Archive for October, 2010

Cropsey

October 27, 2010

Cropsey, which is dubiously advertised as a “horror-documentary”, is a film by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. It examines a series of disappearances of children on Staten Island in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The film begins with a discussion of urban legends, common throughout the Hudson River Valley, about a character named Cropsey, who murders children. Zeman recounts being told stories about Cropsey by counselors at a Boy Scout camp on Staten Island. In these stories, Cropsey lived in the abandoned buildings of the Willowbrook State School. This was an institution for the mentally retarded that was closed down in the 1980’s, after Geraldo Rivera did an exposé on the inhuman conditions there. (Yes, Rivera was once a serious journalist, believe it or not.)

From urban legends the film proceeds to reality. In 1987, a little girl with Down’s Syndrome disappeared on Staten Island. After an intensive search, her body was found in a shallow grave. The police eventually arrested Andre Rand, a homeless man who camped near the grounds of Willowbrook, where he once worked. Rand was eventually found guilty of kidnapping, but the jury could not agree on a verdict for murder. Since then, some people have questioned whether Rand was guilty. No physical evidence was found to connect him to the murder. The case against him relied entirely on eyewitness testimony. (The filmmakers correctly point out that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, a point that is often ignored in our criminal justice system.) The filmmakers interview police officers and others who were involved with the case, as well as Rand’s defense attorneys.

From there the film proceeds to a discussion of the community’s reaction to Rand’s arrest and conviction. Shortly after Rand’s arrest, stories began to go around that Rand was the leader of a Satanic cult that would have meetings in the abandoned Willowbrook buildings. To this day, rumors abound that Satanists meet at night in the buildings. In a questionable act of bravado, Zeman and Brancaccio go to Willowbrook at night to see if there is any truth to these stories. There, not surprisingly, they fumble around and manage to spook themselves. They begin to seem like an inept version of Scully and Mulder from The X-Files. They don’t find any Satanists, but they do come across a group of teenagers, doing the silly things that teenagers do in a place like that. These kids solemnly tell the filmmakers that the stories about Satanists are true, even though they’ve never seen any themselves.

During the filming of this documentary, Zeman and Brancaccio corresponded with Rand and spoke with people who knew him. From these letters and interviews, a portrait of Rand gradually emerges, and it turns out to be more disturbing than any urban legend. It prompts the filmmakers to suggest the disappearances of the children were in a way connected with the inhumanity of what went on at Willowbrook.

Cropsey is a rich, multi-layered documentary that touches upon issues such as what urban legends say about us, the reliability of our criminal justice system, the sensationalism of the media, the way our society treats the mentally handicapped, and the question of whether we can really know the truth about past events.

Highly recommended.

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Never Let Me Go

October 25, 2010

Since I wrote a post about Never Let Me Go, I felt obligated to go see it. In my post, I wrote that the trailer made it look like “one of those self-consciously arty, but decidedly middlebrow, British films”. Well, it turns out that is pretty much what it is, though the word “middlebrow” is perhaps too kind.

The film is set in an alternate universe, in which clones are created and then killed as adults and their organs harvested. (The word “clone” is never actually used in the film. Instead the people are referred to as “donors”.) The donors are required to keep themselves in good health, so they are forbidden to drink or smoke or do drugs; and they live in special residences. What little story this movie has is concerned with a romantic triangle among donors who grow up together: Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). As adults they hear a rumor that two donors can get a referral if they can prove they are in love with each other. In the film’s climactic scene, Kathy and Tommy tell the former headmistress of the school they went to, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), that they are in love with each other. However, she tells them the story of deferrals is a myth, and there is nothing they can do to change their fate. The film ends with Kathy looking over a field and musing that the lives of people aren’t much different from the lives of donors. Yeah, right.

The problem with this movie is that the behavior of the characters is completely unbelievable. It never occurs to anyone to try to run away or to rebel or even to protest. They don’t even rebel in a passive manner by drinking or doing drugs or smoking. (If you’re only going to live a few years, you might as well smoke.) If the women got pregnant, this would cause problems for the program, yet this never seems to occur to anyone. Because the characters are so unreal, it’s impossible to care about them. The morose background music doesn’t help.

While workers and students are protesting against neoliberalism in France, art house movie theaters in the U.S. are showing a film about people who meekly accept their exploitation and murder. This is one of the things that are wrong with this country.

Soul Kitchen

October 24, 2010

Soul Kitchen is the latest film from the German director, Fatih Akin. I’ve seen two previous films by Akin: Im Juli and The Edge of Heaven. The first is a mildly amusing romantic comedy, and the second is a “serious” film that I found shallow and dishonest. (The Edge of Heaven won the Cannes Film Festival award for best screenplay. I guess that tells us how reliable film festivals are.) His latest film is a return to comedy, a move that seems to me to be well-advised.

