Saturday, June 30, 2007

Strictly business

The Post-Gazette sounds sincerely disappointed to discover that the Pirates ownership feels no obligation to pay back the public that bankrolled, through their taxes, the ballpark that was supposed to produce a winning team:

While the public dug deep to build America's finest ballpark, the Pirate's owners have failed to match the people's investment. Compared to the rest of Major League Baseball, they spend little and pretend it will produce a lot. The fantasy of that is laid bare, woeful season after woeful season.

Yes, the fans should send a message -- and send it however they choose. Heaven knows they've done their part. Bob Nutting & Co. have not. (link)

The editorial is in reference to the planned walk-out by fans at tonight's game. Mind you, these fans will have already paid for their tickets. Sure, it may give the Nuttings some embarrassing public relations, but given all the bad press they've endured lately, I wonder how much they truly care. (Their effort to impose a media blackout on the protest not withstanding.)

And yet, I'm guessing that many of the people at tonight's game, like the Post-Gazette editorial board, not only favored public funding for PNC Park, but for the new hockey arena as well. Sure, Mario Lemieux may be more commited to winning than the Nuttings, but the principle is the same: Professionals sports teams are businesses. They have no more obligation to the public than any other business. And the public, including the government, has no special obligation to them, either.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

God Bless America

Lewis Beale levels the sweeping indictment that most American movies made about the Vietnam War are racist, and one his prime examples is the POW camp Russian roulette scene in "The Deer Hunter". This scene is problematic because it has no basis in fact, and Beale implies that its only purpose is to portray the Vietnamese as inhuman savages.

I don't know why director Michael Cimino chose to include this pivotal scene--Russian roulette also figures prominently elsewhere in the film--but the most generous interpretation is that it symbolized the war's utter futility, and the damage it wreaked on America's national psyche. (Of course, part of Beale's argument is that Vietnam War films show little concern with what the war did to the Vietnamese people.)

I've always liked "The Deer Hunter", in part for the textured performances from its leads, and in part for the portrait it paints of small town western Pennsylvania in decline. (The film's non-Vietnam scenes were set in Clairton.) Those of us who are from western Pennsylvania no doubt find some of the deer hunting scenes laughable: They were filmed in Washington state, which explains the presence of snow-capped mountains.

(Hat tip to The House Next Door.)

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

He's got my support

DeSantis for Mayor is live. (Hat tip to Rauterkus.)

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Man's reach should exceed his grasp...

I think this writer goes a bit too far in criticizing Steven Spielberg as overrated filmmaker. I have my own problems with some of Spielberg's work, which I discussed recently here. Spielberg is no fan of subtlety, refusing to allow his audience to figure out for themselves his movies' messages. He's got a weakness for sentimentality, and in some of his recent films he seems to be running up against the limits of his talents.

But he is a good filmmaker, and in the post above the writer pans some good movies, including "Catch Me If You Can" and "Munich." Perhaps on multiple viewings I'll develop the same view of the former that I've come to have of "Saving Private Ryan", but the first time I saw "Munich" it left me curled in a fetal ball on my family room sofa. Spielberg was able to illuminate the complex moral issues faced by the Israel--and by proxy, the U.S.--in hunting down and killing terrorists without being equivocal toward the Palestinians' crimes. He also brought out some fantastic performances from the likes of Eric Bana and Daniel Craig.

"Catch Me If You Can", despite its serious overtones, was a rather whimsical film that proved Spielberg is still capable of not taking himself too seriously at times. Leonardo DiCaprio demonstrated his evolving talents, and Tom Hanks turned in a strong performance as well. (Say what you will about his Boston accent.)

I also liked "A.I.", a very strange film when one considers it was originally developed as a film by Stanley Kubrick, and then directed by Spielberg. The only thing stranger, in my mind, than a Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration would have been a Ron Howard/Kubrick collaboration. Many of the film's early scenes were shot much in the style of Kubrick, but the ending, unfortunately, was pure Spielberg. He just couldn't bring himself to end the film ambigiously, with David trapped beneath the ocean, whispering his prayer to the Blue Fairy. That was what Kubrick might have done. Instead, Spielberg granted David's wish: The robots who inherited the frozen Earth gave David one day with the mother he so dearly loved.

