Archive for February, 2011

Hamlet: The First Conspiracy Theorist

February 27, 2011

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, spiritual forebear of Scully and Mulder.

In a previous post, I criticized Amiri Baraka for espousing conspiracy theories. In all fairness to Baraka, I should point out that he belongs to a long literary tradition of conspiracy theorists. The late Norman Mailer, for example, often dabbled in conspiracy theories, including, bizarrely, ones about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Mark Twain, who was fairly sensible most of the time, bought into the silly “Shakespeare didn’t write his plays” idea. Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is about conspiracies in the court of Louis XIII, with Cardinal Richelieu as the seventeenth century equivalent of the C.I.A.

The first conspiracy theorist, however, was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He believed that his uncle had murdered his father and usurped his throne. How did did he know this? His father’s ghost told him so. I don’t think that kind of “evidence” would stand up in a court of law. What other proof did he have? He staged a play about a man who murders his brother, and afterwards his uncle seemed agitated. That seems pretty thin to me.

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Hamlet’s attempts to root out the truth are not only futile but also tragic, resulting in the deaths of several innocent people, including Hamlet himself. One may possibly draw a moral from this.

The War on Immigrants

February 26, 2011

Raul and Brisenia Flores

On February 22, 2011, Shawna Forde, a founder of Minuteman American Defense Corps, an ant-immigrant group, was sentenced to death for the murders of Raul “Junior” Flores and of his ten-year-old daughter, Brisenia, two Mexican-Americans. You can read about the murders here. As shocking as these killings were, they have received remarkably little attention from the mainstream media. Perhaps it is because this story doesn’t fit in with the media’s preferred narrative of hordes of Mexicans crossing the border just so they can sell drugs and live on welfare.

I would argue that the media bear some responsibility for the deaths of the Floreses. For example, Lou Dobbs was allowed for years to spew his anti-immigrant filth on CNN. (They turned against Dobbs only after he began flirting with the Birther movement. Apparently, it’s OK to demonize a whole section of the population, but God forbid you should question whether the president was born in the US!) I can’t recall seeing any reports about the murder of Brisenia Flores on CNN, can you?

Oscar Nominated Shorts

February 24, 2011

Recently I saw the short live action and short animated films that have been nominated for Academy Awards this year. Overall, I liked the animated films better than the live action ones. Animation seems to work better in the short format.

The best of the animations was an Australian film, The Lost Thing. It tells the story of a boy who finds a creature who is half animal and half machine and of his efforts to find a home for it. The story is very simple; the film succeeds mainly because of its depiction of an amusing fantasy world. Also good was Day & Night, a Pixar film, about two humanoid creatures, one embodying day and the other night, and their competitive relationship. (I read afterwards on Wikipedia that the voice-over in the film is from a lecture given by the pop psychologist, Wayne Dyer. Funny, I had completely forgotten there was a voice-over.) The French film, Madagascar, a Journey Diary, is, as the title suggests, an animated travel film about Madagascar, charmingly done. The Gruffalo, a British adaptation of a children’s picture book, is a bit dull, apparently because they padded it out to a half hour, so it could be shown on TV. The weakest of the animated shorts was the American Let’s Pollute, a heavy-handed attempt at satire.

The worst of the live action was an Irish film, The Crush. In it, a school boy develops a crush on his teacher. He becomes jealous when he learns that she is engaged. He gets a gun, and in front of the teacher, he threatens to kill her fiancée. While pleading for his life, the man reveals himself to be an asshole. She cuts off the engagement. The film ends with her showing her gratitude towards the boy for saving her from a bad marriage. I found this ludicrous, and other people in the audience seemed to react the same way I did. Why this film was nominated is a mystery to me.

A little more believable was The Confession, which is from Britain. A boy, Sam, is about to have his first confession. He can’t think of what he has to confess. A pamphlet his priest gives him lists playing pranks as a sin. So Sam decides to play a prank, so he will have something to confess. Sam and his friend, Jacob, steal a scarecrow and leave him in the middle of a road, so it will look like a human body. A driver nearly hits it, swerves off the road, and is killed. Later, Jacob suspects that Sam will tell what they did. They get into a fight and Sam kills Jacob. In the final scene, Sam goes to confession, but he is unable to admit what he did. This film seems to be a criticism of religion, although it’s not clear to me exactly what it’s trying to say. Judging from this film and The Crush, it seems that the Academy likes melodramatic stories about children.

Wish 143, another British film, is about a teenager with terminal cancer, who wants to experience sex before he dies. When he is unable to get a girl to sleep with him, a priest fixes him up with a prostitute. However, the boy merely asks her to hold him. Again, I just didn’t buy it.