Soul Kitchen tells the story of Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), a restaurant owner in Hamburg. Zinos does all his own cooking, but when he injures his back, he hires a hot-tempered cook, Shayn (Birol Ünel) to take his place. Shayn’s innovative menu makes the place a hit with Hamburg’s trendy art crowd. However, a greedy businessman, Thomas Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) covets the building that Zinos owns. When Zinos leaves for China to join his journalist girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan), he puts his criminally inclined brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), in charge of the restaurant, with disastrous results.

Soul Kitchen is a better film than the earlier works I mentioned. The characters are more well-rounded and believable, and there is none of the high-minded pretentiousness of The Edge of Heaven. I found the film mostly funny, though I thought some of the slapstick was overdone. (In one scene, we are supposed to laugh when a man is thrown against a cement floor.)

Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants, and his previous films have touched upon the problems confronting immigrants in Germany. There isn’t much of that in Soul Kitchen, although it is perhaps significant that the odious Thomas refers to Zinos as “the Greek”. In one scene, it is implied that Shayn has difficulty finding work because he is Roma. Aside from that, there aren’t any politics in the film, although, considering the dismal preaching in The Edge of Heaven, that is probably a good thing.

Never Come Morning

October 23, 2010

Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative guru, once asked the most cosmically stupid question I ever heard: “Why does [Nelson] Algren always write about bums?” Well, first of all, bums exist. I’ve seen them in every part of the country I’ve ever lived in. I’ve talked to them. I have given some of them rides on occasion.

Let’s look at the question another way. Leo Tolstoy wrote about Russian aristocrats. Thomas Mann wrote about middle class Germans. You write about what you know about. That may be a platitude, but ideas become platitudes because they happen to be true. When John Steinbeck wrote about the European resistance in World War Two, the result was flat and unconvincing. He was more successful writing about Okie farmers who lost their land. This is partly because he actually talked to such people, and partly, and perhaps more importantly, because he something about the physical environment that these people lived in.

However, it was more than just familiarity that prompted Algren to write about outcasts. He believed that it is necessary for us to understand such people. In an introduction written for the 1963 edition of Never Come Morning, Algren explained his concern with society’s dispossessed:

    I felt then, as now, that the presence of the YMCA, of settlement houses and of churches… could have no greater modifying effect on incidence of local crime than so many loan agencies, so long as the people who run the schools, the people who run the churches and the banks, the people who elect people and get out the newspapers feel no identification with the outcast man and the outcast woman. Anything less than such identification is contempt – and no man is quicker to sense contempt than the outcast. None is more swift to return contempt for contempt.

He also wrote:

    Nor all your pity nor all your preaching, nor all your crusades nor all your threats can stop one girl from going on the turf, can stop one mugging, can keep one promising youth from becoming a drug addict, so long as the force that drives the owners our civilization is away from those who own nothing at all.

The novel tells the story of Bruno “Lefty” Bicek, a small-time hoodlum and aspiring boxer in 1930’s Chicago. He works for Bonifacy “Barber” Konstantine, a petty gangster and pimp. (Barber’s apartment is decorated with parrots in tiny cages, a metaphor for how he controls other people.) Bruno’s girlfriend, Steffie, is raped by thugs working for Barber and forced to work in his brothel. Meanwhile, Bruno is arrested for a robbery and spends time in jail. During this period, he is haunted by the fear that the police will discover that he once killed a man in an alley fight. After his release, Bruno is offered a large amount of money to box a well-known fighter. He sees this as his opportunity to rescue Steffi and to start a new life. However, Bruno finds that breaking free of the Barber’s control is not an easy thing to do.

Never Come Morning is a work of heart-breaking beauty. The story’s brutality is leavened by the compassion and understanding that Algren shows for his characters. I consider it one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

October 21, 2010

Instead of seeing Never Let Her Go, I went to see Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. The title made me think it would be another goofily entertaining Asian Western knock-off, similar to Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Instead, it turned out to be a remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, albeit with the setting changed to the Gobi desert some time in the past. I must admit that I’ve never gotten around to seeing Blood Simple, so I can’t compare this film with the original.

The story tells of a noodle shop owner, Wang, who learns that his wife is having an affair with his assistant. He offers to pay a local policeman to kill them. However, instead of killing the couple, he steals a gun belonging to the wife. (She bought it off a Persian trader who speaks English and wears a pirate costume.) He then goes to Wang and makes him believe he killed the couple. Wang gets the money from his safe and then pays the policeman. The policeman kills Wang and goes to rob his safe, but he finds it is locked. (Question: why didn’t he kill Wang while he had the safe open? There was nothing to prevent him from doing this.) This sets off a series of events that lead to the movie’s bloody climax.

