politicians continue to screw up while in office (and trust me, they will), we’ll be there for all the drama.

In the media’s rabid rush to reveal all the facts, they were real assholes to Ashley Alexandra Dupré

It’s a rare occurence when our typically shock-obsessed media displays a touch of class. Earlier this month, when it was revealed (courtesy of everyone’s favourite sensationalist scandal-breaker, The Drudge Report) that Prince Harry was serving on the front lines of Afghanistan, many were also surprised to find out that the British media—from The Times to the multitudes of tabloids—had known about his deployment for over two months but agreed to keep it quiet so Harry could serve without becoming a priority target for Taliban operatives. As soon as the story broke, Harry was pulled back to England, having enjoyed being an average soldier.

It’s nice to see human decency from the media, who realized that certain stories should be hushed because publishing them would have near-universal negative consequences. Unfortunately, any nice cred the media gained from keeping mum on Harry’s deployment melted away this week.

Everyone loves an inflatable scandal, and moral crusader Eliot Spitzer’s sexcapades were sensationalistic schadenfreude. It was almost too good to be true—the Governor of New York, the golden boy of anti-corruption vigilantism, who had personally busted up prostitution rings, was caught employing a sex worker.

Pundits were quick to condemn Spitzer, pity his family, and call for his resignation, but there was an elephant in the room—the high-class sex worker Spitzer hired. For two days, the Emperor’s Club’s “Kirsten” was a caricature to the world. A whorish homewrecker, known only through wiretapped phone conversation, she took thousands of dollars from a respected politician and family man, did unspeakable things with him, and treated it all as a casual business operation. She was praised, condemned, and imagined in a thousand different ways by a thousand different water-cooler news analysts. She was purely a creation of our imagination as an accessory of Spitzer’s crimes—and she should have stayed that way.

Then, on March 12, the New York Times, arguably the U.S.’s most respectable paper, published a link to Kirsten’s Myspace profile. The article identified Kirsten as Ashley Alexandra Dupré, a 22-year-old aspiring singer in New York. Instantly, millions of people had full access to Dupré’s entire biography. The next day, the same three pictures of her were splashed on front pages worldwide. Some respected columnists identified her as “Spitzer’s Whore.” Very few gave her the slightly more dignified title of “sex worker.” Most papers identified her as a prostitute, treating her in the most patronizing way imaginable, mocking her musical aspiration, describing her sound as “quaint” and “silly.”

Regardless, thanks to the Times and others, Dupré will now forever be degraded as Spitzer’s sex worker. Regardless of whether you think the sex trade is right or wrong, there’s a reason that the Emperor’s Club does its best to keep its employees anonymous: the sex trade is one that is looked down upon by the majority of America. From here on in, anyone who hits on Dupré—and trust me, there will be lots of piggish catcalls—will do so with certain expectations. Other moral crusaders will likely refuse to associate with her. If she decides to eventually have children, there’s no doubt that they’ll be ridiculed for being the children of a sex worker.

Dupré’s media exposure isn’t all bad—it’s likely to land her a record deal with thousands of supporters on Myspace. But she’s also gained the condemnations of countless more.

The media’s brush has painted Dupré into a corner, and while I certainly hope for the opposite, the stigma will not go away. To many, Dupré will always be “Spitzer’s Whore.”

Fun and games?

An English-language remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) directed by Haneke himself is perhaps the most unlikely major studio venture of the year. In the original, two sociopaths hold an upper-middle-class family hostage in their summer home, forcing them to take part in torturous psychological games. That film was bleak, brutal, nihilistic, and emotionally unsatisfying—exactly the sort of difficult fare that Hollywood generally avoids.

How could Haneke possibly find American financing? I assumed he would be forced to compromise his vision, similar to how George Sluizer had to tack an incongruous happy ending onto his Hollywood version of The Vanishing. Boy, was I wrong. The film Haneke has delivered is nearly identical to his 1997 original. Not only is the gloomy tone intact, but so is everything else, from the geography of the house right down to placement of the tables and chairs. Compared to this, Gus Van Sant’s shotby- shot remake of Psycho played positively fast and loose with its source material.