On second thought, maybe that was the darker ending. Many of us no doubt would cherish just one more day with a departed loved one. But what would the next day be like?

(Hat tip to The House Next Door.)

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Monday, June 25, 2007

I hate to say I told you so...

In 2004, I wrote an essay for the now defunct Pulp, criticizing the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority for giving a loan to Mt. Lebanon developer Bernardo Katz to purchase several buildings in Beechview. (It's no longer available online, but the text appears at the bottom of this post.) Katz thought he could bring high-end development to the troubled South Hills neighborhood, but he couldn't find enough private lenders who shared his vision.

Well, three years later, those buildings sit nearly vacant, and Katz now seems to be incognito:

URA Executive Director Jerry Dettore said it's been more than a year since Katz made payments on the three mortgages the URA holds for 1600, 1601, 1602 and 1619 Broadway. URA officials have discussed purchasing all of the buildings Katz owns along Broadway, Beechview and Fallowfield avenues.

"We're reluctant to foreclose on the four properties because we don't want to get into an adversarial position with him," Dettore said. "He could very well then not want to sell us the remainder of the properties."

Somehow, if I failed to make a payment for a year on my mortgage, I'm guessing my bank would not be so forgiving. I'm guessing it would take less than a year before my lender decided to get into an "adversarial position" with me.

But it gets better:

"Say what you want of Bernardo, he did assemble a number of properties," Dettore added. "In controlling property, you have a better chance of getting a really healthy mix of different tenants."

Assembling multiple buildings was an approach former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy took without success along Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown and in the North Side near the Garden Theatre. Bell was dubious of such a strategy.

"I don't understand the logic," Bell said. "We have investors and developers who are interested in these buildings. We're not in a position to act on 16 properties, but we could act on four. If four were open and running, the others would follow suit."

Surprise, surprise, Beechview residents would rather have several owners running businesses out of a handful of buildings, rather than a single owner allowing all of them to rot. What's truly shocking, however, is that the URA continues to follow a strategy for neighborhood redevelopment that has failed for at least 12 years. And if you think about it, it's the same strategy for urban redevelopment that has failed for 50 years.

Now, I'll concede that the URA's strategy in Beechview might have worked had Katz proven himself to be a more conscientious developer. Private banks also make plenty of bad loans. But if the URA is not willing to take action against developers who use its money to become absentee landlords, then the authority becomes responsible for promoting urban decay. And it's really a shame, too, because Beechview, for all its problems, seems to have a lot of character and a lot of potential. Obviously, there are people who care about the place. But Bernardo Katz isn't one of them, and I'm not sure the folks at the URA are, either.

Here's the text of my Pulp article:

The Urban Redevelopment Authority has decided to give a developer a $580,000 loan to breathe life into Beechview’s moribund Broadway Avenue business district, and City Councilman Sala Udin couldn’t be happier. Udin treated the loan as proof that the URA still has a vital role to play in reviving the city, despite its critics’ belief that, in light of the city’s budget woes, it should be scaled back or even liquidated.

Curious that Udin thinks an agency under attack for spending too much money on private development projects should answer its critics by spending money on a private development project. As reported in the Post-Gazette, Udin said that despite what critics say, the URA is necessary because commercial banks aren’t willing to risk their own money in places like Beechview, where developer Bernardo Katz says two nuisance bars are scaring away investors. (The URA loan will enable Katz to buy the two bars, which he has promised to shut down by June. He is planning a $2.2 million project that would include restaurants, coffee shops, offices and residences.)

Actually, Udin didn’t refute URA opponents’ arguments; he affirmed them. Critics of the URA don’t believe that taxpayer dollars should subsidize developments that private investors think are too shaky to risk their own money. That’s the reason no one outside the mayor’s office or the URA are surprised that Lazarus and Lord & Taylor are closing their taxpayer-subsidized Downtown stores. If there was enough of a market Downtown to support those department stores, the city wouldn’t have had to have bribed them to come in the first place.

Critics of Mayor Tom Murphy have often said that he has neglected city neighborhoods in favor of supporting large-scale development projects Downtown and on the North Shore. But what holds true Downtown holds true in the neighborhoods. Nothing in the URA’s track record would suggest that it knows better than the private market whether or not a project is a good investment. If banks (the lone exception, according to the developer, being the S & T Bank) don’t think there’s enough of a market to support new restaurants in Beechview, why should the URA?

