Archive for May, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story

May 31, 2011

Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have produced this documentary about Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32. We learn about Hick’s childhood, growing up in a Southern Baptist family that moved around the South before settling in Texas. Hicks began doing stand-up as a teenager in Houston. His act developed with remarkable speed, and within a few years he was performing at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. At around this time, he began experimenting with drugs and drinking heavily. He became notorious for getting drunk before going on stage, an absolute no-no in stand-up comedy. When clubs started banning him, he sobered up and quit drinking.

In his act, Hicks began to deal increasingly with controversial issues such as religion, patriotism and militarism. He was an outspoken critic of the first Gulf War. Posing as a journalist, he witnessed the Waco massacre. He saw a Bradley tank open fire on the Branch Davidian compound. He criticized the media for not reporting this.

Hicks’s death was a great tragedy. He could use someone like him today.

You can find samples of Hicks’s comedy here.

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

May 29, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

May 28, 2011

I was working for Coca-Cola when the first Harry Potter movie came out. Coca-Cola had a tie-in agreement with the producers of the film. They had big cardboard displays up in supermarkets with pictures of the films’ characters and the words, “Taste the Magic”. The idea was, apparently, that just by drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola, you could experience the magical world of Harry Potter. Nobody seemed bothered by the obvious absurdity of this. It seems that people have become so used to the ludicrous claims of advertising, that nobody even thinks twice about them any more.

Morgan Spurlock set out to make a film that would be funded entirely by corporate sponsorship. His aim was to explore the effects that advertising have on our world. There are scenes of advertising executives sitting around with straight faces spouting bullshit terms like “brand collateral” and “brand personality”. Some film directors make candid admissions about the use of product placement in films. (An advertising executive boasts to Spurlock about how he once forced a movie studio to re-write a scene that showed Alka-Selzer in an unflattering light.) There’s a creepy segment about “neuromarketing”. People are placed in MRI machines, and their brain activity is studied as they watch various commercials. Spurlock visits a cash-strapped school in Broward County, Florida. The school administrators are desperately trying to raise funds by placing advertisements around the school grounds. (Spurlock gives them a list of his sponsors. They seem very grateful.)

There’s an interesting segment in which Spurlock visits Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the city government has banned outdoor advertisements. Interestingly, nobody seems to miss the old billboards. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the scenes in New York’s Times Square, with its clutter of distracting advertisements. Would our lives be any poorer without this visual noise? I don’t think so.

Throughout the film, Spurlock keeps his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He hints to us that he may have sold out. (He prefers to say “bought in”.) In one scene, he even tries to get Ralph Nader to buy shoes from one of his sponsors. I found this film amusing to watch, but it lacked any sense of urgency. Spurlock failed to make me feel that I should care about this topic.

Get Out of Jail Free!

May 24, 2011

Just when you were convinced that the Supreme Court is completely worthless, they surprise you. These mighty poo-bahs have ruled that because of inhumane overcrowding in California’s prisons, that state must release 33,000 prisoners. Well, that should be easy! They can start by releasing people who were sentenced under California’s unconstitutional (and insane) “Three Strikes” law. They can then begin releasing people convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Problem solved.

Of course, Gov. Jerry Brown (Alec Cockburn has a man-crush on him) won’t let that happen. He’s talking about transferring prisoners to county jails. Of course, we can’t let reason and logic (or the Constitution) get in the way of locking people up, now can we?

The Redgraves

May 23, 2011

When I heard that a book had come out about the Redgrave family, my curiosity was piqued. The Redgraves are interesting people, and an interesting book could certainly be written about them. However, judging from the extract that appears in the Daily Mail, Tim Adler’s House of Redgrave is shallow and mean-spirited. Here is a typical passage:

    Never a shrinking violet, Vanessa Redgrave knew exactly what to do when she found a listening device in an electrical socket at her home. She called a Press conference.

    It was common knowledge, she told the world in thrilling theatrical tones, that the internal security service MI5 had been bugging her conversations since she’d been a member of a Trotskyist organisation called the Workers Revolutionary Party.

    Well, she wasn’t going to stand for it. So she was making a formal complaint to the European Commission, claiming that MI5 had violated her human rights.

    Unfortunately, her grand gesture fell flat. Not only did the EU maintain that bugging radicals such as Vanessa Redgrave was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ — but it turned out that the bug had nothing to do with MI5 in the first place. It had been planted by a rival Left-wing faction.

    Anyone else might have been utterly humiliated at making a fool of themselves[sic], but not Vanessa. As her daughter Natasha once said, it never bothered her that she wasn’t liked — because being disliked gives her enormous freedom.

