Archive for January, 2011

The King’s Speech

January 29, 2011

I went to see the British film, The King’s Speech. (I mistakenly believed the title was The King’s English. Personally, I think my title is more clever.) It was directed by Tom Hooper, based on a screenplay by David Seidler.

Prince Albert, Duke of York, the future King George VI (Colin Firth), suffers from a severe stammer. Since he is required to make speeches, this causes him some embarrassment. At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he seeks the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). With Logue’s help, George VI’s speech improves. However, his biggest test comes when he has to give a long radio address to the nation after Britain declares war on Germany in 1939.

As mediocre British films go, I found this one painless to watch. It helped that the acting was mostly very good. Firth and Rush were especially convincing. The only bad performance was by Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. He looked as though he had a severe case of gas, so much so that I almost expected him to explode.

There was one scene in this film that really bothered me, however. When Stanley Baldwin (Anthony Andrews) resigns as prime minister, he tells George VI that appeasement can’t possibly work and that war with Germany is inevitable. In reality, both Baldwin and George VI were firm supporters of appeasement (the real aim of which, by the way, was to get Germany to attack the Soviet Union). Now, it’s one thing if people want to make sentimental movies about the British royals, but it’s another thing when they falsify history. Clearly the film’s makers wanted to make George VI and Baldwin look better than they actually were. I think it’s legitimate to ask why they would want to do that.

Also Churchill is shown criticizing Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He wonders what Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) sees in her. In reality, Churchill supported Edward’s right to marry her. Again, one has to wonder what is the reason for this falsification.

Another odd thing is that while Logue’s children grow older during the course of the film, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret appear to remain the same age.

The King’s Speech has been nominated for twelve academy awards, including best screenplay. It seems that after all these years the colonials are still in awe of the British monarchy.

Van Jones

January 27, 2011

Van Jones spoke at the University of Oregon the other day. President Obama appointed Jones as his Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, but he was forced to resign after a media witch hunt, mainly over his radical associations in the past. Jones began by saying we live in an era of “hope and heartbreak”, the hope being the election of Obama and the heartbreak being the Republican backlash against that election. He then talked about his family and his upbringing. He said that people have to advance themselves on their own initiative, but that they need to a have “a ladder they can climb up”.

He then addressed the young people in the audience. Discussing laptops and smart phones, he said, “Everyone of you is a walking technological superpower.” He then urged them, “Stop using technologies as toys and use them as tools.” Well, the young people in Tunisia and in Egypt have certainly been using their technologies as tools, but I suspect that’s not what Jones was thinking about. He then made some comments about the power of diversity and the need to handle our resources better. He then said we should get unemployed steel and auto worker to build wind turbines. He also criticized the food industry for using pesticides.

He then said, “We can’t afford left vs. right”. Never mind that left and right are reflections of very real material forces in our society. “I believe in markets. I believe in free markets, so much I want to see one.” You never will, because a truly free market is an impossibility. “I like market economies, not market societies.” Uh, so, what’s the difference? “A market society means everything is for sale.” Uh, isn’t that a free market? Could you explain please? “The stereotypical left is too cynical with regards to markets.” Speaking as a stereotypical leftist, may I say that perhaps I might be less cynical if people like you made some sense when talking about markets.

Jones then said, “This is still a moment of great hope.” Oh, we’re back to that. He then went on to say something about “two little Black girls playing on the White House lawn”. Funny, I equate hope with people getting jobs. “Democracy in crisis is a failure of imagination.” No, it is a failure of capitalism. He then urged the audience, “Dream big for America.” Uh, what about actually doing something?

During the question and answer period, someone from the audience pointed out that Obama failed to use the BP oil spill as an opportunity to push for renewable energy. In response, Jones said he was tired of people criticizing Obama. “We’re still struggling to get the model right for change under a progressive president.” He then explained how a progressive presidency functions. He said that during the 1960’s, the civil rights movement and the segregationists reached a “tie”. Lyndon Johnson then “broke the tie”. This is, to say the least, a highly eccentric interpretation of what happened during the Johnson Administration. A stereotypical leftist such as myself would say that Johnson tried to co-opt the civil rights movement. Anyway, Jones went on to say that we should try to organize based on the vague and historically dubious model that he just described.

Afterwards, a friend told me he heard Jones give mostly the same speech two years ago, only then he sounded much more radical. Perhaps the change in tone is due to Jones hoping once again to play a role in the government. You would think that after what happened to him, he would feel differently. Though perhaps that brief taste of power has proved addictive. After the First World War, people had a saying, “How can you keep a man down on the farm after he has seen gay Paree?”

