New Mexico’s Game of Thrones

Indulge my hard-core nerd side for a moment, if it please you. I’ve been reading the George R.R. Martin book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and a recent scene made me think of Gov. Susana Martinez, Education Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera and politics as a whole.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” are the books “Game of Thrones” on HBO is based on. It’s a sprawling, sexy, violent fantasy story about a seven-kingdom realm in which war is raging between kings who each believe they each have a right to the throne.

Toward the middle of the second book (“A Clash of Kings”) the boy-king Joffrey Baratheon (he’s 13) is riding with his evil mother and his scheming dwarf uncle and his “sell sword” security posse through the streets of King’s Landing. Because of the ongoing war against usurpers after his throne, King’s Landing is broke. The people there are starving for food and even basic services.

We don’t very often visit the world outside the battlefields or castle walls, where normal people scrape and scrap to make decent lives for their families. Usually, we’re caught up in the political wranglings of hierarchy and warfare. That’s kind of the larger point to the whole series – that the common folk don’t really care who the king is, so long as they’re taken care of. The squabbling is desperately important to the characters, but it truly doesn’t matter very much and distracts from what’s actually important.

So Joffrey is riding with his crew, crown-clad and stunningly adorned, through a throng of dirty, hungry commoners who take to throwing vegetables at the king, screaming that he’s a bastard (actually true) and that they want bread. A riot breaks out. The king escapes unscathed, but is incredulous. Don’t they know he’s the king? He doesn’t understand what their damn problem is.

I think a lot about real-world politics when I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire.” For all its glorious intrigue and warfare, it is essentially a tale of governance by people who think they’re bigger than they actually are, who think that fighting battles or debating theology is what people want from their rulers. The people, meanwhile, are ancillary. Their problems go unsolved.

I think about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum debating who’s more pro-life while poverty and education go untouched as topics to be discussed by these men who may become president of the United States.

I think about Larry Behrens, the spokesman for the Public Education Department, responding to an ISPAC report explicitly detailing public-private conflicts of interest and job rigging and money-motivated policy adoption by saying “It’s unfortunate that this type of question comes up from someone known as Bill Richarson’s private investigator.”

Really? Because these are substantive, specific allegations – backed by documentation – that the administration’s reforms are motivated by money and politics. Nothing to say about that?

I think, personally, that our kings and queens and princes and sell swords and council members spend their days fighting battles that mean nothing to normal people. Then, when there’s some kind of outcry about the way things are going, they can say “Look at these things we’ve done, though! Schools are going to be graded A through F!”

“Look at these things we’ve done, though! We sold the state’s private jet!”

What does that have to do with the people? I wish I could tell you. We should not be satisfied by what we’re told is being done, not when so many people have a hard time finding bread. (Bread being a metaphor for a decent education, or a paycheck big enough to allow modest savings.)

I’ve been trying to get an interview with Skandera and with the governor. Their staffs ignore me, because I work for ISPAC. They also ignore me because I’m not interested in accepting their policies without critically thinking them through.

I’ll keep trying, and will let you know. The game of thrones is great when it’s being played by ridiculous characters in some goofy-ass fantasy world. In New Mexico and the U.S., though, it seems to only make things worse.

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The Oscars are cool (with YouTube clips to prove it)

The Oscars do not suck. They’re great. “Moneyball” is a great movie. So is “The Tree of Life.” And “War Horse.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” was a crazy, inventive, wonderful movie, and it won the Best Picture Oscar. So don’t say the Oscars are hurting Hollywood. I just listened to a guy on Studio 360 say the Oscars make movies worse – because campaigns for nominations cost so much money… and an Oscar bumps up actors’ salaries… and, remarkably, Oscars discourage more creative films from being made.

Hogwash! I complain as much as anyone about how many stupid comic book sequels we get every year, or movies based on video and board games. But Oscars aren’t part of that problem. “Winter’s Bone” last year was about a teenage girl fighting a family of meth dealers in the Ozarks, and it was nominated for numerous awards including Best Picture.

“The Hurt Locker” (about the psychology of a modern volunteer soldier) vs. “Inglourious Basterds” (about a crazy band of Jewish Nazi scalpers) vs. “Avatar” (about robots fighting dinosaurs for the soul of society) was an awesome slate of movies competing for the top prize two years ago. “No Country for Old Men” vs. “There Will Be Blood” in 2008? I still think they got that one wrong, but those are dynamic, scary, interesting movies, and the fact they faced off at the Oscars will forever bolster the legacies of each.

The show, itself, is very stupid. Fine. And we can always beef with who wins. But don’t let that distract us from the fact that every year the Oscars encourage reflection on movies – everyone’s favorite art form – and what we should see if we want to see the best.

Remember “Juno” and “Michael Clayton”? Each of those was nominated for best picture, and was rewarded for the nomination with a boost in box office. “Milk” and “Precious” weren’t just awesome movies, they had arguments to make concerning race and sexuality, arguments megaphoned by Oscar nominations.

And I still, every year, get into a conversation with someone about what a travesty it was that “Forrest Gump” beat “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1995 for Best Picture. “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption”! You tell me, in hindsight, which is the better movie between those two. (In the comments window below. Seriously.)

My personal favorite Best Picture is “Gladiator.” I was pulling for that one. Pumped a fist when it beat out “Traffic” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Adrien Brody in “The Pianist” over Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York”? Don’t get me fucking started.

The debate, though, is fun. Even if it’s stupid, it’s not nearly so stupid as some of the other things we find ourselves constantly arguing over.

So diss the show, I guess, if you wanna complain about the Oscars. But know that the awards themselves are a perfect means for showcasing movies. I think “Sideways” got robbed by “Million Dollar Baby,” and that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was egregiously shafted that year, and I think it will always be fun to have that goofy conversation. The Oscars make it possible.

Best Picture Oscar Party, with lots of “Tree of Life” screen shots

Two of the very best movies this year were “Drive” – a taut, gritty graphic novel of gangsters and a hero who almost hammers a bullet into a dude’s head – and “The Guard” – a total scream about an amoral Irish policeman, which would easily go down as the greatest, never-to-be-surpassed Will Ferrell movie ever made, if Will Ferrell had starred in it instead of Brendan Gleeson.

“Margin Call” was the most timely – personifying the greedy banking culture that killed our economy. That film’s killer cast members (Jeremy Irons OR Paul Bettany should be up for supporting actor) play high-level Wall-Street executives justifying and explaining themselves after realizing the disastrous societal crash they caused is about to begin. Compelling! Profound! “Margin Call” earned its adjectives.