Of course, not every taxpayer-subsidized retail development in the city has folded. In 2000, an $11 million Home Depot store opened in East Liberty with $4.6 million in city support. It’s still open and apparently doing well. But what did close was Rolliers Shadyside Hardware, not far away on Shadyside’s Walnut Street. The store had been in the neighborhood for 75 years. The new Home Depot was one factor the owners of Rolliers cited when they shut their doors for good. It’s one thing when a business has to close because it can no longer keep pace with the competition; it’s quite another when government, which is supposed to remain neutral, calls in the fix.

The other danger posed when government gets into the retail development business is that eventually, no developer will want to invest in the city—or the entire region, for that matter--without some kind of subsidy. The city is not the only guilty party here; Allegheny County and several suburban governments have been more than happy the past several years to give handouts to commercial developers. (Some of the nails in Rolliers’ coffin were pounded by The Waterfront in Homestead.) At this point, a developer looking to do business in Allegheny County would have to be crazy not to seek a subsidy. Their first obligation is to the bottom line, and if they can shift some of their costs to the taxpayers, so much the better for them. Like the spoiled children of overindulgent parents, you can hardly blame them for their behavior.

The fact is, it’s the government’s responsibility to say no. In 2002, when Continental Real Estate, the Columbus, Ohio, developer of The Waterfront, went begging for tax-increment financing to redevelop the Galleria mall in Mt. Lebanon, the Mt. Lebanon School Board—which had to approve the deal along with the county and municipal governments—refused. And guess what? While Continental made some noises about not having the cash to make every improvement they would have liked, they went ahead with the project anyway, and the Galleria has attracted high-end retailers such as Anthropologie and Pottery Barn Kids.

It’s a lesson that the URA and its apologists would do well to heed. If you put your foot down enough times, eventually your children will do what you want.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Luke W. Ravenstahl

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau has just promoted three officers with histories of domestic disturbances, and in some cases domestic violence. You got a problem with that?

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who approved the promotions, could not be reached for comment. His spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, said the mayor would not discuss the promotions or their effects on women.

"He's not going to talk about that," Doven said.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite films, the mayor's the big shot around here, and we're just some schnooks like to get slapped around. Frankly, I haven't seen this combination of incompetence and arrogance since the last time I heard the president speak.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Dark Knight

The best Batman? Christian Bale, of course.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

We could do worse

Newshoggers has a nice write-up on Ron Paul:

Whatever Paul isn't, he certainly is serious and sincere and it's not surprising that this resonates so strongly with Americans who are sick and tired of being innundated with focus-group driven sloganery, written by over-paid consultants whose main concern is protecting their next paycheck and duly delivered by slick politicians whose only concern is their next re-election campaign. Frankly, when I first heard he was running I considered backing him myself, based just on his drug war stance.


Friday, June 15, 2007

I liked the book better

I spend enough time on this blog talking about movies that I feel justified making this gratuitous link to my other blog, where I briefly discuss book-to-film adaptations.



This definitely isn't the impression of Downtown that the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership would want to leave visitors with. (Thanks to Null Space.)


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fade to black

David Chase just couldn't help, one last time, having some fun at the expense of his audience.

"The Sopranos" ended, abruptly, with the Soprano family once again sitting down to dinner in a local restaurant. As Tony, Carmela and A.J. sat waiting for Meadow, Tony kept one eye on the menu, and one eye on the door. Every person who walked in had the look of a killer, and each time a diner brushed by Tony's booth the knot in my stomach grew tighter. When Meadow finally approached the door after several aborted attempts at parallel parking, the scene flipped to the restaurant, with Tony looking up at the door one last time. Then, nothing. No music. Roll credits.

So it is for Tony Soprano. He once again has triumphed over his enemies, lived to fight another day and all that. But he's doomed to live the rest of his life having to face the door, always looking over his shoulder. He'll never be sure which of his trusted associates is a rat, the prospect that loomed over him with the unexplained disappearance of Carlo. Tony practically ran from Junior in the mental hospital where the old man is destined to spend the rest of his days, but in reality Tony would be lucky to end up like Junior: too addled even to remember his own sins.