Angela Davis

January 24, 2011

The scholar and activist, Angela Davis, spoke at the University of Oregon, as part of its “Women of Color” conference. She began by talking about the civil rights movement. She said she thinks we should rather speak of a “freedom movement”. We “restrain our vision” by speaking of civil rights rather than freedom. She then spoke about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She pointed out that it was Black women, most of whom worked as domestics in white people’s homes, who made the boycott succeed. She said we shouldn’t measure the progress of women by how many become CEO’s, but by the progress of poor women in our society. Feminism, she argued, involves a consciousness of how capitalism and imperialism affect our world. She criticized congress for failing to pass the DREAM act. She said we have to defend the rights of undocumented immigrants.

She talked about what she called the “21st Century Abolitionist Movement”. Its first aim is to abolish the death penalty, but its ultimate aim is to abolish prisons. Discussing violence against women – which is “pandemic in the world” – she pointed out that our government has passed stricter and harsher laws against domestic violence and rape, yet the rate of such violence remains unchanged. Simply locking up violent individuals doesn’t end violence. We think of violence as perpetrated by individuals, not by institutions. “Incarceration does not challenge the social attitudes that encourage rape.”

She also talked about a trip she recently took to Colombia, where the government has embarked on a program of building huge new prisons. She talked about how farmers there are being pushed off their land, so trans-national corporations can grow sugar cane for biofuels. (The people there refer to these cane fields as “green deserts”.) She said many of these people who have been driven off their land will end up in these new prisons the government is building. It was good to hear somebody say this in Eugene, where many people have embraced biofuels as the “solution” to our energy problems.

Davis’s argument that prisons are not the solution to violence is a direct challenge to the dominant mode of thinking in our society. It is an important argument that needs to be heard.


January 21, 2011

As a child, I considered myself a connoisseur of giant monster movies. King Kong and Godzilla were the two classics, but there were various giant insect films from the 1950’s, the best of which was Them!, which is about giant ants that infest the sewers of Los Angeles (perhaps they were hoping to break into the film business.) I also remember one with a giant preying mantis. And there was Reptilicus, about a giant lizard that throws up acid on people. Then there was The Monolith Monsters, about these giant rocks that absorb people. (I remember I found this particularly disturbing for some reason.) And there was The Monster That Challenged the World, which was actually about giant snails that challenge a section of the Salton Sea. (Anyone who has ever been to the Salton Sea knows that’s a pretty good place to set a horror film.) The one that I found the scariest, however, was Kronos (I had nightmares about it), which is about a giant robot from outer space. (And what could possibly be scarier than a giant robot from outer space? Yeah, a Sarah Palin presidency, ha ha. I knew you were going to say that.)

With Monsters, the British director, Gareth Brooks, has bravely attempted to resurrect this beloved genre. A NASA probe has found samples of life outside Earth. While returning to the U.S., it crashes in Mexico. (Great, another reason for the Mexicans to hate us.) Giant creatures grow. Eventually most of northern Mexico becomes an “infected zone”. The U.S. builds a wall along its border to keep the monsters out. Now, I know that this is starting to smell like a political allegory. That’s not quite the direction this film goes in.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist working in Mexico. His boss has charged him with the task of bringing his daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) back to the U.S. Andrew takes her to Mexico’s Gulf coast, where she buys a ferry ticket to the U.S. Through Andrew’s stupidity, however, her ticket and their passports get stolen. (Yeah, this is another movie in which the guy is a total jerk, but the woman falls in love with him anyway.) In desperation, they hire some men to lead them through the infected zone to the U.S. border. Now, this is where the movie started to bug me. They then enter a rain forest. (Even a tea bagger knows that northern Mexico is arid.) What’s more, near the U.S. border they stumble upon a Mayan temple. Porter apparently assumes that most people don’t know anything about Mexico.

After a couple of horrific encounters with the monsters, which look like giant octopuses, Andy and Sam make it across the border. They find a town that has been completely destroyed. The monsters have entered the U.S. They find an abandoned gas station, where they call for help.

Spoiler Alert: I am about to give away the ending. While hiding in the gas station, Andy and Sam observe two of the monsters mating. They then realize that they love each other. I guess there is nothing more romantic that two octopoid creatures trying to reproduce.

At one point in the film it is suggested that the monsters attack people because the U.S. war planes keep bombing them, though this idea is never really developed. And it’s not clear what, if anything this film is trying to say about the current situation along the U.S.-Mexico border.

As giant monster movies go, I would say this film is much inferior to Them! and Kronos.

