Archive for November, 2010

Arcadia Lost

November 30, 2010

Phedon Papamichael’s film, Arcadia Lost begins with the story of Charlotte (Haley Bennett), who is unhappy that her widowed mother has remarried. What’s more, she doesn’t care for her new stepbrother, Sye (Carter Jenkins), who is obsessed with photographing things. During a trip to the Arcadia region of Greece, the family’s car goes off a cliff and into the ocean. Charlotte and Sye manage to escape from the car and swim to shore. There they meet Benerji (Nick Nolte), who spouts New Age gobbledegook and talks vaguely about finding a road. Benerji doesn’t seem very concerned when Charlotte and Sye tell him about what’s happened to their parents. For that matter, they don’t seem too terribly concerned themselves. For reasons that aren’t clear, they decide to follow Benerji around. During their wanderings, Charlotte meets an Australian hunk named Raffi (Lachlan Buchanan) and decides to go off with him. However, she soon realizes that he doesn’t really love her, so she goes back to Sye and Benerji. They then meet Gorgo (Dato Bakhtadze), a creepy guy who wears a monk’s outfit. At this point, Benerji, who doesn’t seem to care for Gorgo (who can blame him?) decides to take off by himself. Gorgo then tries to rape Charlotte, but Sye rescues her. After they escape from Gorgo, Sye announces to Charlotte that they must go to a place called Parnonas, but he doesn’t really explain why. He doesn’t know how to get to Parnonas, but he knows that they will find a way. They then wander around Greece for a while, until they finally arrive at Parnonas, where they immerse themselves in a lake. The film’s ending is ambiguous: it seems to suggest that it was all a dream, but then again, maybe it wasn’t.

This film is clearly symbolic. Benerji represents spirituality, while Gorgo represents materialism. Charlotte and Sye represent the innocence and restlessness of youth. The film is beautifully shot, with lots of gorgeous views of the Greek countryside. The characters undergo growth in the course of the film. Sye becomes less of a geek, and Charlotte becomes more thoughtful and serious. Still, I found it hard to care about them, since it was often unclear what their motives were. What’s more, they seemed strangely blasé about their parents’ deaths. And I found Benerji just annoying. Overall, this film doesn’t seem to accomplish its goal – whatever that is.

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Crispin Glover

November 27, 2010

Crispin Glover performed at the Bijou Art Cinemas in Eugene last week. The first part of the show consisted of a slide show in which he read passages from old books that he had rearranged into stories. The stories were surreal, mysterious and funny. (One of the books Glover used is titled Studies in Rat Catching. I will have to add this to my reading list.)

In the second half he showed a film he had made entitled It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. The film was written by, and starred, Stephen C. Schwartz, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. It is basically about a man with cerebral palsy who fantasizes about having sex with women and then murdering them. That’s pretty much all there is to this film. (Oh, and he fantasizes about necrophilia as well.) The movie is a little over an hour long, but watching it seems like an eternity.

Glover did a question and answer session after the film was over. I would have stayed for this, but it was getting late and I had to get up early to go to work the next morning. Instead I read an interview with Glover in the Eugene Weekly. The interviewer asked him about another film he made, titled What Is It?, which employs actors who have Down’s Syndrome:

    Much has been made, and I’m sure critics have been divided, about the issue of using actors with Down syndrome in the films. How would you weigh in on this debate? Is it your intention to shock your audience or to make the viewer uncomfortable?

    Most of the actors in What is it? have Down syndrome, but the film is not about Down syndrome at all. The actors in the film are not necessarily playing characters that have Down syndrome. It was and is extremely important to me that all of the actors in the film were and are treated respectfully. What is it? is my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking — specifically, anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair, looks up at the screen and thinks to themselves, “Is this right what I am watching? Is this wrong what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” And that is the title of the film.

    What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? It is a bad thing when questions are not being asked because these kinds of questions are when people are having a truly educational experience. For the culture to not be able to ask questions leads towards a non-educational experience and that is what is happening in this culture. This stupefies this culture and that is of course a bad thing. So What is it? is a direct reaction to this culture’s film/media content.

    Steve [screenwriter Steven C. Stewart, who died within a month after filming on It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. was completed] had been locked in a nursing home for about 10 years when his mother died. He had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, and he was very difficult to understand. People who were caring for him in the nursing home would derisively call him an “M.R.,” short for “mental retard.” This is not a nice thing to say to anyone, but Steve was of normal intelligence. When he did get out he wrote his screenplay. Although it is written in the genre of a murder detective thriller, truths of his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography.

