Archive for January, 2010


January 31, 2010

I initially did not intend to see James Cameron’s latest film. I am not a James Cameron fan; I’m still traumatized by the dialogue in Titanic. (I have occasional flashbacks, but they’re becoming less frequent.) However, this film has become a subject for debate on the left. While some, such as Louis Proyect, have praised this film for its anti-imperialist message, others have complained that it follows the “White Man Saves the Natives” formula of such movies as Dances with Wolves. I felt obligated to investigate a film that has provoked so much serious debate. (Okay, the real reason I went to see this is because I’m a sucker for anything that’s in 3-D.)

The film does follow the “White Man Saves the Natives” paradigm, and it does so in a way that’s painfully predictable. Although the dialogue is better than in Titanic, it still has some clunky moments. (When Sigourney Weaver is shot in the stomach, she jokingly says, “My whole day has been ruined.” Does Cameron really believe that if he were shot in the stomach, he would say this?) Nevertheless, the most striking thing about this movie is how anti-military it is. It’s perhaps the most anti-military film I’ve seen since Dr. Strangelove. (The scene in which the army destroys the Naa’vi’s home is horrifying.) It signals a complete rejection of the militarism that has increasingly dominated American society in recent years, a militarism that is often reflected in Hollywood blockbuster films. I sometimes felt a sense of disbelief as the audience rooted for the killing of U.S. soldiers by the denizens of Pandora.

Avatar is anti-military and anti-capitalist. The fact that this is the most popular movie in America is significant. The refusal of some ultra-left blockheads to recognize this just shows how useless they are.

Oh, and the film is visually brilliant. Pandora is depicted in a thoroughly convincing manner without being a carbon copy of Earth. As for the 3-D effect, it’s pretty good. Some of the aerial scenes gave me a slight feeling of vertigo. However, a few scenes look like pop-up greeting cards.

Now, if Cameron could just learn how to write…

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

January 30, 2010

It’s been a busy week for the Grim Reaper: first Howard Zinn, then J.D. Salinger. Both men had a strong influence on American culture, albeit in very different ways. It’s been said that reading The Catcher in the Rye has virtually become a rite of passage for young people. It’s not hard to see why a young person would find the book appealing. It tells the story of a bright, idealistic teenager who is narrowly saved from going completely bonkers. A certain type of person can easily imagine this as his or her own story.

Salinger almost became more famous for being a recluse than for being a writer. In the early sixties, he stopped giving interviews and he soon stopped publishing anything. Now, one sure way to draw attention to oneself is to noisily proclaim that one wants to be left alone. Salinger reportedly built a six-and-a-half foot tall fence around his property in New Hampshire. People in that part of the country are more likely to simply put up “No Trespassing” signs. Ultimately, Salinger’s reclusion proved futile. His own daughter wrote a book about him. His former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, wrote a book describing in intimate detail how they had sex – telling us more than we ever really wanted to know about Salinger.

Mark David Chapman, the nutjob who shot John Lennon, was reportedly reading The Catcher in the Rye when the police arrested him. Perhaps one of the reasons Salinger became a recluse was that he may have sensed that his work appealed to people like that.

All of this talk about The Catcher in the Rye reminds me of a story. Years ago I worked at a bookstore. (This was before I worked for that behemoth, Barnes & Noble.) One of the managers there was the daughter of the store’s owner. (I wonder how she got her job?) It was embarrassingly obvious that she knew nothing about books. What’s more, she was often mean to the employees, and she was sometimes rude to the customers as well. One day, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, came into the store. Word went around among the employees that a celebrity was in the building. This manager got wind of this, and she asked one of the head managers who the celebrity was. This guy was a snooty little fellow who had a deliciously wicked sense of humor. He told her that Holden Caulfield was in the store. She then went around saying to people, “Holden Caulfield is here.”

I grin whenever I think of this story, but at the same time something about it strikes me as being kind of awful, partly because I feel a bit sorry for this woman, and partly because of her ignorance. I wonder what Salinger would have made of this.

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

January 28, 2010

I was saddened to learn of the death of Howard Zinn. This is a great loss, because there is no one else on the U.S. left quite like him. There is Chomsky, of course, but, because of the latter’s dry academicism, he has never been able to have the same visceral appeal that Zinn had. Through his writings Zinn was able to make people feel excited about history and about politics. He could present ideas in a way that made people care about them.

Although I knew people who knew Zinn, I never actually met him. (The closest I ever came was when I helped organize a book signing he did in Los Angeles several years ago.) I once did the lighting for an L.A. production of Zinn’s Marx in Soho, which starred Brian Jones. My job was pretty simple. I would turn the lights up at the beginning and turn them down at the end, and I would flicker them a couple of times in between. Sitting through so many performances, I got so that I could recite much of the play by heart. I was struck by the shrewd way the play is constructed. The topics are brought up in such a way as to have a maximum emotional effect on the audience. Zinn had a great feel for the theatre in addition to being a great historian.