Amiri Baraka

January 19, 2011

The distinguished poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, spoke at the University of Oregon the other day. He began by talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the early years of the Civil Rights movement, which, he argued, began with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. He discussed the violent attacks on civil rights activists, and he drew a direct line from the terrorist opponents of that struggle to the current-day Tea Party. (He said that George Romero predicted the Tea Party with his film, Night of the Living Dead. This got a good laugh from the audience.) He talked about how King and Malcolm X both called for a “united front”. He said that people on the left with different ideologies must work together. He also defended Obama, although he admitted to having disagreements with him. He said that Obama should have taken over the banks instead of bailing them out. Yet he defended Obama’s “tax cut compromise” by saying it was necessary to help the unemployed. (Is he aware that this “compromise” undermines Social Security?) I agree with Baraka’a analysis of the Tea Party, but I don’t think that defending Obama is the best way of dealing with this problem.

During the question-and-answer session, Baraka made clear that he takes a conspiracist view of history. He believes the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were all conspiracies. I’m not keen on conspiracy theories, because I believe they lead to cynicism rather then activism. Baraka also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy by the U.S. government. He apparently doesn’t realize that if this conspiracy were real, Obama would have to be in on it.

Baraka also read some of his poems. They were funny, biting and thought-provoking.

Made in Dagenham

January 17, 2011

Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of a 1968 strike by women sewing machine workers in Britain. The women made seat covers for Ford Motor Company. The strike led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

When the 187 women who work at the Dagenham Ford plant learn that they’ve been re-classified a unskilled workers and that they are being paid less than male workers, they decide to go on strike. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) becomes the leader of and spokeswoman for the strike. Their shop steward, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), is supportive of the strike, but his superiors in the union are hostile and they go along with it with deep reluctance. Rita and a group of the strikers eventually meet with Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), First Secretary of State in the Harold Wilson government. Castle negotiates a deal in which the women receive 92% of the wage rate that the men receive.

I liked Made in Dagenham, but I thought it could have been a better movie. First of all, it devotes way too much time to Rita’s relationship with her husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays). I would have liked it if we had learned more about the other women on strike. Also, there is a sub-plot about an older worker, Connie (Geraldine James), whose husband, a World War II veteran, commits suicide. This sets up a scene in which Rita gives a patriotic speech to justify the strike. I didn’t buy it. Also, Rita finds an unlikely ally in the wife of one of the Ford executives. I found this far-fetched. And there are also too many scenes of Barbara Castle berating her dim-witted male aides. I guess this is supposed to be comic relief, but it just isn’t funny.

Still, it’s always good to see a film that celebrates the ability of workers to change things.

Note: I’m told that this film was released in Germany under the title We Want Sex. I guess something was lost in the translation.

Face of Another

January 15, 2011

Face of Another is a 1966 film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his own novel.

Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a man whose face was severely burned in an industrial accident. He suspects that his wife, Mrs. Okuyama (I’m sorry, but that’s how her name is listed in the credits; played by Machiko Kyô), no longer desires him. He persuades his psychiatrist, Hira (Mikijiro Hira), to contruct a life-like mask for him. The mask looks so real, that people think it is actually his face. Okuyama plans to seduce his wife without her knowing his real identity. He contrives a “chance” meeting with her on the street. The two have tea together, and eventually they go back to an apartment he has rented. After they make love, Okuyama decides to reveal himself to her. Just as he starts to remove the mask, however, she tells him she has known it is really him all along. She thought they were playing a joint masquerade. She is disgusted to learn that he thought he was fooling her. She leaves.

Okuyama goes beserk. He goes out and tries to rape a woman on the street, but the police stop him. They can find no identification on him, only a card with his psychiatrist’s phone number. When they call Hira, he tells them that Okuyama is an escaped mental patient. Hira comes to the police station and they turn Okuyama over to him. Hira and Okuyama walk down the street and enter a crowd of people wearing masks. They have a philosophical discussion. Hira says, “Some masks can’t be removed.” They leave the crowd. Okuyama embraces Hira in a manner that is almost sexual. The latter slumps to the ground. We then see that Okuyama has actually stabbed him. The film ends with a close-up shot of Okuyama pulling at his face. He can no longer remove his mask.

This story is interspersed with scenes from the life of a woman (Miki Irie), whose face was partially burned during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. I could not see how these scenes related to the main story. They merely seemed like a distraction. It would have been much better if Teshigahara had made a separate film about an atomic bombing survivor.

This film deals with two themes: how our sense of identity influences our behavior, and how our sense of our physical appearance influences our sense of identity. After he dons the mask, Okuyama goes out and buys flashy clothing that are unlike what he usually wears. Hira tells him that the mask is telling him what to do. It is “taking over”.

