Archive for August, 2010

Republican Sleaze

August 31, 2010

The cynicism of the Republicans is just amazing. Not content with whipping up hatred of Mexicans, they’re now whipping up hatred of Muslims as well. They’ve decided that the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is a convenient straw man to use as a target for people’s anger and frustration. If this means trampling on the First Amendment and inciting violence against Muslims, so be it.

The Republican strategy really is to run as the party of “no”. They don’t even pretend to have anything to offer voters. They can’t even come up with a clever gimmick, such as the “Contract with America” that they touted in the 1994 elections. So instead they’re going to appeal to all of people’s worst instincts. In a rational world, this would be a recipe for electoral disaster. Instead, the Republicans may well win control of the House of Representatives. Why? Because our electoral system is set up so that voters have no choice but to go back and forth between two parties that don’t represent their interests. Two years ago the Republicans suffered a crushing defeat because of the recession. Now, because that recession is still with us, the voters will put these same Republicans back in office. Nobody in the media bothers to point out the obvious absurdity of all this. Instead we’re told that this is “proof” that our democratic system works. Well, yeah, I guess it does work for the bankers and for Wall Street. But not for anybody else.

Update: Newt Gingrich is to the right of Mussolini on Islam.

The Journal of Albion Moonlight

August 29, 2010

In Kenneth Patchen‘s novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, the title character leads a group of people who are fleeing across the country. We’re never told from whom they are running away or why they are running. A pack of vicious dogs is pursuing them. They are looking for a town named Galen, where they are supposed to meet someone named Roivas. At least, this is what we are told in the beginning. The details keep changing, much as they do in a dream. The point-of-view changes from the first person to the second person and back again. However, certain events keep recurring, often in altered forms. Certain ideas and characters keep reappearing. These things create a thread that give the novel a sense of continuity.

Patchen wrote this book right after the Second World War had broken out, and the war’s presence is felt throughout the novel. The dogs clearly represent the war, which threatens to destroy humanity, represented by Albion and his comrades. Patchen was a pacifist; his hatred for war and what it does to people is palpable. What also comes through is his hatred for capitalism, which he clearly sees as being at the root of the conflict. For example, he writes:

    There is only one way to end war: that is by bringing Capitalism to an end.
    There is only one way to end Capitalism: that is by Revolution.
    There is only one way for Revolution to succeed: that is by establishing a world-wide Socialism.
    This is the task of mankind. This will be done.
    Capitalism and Fascism are one under the iron mask.
    Capitalist economy leads inevitably to War;

    To fight against War is to fight against the Capitalist State.

Later, Patchen writes about an encounter between Albion and a recruiting officer:

    Recruiting Officer: Sign here.
    Moonlight: I will not.
    Recruiting Officer:Oh, you won’t, eh? Why not?
    Moonlight: I refuse to fight your war.
    Recruiting Officer: My war! What the hell… won’t you fight for your country?
    Moonlight: Yes, I will fight for my country.
    Recruiting Officer: O.K. That’s better. Here… on this line.
    Moonlight: But I told you I wouldn’t sign it.
    Recruiting Officer: Look, guy, I ain’t got all day. I thought you said you’d fight for your country
    Moonlight: I did; but you’re not my country.
    Recruiting Officer: What the hell have I got to do with it?
    Moonlight: Everything. You’re the only face of government I’ve ever seen – the mill cops, the dicks on the railroad…

Later, Albion argues with another officer:

    Number Seven: Look fellah, maybe you don’t know what you’re up against. Do you know what happens to conscientious objectors?
    Moonlight: I know what happens to soldiers when they get a bayonet in the gut.
    Number Seven: Oh, that’s it? So, you’re just plain afraid, eh?
    Moonlight: Yes, I”m plain afraid and fancy afraid, but that isn’t my reason for refusing to fight in an Imperialist war.
    Number Seven: Ahha, so that’s it – a Red.
    Moonlight: Yes, I’m a Red and a Black and a Brown and a Yellow and a White; I’m a Negro, a Chinaman, a German, a Spaniard, a Swiss.
    Number Seven: Don’t get cute…
    Moonlight: I’m the grandson of a man who was killed in a coal mine because the owners saved a few dollars on timber; I’m the son of a man who worked thirty years on a farm and was buried in a pauper’s grave; I’m the friend of a man who was lynched because he had a black skin…
    Number Seven: You dirty son-of-a-bitch…
    Moonlight: And you sit there on your flabby ass and ask me to sign a paper saying that I’ll take a rifle and shoot down my own people.
    Number Seven: We’ll take care of you.
    Moonlight: I said my own people… I refuse to kill in your defense – so long as there is war between nations, the working classes of the world will be blinded to one simple fact: that they have only one enemy – the German people, the English, the Dutch, the Japanese, the Mexican – one common enemy; and that is Capitalism.

For all that, Patchen didn’t approve of the organized Left. He ridicules the Communist Party, and he is dismissive of the Trotskyists. Patchen doesn’t try to put forward any kind of political program. He leaves it to the reader to try to find a way forward.

Another theme is Patchen’s deeply conflicted attitude towards religion. He apparently detested organized religion, yet he was obsessed with the figure of Christ, who appears as a character in the novel. There are numerous references to the crucifixion and the virgin birth. Patchen seemed to regard Christ as representing a spiritual and moral perfection that humans are not able – or are perhaps unwilling – to attain. At other times, Patchen seems to be struggling with the whole concept of God. (Not surprisingly, Patchen admired Melville.)

The novel is filled with acts of violence, some of them committed by the eponymous hero. We’re shown a world in which no one is innocent, a world where people readily betray one another. Yet there are humorous moments and even some deliberate silliness. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is not always an easy book to read. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness writing, and in some places there are two parallel texts on the same page. Yet for all that, it is the richest and most rewarding book I have read in a long time.

E-Mail from Obama

August 26, 2010

Recently I’ve found that I have somehow gotten on the Democratic Party’s e-mail list. I don’t know how this happened. I’m not registered as a Democrat. (I’m registered as a Green.) I’ve never given money to the Democrats. (I know better than that.) Nevertheless, I’ve been getting e-mails from people such as Nancy Pelosi. Normally, I just delete these things. Recently, however, I received an e-mail from no less a person than President Barack Obama himself! (Well, at least that what it says, anyway.) I felt deeply flattered that the Leader of the Free World would take time out from his busy schedule to write to such a humble person as I. Naturally, I felt curious as to what he had to say.

The message begins:

    When I took office, we had a big choice to make. We could do what was easy to get through the next election or we could do what was hard – and right – to help the next generation.

I assume that by doing “what was hard – and right”, he means caving in to the insurance industry on health care, caving in to Wall Street on finance reform, and caving in to the Israel lobby on the Middle East. I suppose it can be argued that these were hard things to do, but that doesn’t make them admirable. As for helping the next generation, I take it he means saddling them with debts for the bank bailouts and the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Thanks, Dad.

He continues:

    Our extraordinary House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and my Democratic partners in the House chose to lead.

I think he doesn’t mean “extraordinary” to be sarcastic.

    They chose to do the real heavy lifting to get our economy back on track and to restore the American dream for every American.

Huh? Since when is the economy back on track? We’re still mired in the same recession that was in effect when Obama too office. The “American dream” certainly hasn’t been restored for the millions of Americans who are watching their unemployment benefits run out. If Obama thinks he can make people believe that everything is okay with a lot of happy talk, he is sadly deluded. One of the reasons people respected Franklin Roosevelt was because he frankly acknowledged how serious the Great Depression was and how much people were suffering. This was a welcome change from Hoover’s inane assurances that “prosperity is just around the corner”. Many people have argued that Obama resembles Hoover more than he does FDR. I think the resemblance is uncanny.

Ah, but there’s more:

    Make no mistake about it. Democrats will retain the House of Representatives this year, as long as you continue working to help them win.

Yeah, just keep telling yourself that, Barack. And things are going great in Afghanistan, aren’t they?