Oh, and so did “Take Shelter.” And “Young Adult.” Not only were Michael Shannon and Charlize Theron (respectively) totally snubbed despite delivering two of the year’s most interesting performances, the movies themselves were truly great. And, like “Margin Call,” they boldly reflect our current times (though in totally different ways: “Take Shelter” is about a man who thinks the world’s about to end; “Young Adult” is about the culture of superficial reality television).

I could go on. Obviously. (“The Skin I Live In”! That movie was so creepy and brilliant! Bwaaaaitwuzroooooobbedwwwwaaarrggg!!!!) If you’re interested in catching up on what really were the best pictures of 2011 – a big part of the fun come Oscar time – I’d suggest renting the ones listed above.

But Oscar, as ever, picked a lot of good movies to nominate for Best Picture. While a few don’t belong, others certainly do. What follows is the argument for and against each, in descending order of how much I liked them. Keep in mind I don’t really think any of these is last year’s Best Picture, but I’m just a dude in a Jim Brown jersey typing on his girlfriend’s computer in a bar at 2:30 p.m. on a weekday.

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Didn’t see it. Good start so far. I’ve watched the trailer loads of times, and it pisses me off. Bothers me deeply, though I’m not quite sure why. The movie appears to be about a boy, played by someone I don’t want to watch (based on two minutes of preview), whose dad Tom Hanks dies in the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. The dad left a key, the kid doesn’t know what the key unlocks. He tries, successfully, to get loads of people to cry and trade gentle touching. I don’t mind 9/11 heavy and I don’t mind painful – “United 93” is so awesome – but I just could not bring myself to see this movie. It seems manipulative, maybe. Anyway, more than half of all the critics on the internet panned “Extremely Loud,” (according to Rottentomatoes.com), so it won’t win.

“Hugo”
For: Scorsese in 3D. The beloved director steps out of his wheelhouse (violent gangster movies) to direct a kid’s flick about a boy who lives in a bus station winding clocks and randomly befriends a once-great silent film director. That totally sounds like the kind of movie that would win best picture to me. There’s a lot of affection for the characters in “Hugo,” but also for movies themselves. The entire efforts seems to boil down to an argument by Scorsese that movies must be archived and saved forever, lest treasures of the past be forgotten. It practically sucks up to Oscar-voting movie makers, reassuring them that what they do matters.

Against: Scorsese has made so many movies that are better than this, and didn’t win him any Oscars (“Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Casino,” “Gangs of New York”). Also, if you actually see “Hugo,” you may find yourself growing incredibly bored as it slogs through a final third, tiresome once the mystery of the robot and the key has worn off and “Hugo” starts ruminating on a silent-film director most movie goers have never heard of and don’t really care about. Did kids really like this movie? I feel like if it weren’t so cool looking, they would hate it.

“Midnight in Paris”
For: It’s the lightest, most purely entertaining flick in the field. “Midnight in Paris” is funny, and a lot of fun. I think quite a few of us have wished at some point or another we had been born in an earlier, less stupid age. If the voters were newspaper reporters, “Midnight in Paris” would win in a landslide. Watching a likable Owen Wilson banter with Hemingway and Dali and the Fitzgeralds and all those other classic artists is a hoot, and Woody Allen’s style – where clever writing trumps all else – is totally refreshing.

Against: Has a time-travel comedy ever won best picture? I’d doubt it. “Midnight in Paris” is cool, but it feels like a lark for director Woody Allen, not a movie meant to stand as one of his greats (like “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Of course I have no way of knowing this, but it seems to me he’s just kind of goofing around with a silly script and some game actors.

“The Help”
For: This is a powerfully acted, emotionally charged film about deep-south race relations between women of the 1960s. It’s also, amazingly, a really entertaining popcorn flick. That balance is a tough trick to pull off. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are totally going to win in the actress and supporting actress categories. There’s been a lot of reporting lately on Oscar voters, and how most of them are old, male honkies. Picking “The Help” as Best Picture would counteract some recent bad press, like “See, we don’t just pick movies for old white guys!”

Against: It’s a little fecal-centric, with a pie made of poop and frequent conversations about where and when characters can go to the bathroom. “The Help” puts a glossy sheen on an incredibly serious subject – the famous murder in Jackson, Miss., of Medgar Evers gets mentioned as a brief aside. Race relations are tricky to pull off, especially framed inside America’s recent history, and while “The Help” is a serious movie, it’s also a little too cute. Still, though, I think this flick could totally upset “The Artist” and win. It has more long-term potential to be remembered for this year.

“War Horse”
For: Just last year we had a World War I movie win Best Picture (“The King’s Speech”). Let’s keep the streak rolling! There’s also the straight-forward accessibility of a plainly anti-war message. This horse’s instinct tells him to run away from fighting, and yet he finds himself running into battles. A character says that out loud. “War Horse” is a tear jerker. The production values are huge. The scene that begins with our petrified hero jumping over a tank and ends with him tangled in a mess of barbed wire might be the best I saw in any film all year.

Against it: Low on the totem pole of Spielberg-helmed classics, with a distinct lack of complexity in its characters. “War Horse” isn’t even as good as “Minority Report,” and that flick got zero Oscar love. It’s a terrific movie, but it isn’t a classic. No movie with an animal as a main character has won Best Picture. (However, four movies with animals in their titles have one best picture. Can you name them? Answer at the end of this post.)

“The Descendents”
For: The chemistry is special between Clooney, the daughters, and “‘sup-bro” Sid – like they spent a year becoming friends before filming. The acting makes this movie brisk and likable. So does the Hawaii setting, bathing all in breezy warm sunlight. The story strikes such a solid balance between sad and goofy. These characters are like our friends, fighting proudly through an awkward situation sparked by a secretive wife-and-mother’s coma-inducing jet-skiing accident. (Hyphens!) Can a person be mad at an unfaithful loved one in a coma? It’s a deep question. (I highly recommend this short piece in Slate, which makes a genius’s argument that “The Descendents” is “a sneakily profound film made by an artist in peak form.”)

Against: It’s easy to ignore the bigger themes – Are we worthy of our ancestors? – and dismiss “The Descendents” as merely very good, rather than great. It doesn’t feel like a contender. The same director, Alexander Payne, made an wonderful movie about normal, neurotic people called “Sideways” several years ago, and that movie got shafted, big time, by Oscar. I’ve argued before that movies about normal people don’t win Best Picture. That’s not completely true, though – “American Beauty” won over a decade ago. And before that, there was… uh… a very long stretch of time.