Well, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE did make people uncomfortable. There was nervous laughter throughout the film, and I could hear people squirming in their seats. Some people got up and left, though they eventually came back. The film is disturbing because it was clear that Schwartz was acting out his own resentment and anger towards women, and this anger and resentment were were intimately bound up with his having cerebral palsy.

This brings me to an important question: is it sufficient for a work of art to be merely disturbing? (I would argue that the best works of art are disturbing on some level.) The world offers us an abundance of disturbing images, disturbing events, disturbing arguments, etc. Art that is merely disturbing just adds to the noise.

Subtract the shock value from It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE and you’re left with nothing. The film doesn’t even succeed on a purely technical level: the acting and direction are amateurish, and the sets and costumes look embarrassingly cheap.

Glover should stick to doing slide shows.

Heartbreaker

November 26, 2010

I’m not keen on romantic comedies. I suppose this is because they always follow a familiar pattern, with a couple of “opposites” eventually falling for each other after numerous tribulations. Also in these films the man is usually made out to be a jerk, which makes it unbelievable when the woman eventually falls for him.

The French film, Heartbreaker is one of the better romantic comedies that I’ve seen, because it has a few genuinely funny moments in it. However, it stays true to the genre by eventually sinking into complete unbelievability. The film tells the story of Alex (Romain Duris, who, although he never seems to shave, never grows a full beard), who along with his sister, Mélanie (Julie Ferrier, who was in Micmacs), and her husband, runs a business that breaks up undesired marriages. This is done by having Alex seduce the woman in each relationship. Now, obviously, any man who could do this for a living would have to be a cold-hearted bastard, yet we are supposed to believe that deep down Alex is really a decent guy.

An industrialist, Van Der Becq, hires Alex to break up the pending marriage between his daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis, who needs to have braces put on her teeth) and Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln). Alex pretends to be a bodyguard hired by Van Der Becq to watch Juliette, and he begins his usual process of seduction. However, this time, just as you expect, he actually falls in love with his intended victim. Of course the film ends with Juliette leaving Jonathan for Alex. The idea seems to be that Alex appeals to a wild streak in Juliette’s personality that the staid Jonathan can never satisfy. However, we are still left with the fact that Alex is basically a creepy sort of gigolo. (And let’s not forget his creepy beard that never seems to grow out.) Though this sort of thing apparently doesn’t bother people who like romantic comedies.

Inside Job

November 19, 2010

It is generally accepted that the 2008 financial meltdown was due to criminal behavior by the banks and by Wall Street investment firms, yet no effort is being made to bring these people to justice. Indeed, it is well known that the people responsible for the crisis have gotten richer, while millions of people who lost their jobs are still without work.

The documentary filmmaker, Charles Ferguson, is one person who refuses to accept this state of affairs. His film, Inside Job, is a thorough examination of the events leading up to the meltdown. One of the things I liked about this film is that it is unsparing towards the Obama Administration, pointing out, among other things, that it has done virtually nothing to address the problems that led to the crisis. (This is a refreshing change from the fatuous celebration of Obama’s election victory in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Years from now, people will watch that film and wonder what the hell Moore was talking about.) Another thing that I liked is that the film goes after academia, exposing the cozy relationship between university economics departments and private corporations.

One thing there could have been more of in the film is a discussion of the impact the crisis had lives of ordinary people. There is a brief segment on a couple who were conned into getting a mortgage they couldn’t afford, but no more than that. Then again, since audiences have lived through the economy of the last few years, perhaps they don’t need to be told this.

The film talked about my former employer, Countrywide Home Loans. I worked for them briefly at the time when the company was raking in money. (I didn’t last long there, I’m proud to say.) I worked in an office they had at the foot of the beautiful Santa Suzannah mountains in northwest Los Angeles. I was with a group of about thirty new hires who were being trained. A top executive from the company came to speak to us. She told us that the company’s entire income came from charging late fees on mortgage payments. (I will never forget the expression of glee on this woman’s face as she told us this.) Perhaps I was in a state of denial, but it wasn’t until I left the company that I began to put two and two together. If all their income came from late fees, they had to be luring people into getting mortgages that they couldn’t afford. At that time, Countrywide was being celebrated as one of the great success stories of American capitalism. I remember they had offices all over the Los Angeles area. A few years later they were bankrupt.

The way things are going, it looks as though there will be more Countrywides, another boom and another bust, unless people fight back against this insane system.