The problem I had with this film is that the characters are so broadly drawn that it’s hard to care about them. (One of them has two enormous front teeth, like a beaver’s. I guess this is supposed to be funny.) The basic idea of the film is that none of the characters knows what is actually going on. It’s a clever idea, but the film never becomes anything more than just clever.

Not Really a Review of Never Let Me Go

October 18, 2010

I am debating in my mind whether or not to see the new British film, Never Let Me Go, which is directed by Mark Romanek and based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I looked up Ishiguro’s novel on Wikipedia, and when I read the synopsis, I was startled to learn that it has the same basic idea as The Clonus Horror, a Grade B science fiction movie that was made in 1979, and which starred Peter Graves, Dick Sargent and Keenan Wynn. (You may recall that it was shown on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.) It tells the story of a group of people who discover that they’re really clones, and they’re going to eventually be killed so their organs can be harvested. Since Ishiguro wrote the novel in 2005, I think it likely that he got the idea from The Clonus Horror. (He may have watched it on MST3K.) The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize. It did pretty well for a book inspired by a bad movie.

At first it struck me as cheesy that Ishiguro would take an idea from a movie that appeared on MST3K. On further reflection, however, I can’t really fault him for this. Having done some writing myself, I know that coming up with ideas is hard. Shakespeare had to get his stories from wherever he could find them. My problem is that I don’t know if I’ll be able to take this film seriously, knowing its origins. What’s more, the trailer makes it look like one of those self-consciously arty, but decidedly middlebrow, British films. I’ve had bad experiences with those things in the past. On the other hand, it does have Carey Mulligan, whom I liked very much in An Education. Then again, the wikipedia article says that the novel ends with the main character resigned to being killed and her organs being harvested. Yuck. The hero of The Clonus Horror at least fights back. That’s the kind of story I like to see.

Annals of Unemployment, Part 3

October 16, 2010

I started a new job this week. I figured I’d collect my last unemployment check and be done with the Oregon Employment Department. Little did I dream that the OED would find one more way to fart in my face.

I usually file my claim on Sunday, and it goes into my checking account on Wednesday. If there’s a holiday that week, it goes in on Thursday. I checked my account this past Wednesday, and the money hadn’t gone in. Since Monday was Columbus Day, I figured that must be why it didn’t go in. When I checked on Thursday, however, it still hadn’t gone in. I didn’t have time to call the OED that day, so I called them this Friday morning. I was put on hold for twenty minutes, during which time I listened to the same recorded messages over and over again. (One of them said something about this being a period of high unemployment, as if I didn’t know. It’s gotten so my brain automatically tunes out when I hear these things.) Finally, a man answered. After confirming my identity, he asked me how he could help me.

“I want to know, where’s my check?” I said.

After a moment, he said, “Your check will be mailed out today. You should get it on Monday.”

“Wait a minute, why are you mailing it out? I’m supposed to get direct deposit.”

“It didn’t transfer.”

“Uh, what do you mean, it didn’t transfer?”

“It didn’t transfer. Your next check will be direct deposit.”

I had a feeling it would be futile to pursue this topic.

“I filed my claim last Sunday. Why has this taken so long?”

“There was a hold on your claim. It was lifted yesterday.”

“Why was there a hold on my claim?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have any idea why they would put a hold on my claim?”

“I can’t say.”

“I talked to a woman last week. She said she had set everything up for me.”

“She did. It shows it right here. You talked to her on October 6th.”

“So, why was there a hold put on my claim?”

“I can’t say.”

“Who put the hold on it?”

“I don’t know.”

At that point I ended the conversation. I can tell when I’m pounding my head against a wall.

I was really depending on getting that check this week, since the OED, in their infinite wisdom, only paid me $16 last week. I won’t get the first paycheck for my job until the 21st, so, once again, I will have to ask my relatives for money.

I spent the last six months unemployed. It was a hellish experience. Anyone who thinks people like living on unemployment is an idiot. There are people in this country who have been unemployed for over two years. How these people keep their sanity, I don’t know.

The Tillman Story

October 12, 2010

The Tillman Story tells the story of Pat Tillman, who left a career as an NFL player to serve in the U.S. Army and who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. It also tells the story of Tillman’s family, who struggled against a government cover-up to find out the truth about his death. Although the film contains no new revelations, it does give an interesting and moving portrait of Tillman and his family. Tillman comes across as a complex character: a jock who liked to read books, an atheist who studied the world’s religions, a risk-taker and thrill-seeker who was also thoughtful and considerate of others. The most striking thing about Tillman, however, was his belief in keeping obligations. We learn that after his tour in Iraq, the Army offered Tillman the opportunity to return to civilian life, but he insisted on serving the full term for which he enlisted. This same sense of obligation seems to motivate the entire Tillman family in their quest to find out the truth about his death and its cover-up by the military, in the face of an uncooperative government.