“The Artist”
For: “The Artist” appears to be the front-runner, based on everything I’ve read online. The tale of a blockbuster actor in the early 20th century, terrified by the switch from silent films to talkies, is a thoughtful take on cinema itself. More basically, the movie’s really charming and easy to enjoy. Look, we live in an age of constant noise, and there is something truly self-fulfilling about sitting through a silent movie like “The Artist” and realizing that the whole facade of “movie magic” isn’t really necessary, so long as what we’re watching doesn’t suck. Best movie dog I can remember.

Against: Front-runner backlash? “The Artist” eschews an entire essential element of modern film making: the sound effects. I don’t know if that’s a demerit, but voters are people in the movie industry, and I would think they have an opinion on the importance of sound. It’s also kind of gimmicky.

“Moneyball”
For: A hyper-intelligent, yet totally accessible, screenplay from supergod writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). Brad Pitt is one of almost everyone’s favorite actors, and he is scary sharp in “Moneyball,” absolutely in the zone spitting Sorkin’s cutting dialogue. Pitt’s star power dominates the film, intimidating the hell out of everyone around him, and raises the entire project to another level like no other performance in any of the rest of these Best-Picture nominees. I hope he wins Best Actor. There’s something unique and wonderful about a movie this entertaining actually teaching its viewers something fascinating about a subject so elemental as baseball.

Against: It’s a sports movie. Perhaps the baseball-is-mathematics ethos – really, a reflection on how far the game has come at its highest level – won’t stick with older, stuffy Oscar voters. Most voters, I’ve read, are movie producers. Based on what’s out there, it doesn’t seem that a talkative think piece like “Moneyball” is what they believe people want to watch.

“The Tree of Life”
For: This film is like the world’s greatest art gallery – a collection of images and sounds, tenuously tied together through a few common characters and themes. I have never seen such eye-popping cinematography. Really. Each shot is amazing, whether we’re in a post-war America suburban front lawn or at the center of the universe watching creation crank up. “Tree of Life” is more ambitious than any other film in the slate, by far. It tries to harness and portray the meaning of life by drawing a line from the Big Bang to a family in 1950s Texas to modern cities full of sky scrapers. Remarkably, it works.

Against: Artsy like you wouldn’t believe. This is an abstract film with none of the story elements we take for granted, like a story. There are almost no conversations, as the dialogue is mostly voice-over lines like “Tell us a story from before we can remember,” and “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” If you believe movies are more than just two-hour entertainments, that they can enlighten us about what it means to be alive, then “The Tree of Life” is the year’s Best Picture winner. I don’t think enough people believe that, and I’m not sure I blame them. “The Tree of Life” won’t take Best Picture, but it better win for cinematography.

Answer: “Silence of the Lambs,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The Deer Hunter,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Best Picture Oscar Party Archive: 2011

This is when the Oscars are fun, before the boring and nauseatingly self-indulgent awards show disappoints millions of film fans who talk themselves into watching it. Debating movies is one of our most popular pastimes, and the Oscars at least get us talking about good movies, reminds us they’re still out there.

I love the new Best Picture format, with 10 nominees instead of five. For two straight years now, the slate has been almost entirely terrific.

What follows is an argument for and against each nominee, listed in descending order of my own personal preference. I’m expecting my least favorite to dominate on Sunday night.

One of my favorite movie posters ever

THE KING’S SPEECH
For: It’s got British accents and a World War II backdrop, with spot-on period-piece details like clothing and architecture. The Academy Awards just love that stuff. It’s an easily digestible story: Colin Firth’s stammering Prince Albert can’t speak in public, so he searches his soul with the help of kooky supporting characters, and, by the end of the flick, he’s King George IV, his subjects spellbound by his clean oratorical delivery, uplifted in the face of coming war. It’s inoffensive and audiences can walk out feeling like they’ve learned something historical. “The King’s Speech,” was made specifically to win Oscars, and, unlike “The Social Network,” it needs this award to validate how good it is. No one will be surprised when it wins, and predictability is Oscars forte.
Against: It’s so obvious. In this new Oscar era of 10 nominated films, why select a movie that so completely fits the old-Oscar mold? They shouldn’t start nominating movies like “District 9” (last year) and “Inception” (this year) if there’s no switch in the overall ethos. If “The King’s Speech” wins this award, it’ll be the latest “English Patient,” which no one watches anymore. There is some precedent for hoity-toity British-accent fare to lose to a more entertaining movie — “Slumdog Millionaire” beating “The Reader,” “No Country For Old Men” beating “Atonement,” “The Departed” over “The Queen.”

THE FIGHTER
For: A sports movie can win best picture if it’s about boxing. See: “Rocky,” “Million Dollar Baby.” There’s honest respect for the working-class locale of Lowell, Mass., and for real-life boxer Micky “Irish” Ward’s family, including his crack-addicted brother Dicky, portrayed by Christian Bale in one of the year’s best, most interesting performances. He draws humor from a place of deep, sad regret. Star Mark Wahlberg spent 10 years trying to get “The Fighter” made; it’s a labor of love, and it shows.
Against: There’s nothing truly extraordinary or surprising about “The Fighter.” A working-class boxer earns his shot at the title? That story was more compellingly told by Ron Howard and Russell Crowe in 2005’s “Cinderella Man.” In the oft-reported history of “The Fighter” (Sports Illustrated even did a cover story), galactic Hollywood hot shots Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky all passed on the chance to take part. It’s hard to picture them doing that if this really were worthy of winning Best Picture.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
For: It mines complexity from the dynamics between family members at pivotal moments in their lives — lesbian parents bored in the suburbs, children growing up and leaving home, a late-30s sperm-donating organic farmer hipster who decides he needs more purpose in life. Those tweaks to the standard concept of nuclear-family turmoil give the film its edge, and the actors all buy in completely. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are fantastic together, and Mark Ruffalo’s Paul might be an idiot, or a jerk, or just a well-meaning guy who’s confused about what he wants. We don’t know, and that’s the point. There’s a simple concept to the filmmaking here — great actors working off a good script. It deserves credit for that.
Against: The hard-core sex scenes look like fun, but they’re sure to alienate at least a few stuffy Oscar voters, as might the progressive notion that a pair of middle-aged lesbians could be parents in a fairly normal suburban nuclear family. “The Kids Are All Right” is an entertaining little movie about regular(ish) people with problems, set in modern times. That kind of movie — “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” “Sideways” — never wins Best Picture.