The best of the live action films is Na Wewe, which is a Belgian production. A bus going through Burundi is halted by a Hutu militia, who are looking for Tutsis. One by one, each of the passengers has to convince the Hutus that he or she is not a Tutsi. The fear and humiliation of each character is palpable. The film is disturbing, without being melodramatic.

Then, there’s the American film, God of Love. It’s like your typical Hollywood comedy, except instead of being two hours long and unfunny, it’s only fifteen minutes long and unfunny. I suppose this is progress of sorts.

Arianna Huffington

February 22, 2011

Silly me. All these years I assumed that people who wrote for the Huffington Post were getting paid. Now I find out that many of them haven’t received one plug nickel. And Arianna Huffington has just sold the HuffPost for $315 million dollars. The HuffPost’s writers are a little steamed about this, and I can’t say that I blame them. It’s kind of like volunteering for a soup kitchen, and then someone sells it to a restaurant chain. I must say, Huffington got an awful lost of surplus value out of these people’s labor. Perhaps not coincidentally, Huffington is considered an authority on corporate greed.

I’ve always been wary of Huffington. I highly recommend reading Peter Camejo’s account of Huffington’s shifty behavior during the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election in his memoir, North Star. She first tried to get Camejo to drop out of the race and endorse her. Then eventually she dropped out herself and threw her support behind the discredited Gray Davis. All of which merely facilitated Schwarzenegger’s victory.

I remember when Huffington went by the name of Arianna Stassinopoulos. She wrote a biography of Pablo Picasso, which I once made the mistake of trying to read. It takes a peculiar type of genius to make someone like Picasso seem dull. It was around this time that Graham Greene said of her, “So boring, you fall asleep half-way through her name.” I usually find her columns in the HuffPost soporific. She talks about self-help advice and about going on expensive vacations with her family. I guess you can afford to do stuff like that when you’re not paying people who work for you.

I think the HuffPost writers need to pull a Wisconsin.


February 19, 2011

Marwencol, a documentary by Jeff Malmberg, is about an artist, Mark Hogancamp, who was attacked and severely beaten by five men outside of a bar one night. He suffered brain damage and lost most of his memory. He also lost his ability to draw, which had been one of his favorite past-times. (Interestingly, Hogancamp had been an alcoholic before the attack, but afterwards lost all desire for drinking.) While recovering, Hogancamp begins buying dolls and constructs a 1/6 scale town in his backyard. He names it “Marwencol” and imagines it to be a village in World War II-era Belgium, where American, British and German soldiers gather to find respite from the war. Through photographs, he creates a series of stories about the residents of the village, who are threatened by SS soldiers. These stories are clearly revenge fantasies, usually ending with Hogie (Hogancamp’s alter ego) being rescued by beautiful women. He also shows a tendency to dote on his female dolls.

Hogancamp is discovered by a local photographer, who bring his work to the attention of an art magazine. They arrange for his photographs to be exhibited in an art gallery in New York. Hogancamp is nervous about the opening, but he finds his work well received. The film ends with Hogancamp having Hogie create his own miniature village within a miniature village.

Although the film doesn’t use the term, Hogancamp’s work can be considered an example of what critics call “outsider art”. This is art that is created outside the boundaries of official culture. Jean Dubuffet, an advocate of this type of art – which he called art brut – once described it this way:

    Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

Whether or not one agrees with that last sentence, one must admit that there is a growing interest in outsider art, and that it is motivated, at least in part, by a dissatisfaction with the current state of contemporary art: a feeling that art has become too mannered and self-conscious. (The highly entertaining documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, touches upon this theme.) In Marwencol, a critic who discusses Hogancamp’s work, notes the complete lack of irony or parody in it. Hogancamp’s fantasy world is meant to be accepted entirely on its own terms.

Marwencol is a celebration of the creative impulse. I highly recommend seeing it.

You can find examples of Hogancamp’s work here.

Mad As Hell Doctors

February 16, 2011

The Mad As Hell Doctors came to the University of Oregon campus the other day as part of their campaign for single payer health care. There were nine speakers, all but one of them doctors. Paul Hochfeld, an emergency room physician, started off. He pointed out that, in a sense, we are already paying for health care for everyone. One of the reasons for the high cost of medical treatment is to pay for people who are uninsured. He said that under current conditions, the population is divided up into different “risk pools”: medicare recipients, medicaid recipients, veterans, employed people, etc. This makes managing health care in this country unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Under single payer, there would be one single risk pool that would include everybody. Michael Huntington, another emergency room physician, talked about how he sees people with advanced cancers. They delay seeing a doctor because they don’t have insurance. When they finally do see one, their cases are too far advanced to be treated successfully. Joseph Eusterman said that what we are seeing is “an American Holocaust”.