"The Sopranos" gave us the best finale we could have reasonably expected. It certainly won't rank as one of the series' most memorable episodes, but it remained true to the show's spirit to the very end. It had some great moments, like when Agent Harris forgot himself and cheered Phil Leotardo's murder. I've always felt sorry for Agent Harris and his fellow FBI agents, always short on luck in their pursuit of Tony. In retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that he would fall prey to Tony's crude charms, and I guess there's just enough rogue in me to have been grateful to see him give Tony the information he needed to track Phil down.

No doubt anticipating this reaction on the part of his audience, Chase wasn't content merely to have Phil shot nice and clean, but to have the deed occur within full view of his wife, who in her panic leaves her SUV in gear when she gets out to help Phil. The vehicle coasts toward traffic with her grandchildren strapped into car seats in the back, and in true "Sopranos" fashion, we never see whether it is stopped in time. The final indignity for Phil was to have his face run over by the vehicle, while a bystander vomits. This was the second episode in a row in which bystanders are witness to a shooting and its aftermath; I know I'm not the first person to wonder what "The Sopranos" is trying to tell its viewers about the vicarous thrills they have sought from the show.

Yes, Tony is alive, and his family, such as it is, escaped the series unharmed as well--at least physically. Meadow wants to become a defense attorney because of the way that she has seen Italian-Americans mistreated by law enforcement, most especially her father. If she'd grown up in any other home, she tells Tony, she'd become a "boring suburban doctor." Tony lowers his head, a rueful grin on his face.

A.J. had one chance to escape--I really, really wanted him to join the Army, but he let his parents talk him out of it, and now he, like his mother, will end up a prisoner of his father's money. A.J. could have interpreted the explosion of his SUV--a gift from Tony--as a sign to flee his family's orbit. Instead, he saw it as a sign that he should start taking the bus.

As insights go, it's probably the best we can expect from a Soprano.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Cult of personality

I received the Pittsburgh Citiparks 2007 Summer Magazine this week. (I don't recall any previous editions, but perhaps it just got tossed in the trash.) I counted no less than seven pictures of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. There is, in fact, an entire page of nothing but photos of the mayor, including a close-up in which he appears to be throwing out the first pitch at PNC Park. Um, what does that have to do with Citiparks?


Monday, June 04, 2007

"Oh my God. Oh my God."

After I watched, white-knuckled, last night’s episode of “The Sopranos”, I couldn’t help think of the tagline from another HBO series, “Six Feet Under”: Your whole life is leading up to this.

Last night’s final scene perfectly captured where Tony Soprano’s life has lead him. Tony is in bed, lying alone with a gun—which I briefly thought he was going to stick into his mouth--haunted by the words of yet another dead associate. He must face the greatest crisis of his life without his most loyal men: Silvio, hospitalized with gunshot wounds from which he is unlikely to recover, and Bobby, who died in a hail of bullets in a model train store.

That Bobby should die while buying one of his beloved trains perfectly underscores the fact that he was ill-suited for the world he inhabited. Here was a man twice damned, first by birth and then by marriage. As I’ve said before, Bobby was the closest we got on this series to a genuinely likable character, and his murder was the most awful in what has been a season of superlatives on “The Sopranos.”

Bobby was Tony’s brother-in-law, and his death is a symbol of the simultaneous disintegration of both Tony’s crime family and his real family. Meadow is drifting through life, heading towards the same comfortable but hollow existence as her mother. And it has become increasingly obvious that A.J.’s depression is just another manifestation of that old Soprano family narcissism.

As for Carmela, both she and Tony seem increasingly unable to relate to normal people, as evidenced by their awkward conversation with Artie and Charmaine Bucco. The Buccos have always been a sort of Bizarro world version of Tony and Carmella. Charmaine is the kind of domineering wife that Carmela wishes she could be, and unlike Carmela, Charmaine has a financial stake in her husband’s business. Artie and Charmaine, once separated, reconciled not long after Tony and Carmela got back together, but unlike Carmela, Charmaine no doubt negotiated from a position of strength.