127 HOURS
For: Of all the films nominated, “127 Hours” may be the most life-affirming. A cocky young outdoor adventurer re-evaluates what’s truly important in the face of slow death. What he remembers is quiet moments with family, or brief snapshots from his past that anyone can relate to, like a dumb fight with his girlfriend. In the hands of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, a master of color and movement, the story feels simultaneously tiny (one guy trapped in a crevasse) and enormous (meaning of life). That’s art. Canyonlands makes for a sensational set piece, and perhaps voters will be swayed by the guilt most Americans feel for not getting out to these areas more. James Franco is the flick’s star, and he’s co-hosting Sunday night’s awards show. He once smoked marijuana on stage at an MTV awards show, so maybe they should keep him happy.
Against: The highlight is a long, intensely graphic scene in which the main character amputates his arm with a dull knife. People were passing out at screenings, reportedly. Boyle, not nominated for best director, just won multiple Oscars two years ago for “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “127 Hours” isn’t quite on the same level. It’s heartfelt and entertaining, but it probably wouldn’t have been nominated if there were only five slots; it doesn’t tip the scales against the psycho ballerina freak-out or the stuttering king or the boy geniuses who changed culture forever.

TRUE GRIT
For: It’s the best American western since “Unforgiven,” packed with the quirky staples of other great works from directing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the closest thing we have to Hitchcock these days. Its dialogue is intricate (“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”), handled deftly by a superb cast including past Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. The film is funny and violent and rich with themes of vengeance and honor. It’s also gorgeous, shot mostly outside. Blackie the horse is 2010’s best movie animal.
Against: Great film, but everyone involved has done better work (excepting Hailee Steinfeld, who’d get my vote for Best Supporting Actress; I’ve even got a bet on her). “True Grit” made more money and earned more Oscar nominations than any of the Coen brother’s other movies, but I’d rank it as, at best, their fourth-best flick, behind “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men” and “The Big Lebowski.” It may not even be better than “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing” or “Raising Arizona” or “O Brother Where Art Thou,” either. Jesus, the Coen brothers make good movies. “True Grit” could also have used better bad guys. Frank Rich reported in the New York Times that Dick Cheney liked the film, which won’t help.

WINTER’S BONE
For: The meth-ravaged Ozark backdrop makes “Winter’s Bone” uniquely American. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Ree is tough-minded and supremely sympathetic as she struggles against corrupt law enforcement and a fiercely secretive drug culture to save from homelessness her blankminded mother and the two small siblings she’s essentially raising herself. The plight of the impoverished gets its due here. Nominations for Lawrence and, especially, John Hawkes, as Ree’s intense uncle Teardrop, demonstrate voters liked what they saw here. It also has a bunch of cute dogs, who wag their tails in response to actors’ movements. Who doesn’t love cute dogs?
Against: The linear story line and scarily insane characters give “Winter’s Bone” a pulpy, graphic-novel quality which, while totally entertaining, is not what we see in many — or any — Best Picture winners. There are nasty scenes of abuse and an unforgettably violent climax on a dark lake. Also, a squirrel gets gutted on screen. This is the one movie of the 10 that truly wins just for being nominated. It’s the biggest underdog in the field, first released all the way back in March (precedent tells us that’s too early) and carried by word-of-mouth into an Oscar contender. Again, no Oscar love for the director.

BLACK SWAN
For: Shot in a grainy, free-flowing style, “Black Swan” has a small-budget indie sensibility that should appeal to voters. The story occupies a nightmarish gray area between hallucination and reality, and rising-star director Darren Aranofsky boldly mixes thriller and horror elements into an unforgettably intense two-hour experience. And it’s about ballet! What’s more high-culture than ballerinas at the pinnacle of their craft, dueling for the lead in “Swan Lake”? The physically demanding performances are as rich and powerful as in any other movie on the slate, and Natalie Portman is absolutely the front-runner for Best Actress.
Against: It’s flat-out bonkers — a Gothic, sexual, bloody cinematic concoction featuring tawdry scenes of drug use, masturbation and unbridled lesbianism (totally unlike the homely lesbianism in “The Kids Are All Right”). “Black Swan” is constantly cringe-inducing, with nasty moments of self-mutilation (Winona Ryder sticking a nail file deep into her face isn’t even the worst of it). It won’t help the movie’s cause, I’d bet, that by the end it’s tough to tell exactly what has happened to sad, disturbed Nina Sayers.

TOY STORY 3
For: The best reviewed and highest grossing film of 2010. The animation studio Pixar is due, after cranking out masterpieces for a decade. “Toy Story 3” is the final chapter in Pixar’s flagship franchise, and it’s a deeply moving tale of unrequited love that countless schmoes can relate to. Andy doesn’t want to dump his hopelessly devoted toys, but he’s just grown past them. The regretful resignation in their plastic eyes as they come within seconds of dying might say more about mortality than any scene in any other nominated film. And Time magazine, in naming “Toy Story 3” the best film of 2010, called it “a powerful fable about needy wage slaves wedded to their servitude because it creates a sense of community more liberating than freedom.” Pretty heady for a kids’ movie.
Against: It’ll get its golden statue for Best Animated Feature, and that’ll have to be enough because cartoons do not win Best Picture. Ever. While “Toy Story 3” is rich on a lot of levels, it’s also really goofy — Ken’s clothes fetish, Buzz stuck on Spanish-speaker mode. That’ll make it easy to disregard. If Oscar was serious about “Toy Story 3,” director Lee Unkrich would probably have gotten a nomination.

INCEPTION
For: In this big-money, mass-market era of unwanted sequels and soulless remakes and movies based on Disney theme park rides and every comic book character getting his own franchise (“Thor” and “Captain America”? Really? You guys think we’ll watch anything, don’t you?), how about rewarding a massive summer action yarn that thrilled with originality? An entire city folds over on top of itself! One of the characters beats up a bad guy using the never-ending Penrose staircase! Handing this award to “Inception” would send a powerful message to the industry that pukes Fruit Loops in our face every summer and asks us to pay for it: If you make a blockbuster with big ideas and go-for-broke cleverness behind the action scenes, you can win best picture.
Against: “Inception” has the wow factor on its side, but that didn’t help “Avatar” against “The Hurt Locker” last year. Many in media (including “South Park,” which hilariously lampooned “Inception”) have noted that the script is constantly explaining and re-explaining the rules of dream invasion, to the point that it gets to be a little much. It is also a bit baffling that director Christopher Nolan didn’t get a nomination, given the film’s visuals and choreography. I get the sense Oscar just isn’t that into “Inception.”