    Tuesday marks a critical FEC reporting deadline for my friends at the DCCC, the only Democratic political committee solely dedicated to protecting the House. I’m asking for your help to make their $1 Million grassroots goal before midnight Tuesday to continue the work we’ve only just begun.

Uh, you mean shafting people?

    The steady progress we are seeing toward America’s recovery is no accident. It’s happened because I’ve had Democratic partners in the House and Senate who have chosen to tackle problems that Washington talked about for decades but always just kicked down the road. Not anymore.

No, not anymore! Now they pass phoney-baloney legislation that accomplishes nothing! What an improvement!!!!!

    From the Recovery Act, to health insurance reform, to landmark clean energy legislation, to Wall Street reform, Speaker Pelosi and Democrats in Congress have passed the bills because they put the American peoples’ interests before the special interests.

By “clean energy legislation”, he means building more nuclear reactors and doing more mountaintop removal in Appalachia. The second half of the sentence is apparently not meant to be ironic.

    Now they need your help.

Oh, they do, do they?

    I know what a difference grassroots support can make in a tough fight. In the same way that you helped me defy the pundits and stand strong against the attacks from those who wish to protect the status quo, I need your help to make a difference right now to retain a Democratic House.

This is simply nonsense.

    Contribute before midnight August 31st to make sure that I keep my great Democratic Partners in the House. Your gift today will be matched by a group of generous Democrats.

Since the Democrats receive millions of dollars from corporations (they are currently receiving more corporate money than the Republicans are), why do they need me to toss them some pennies from the piddling unemployment payments that I receive? Does the word “bloodsuckers” come to your mind here?

    There is so much more work to get done. Now is not the time to turn back.

    Now is the time to remind ourselves what we can achieve together with Speaker Pelosi leading a Democratic House for another two years.

    This is our moment to retain a Democratic House and continue America’s progress.

    Thank you,

    Barack Obama

I am tempted to send Obama (or whoever sent this e-mail) a piece of my mind, but since Obama has the same regard for civil liberties that George W. Bush does, I think that might not be a good idea.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

August 20, 2010

Whenever I’m watching a biopic, what’s usually uppermost in my mind is the question of how much of what I’m watching is bullshit. In the case of Princess Kaiulani, it was clear that it was almost entirely bullshit. Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, based on a novel by Chris Greenhalgh (who also wrote the screenplay), seems to have at least some bullshit in it, though how much I’m not sure.

The film starts out promisingly, with a depiction of the disastrous premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring in 1913, at which the police had to be called in to prevent a full-scale riot. (The filmmakers recreate Nijinsky’s controversial choreography.) The film then jumps to the year 1920. Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is introduced to Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) at a party. She invites him and his family to stay at her villa outside Paris. Stravinsky, who is living in straitened financial circumstances at the time, can’t afford to say no. Shortly after he and his family move in, he begins having an affair with Chanel. Eventually she demands that he leave his wife, Catherine (Elena Morozova). Stravinsky waffles. Finally Catherine, who has learned of the affair, decides the issue by leaving with her children. However, Chanel rejects Stravinsky at this point, apparently because she’s disenchanted with his indecisiveness. She nevertheless provides the funding for a new performance of The Rite of Spring.

The idea behind this movie apparently is that the love affair between Chanel and Stravinsky inspired them both to new levels of creativity. I didn’t really get this impression from the film, however, because Stravinsky mostly just revises The Rite of Spring. (Though Chanel does invent Chanel No. 5, which is something, at least.) I found it hard to become emotionally engaged with this film. Chanel comes across as cold and Stravinsky as self-absorbed. Perhaps they were like that in real life, but this doesn’t make for a compelling romantic film. I think I would have liked this picture better if it had shown more about the Parisian music scene of the time, instead of being so focused on the alleged romance between the title characters. Still the opening scene alone is almost worth the price of admission.