In the rare instances when foreign filmmakers have directed American remakes of their own movies, the boredom is usually palpable, yet the new Funny Games turns out to be every bit as good as the original. It’s still powerful, suspenseful, and absolutely merciless towards its characters and audience.

Seeing Funny Games for the first time is an ordeal. There were many walkouts when it played at Cannes in 1997, and I remember that fateful day when I watched it on DVD, thinking about how nice it would be to turn it off, go out into the sunshine, and reassure myself that the world wasn’t so terrible after all.

Haneke intended his film to be a dark satire of America’s glamorized presentation of violence. “In many American films, violence is made consumable,” says Haneke in the press notes. “I want to show the reality of violence, the pain, the wounding of another human being.” His point is that in being entertained by cinematic depictions of murder, we are on the same moral level as the murderers. At several points during Funny Games, the killers break the fourth wall and address the camera, as if conspiring with the viewer directly.

Haneke goes beyond attacking the viewer’s taste in movies: he attacks the viewer personally. I hated the contempt that Haneke had for his audience. Movies like Psycho and A Clockwork Orange trick the audience into sympathizing with their depraved heroes, but those films at least offer considerable entertainment value. Funny Games, on the other hand, is no fun at all. Frankly, I wanted a film that would reassure me that I was on the moral high ground. Why should Haneke make me accessory to the crimes just because I rented his movie?

Well…why not? Isn’t great art supposed to challenge us? Haneke has said he wants this remake to reach the multiplex crowd that supports the torture porn genre, but he is most skillful in challenging his own bourgeois art house audience. Most of his films paint lessthan- flattering pictures of the upper-middleclass lifestyle (in Funny Games, the family’s elaborate gate keeps them from escaping), and in interviews he has said that this film was not meant as a rebuttal to lowbrow horror flicks, but to the work of Palme d’Or winner and critics’ darling Quentin Tarantino.

Watching his Funny Games, already knowing everything that was to come, I could appreciate just how meticulous Haneke is as a filmmaker. His decision to not use non-diegetic music deprives us of one of the medium’s most reassuring artifices. Watch how he creates a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere by frequently focusing the camera away from the characters that are talking. Look for moments where Haneke subverts the conventions of the typical thriller (near the beginning, the camera lingers on a knife, presumably to establish its importance. When the knife finally reappears towards the end, it’s as a cynical joke). And of course, keep in mind that most of the violent acts takes place off screen, something I didn’t even realize when I first saw the original.

So what’s new in the remake? Well, very little. In fact, the few times where dialogue has been dropped or shot constructions have been altered will stick out like a sore thumb for anyone with a good memory. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbett now play the four central roles, and they fit their parts so perfectly that memories of the original actors rarely arise. Pitt in particular gives a great, creepy performance that deserves comparison with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

If you’ve seen the original Funny Games, do you need to see the remake? Maybe not. But then again, if your first reaction was as negative as mine, you may find that another viewing can be a revelation. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” either version of this film, but they both made me rethink many of the violent films I’ve enjoyed. And for that alone, Funny Games is invaluable.

Kingwell takes on the city

In conjunction with the inaugural University of Toronto Festival of the Arts and the University of Toronto Art Centre’s exhibition of John Hartman’s Cities, Mark Kingwell delivered a lecture entitled “The City as a Work of Art” on March 13.

Kingwell, a philosophy professor at U of T, is the author of 10 books. The consummate Toronto flaneur had no problem filling every seat in the University College lecture theatre.

The city—from civitas, civilized life and citizenship—intrigues Kingwell, and his love shows. In his lecture, he made the case for the city as a work of art, using New York City and Shanghai as his primary examples. Cities, according to Kingwell, cannot be easily defined as one thing or the other, but rather as a confluence of things that collide together to create a sense of embodied consciousness— very much like the people who inhabit them.

He takes his cue from Heidegger, who asserted that “the mere object is not the work of art” but rather the space created by the object for reflection and contemplation. For him, the “city of the imagination,” more than the actual environs of the city, helps to justify the city as a work of art. More than the concrete that surrounds us, the city assimilates into our consciousness. His rejection of teleological ends and grand urban planning recalls the late Jane Jacobs.