THE SOCIAL NETWORK
For: This film is an athlete — sprinting from start to finish, jumping time at sudden moments. Its brilliant characters ninja-star each other in a screenplay that will be rightly revered for as long as there are movies. (“I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try — but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. … Did I adequately answer your condescending question?”) No other nominee is so cutting-edge, from the grayly deep-focused cinematography to the propulsive musical score to the searing characterizations of 21st-century info-tech entrepreneurs. It all clicked together into the finest film of 2010. Movie history will remember “The Social Network” as a classic.
Against: It’s too cool. The real message of this flick will be lost on an older audience that doesn’t understand how much social networking is changing personal interactions, changing the meaning of “friend.” “The Social Network” is more an essay, a commentary, than a drama. It doesn’t get the facts quite right, but it doesn’t want to. Of course, these guys didn’t talk to one another like that; of course, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had friends he cared about. This is allegory, and I don’t think Oscar digs allegory. “There Will Be Blood” was the same way, its main character a dark personification of an important shift in culture, and it lost the Best Picture Oscar it deserved. Oscar tends to miss the boat in these moments. Congratulations, “The King’s Speech.”

Best Picture Oscar Party Archives: 2010

The experiment worked. There are 10 best picture nominees for the first time since 1943 (when “Casablanca” won), and what initially seemed a contrived attempt at gladhanding to date-nighters has instead spawned the most fascinating top-honor Oscar race since “Forrest Gump” fleeced “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1994.

Which will always be stupid.

Fans of movie Web sites have probably bought the common wisdom floating about, that Sunday’s top honor is a two-horse race between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker.” Hogwash!

“Avatar” is a science fiction movie, and no science fiction flick has ever won Best Picture (not even “Star Wars” in 1977).

“The Hurt Locker” is an action-packed war film, and one of those hasn’t won the top prize since “Platoon” in 1986 (not even 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”).

This is not to discount either movie, but with such an eclectic lineup of 10 films, almost all of them great, the race should be wide open.

Let’s consider the case for and against each nominee for best picture. (I’m not picking a winner here, but the order matters.)

Avatar = Dinosaurs vs. Robots

The Blind Side
For: It’s an unassuming, warmhearted movie about a rich white family who takes in a poor black kid. Many hugs and smiles ensue. “The Blind Side” can be enjoyed by practically any demographic — Sandra Bullock fans, football fans, children, young couples, old couples. It’s got a cute kid and football; we love cute kids and football.
Against: “The Blind Side” benefits from the new 10-movie format like no other film in the pool — it would absolutely not be nominated for best picture if there were only five slots. It’s soft and forgettable. Is “The Blind Side” better than “Remember the Titans” or “Invincible,” two of Disney’s other smashhit, sugarcoated true sports stories? Not really, so it’s certainly not a contender against the class in this category.

An Education
For: The actors and their characters are incredibly appealing, especially luminous Carey Mulligan as a teenager being wooed by a suave older rich man. (She would be my pick for best actress.) And Alfred Molina is classic as her goofy dad. Adapted for the screen by popular novelist Nick Hornby from a British journalist’s coming-of-age memoir, “An Education” is a great movie about an interesting woman, rare these days in mancentric Hollywood. The story is grounded in a recognizable reality and well-told. Until…
Against: The ending stinks. This month’s Esquire magazine awarded “An Education” its alternative Oscar for “Greatest achievement in ruinous ending of a great movie.” After an hour-and-a-half of honest entertainment, the story falls apart. The film also feels small compared to most other nominees.

District 9
For: Documentary-style storytelling makes it unique among the other nominees. A hard-core sci-fi parable for the complicated racial divides of South Africa should at least earn brief consideration from voters. (Kudos, by the way, for nominating “District 9” and not “Invictus.”) There are a lot of emotional scenes in “District 9,” as likable characters (both alien and human) meet their fates battling mighty corporate forces — with their families’ lives at stake. For all the bloodletting, it’s kind of a tearjerker.
Against: Director Neill Blomkamp not getting a nomination might indicate Oscar isn’t serious about “District 9.” The movie has an over-the-top gore-and-violence quotient, with bad guys being blown away by bizarre alien weaponry pulled straight from first-person-shooter video games, so it surely appeals more to 16-year-old boys than Oscar voters who loved “The English Patient.”

A Serious Man
For: The mind bender of the group, a post-modern hoot aimed at moviegoers who like dissecting and discussing what movies mean. Filled with weird characters and weird moments, it’s obviously good because it’s a quirky Coen brothers movie about the meaning of life. It also might be the prolific brothers’ most personal film, with nods toward their Jewish upbringing in 1960s suburbia. My favorite line in any of these 10 films might be the capper to a rabbi’s long story about a hidden Hebrew message carved on a man’s teeth: “The goy? Who cares?”
Against: It’s a dark comedy by the Coens, and some audience members simply won’t think it’s funny. Some voters might be frustrated by a movie with so many scenes where the point is that there is no point. The Coens have lots of Oscars and most recently won best picture two years ago for “No Country For Old Men.” It’s not like they’re due.

Up in the Air
For: It’s the economy, stupid, and “Up in the Air” tackles America’s present economic woes like no other film, giving it relevance the other competitors lack. It’s focused on how it feels for the working class to be suddenly jobless — when Ryan Bingham tells a laid-off auto worker “This is a rebirth,” it’s a message not just for the character but for the 10-plus percent of real-life Americans who aren’t pulling paychecks: You will be all right.
Against: No big budget. No spectacular sequences. “Up in the Air” is simply a well-acted, well-written, smart little entertainment. The nomination here is certainly warranted, and its sharp dialogue should earn a win in the adapted screenplay category, but movies with normal characters, set during modern day — “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” — don’t win best picture.

Precious
For: “Precious” is heavier with emotion than any other film in the bunch. It’s not based on true events, but the story of an obese, HIV-positive teenager — pregnant with her father’s child for the second time — feels real. And Precious may be the most sympathetic character in any film all year. For all its misery, the film is ultimately an uplifting experience. The acting is powerhouse, with lots of crying. Oscar likes crying.
Against: One reporter here summed up her negative reaction to “Precious” thus: “It’s just too much.” The comedian Mo’Nique is definitely front-running for supporting actress as Precious’s psychotic mother, but watching an innocent girl be viciously abused — emotionally, physically and sexually — gets grueling. And if Oscar voters are mostly pampered, rich white people, they may be turned off by a movie focused on black poverty.