The Kids Are All Right

August 18, 2010

Hollywood doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to films about gays. The contrived and unconvincing Brokeback Mountain was considered a breakthrough. Now we have another contrived and unconvincing film, The Kids Are All Right, which has also been a subject of critical praise.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a lesbian couple who have each had a child from an anonymous sperm donor. Their children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are now teenagers. When Joni turns eighteen, Laser persuades her to get in contact with their biological father. He turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a charming and somewhat raffish character. Joni and Laser take an immediate liking to him. Through them he eventually meets Jules and Nic. Jules has just started a landscaping business, and Paul hires her to work on his yard. They begin to have an affair. Obviously this is a situation fraught with all sorts of possiblities, but the film veers into melodrama when Nic finds out about their relationship. In the film’s climatic scene, Nic righteously tells Paul that he is an “interloper” in their family – a silly thing to say, since it was her family that first approached Paul.

So, this film ends up being a cautionary tale about the need to defend the lesbian nuclear family against home-wreaking sperm donors. In attempting to depict a lesbian family, the film reverts to a tired Hollywood formula.

Another thing that bothered me about this film is that in one scene Jules fires an employee whom she suspects of knowing about her affair with Paul. She later justifies this by claiming that he was a drug addict. The film treats this sleazy behavior as a minor character flaw. This only makes the film’s melodrama even more distasteful.

Winnebago Man

August 16, 2010

The Internet continues to change our culture in various ways. In recent years we have seen the phenomenon of the YouTube celebrity (one website uses the term, “viral video superstar”.) One such person is Jack Rebney. He did an industrial film for the Winnebago company in 1989. The out takes, in which Rebney repeatedly loses his temper, were circulated on videotape among collectors. When YouTube was created, the video was immediately uploaded, and it has been viewed by millions of people since.

The documentary filmmaker, Ben Steinbauer, was curious about Rebney and wanted to know what happened to him. With the help of a private detective, he tracked down Rebney and found him living in a cabin in the mountains of Northern California. At first, Rebney tells Steinbauer that he doesn’t mind his notoriety. However, Rebney finally admits that he finds the video humiliating. He hates the Internet and he despises the people who watch the video. (He refers to them as having “room temperature IQ’s”.) With great difficulty, Steinbauer manages to persuade Rebney to attend a found video show in San Francisco. Rebney is pleased by the reception he gets there, and he finds that the people in the audience are intelligent and very appeciative of what he’s done.

I greatly enjoyed Winnebago Man. However, as I watched it, I kept getting the feeling that Rebney is perhaps a more interesting person than the filmmakers were willing to document. When they first approach Rebney, he wants to talk about his political views. They try to get him to talk about his childhood and his marriage instead. He refuses to discuss these things. At one point they try to film Rebney standing in front of a Wal-Mart, but the store manager chases them away. We never learn what it is that Rebney wanted to say about Wal-Mart. We do hear Rebney make some snarcky comments about Dick Cheney, but that is almost all we get about his politics. (In the out takes shown with the end credits, we see Rebney making fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger.) My suspicion is that the filmmakers were intent on trying to make Rebney come across as likable. I think the film might have been more interesting if they had let the old man rant.

The Beats: A Graphic History

August 13, 2010

Non-fiction graphic works are a relatively new development. Harvey Pekar has been a pioneer in this field, with among other things, his history of the SDS. The Beats: A Graphic History, written by Pekar with Paul Buhle, Ed Piskor, et al.; shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre. Although it is overall a compelling portrait of the Beats, there are some aspects of it I found unsatisfying.

The label “Beat” has been applied to a wide variety of writers and artists from the mid-twentieth century. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a hostility to convention and to societal restraints. Pekar believed that they paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960’s. Interestingly, they tended, with the notable exception of Burroughs, to come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds: Kerouac’s mother was a factory worker, Kenneth Patchen was the son of a steelworker, Slim Brundage’s father dug ditches, Diane Di Prima’s grandfather was an anarchist, and so on. They tended to be left-wing in their views (though Kerouac and Burroughs were politically right-wing). Another common characteristic among these writers was an attraction to Buddhism. Allen Ginzberg became a devoted practitioner of the religion. Philip Whalen went so far as to have himself ordained as a Buddhist monk. (William Everson, however, became a Dominican.) Pekar doesn’t try to explain this attraction. Were these people merely rebelling against the churches they were brought up in, or was there more to it than that? Sadly, Buddhism didn’t help Kerouac with the severe alcoholism that led to his untimely death. (The Buddhist writer, D.T. Suzuki, tried unsuccessfully to get him to give up alcohol for green tea.)