I strongly urge you to see Inside Job.

The East Is Red

November 15, 2010

There’s a scene in the film, Mao’s Last Dancer, in which a group of children sing The East Is Red in a schoolhouse. The lyrics to the song struck me as so incredibly fatuous, that for a moment I felt as though I were watching some anti-communist propaganda film paid for with CIA money. I found it hard to believe that those could really be the lyrics, so I looked it up on the Internet.

The East Is Red was the unofficial national anthem of China during the Cultural Revolution. I’m told that it was played over PA systems in the morning and at dusk. These are the lyrics:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He works for the people’s welfare.
Hurrah, He is the people’s great savior!
(Repeat last two lines)
Chairman Mao loves the people.
He is our guide
To build a new China.
Hurrah, he leads us forward!
(Repeat last two lines)
The Communist Party is like the sun.
Wherever it shines, it is bright.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Hurrah, there the people are liberated!
(Repeat last two lines)

Can you imagine having to listen to this every morning? This is one of the reasons that I’ve never been an admirer of Mao, and I’ve always been wary of people who admire him. The Chinese Revolution was a progressive event, in that it was a massive defeat for Western imperialism and it destroyed feudal relations in the Chinese countryside, but beyond that there’s not much that can really be said for it. Mao’s dictatorship mainly served to carry out the primitive accumulation that has made China’s transition to capitalism possible in recent years.

I had some experiences with Maoists when I lived in Los Angeles. There was a group called the Maoist International Movement (MIM). I never actually met anyone who was in this group, but I would find copies of their newspaper, MIM Notes, lying around at Los Angeles City College. I don’t remember much about it, except that it had an editorial policy of always spelling “America” as “ameriKKKa”. And I bet they thought they were really clever for doing that.

I knew some people who were in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). They seemed nice, but a bit nutty. They had a bookstore in the downtown area. I went in there once. There was a picture of Stalin on the wall. They had copies of the writings of Marx and Lenin. They also had Selected Writings of Enver Hoxha. (I bet that was a big seller.) The RCP would form front groups, usually “coalitions” centered around local issues, such as police brutality. These would attract anarchists who prided themselves on never working with “Leninists”. Eventually they would realize that the RCP was calling the shots in these groups, and they would get mad and leave. This fits in with a pattern I’ve seen over the years. When one group with a particular agenda attempts to control everything in a coalition, it usually drives other people away.

Sasquatch

November 12, 2010

When I first started this blog, one of my intentions was to write about some of the lore and history of Oregon. Clearly I’ve moved in a very different direction, but I’ve decided to try to make a return to my original aim. And what better place to start than with sasquatch (vulgarly known as “bigfoot”)? These are creatures who reportedly walk upright, are nine feet tall and covered with hair.

The name of the creature is derived from sésquac, a Salish Indian word meaning “wild man”. There are many Native American stories about tall, hairy humanoid creatures. Sasquatch is an interesting example of a Native American belief being adopted by whites.

There have been 76 reported sasquatch sightings in Lane County where I live, more than in any other county. (I’m not sure whether I should feel proud of this.) In recent years there have been sasquatch sightings in places such as Florida. At the risk of sounding provincial, I must say that I resent this. Sasquatch is a creature of the Pacific Norhtwest. It seems to me that people from other parts of the country are trying to horn in on our fun.

I must admit to being a sasquatch skeptic. Since these creatures are bipedal, they would likely be closely related to human beings. Yet there is no fossil record of nine-foot tall hominids. What’s more, I often walk through the hills of South Eugene at night, and I have yet to encounter any nine-foot tall hairy hominids Still, there are fervent sasquatch-believers. Last June a sasquatch symposium was held here in Eugene. Scholars and academics (well, they call themselves scholars and academics) from all over the world gathered together to discuss all things sasquatch. I would have liked to have gone to this event, but I couldn’t afford it, since I was broke at the time. However, I read about it in the Eugene Weekly. The big celebrity speaker at the event was Autumn Williams, author and Oregon native. According to the Weekly:

    Williams spent a good deal of time talking about a pseudonymous witness she called Mike, a “redneck” bulldozer driver from Florida, who claims to have developed close ties to a sasquatch he calls Enoch. Williams’ relationship with Mike appears to have had a profound, almost life-altering impact on her. “I felt like somebody had handed me the Holy Grail of sasquatch research,” she said of hearing Mike’s story.