Up
For: If critical acclaim is important for best pictures, “Up” should be a serious contender. It was the best-reviewed nominee of the year. (Big thanks to the Web site Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles hundreds of online movie reviews for every release.) The computer animation studio Pixar is due for an Oscar other than for animated feature, after a decade of entertaining the masses with masterpieces like “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.” None of those was nominated for best picture, even though they probably should have been.
Against: Quite simply: It’s a cartoon. A movie for children, no matter how much it’s enjoyed by adults, probably doesn’t stand a chance against Quentin Tarantino and heavy dramas and war films and the craziest special effects of all time.

The Hurt Locker
For: “The Hurt Locker” matters, because it’s the best film so far about Americans at war in the Middle East. If they’ve been hoping for a great Iraq-war movie to hand a statue, this is it. Director Katherine Bigelow is an action genius — the shootouts and bomb diffusions are brilliantly staged. The tension couldn’t be higher because the stakes feel real, like any tiny mistake could unleash a killer explosion. This movie is two things: a visceral action exercise and a psychologically complex depiction of what drives some soldiers to perform their dangerous jobs.
Against: A true action war film hasn’t won Best Picture since 1986’s “Platoon.” Even “Saving Private Ryan” got the shaft (and “The Hurt Locker” is no “Saving Private Ryan”). While the film respects its characters profoundly, this is not an especially patriotic picture — the protagonist is an adrenaline-junkie team commander who purposely makes bad decisions at crucial moments. His mixed motivations give the movie an awkward tone. While that’s probably intentional, it’s also a little unsettling.

Inglourious Basterds
For: Starting at a jaw-clenching, riveting opening, one agonizingly intense scene gives way to another until “Inglourious Basterds” hits a climax so insane it takes the revenge theme director Quentin Tarantino loves so much to an entirely new level. This is a World War II film about Jews getting righteous, bloody, explosive revenge on Hitler’s Nazis. The Tarantino staples are here: Rich characters with interesting things to say and sudden, startling moments of incredible violence. It’s also a lot of fun, with a terrific turn by superstar Brad Pitt as the leader of the Basterds, matched against a slithering Christoph Waltz giving what might be the year’s single best performance as the villainous Jew Hunter.
Against: If Tarantino wins the Oscar for best original screenplay (he should), and Waltz wins best supporting actor (he should) then voters might feel “Inglourious Basterds” has been sufficiently honored. Even if those two things don’t happen, the scalpings, suicide bombings and baseball-bat head bashings might be too much nastiness for some. If “Pulp Fiction” couldn’t win a best picture Oscar, “Inglourious Basterds” can be easily passed over.

Avatar
For: Medium matters, and “Avatar” unleashes what’s visually possible on film like no other movie in decades. A tired cliche fits: It raised the bar. If this year’s Oscar night draws record TV ratings, it’ll be because of “Avatar,” the highest-grossing flick of all time. As a country, we loved it, and while its writing or acting may not hold up against the other nominees, as an experience it was unmatched. “Avatar” may be too big and too lucrative for movie-mogul voters to pass up. If voters are thinking about legacy, it’s tough to argue against “Avatar” being remembered as the seminal movie of 2009.
Against: Historic popularity also makes “Avatar” very polarizing. The plot turns off many; some say the love story is cliche’d and hokey; some say the pro-environmental, pro-indigenous politics come on too heavy. The budget is reportedly between $250 and $300 million, which doesn’t exactly give “Avatar” purist credibility. Big, spectacular special effects movies make a lot of money, but they don’t necessarily win the prestigious Oscars. And recall that “Star Wars” lost the best picture Oscar to “Annie Hall” in 1977, begging a question: Does this year have an “Annie Hall”?

That article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. I couldn’t get rid of the underlining. It doesn’t show up on the dashboard.

Legislature Super Diary from the Fun Part of Hell: Entry No. 10

Speaker Lujan is a gangster.

Flip Side note: The story which follows is based on what I saw with mine own eyes and heard with mine own ears, but I will admit I had to get three people to explain the politics to me and I’m still not sure I have it totally correct.

Tonight’s House of Representatives meeting ended a lot earlier than anyone expected, because Speaker of the House Ben Lujan wanted it to.

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia has an education bill Gov. Susana Martinez wants to see passed, because it will require third graders get held back if they fail mandated reading tests. This is one of our governor’s big political issues: End social promotion. Big political issues are very, very important to the governor.

A lot of Democrats, including Speaker Lujan, don’t like the bill for varying reasons. As a vote on a different bill was being taken tonight, Garcia tried to get The Speaker’s attention. “Excuse me, Mr. Speaker?” (Keep in mind, The Speaker sits in a big, elevated chair at the front of the huge House chamber, running the meetings with his gavel. The Reps all face him from their desks.)

If Lujan had acknowledged Garcia, she would have been able to introduce her bill, and it would have had to be debated and voted on.

The House majority leader, another Dem, saw what was happening and immediately called for adjournment. Speaker Lujan said something like “We have a motion for adjournment. All those in favor signify by saying ‘aye.'”

A bunch of Dems (who must have been pretty sharp to realize what was happening just then) hollered out “Aye!”

“All those opposed,” Speaker Lujan said, “signify by saying ‘nay.'”

The Republicans, and a few Democrats including Garcia (yes, she’s a Democrat) screamed much, much louder: “NAAAAAY!!!”

“The ‘ayes’ have it,” Speaker Lujan said, punctuating with a sharp gavel bang. Immediately rose passionate calls from the floor for a roll-call vote. The Speaker ignored them. He pulled the oxygen tube from his nose, stood up, and started walking out as Representatives yelled pleas for their roll-call vote.

Lujan stopped, looked around, then walked out of the room.

Hanna Skandera is the governor’s hand-picked secretary of education. She is young, ambitious and powerful – a disciple of the Bush family, come to New Mexico from Florida to advance a hard agenda that’s much better for well-connected elites than poor rural kids in cities and small towns all over our state.

She was there Tuesday night, waiting to see this bill – her baby even more than the governor’s – get passed. As stupefied Representatives shuffled out of the chamber, Skandera was huddled with a small group.

“They can play by their rules,” she said. “We’ll play by ours.”

When you play the game of thrones, you either win… or your bill to flunk slow-reading third graders dies. Game on tomorrow.