But perhaps the worst blow that Tony suffered was being tossed on his ear by Dr. Melfi, who has finally faced up to the fact that she’s become his enabler. We’ve seen Tony try to go without Dr. Melfi’s help in the past, and the results have not been pretty. She is an emotional crutch for Tony, and she’s also unintentionally given him advice that has helped him to be a better crime boss.

Quite frankly, it’s about time she put down her foot. Dr. Melfi is something of a surrogate for the audience, and she appears to have had her fill of Tony at the same time that we have. This season has laid bare the rot at the heart of every character on this show. After next week, I’ll miss the series, but I sure as hell won’t miss the Sopranos.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Take a bow

The approaching finale of "The Sopranos" has me thinking about what can make a series finale memorable, and what can make them fail. Pulling off a great series ending seems like one of the most daunting tasks in television. Expectations among loyal fans tend to be so high that final episodes are bound to disappoint at least some people, and I'm sure "The Sopranos", a show that seems to cry out for some final, awful reckoning, will be no exception.

A bad finale can taint a series' entire legacy, which is what happened with "St. Elsewhere", in which, in the final moments of the episode, it was revealed that the series' events all took place in the mind of an autistic boy, previously portrayed as the son of one of the doctors. The hospital was nothing more than a miniature inside a snow globe. It left the show's fans feeling cheated, as though they'd invested their time in the show all those years for nothing. Of course, one of the greatest endings in television history played on the same theme. The ending of "Newhart" showed Bob Newhart waking up from a dream, next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife on the previous decade's "The Bob Newhart Show".

The mistake that the writers of "St. Elsewhere" made was in underestimating the emotional investment that viewers had made in the show. "Newhart" had more latitude because it was a comedy (and its ending was much more clever) but the creators of a comedy can also misjudge the connection its audience has to the characters. Witness "Seinfeld", which ended with what many critics believe was a jab at the audience for even bothering to care about the show's four unlovable characters. Viewers will decide on their own what they care about, thank you very much.

To me, though, the great sin of the "Seinfeld" ending was that it was lazy. Come on, a clip show? Even "Family Ties", which loved the flashback episode more than any other show I can think of, didn't allow itself this indulgence for its finale. "Seinfeld" could have learned something from "Family Ties", an otherwise forgettable series. It's been years since I've seen it, but I recall that the "Family Ties" finale was a lot like any other episode of the show: gentle humor with a measure of family conflict thrown in.

"Seinfeld"'s meager effort aside, there is virtue in not trying too hard to make a finale spectacular. Some of the best finales have tied up a few loose ends while leaving the audience with the impression that life in the show's fictional universe will pretty much go on as it always has. That's what made the finale of "NYPD Blue" effective: It demonstrated that the transformation of Andy Sipowicz was complete, and led viewers to believe that the next day would be like any other for the detectives of the 15th squad. That's also why I so loved the "Cheers" finale. When Sam closed up the bar in the episode's final moments, it was easy to picture him opening it up again the next day. The finale also stayed true to the spirit of the show, which would have been violated had Sam and Diane, for example, decided to get married, rather than come to their senses at the last moment.

Of course, some shows seem to demand a final resolution. "M*A*S*H" simply couldn't have ended with the Korean War still going on. Sure, the real war lasted only three years, not 11 like the show, but even knowing this viewers desperately wanted these people to go back home to their families. I enjoyed the last "M*A*S*H", though it was often overwrought, particularly the stuff about Hawkeye going bonkers. "M*A*S*H*" had evolved into an entirely different show than when it started, and the finale was one of the best of the latter episodes. It also left us with one of television's most iconic scenes, when Hawkeye, leaving the camp in a helicopter, saw that B.J. had used rocks to form the word "goodbye", which he had been unable to say.

Crafting an ending for "The Sopranos" may have been particularly difficult--though David Chase has said he's always known how the series was going to end--because the show has defied the conventional narrative of television drama, in which conflicts are resolved by the end of each episode or shortly thereafter. "The Sopranos" has never been afraid to leave questions unanswered, but its audience has always had reason to hope that the big ones would get addressed sooner or later.

No more. Absent a movie, which seems unlikely, the June 10 finale will be the last time we'll see Tony and his whole rotten family. As with all the shows that came before it, "The Sopranos" has but one chance to end well.