The Tillman Story is not really an anti-war film, although it does mention that Tillman thought the Iraq War was illegal, and that he read Chomsky. The film does, however, paint an unflattering picture of the military. Immediately after Tillman died, the Army began covering up what happened. They lied to the media and to Tillman’s family. They invented a story about Tillman engaging in a firefight with the Taliban. They used Tillman’s death as propaganda for the war. They even posthumously awarded Tillman a Silver Star medal that he didn’t earn. Interestingly, the film tells how Tillman expressed disgust at the staged “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. Ironically he himself was later used in a similar campaign of media deception.

The Army grudgingly admitted after some time that his death was actually a “fratricide”. They became increasingly uncooperative as the Tillmans asked more questions. The film contains a radio interview with an Army colonel who mocks the Tillmans’ desire to know the truth about their son’s death. The Tillmans’ efforts culminate in a Congressional hearing. We see a group of generals, along with Donald Rumsfeld, dissembling in front of the committee, repeatedly answering “I can’t recall” to questions about the cover-up. The Congressmen listen and then thank these people for their cooperation. The Tillmans are left without answers to their questions.

The Tillman Story will serve to dispel any illusions that people may have about the military being an honorable institution or about our government caring about its citizens.

A digression: The film mentions that Tillman, who was 5’11” (the same height I am, as it so happens), was considered short for the NFL. This made me realize why I prefer college football to the NFL: the players look more like regular people.

Ted Rall

October 9, 2010

I went to see Ted Rall speak at the Eugene Public Library the other day. He was promoting his new book, The Anti-American Manifesto. Rall is an editorial cartoonist, a sometime war correspondent and President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. He started off by showing some of his cartoons. This was nice, except that he insisted on standing in front of the screen. Then he asked each person in the audience to think of two things: what could the government help with, and what was the most important global problem. He then asked a number people what they had come up with. The most common answers were health care and the environment. He then asked that those people who believed that the government would address these issues to raise their hands. Out of an audience of roughly a hundred people, three raised their hands. He then said that people in Eugene are more cynical than people in New York are.

He then pointed out that revolutions always occur when a reformer is in power. The examples he cited were Louis XVI in France and Nicholas II in Russia. (Nicholas wasn’t really a reformer. It would have been more accurate if he had said Kerensky.) He then said that Obama is about as progressive a president as we’re likely to ever get. The only way we’re going to get real change is through revolution. Rall seemed somewhat ambivalent about this. He admitted that both the French and Russian revolutions were bloody, but he argued that France and Russia are better off today because they happened.

Rall believes there could be a revolution in the U.S. He claimed that 88% of eligible voters don’t vote. (Is this true? I will have to look this up.) He refused to speculate, however, on how this would come about. He said we should not become preoccupied with “the next step”. He said he refuses to put a forward a political program, because that would be “divisive”. Maybe so, but how do we move forward without knowing what the next step should be? It seems to me that he needs to think this through more.

Nevertheless, I find it significant that a mainstream media figure like Rall is actually talking about revolution.

Annals of Unemployment, Part 2

October 7, 2010

My unemployment check this week was $16. That’s right, $16. I thought surely this must be a mistake. So I called the Oregon Employment Department. I spent twenty minutes on hold, listening to the same recorded messages over and over again, mostly telling me how to notify the Department of a change in address. When I finally got through to somebody, I told her what had happened.

“The sixteen dollars was what was left in the balance on your claim,” she explained. “I’ve set up your new claim. You’ll start receiving the checks next week.”

“Can’t I start receiving the checks this week?”

“No, because the balance on your old claim has to go to zero before your new claim can begin.”

“Do you really expect me to be able to live on sixteen dollars?”

Silence.

After a moment, she cheerily informed me that with my new claim I will be getting an extra $10 a week. I didn’t bother asking her why. I have given up on trying to understand the arcane and Byzantine rules that govern unemployment insurance in Oregon (although I consider myself an expert on how to notify the OED of a change in address). Last summer my unemployment insurance was taken away from me and then restored without any real explanation as to why.

In a situation like this, it’s tempting to vent one’s anger on the other person on the phone (and I must guiltily confess to having done this in the past). However this woman that I talked to was probably getting paid a shit wage. (What’s more, Oregon requires state employees to take unpaid furlough days.) This woman probably spends a good chunk of each day listening to people who are angry, frustrated or just depressed. The people on whom I should take out my anger are all inaccessible to me.

That’s capitalism.