    Williams attested that Mike was an “incredibly credible” witness whose stories were “detailed” and “intense” and never once changed despite several retellings. If it’s that the devil is in the details, and so is the believability of any good yarn. And, as related by Williams, Mike shared some lovely, offbeat and wonderfully colloquial observations about “skunk apes,” which is what he calls sasquatch.

This is starting to sound like a bad children’s TV show. (“Redneck Mike and His Forest Friend, Enoch”.) I was hoping for something more in the lurid manner of The X-Files. The Weekly goes on:

    Williams’ bigfoot presentation, over time, took on a distinct utopian vibe, one of rosy romantic primitivism. The underlying message of her story was that the bigfoot — community oriented, nonmaterialistic, free of artifice and, overall, purely pure as nature itself — lives a simpler, less encumbered and more peaceful way of life than human beings. In fact, it is actually us, with our alienating cities and glitzy consumer goods and fear of boredom and, as Williams put it, our constructed selves that “change on a daily basis with fads,” who must learn from the skunk apes. “We’re so far removed from what we were,” Williams said.

Yuck. This is New Age mush. This just ruins it. When I was growing up, sasquatch were terrifying creatures. I would read newspaper stories about people who claimed that sasquatch threw rocks at them and tried to abduct them. I remember when I was about twelve years old, I saw a doucmentary about sasquatch in a movie theatre. It scared the bejesus out of me. (I suspect that if I saw it now, I would just laugh at it. One can never recapture the innocence of childhood.) Now, they’re just overgrown, hirsute hippies. Boring. I think this is another example of the Disneyfication of American culture. Everything has to be made to seem as cute as a litter of puppies. Well, I won’t have it. I want my scary sasquatch back!

Mao’s Last Dancer

November 8, 2010

Mao’s Last Dancer, a film by the Australian director, Bruce Beresford, tells the story of the Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin. It is based on his autobiography. As a child, Li is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. Later, as a young adult, he goes to the United States as an exchange student. There he falls in love with an American dancer. When it comes time for him to return to China, he marries her. When he goes to the Chinese consulate to report the marriage, he is detained. An international incident ensues, in which the U.S. government negotiates for Li’s release. The consulate finally allows him to go, but they tell him that he can never return to China, and he can never speak to his family again. His marriage eventually falls apart, but all ends happily when he is reunited with his family.

Mao’s Last Dancer is not a bad film, but I didn’t find it emotionally engaging. I suppose this is because it predictably follows the pattern of so many biopics that I’ve seen: the hero encounters adversity and manages to overcome it. The most interesting parts are the ballet scenes. (Chi Cao, who plays Li as an adult, is a superb dancer.) The film touches upon the destructive effect the Cultural Revolution had on the arts in China (one of Li’s teachers is accused of being a “counter-revolutionary”). Overall, it is implicitly critical of Maoism, although it was apparently made with the cooperation of the Chinese government.

Consider this a lukewarm recommendation.

Alexander Cockburn

November 7, 2010

Alexander Cockburn’s latest post provides further evidence that he is moving to the right. He starts off by making the surprising announcement that he voted against California’s Proposition 19 ballot initiative, which would have more or less legalized marijuana use. Cockburn says he did so because “I didn’t see legalization doing our local Humboldt economy any favors, and I never liked the way the Prop was written anyway.” I take it that what Cockburn is referring to here is that the measure would have allowed the state and local governments to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana. Well, I would rather have that than people being thrown in jail for possessing the stuff. The measure was not perfect, but it was a step in the direction of eliminating this country’s draconian anti-drug laws. Cockburn is apparently less concerned about this than he is that pot growers in Humboldt County might be inconvenienced.

Cockburn then announced that he voted for Jerry Brown, and he “felt good about that too”. Brown is a rabid supporter of California’s obscene “Three Strikes” law, which has resulted in people being given life sentences for petty, non-violent crimes, and which has helped turn California’s prison system into a vast warehouse of human beings. He justifies this by saying that Brown was not as bad as his opponent, Meg Whitman. Cockburn used to be a critic of this sort of lesser evil argument. During the 2004 election, he inspired me and many other people with his steadfast resistance to the “Anybody But Bush” hysteria that was sweeping the left.

Cockburn’s website, Counterpunch, still carries some good articles, such as one by his brother, Patrick on Al Qaida, as well as one by Joseph Ramsey that rightly skewers Michael Moore. Yet Cockburn himself has become increasingly problematic. What’s more, he has become increasingly quarrelsome towards the rest of the left, as when he lashed out at Louis Proyect, who had rightly criticized him for his global warming quackery. One can only hope that Cockburn doesn’t go off the deep end the way Christopher Hitchens did.