Kingwell’s excellent conception of cities, which any city-lover would agree with, testify that the city is an organic, growing thing, though it is not biological. It represents the ultimate Freudian conquest of our natural environs: a centre of creativity and culture. A city, according to Kingwell, is not a symphony but a jazz riff—many parts coming together to make excellent music. And, just as his artful city is more a jazz piece than a concerto, Kingwell shone brightest in the Q&A, easily elaborating on many points.

Whether each person agreed or disagreed with Kingwell’s analysis, the lecture provided each of us with food for thought—just what city life should do.

Blue Hour is beautiful

Leave it to David Mamet to elevate mundane, everyday American English to the level of poetry. The UCDP’s production of The Blue Hour truly blew me away—the lights alone would have been worth watching, but when talented acting and skilful direction bring a masterful text to life, it is truly a treat. The play was presented as part of the ongoing inaugural University of Toronto Festival of the Arts.

The play is a series of vignettes set in New York City about a time called, funnily enough, the blue hour, that time just after sunset where the sky is a perfect, beautiful blue. The interaction between actors Sonia Lindner and Thomas Davis in the opening scene was hilarious, as was the following scene with Lindner and Gwynne Phillips in a closing department store.

The scene between JP Bevilacqua and Davis as two businessmen forced into awkward conversation on a commuter train was perhaps the most resonant— expressing the annoyance at dealing with those you could not care less about.

Most touching however was the concluding scene between Bevilacqua and Davis. The loneliness of the two men in a subway station was so understated and tense that the audience was dead silent until the scene faded to black, the theatre erupting in applause.

My only regret is that I did not have time to see the other shows, Methusalem: Or, the Eternal Bourgeois and Bully, that ran with The Blue Hour. If this show indicates of the level of talent in this year’s UCDP batch, I would no doubt have been delighted.

Space oddity

Stephen Chow’s attempt to conquer the American market continues with CJ7, a whimsical, effects-heavy, sci-ficomedy. Chow, “the Jim Carrey of Asia,” has starred in over 40 films and directed eight, but few of them—heavily dependant on Cantonese wordplay and unspeakably broad comedy—have made an impression outside Hong Kong.

With Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Chow replaced much of his colloquial sensibility with universally accessible material: special effects, elaborate action sequences, and over-the-top visual comedy. He was rewarded with strong reviews and worldwide box office receipts, but CJ7 won’t do much to broaden his appeal. While Chow’s vivid imagination is still on display, this time his sloppiness gets the better of him.

Chow’s screen-time in CJ7 is surprisingly minimal. The real star is child actor Xu Jiao, who’s a cute little kid. He plays Dicky, the oft-bullied son of a poor construction worker named Ti (Chow). Dicky wants a high-tech toy called a CJ1, and is dismayed when Ti can’t afford it. Later that evening, during his daily search through the local dump, Ti finds a green egg deposited by a nearby spaceship, and gives it to Dicky, calling it a “CJ7.” But wait, it gets better—the egg hatches and CJ7 turns out to be a green, squishy, super-dog from outer space.

Chow has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Silly scenes and moments of cloying sentimentality clash jarringly, and when the inevitable tragic situation arises three quarters of the way in, it’s hard to care. Characters never extend beyond broad archetypes. And while Kung Fu Hustle intentionally pushed aside story for rapid-fire comedy, in a film with “heart” like CJ7, the script is undercooked.

Like Chow’s last two films, CJ7 uses CGI to a hyper-stylized, downright cartoonish extent. The CJ7 character is entirely computer generated, and it’s fun to watch. There are moments where CGI is used to create truly excellent gags, as CJ7 pulls a little toolbox out of nowhere, and makes Dicky a pair of high-tech shoes. Still, Chow is a hit-and-miss comedian, and this time his odds are off. Typical joke: one of Dicky’s schoolmates is a girl played by a massive, 250-pound man. Ho ho. This is the type of goofiness that goes over big in Hong Kong and doesn’t travel well overseas…except to kids.

But will kids see this? Sony Pictures Classics is making the drastic mistake of marketing CJ7 to art house audiences instead of families. A subtitled version is opening in limited release, the trailer attached to the beginning of The Counterfeiters of all things. Strange tactics, because the grade school set might like it. But it’s no Kung Fu Hustle; it’s gentler, less chaotic, and, frankly, less enjoyable.