Legislature Super Diary from the Fun Part of Hell: Entry No. 9

Rep. David Chavez is divorced.

I bring this up not because I’m an insane jerk who revels in others’ misfortune, but because Chavez is sponsor of House Joint Resolution 22: “Marriage Defined.”

As you probably guessed immediately, HJR22 puts to voters in the coming general election whether they want an amendment in the New Mexico Constitution “to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and to provide that New Mexico does not recognize marriages, civil unions or similar relationships entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or foreign jurisdiction.”

HJR22 got bitch slapped in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee this morning. Committee chair Gail Chasey tabled it (meaning it’s postponed basically forever, since the session is almost over) after commenting “My feeling is if we subject civil rights questions to voters, African Americans would not have civil rights in the south.”

I had to talk with Chavez after the hearing. I don’t understand why anyone cares if gays get married, and I really don’t understand why a politician who’s been divorced would argue for something we so often hear is about the “sanctity of marriage.”

“This is a moral issue involving defining marriage,” he said. “It has nothing to do with me. I’m not a moral compass. This is a much broader issue I’ve brought on behalf of my constituents and fellow colleagues.”

But who cares? What’s the point? Who is the state to tell people whom they can or can’t marry?

The point, Chavez said, is to “end the controversy that continues to exist.”

But who benefits from legislation refusing to acknowledge gay marriage?

“It’s biblical,” Chavez told me. “In our society it’s important to have sanctity of marriage. It needs to be defined as between a man and a woman.”

But who benefits?

“The whole conversation clarifies the definition,” he said. “It’s important the people of New Mexico get their say so. This shouldn’t be a legislative decision, it should be decided by the voters.”

Chasey didn’t think so, nor did a speaker in the committee hearing who said civil rights for a minority group should not be put up to the will of the majority.

Nor did Santa Fe city councilor Patti Bushee: “I’m an elected voice for the people of Santa Fe, given authority to create laws for people in Santa Fe, and yet in my personal life I’d be unable to marry the person I love.”

Chavez had a speaker at the hearing, too, named Tony. Tony told the committee gay marriage was becoming legal in some states because of “a very vocal minority pushing an agenda… ignoring the will of the people.”

“Don’t allow a progressive mindset or opinion to trample the sanctity of marriage,” he said.

Chavez doesn’t see a cognitive dissonance in someone who got a divorce fighting gay marriage on the sanctity-of-marriage argument. I asked about this a few different ways, and he was good enough to keep indulging me. He just wants to put the question to voters, he kept saying.

My last question was whether or not he felt this was a losing battle. Hasn’t history shown that in similar situations, the group fighting for its civil rights always prevails eventually?

He reminded me that it isn’t a civil rights issue for him. Then he said “I don’t think it’s a losing battle. These are sound principles established since the founding of this country.”

Were there gay colonists, wanting to be wed, only to be told their love for one another didn’t fit an established definition?

Happy Valentines Day, and thanks for reading The Flip Side.

Legislature Super Diary from the Fun Part of Hell: Entry No. 8

I’m sitting through a meeting of the House Voters and Elections Committee. I’m also wafting in utter essence of politics.

We think we elect people, but the legislators at the Roundhouse during this 30-day legislative session are not, actually, people. They are letters. They are either “D,” or they are “R.”

There are seven Democrats and six Republicans on this committee. They will vote on two issues over the next one-and-a-half hours : health care, and minimum wage. The votes will run straight down party lines. 7-6, 7-6.

Nate Gentry, a Republican from Albuquerque, makes the strongest impression on me of anyone here. “What does ‘affordable’ mean?” he bullshits through a smirk, exaggeratingly throwing his hands in the air, and saying over and over “I don’t mean to be flip,” even though he does.

“What does ‘accessible’ mean?” Weak.

House Joint Resolution 23 seeks to amend the New Mexico Constitution to include this: “Health care is a fundamental right that is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity. The state shall ensure that every resident has the opportunity to realize this right by establishing a comprehensive system of quality health care that is accessible to each resident on an equitable basis regardless of ability to pay.”

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) is sponsoring the resolution, and she’s brought, as an expert, a med student from UNM whose first name is James (I was late to this hearing, and trapped in my seat once I got there, so I never got his last name). Dr. James (as he shall henceforth be known on The Flip Side) is feisty, loud, and grasps this subject quite well. He appears to have put a lot of work into drafting those two sentences.

For a bill to become law, it must survive committee. “Agriculture and Water Resources,” for example, is a committee. Or “Appropriations and Finance.” Or “Indian and Cultural Affairs.” Etc…. (The one I’m at, again, is “House Voters and Elections.”)

Committee is where lawmakers make their bones, voting “Yes” or “No” based on all sorts of variables. Any of these committees can kill a bill by voting it down.

Or they can chicken out and table it, in which case it’s also dead.

This is the meat of a legislative session. It’s the whole reason all these big-shot men and women – warrior-like survivors of an odious election process – have come together in Santa Fe for 30 straight exhausting days.

To haggle over bills.

Bills to salve society’s wounds are introduced by the dozens. They swim against the current, to live or die.

The chairperson (like a capo on “Sopranos”) is overseeing this Voters and Elections meeting, and asks if anyone in the audience would like to speak against the proposed constitutional amendment. This happens at every committee meeting, for every bill.

Lots of hands go up. Seven people who identify themselves as “registered lobbyists” for various health insurance companies (United, Blue Cross Blue Shield…) stand and speak for about one minute apiece.

“…puts us on the road to socialized medicine” is one phrase that’s deployed, by a woman with short, asymetrical black hair, whose huge suit collar has sparkling little spots all over it. Also brandished about by The Seven Lobbyists is the term “fiscal impact.”

Fiscal impact. Fiscal impact. Fiscal impact.

One guy, actually here to speak on another bill, raises his hand when it’s time for supporters. He’s the only one. He says he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgekins Lymphoma some years ago and “if not for social medicine, I would not be here.”

Dr. James has to speak when the “audience” of mostly lobbyists is done. Quite loudly, he points out that the leading cause of bankruptsies in the country is health care costs, for people who already have health insurance. (When this hearing is over, Dr. James will actually flabergast one of the lobbyists by flashing her a huge smile on his way out of the room. She will act incredulous.)

And that’s besides the point, because the amendment is not for a new system of single-payer healthcare, Dr. James says. It’s “a moral step forward.” It’s “a dynamic definition to health care which may change through time.” It “obligates the state to progressive evaluation” of how well New Mexicans are being cared for, medically speaking.