The Oregon Elections

November 5, 2010


Six more years of this.

Here in Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District, the Democrat, Pete DeFazio, beat a bizarre Republican candidate, Art Robinson, by only six percentage points. Robinson, who has a PhD in chemistry, has called for abolishing public education. (Robinson sells home schooling kits over the Internet. I’m sure this is purely a coincidence.) Robinson denies global warming and claims that low-level radiation can be good for you. He spent an enormous amount of money on his campaign. His signs were everywhere. He even paid people to drive around with his signs stuck to their cars.

DeFazio has a reputation for being one of the more liberal members of Congress. In a liberal district, why did a right-wing nutjob like Robinson get such a large percentage of the vote? During the campaign, DeFazio made much of the fact that he voted against Obama’s stimulus bill, citing this as evidence of his “independence”. I don’t think this was too bright, considering that many people (myself included) got bigger refund checks because of Obama’s tax cuts. DeFazio should have voted for the stimulus bill and against Obama’s fraudulent “health care reform” bill. (DeFazio is terrible on immigration. He opposes amnesty and calls for beefing up “border security”.) God save us from “liberal” Democrats like DeFazio.

Ron Wyden, another Democrat, was re-elected to the Senate. Like DeFazio, Wyden had the cajones to vote against the bank bailouts, but, like DeFazio, he meekly went along with the health care flim-flam. Wyden’s opponent, somebody named Huffman, was an idiot. Huffman mailed out a campaign flyer that showed a picture of a toilet bowl. The caption read, “This is the state of Oregon’s economy.” Below that was a picture of a roll of toilet paper made out of $100 bills. The caption for this read, “This is Wyden’s plan to save it.” (The color scheme of the flyer was red, white and blue. Get it?) My mother became visibly upset when she found this in her mail. She held it out to me and said, “This is the most vulgar election ad I have ever seen.” She was so angry that she could barely speak. I took the thing from her hand and threw it in the trash. My mother is eighty-one years old, so that tells you something.

Much to my surprise, a measure to enable the medical use of marijuana was voted down. This is in a state where cannabis is a major cash crop, and where I have seen some people brazenly smoking pot in public. I’m still trying to figure out the reason for this defeat. I will write about it in a future post.

Democrats Fall Down, Go Boom

November 3, 2010

I had been planning to write another snarcky post about the stupid e-mails that the Democratic Party keeps sending me, but it began to seem to me like kicking a dead mule. It was clear the Dems were going to take a drubbing, and tonight it has come to pass. The Republicans have taken control of the House and have picked up seats in the Senate. The Democrats have nobody but themselves to blame for this. After controlling Congress for four years, they have nothing to show for themselves but a a fraudulent health care reform bill and a fraudulent finance reform bill. They made no effort to punish the banksters who wreaked the economy. They did not deserve to win these elections.

What’s sad about all this is that the Republicans truly deserved to lose. Their behavior was utterly contemptible: whipping up hatred of Mexicans and Muslims, claiming that unemployed people are lazy, and so on. They subjected us to the shenanigans of the racist and ignorant Tea Party. We can find some comfort in the fact that some of the dumber Republicans lost, such as Sharron Angle, who claimed that they have sharia law in Dearborn, Michigan. (She says she knows this because she read it in an article somewhere. So far as Angle is concerned, Dearborn might as well be on the dark side of the moon.) Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller also lost. (However, the despicable Rand Paul appears to have won.) Perhaps this will finally lay to rest the idea that Sarah Palin is an important political player in this country, but I fear that the media will find some way to spin it as a victory for the Mooseburger Lady.

Another sad note is that Russ Feingold, the only Senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act, has apparently lost.

What remains to be seen is what effect this will have on Obama. He has been in office for less than two years, and he’s already beginning to seem as irrelevant as George W. Bush did during his second term. Forget the oil spill, Obama’s Katrina was the health care bill. He used all his political capital to pass an insipid piece of legislation that will actually hurt many people. From that point on, he has been completely out of touch. Last summer he and his family went on expensive and much publicized vacations, while the country was stewing with a 20% unemployment rate. He talks about going after Social Security and Medicare, the two most popular government programs.

With the Republicans controlling the House, my fear is that Obama may be tempted to do something rash in order to regain the initiative, such as attacking Iran or something equally stupid. Whatever happens, it’s not going to be fun.