This film has some creepy moments in it. The effect is not unlike the feeling one gets from reading an Edogawa Ranpo story. Hira, for example, has a “mad scientist” air about him. In one scene, he speculates that if he were to give every person a mask, it would “destroy morality”. He seems to find this prospect enticing. Hira’s office is a bleak, seemingly formless space that could have come out of a Dali painting. At times it seems to exist in a dream world. It raises the question of whether Okuyama is actually imagining things. (This is very Ranpoesque.)

Face of Another is the third of a trilogy of films, the first two being Pitfall and The Woman in the Dunes. I’m told that when Face of Another was released, critics argued that it was inferior to the previous films. I have not seen Pitfall, but The Woman in the Dunes has a very straightforward feel to it. By comparison, Face of Another seems confusing and full of obscure symbolism, such as the crowd wearing masks. Still, I liked the film’s creepy and surreal touches.

Pentagon Official Spits on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Grave

January 15, 2011

Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson has said that if Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. You can read about it here. What a disgusting thing to say about a man who was a courageous opponent of U.S. imperialism. This was a man who once called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. That statement is even more true today than it was in King’s time. The shamelessness of these people in the Obama Administration is just vile.

U.S. Media Finally Notice Tunisia

January 15, 2011

I’ve been wondering for some time when the news media in this country were finally going to take notice of the revolution in Tunisia. I figured they would have to say something if Bin Ali were forced to flee the country. Or perhaps it just took them this long to find Tunisia on the map. (The Huffington Post has helpfully posted a map of North Africa with a big red arrow pointing at Tunisia. Thanks, guys.)

I haven’t seen anything about Tunisia on CNN. Of course, they’ve been obsessed with the Tucson shootings. The media have a tendency to latch onto one story and cover it at the expense of other matters. A bizarre example of this occurred last year when the media nabobs suddenly decided that Tiger Woods’s sex life was the most important topic in the world.

I’ve been told that today there was a demonstration in Cairo in front of the Tunisian embassy. People were chanting “Mubarak next!”

There is always hope.

Enter the Void

January 13, 2011

Enter the Void is a film by the French director, Gaspar Noé. It tells the story of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American drug dealer who lives in Tokyo with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a stripper. At the urging of his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), Oscar has been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. During a police raid, Oscar is shot to death. (It appears that Japanese cops are every bit as trigger-happy as American cops.) We then see things from the perspective of Oscar’s soul floating above the city. He observes Linda and Alex and other people he knows. He also relives experiences from his past, observing himself from behind his shoulder. Noé has said that the film should be viewed as a dream rather than a depiction of life after death: “the whole movie is a dream of someone who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and heard about it before being [shot by a gun]. It’s not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it’s the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream.”

I’m not sure what Noé means by “an intonation of his own dream.” However, it is clear to me that being familiar with The Tibetan Book of the Dead helps to understand this movie. (Noé says he is non-religious.) For example, towards the end of the film there is a series of scenes of people having sex. I could see no reason for this as I watched the movie. I have since learned, however, that according to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, just before the soul is reborn it has a series of hallucinations, typically of men and women passionately entwined. I suspect that if I were to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, other things in the film would make more sense to me. However, I’m not keen on reading religious texts, so I’m not inclined to read one just to understand a movie.

Noé has said that the visual style of the film was influenced by his use of hallucinogens in the past. There are, indeed, scenes that look very much like things one would see under the influence of hallucinogens. At times this film comes remarkably close to reproducing the sensation of tripping.

What struck me most about the film, however, is its unrelentingly grim view of life. We’re never shown any scenes of people of laughing or enjoying themselves, except for a few brief scenes of Oscar’s early childhood. What’s more, Noé tends to dwell on scenes of human suffering. The impression this film gives is that the only times when people aren’t miserable is when they’re getting high or having sex. (It turns out that the title actually refers to the experience of being born.) Noé has said that the subject of the film is “the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience.” Clearly, this is not meant to be a “feel good” movie.

The relationship between Oscar and Linda is strange. For example, Oscar is supposedly deeply attached to his sister, yet he shows no concern when she gets a job as a stripper. The film hints at an incestuous relationship between the two. In one scene, Linda nibbles on Oscar’s ear in a sexually suggestive manner. In another scene, they quarrel like lovers.

Some humor would have helped this film. (After all, I’ve been told that even Buddha had a sense of humor.) Perhaps Noé was afraid this wouldn’t convey “the shimmering vacuity of the human experience.”

I found Enter the Void visually fascinating, but I didn’t care for its ponderously bleak view of life.