I first heard about Zinn in the 1980’s when I was living in Massachusetts. Zinn was teaching at Boston University at the time, and he had gotten in a public feud with the university’s politically ambitious president, John Silber, a darling of neoconservatives. The media sided with Silber, portraying him as an advocate of “tough love” for the university, while dismissing Zinn as “politically correct” and clueless. It’s nice to know that Zinn had the last laugh. His reputation has grown, while Silber has been largely forgotten.

Zinn will be missed.

Broken Embraces

January 23, 2010

One of my New Years resolutions was to spend less time in bars and more time going to the movies. So yesterday I went to see Broken Embraces, a new film by the Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar. At the beginning of the film, we meet Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who prefers to be known as “Harry Caine”. He is looked after by his agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and by her son, Diego (Tamar Novas). One day someone from Mateo’s past shows up at his door, and he seems deeply disturbed afterwards. Diego demands that Mateo explain why. After some initial reluctance, Mateo opens up. He tells about how back in 1994 he directed a film called Girls with Suitcases (this was before he went blind).

The film stars an actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz), who is the mistress of the film’s producer, a wealthy financier named Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Ernesto’s creepy son, Ernesto, Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) wanders around on the set with a video camera, ostensibly doing a documentary. During the filming, Mateo and Lena fall in love with each other. Just as you expect, Ernesto learns about their affair from watching his son’s videotapes. In a jealous rage, he pushes Lena down a flight of stairs, causing her to break her leg. After the film is done, Mateo and Lena run away together. Ernesto then seeks to exact revenge on the both of them.

Throughout this film, Almodóvar maintains a careful balance between comedy and seriousness. The light-heartedness of some scenes is contrasted with the violence (both real and threatened) in others. The result is a funny, suspenseful, and ultimately moving story about a man finding peace with his past and with himself. One of the many strengths of this movie is the very good acting. (Penelope Cruz is wonderful as Lena.) I highly recommend this.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

January 17, 2010

I just saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It tells the story of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) a thousand-year old man who runs a traveling sideshow. It features a mirror through which a person can travel into another world with fantastic landscapes that reflect his or her personality. Parnassus is accompanied by his two assistants, Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer); and by his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Parnassus has made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), according to which he must give the latter his daughter when she turns sixteen, which is to happen in a few days. The troupe rescue a stranger, Tony (Heath Ledger), who then tries to help them foil the Devil’s plot.

My response to this film was mixed. On the one hand, Gilliam has a brilliant visual imagination. I envy any artist who can create the kinds of scenes he can. On the other hand, I found it hard to care about the characters in this film (though Plummer does manage to evoke sympathy as Parnassus). There were too many seemingly interminable scenes of the characters arguing with one another, and it wasn’t always clear what they were arguing about. The film really only comes alive during the scenes in the Imaginarium (including a scene that pokes fun at Bono). I should mention here that Ledger died before the filming was finished. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell successively take his place during the Imaginarium scenes. (I must say, Depp does a pretty good imitation of Ledger.)

An interesting note: Gilliam has said that Tony is based on Tony Blair, who “would say the most insane things and probably he’d believe them himself”.

This film is worth seeing for the Imaginarium scenes, but be prepared to have your patience tested at times.

Our Man in Haiti

January 15, 2010

Guess who Obama just picked to head, along with Bill Clinton, the US relief effort in Haiti? That’s right, it’s George W. Bush. Is this a sick joke or what? I guess this is just another example of the “change” that Obama promised us. This is an insult to the people of New Orleans, especially since Obama has reneged on his promise to help them. This just goes to show that in US politics nothing succeeds like failure. After all, Obama kept on Ben Bernanke as his Federal Reserve Bank chief, and he chose as his Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, whom one Wall Street analyst described as a man who “has failed at everything he ever tried to do.” Obama seems to have a soft spot for incompetent people; he picked Joe Biden as his vice president. And he picked Larry Summers as his chief economic advisor. This is a man who once said that Africa is “under-polluted”.

Sometimes one has to wonder whether Obama is extremely cynical, or whether he’s just not as smart as he sounds. He continued Bush’s bailout of the banks. He’s digging himself into a hole in Afghanistan (and soon he may be digging himself into another hole in Yemen). He’s getting ready to sign a health care “reform” bill that Americans will come to hate. His chances of getting re-elected look slimmer all the time.

Blowing My Own Horn

January 10, 2010

Since I’ve never shied away from shameless self-promotion (just ask my friends about this), I’ve decided to give myself a plug. A couple of photographs of mine can be found on an online journal, Unbound, on pages 28 and 29.

I took the photos over a year ago in Springfield, Oregon. (Yes, this is where the Simpsons live.) They had started building a housing project there just before the economy tanked. There were streetlights and sidewalks and “No Parking” signs, but no houses. At night, the streetlights would all be lit up, which, with no houses being there, made the area look eerie. The place also struck me as an ironic comment on the economy. (I haven’t been by there in a long time. I should go to see whether any houses have gone up since.) I went out there one night with a camera (the photos were all taken around midnight). I took very long exposures to try to emphasize the creepiness and loneliness of the place. I hope one day to do an exhibit that will include all the photos I took there.