One point that was made repeatedly was that the number of primary care physicians is declining. This is because under current conditions, it is more profitable to be a specialist. It was also pointed out that the U.S. has the highest administrative and billing costs for medical care of any developed nation. This is largely because hospitals and doctors’ offices have to use separate software and billing forms for each insurance company. By contrast, they pointed that only two to three cents of every dollar spent on Medicare goes to administrative costs. They also argued that health care costs will go up under the health care bill that was recently passed by Congress. As for the “public option”, the doctors pointed out that this would be just another insurance company. It is not a solution.

The doctors urged people to organize to fight for a single payer system. “We need to be Egyptians,” one of them said.

Four Lions

February 13, 2011

I suppose the fact that people can make a comedy about terrorists is an indication of how far we’ve come since the hysteria following the September 11th attacks. Four Lions was directed and co-written by Chris Morris, who, I’m told, is sort of an English version of Jon Stewart. This film is often called a “satire”, though satirizing terrorism is a bit like satirizing Nazism: an exercise in demonstrating the obvious. Morris more accurately calls it a “farce”, though I would use the term “dark comedy”. As I watched this movie, I was reminded of the classic British comedy, The Ladykillers, although the latter is a much funnier film.

Omar (Riz Ahmed), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and Hassan (Arsher Ali) are Islamist terrorists in Sheffield, in the North of England. We’re never told why they became terrorists. The film mostly revolves around their plot to attack a marathon in London. The comedy arises from the stupidity of these characters. Although the film never becomes The Three Stooges Meet Osama Bin Laden, it comes perilously close at times. However, the terrorists are not the only ones who are dense. Everyone they meet is oblivious to the obvious signs that they are planning an attack. And the police are even more stupid than the terrorists are. Interestingly, the only characters in this film who don’t come across as completely clueless are some jihadists that Omar and Waj meet in Pakistan.

As in The Ladykillers, the main characters get themselves killed off, one by one, during the course of the film. What makes the ineptitude of the protagonists in The Laydkillers funny, however, is precisely the fact that we know that they are not stupid. Watching the characters in Four Lions getting killed is a bit like watching stray animals wandering across a freeway. Also, I found their continual bickering a bit wearing at times.

Four Lions does have some funny moments in it. However, Tamara Drewe remains, far and away, the funniest comedy to come out of 2010.

Mubarack is Gone

February 12, 2011

Spirited Away

February 11, 2011

Spirited Away, by the Japanese director, Hayao Miyazaki, is a 2001 anime film. It tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. On the way, they get lost and stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. They find a food stand with hot food but no one around. Chihiro’s parents start eating, but Chihiro is frightened and runs away. When night falls, it becomes clear that the place is populated by spirits. Chihiro finds that her parent have been transformed into pigs. She runs into a boy, Haku. With his help, she gets a job working at a bath house that serves 8 million gods. It is presided over by a sorceress named Yubaba. She renames Chihiro Sen. By taking away her name, Yubaba makes it impossible for Chihiro to return to the human world. Chihiro is determined to rescue her parents and escape from Yubaba.

Spirited Away is a fantasy that touches upon themes of environmental degradation, the corrupting influence of consumerism, and the malleability of identity. In one scene, for example, Chihiro has to prepare a bath for a spirit who is covered with filth. She notices a thorn in his side. When she removes it, a stream of discarded trash (old tires, washing machines, etc.) comes pouring out. The spirit is then revealed to a river god who has been purified of the human waste that has built up in his river.

The characters are complex, none of them are completely bad or completely good, unlike your typical Disney movie. The result is that this film offers a richer and more satisfying experience than your typical fantasy adventure. Spirited Away is beautifully made. Some of the scenes are just gorgeous. At the end of it, one feels as though one has emerged from a dream.

Another Year

February 8, 2011

Another Year, a film by the British director, Mike Leigh, portrays events in a one-year period in the lives of several people. The central characters are an elderly married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Their house serves as the setting for most of the film. Here we see the various people who drift in and out of their lives: Mary (Lesley Manville), a lonely divorcée; Ken (Peter Wight), who eats, drinks and smokes too much; Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s brother, who is mourning the recent death of his wife; and Joe (Oliver Maltman), their son. Tom and Gerri seem content and well-adjusted, yet they are unable to be of much help to the unhappy people around them.

I’m told that Leigh’s approach to making a film is to first have his actors improvise scenes, and then he constructs a script based on these scenes. This approach is clearly very effective in Another Year. Everything in this film seems real and convincing. There is none of the contrived melodrama of The Kids Are All Right (which has received four Academy Award nominations, believe it or not). I found myself caring about the characters and what happens to them. This film is subtly tragic, yet there are also funny moments.

The screening I went to was sold out. The audience was mostly older people. I think this shows that there is an audience for films that aren’t just about young people.