The term “watered down” comes up a while later, after Gentry gets insufferably clever again. He begins to propose an amendment (to the constitutional amendment, dammit) which adds “water” and “food” before “Health care.”

Because promising health care as a right is the same as promising food and water (and “nutrition,” Gentry says in jest) as a guaranteed right, Gentry says.

I don’t get his point, and I kind of don’t want to. Please, though, explain this to me in the comments below if you understand what he’s saying.

Gentry is showboating. Seriously. Halfway through suggesting his revision, he says he’s decided to “withdraw” his amendment. Just wanted to start to suggest it to prove a point, apparently. People in the room laugh.

Revisions are made by Democrats on the committee, in hopes of recruiting Republican votes. The word “affordable” is inserted. There’s an attempt at changing the word “ensure” to “make a reasonable effort.”

The Declaration of Independence, Dr. James says, does not say “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the state can afford.”

You should never immediately blame a politician who says “I was for it before I was against it.” Good ideas get watered down to nothing in committee, squished and shaped in an effort to get Republicans or Democrats to vote against their party, which does not happen.

So the whole big machine of lobbyists turns out to be meaningless, because everyone votes based purely on partisanship. 7 D’s, 6 R’s. The lobbyists have influenced nothing. And yet there they sit, in really nice clothes, satisfied by a job done.

Next up is another bill. It wants to raise the minimum wage for the entire state, relative to inflation based on some uniform calculation. It would up the minimum wage next year from $7.50 and hour to $7.66.

All the same lobbyists who didn’t like the health care amdendment have stuck around to speak up against this minimum wage increase. I wrote a little story about it for IndependentSourcePAC.org. (Click here.)

It passes out of this committee 7-6, with everyone voting, again, straight down party lines. The Republicans do not want to increase the minimum wage to coincide with inflation, arguing it isn’t paid for. The Democrats do.

7-6.

Switch one person here from “”D” to “R” – or the other way around – and these bills amount to nothing. Laws about health care, or what the poorest people in New Mexico earn to buy anything, are at the mercy of these 11-person committees.

If I have a point here, and I’m not sure I do, it’s this: These all seem like nice people (except for Gentry), but they vote with their party. Each and every one of them.

Legislature Super Diary from the Fun Part of Hell: Entry No. 7

“Dude, you’re gonna throw me under the bus.”

The print media gallery at the House of Representatives is packed with journos right now, breathlessly anticipating debates on the New Mexico budget ($5.6 bil!) and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. I’ve got my sites set on sillier political game, though.

Weed.

Just rented “The Matrix.”

I wasn’t trying to throw Rep. Eleanor Chavez under any buses. I had a question, though, for the Democrat from Albuquerque. I don’t understand why weed is illegal. I wanted to talk with Chavez about this because she introduced a bill here to classify synthetic marijuana as a controlled substance. Meaning, you can get arrested for buying or selling it.

More prohibition?

Chavez said she introduced that bill because a constituent called her to say his daughter had been hospitalized overnight with hallucinations after smoking something called “Spice,” available at smoke shops bearing a wrapper that says “Not for human consumption.”

“It was a bill to keep kids safe,” Chavez said. (It was also pulled from committee dockets because research showed the substances in synthetic cannabis actually are already illegal.)

Alright, then. So tell me why regular marijuana should be banned from use by regular Americans.

“I think that’s a conversation we should look at.”

Do you think it should be legal?

This is when Chavez smiled, took a half step backward, called me “Dude,” and said I was throwing her under a bus.

After his State of the Union speech a couple weeks ago, President Obama answered questions submitted on YouTube and voted for by the internet-going public. According to numerous reports, 18 of the top 20 questions were related to marijuana policy.

From Slate:  The top vote-getter came from retired LAPD officer Stephen Downing, who said he’s come to see the country’s drug policies as “a failure and a complete waste of criminal justice resources.” Pointing to a recent Gallup poll that showed, for the first time, a majority of Americans in support of marijuana legalization, he asked Obama “What do you say to this growing voter constituency that wants more changes to drug policy than you’ve delivered in your first term?”

Obama says nothing about that. He wasn’t submitted the question, or any others concerning pot.

“I think it’s political will,” Chavez said, when I asked her why no politicians will try to push us toward legal weed. “I think we should look at the impact on prisons, and what we could make if we taxed it.”

Politicians don’t bring it up, though, because “they’re probably afraid of what their constituents will think.”

Is that because voters skew older and more conservative?

“I think there’s probably more support (for legalization) than people think,” Chavez said.

Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Bernalillo) isn’t afraid to rap about dope. He’s been working at the Roundhouse to strengthen the state’s medical marijuana policy, and the terms he dropped over a brief conversation in his officer included “vicious assholes in the DEA.”

McSorley has “mixed feelings,” he said, about whether weed should be legal. He wants it decriminalized, though, because he’s worried full legalization would lead to tobacco companies malevolently lording over the pot industry.

McSorley likes the idea of decriminalization, where anyone can grow and possess the drug without worrying about getting arrested.

Weed is illegal, he said, because the feds say it is, and the U.S. Supreme Court has given them that power. Since Nixon, McSorley said, every U.S. president has interfered with universities who sought to study marijuana and its effects, by threatening to cut funding.

What’s motivating the Feds?

“It’s a bounty,” McSorley said. “The DEA, the IRS… There’s lots of federal departments who get to share when there’s a seizure.”

Confiscating marijuana-related properties and materials, McSorley said, is worth between $6 and $10 billion every year to the federal government.

“I think the DEA is a program that’s out of control and in it for the money,” he said. “They’re not in it for the welfare of the people of the United States.”

Among the problems decriminalized weed would help, as McSorley sees it, is violence in Mexico: “If it were decriminalized, who would buy it from a Mexican drug lord? No one.”

New Mexico’s medical marijuana policy is famously strict, with few companies having negotiated the application process. And yet medical weed is still a million-dollar business, with seven percent of that money going into the state’s coffers from gross receipts taxes.

“And it has nowhere to go but up,” McSorley said.

Whether the federal government will ever muster the will to get progressive with this issue remains to be seen. As we stand now, Obama won’t even talk about it, even as his DEA is cracking down on state-legal retailers.

McSorley sees basic rights as one of the several dynamics at play here: “The idea the government would say the First Amendment protects religious beliefs, but is not about the beliefs people hold about their own well being…. Is this a free country?”

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