Pekar devotes the largest section of the book to Kerouac, Ginzberg and Burroughs. Characteristically, his portrayals of these people are unromantic. He shows their faults as well as their achievements. His portrait of Burroughs is actually disturbing. (I remember during the 1980’s, Burroughs enjoyed an eerie popularity. All my would-be hipster friends regarded him as the quintessence of cool. Of course, all that was shot to Hell when Burroughs appeared in a Nike commercial.) Some of Pekar’s portrayals of other Beats are too short and perfunctory. The effect at times is a bit like reading trading cards about Beats.

Most of Pekar’s contributions are drawn by Ed Piskor, who draws in a very traditional comic book style. The result is a bit predictable and becomes monotonous after a while. The contributions by other artists (Jay Kinney, Nick Thorkelson, Summer McClinton, Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener, Jerome Neukirch, Anne Timmons, Gary Dumm, Lance Tooks and Jeffrey Lewis) are more visually adventurous and therefore more satisfying as well as more in keeping with the spirit of the Beats.

I wish Pekar hadn’t relied so much on Piskor. However, this book is still a good introduction to the Beats.

Winter’s Bone

August 9, 2010

Winter’s Bone, which was written and directed by Debra Granik, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is set in the Ozark mountains in southern Missouri. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), whose father is a crystal meth maker. Because her father is not around much of the time, she has to take of her mentally ill mother and her younger brother and sister. The sheriff tells her that her father has put up her family’s farm as bond for an upcoming court appearance. If he fails to show, they will lose their farm. Ree sets out to find her father to make sure that he goes to court. However, her questions about her father’s whereabouts are greeted with hostility from almost everyone she meets. She gradually come to the conclusion that her father has been murdered.

There are no good guys vs. bad guys in this film. Almost everyone Ree meets is either directly or indirectly involved in the meth business. The local law enforcement proves to be corrupt. Ree shows no interest in finding justice for her father; she only wants to save her family’s farm.

Winter’s Bone is about the difficult choices individuals have to make to survive in a society that has become thoroughly corrupt. Although a bleak film, it shows a deep sympathy for its characters. I was impressed by the acting, which I found thoroughly convincing.

Highly recommended.

Defend the Fourteenth Amendment

August 9, 2010

The Republicans are talking about amending the part of the Fourteenth Amendment that says that anyone born in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen. (After the recent court ruling on Proposition 8, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to get rid of the equal protection clause as well.) This is a sinister move. After all, if being born in the U.S. doesn’t make one a citizen, then what does? This is clearly aimed at the children of immigrants, but it could have wider effects as well. If the Republicans get their way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government starts finding all sorts of excuses to strip individuals of their citizenship rights.

By all means, we should not let this happen.

A Defeat for Bigotry

August 6, 2010

A proposal to build a Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan appears to be going forward. (See here.) At a time when the right is seeking to whip up hate and fear in any way it can, it’s refreshing to see it suffer a defeat. The right’s attempt to build up hysteria over this failed to get much support, even after the loathsome Sarah Palin jumped on the bandwagon. (So much for Palin’s supposed ability to reach out to people.) The misnamed Anti-Defamation League (which is actually devoted to defaming people) also hopped on board with little effect. New York’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg refused to oppose the building. (I guess he’s too busy whipping up hatred of Mexicans.)

I could be wrong about this, but It seems to me that anti-Muslim sentiment is stronger in Europe than it is in the U.S. We don’t have the government passing laws against minarets and veils here. A recent attempt to whip up opposition to a mosque in Temecula, California fell flat. Perhaps U.S. society is too heterogeneous and too secular for this sort of thing. If that’s so, it’s one thing we have going for us.