Now, in what sense did Vanessa Redgrave make a fool of herself? It was reasonable for her to assume that MI5 planted the bug. (MI5 does that sort of thing.) Of course, one could argue about whether this was worth holding a press conference, but there was nothing inherently foolish about that. Moreover, Adler seems strangely untroubled by the EU’s Orwellian argument that it’s necessary for a government to spy on its own citizens in a “democratic society”. As for the bug being placed by a rival left group, well, that’s just another example of the mindless sectarianism of the British Left. If Vanessa Redgrave is to be criticized for anything, it’s that she bought into that mindless sectarianism herself, though that’s not what concerns Adler here.

Elsewhere, Adler writes about Vanessa’s estrangement from her husband, Tony Richardson:

    Richardson’s betrayal, however, was hard to bear. Despite her best intentions, she felt as if she and her husband were separated by a wall of glass, each of them mouthing words the other was unable to understand.

Uh, and how does Adler know that she felt this way? He doesn’t say.

To me, an interesting question is why were Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, two intelligent people, attracted to such an obvious crank as Gerry Healy? Adler doesn’t even try to answer that.

An interesting book about the Redgraves remains to be written.


May 22, 2011

Biutiful is the latest film by Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. It tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a petty criminal in Barcelona. He supplies goods from a sweatshop to undocumented African immigrants to sell on the street. He also bribes police officers to look the other way while this is going on. Uxbal leads an essentially parasitical existence, and he is clearly conflicted about it. He tries to make up for it by helping other people in various ways, but his efforts are not always successful, and in one instance the results are tragic. At the same time he tries to hold together his marriage with his wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder. On top of all this, Uxbal has been diagnosed with cancer.

Biutiful is a well-crafted and convincing drama. My only criticism is of the supernatural elements in the film. It appears that Uxbal has the ability to communicate with dead people. (Such an ability would clearly be financially lucrative. So why does Uxbal have to lead a meagre existence as a not very successful criminal?) This idea is never incorporated into the story in a dramatically interesting manner. For the most part it merely means that at certain moments Uxbal looks up and sees the spirits of dead people stuck to the ceiling. For me, this whole business was merely a distraction from the main story. I would have preferred it if the film had consistently maintained its gritty realism throughout. Aside from this, I found this film deeply moving. Javier Bardem’s performance is powerful; he should have won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Meek’s Cutoff

May 15, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff, a film by Kelly Reichardt, from a screenplay by Jonathan Raymond, is inspired by a real incident. In 1845, a scout named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads a small group of settlers -three men, three women, and a boy – through the Oregon High Desert. The trip takes longer than expected, and the settlers begin to suspect that Meek is lost. The dialogue in this film is sparse. When the characters do speak, it is often in hushed voices, as if they are in awe of the vast, empty landscape around them. (Meek is the only character who ever really gets loud in this film.) As the days drag on, they start to run low on water. They come across a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux), whom they take prisoner. Meek wants to kill him, but the settlers reason that he must know where water is located. They start to follow the Indian, who doesn’t speak English, but seems to know where he is going.

The film is centered around Emily (Michelle Williams). At first she is a submissive wife, (the decisions are all made by the men, without consulting the women) but as the film goes on, she begins to assert herself. She also develops a sympathetic attitude towards the Indian.

This film’s abrupt and ambiguous ending comes almost as a shock. Perhaps Reichardt is implicitly criticizing the Western genre’s tradition of having pat happy endings. In True Grit, for example, the bad guys are all killed, and the good guys survive. At the end of Meek’s Cutoff, it’s not clear whether anyone will survive. The film is more about how these people’s experiences are affecting them mentally and physically.

The film has a grittiness and simplicity that make it seem more realistic than most Westerns, certainly more so than the fake “authenticity” of True Grit. During the course of the film, the characters’ clothing becomes increasingly filthy, something that is usually not depicted in films about pioneers. The performances are good; Williams is quietly affecting as Emily.

Dennis Banks

May 14, 2011

Dennis Banks, who was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, came to speak at the University of Oregon. His appearance was part of a day long series of events dealing with the problem of diabetes in our society. Banks has for years been working to draw attention to the epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities. However, he also used the occasion to talk about his political experiences.

Banks began by talking about his childhood. An Anishinaabe, he was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1937. When he was four years old, he and his sister were taken away from their parents, and sent to a boarding school with other Indian children. They were not allowed to speak their languages and practice their customs. The children were only taught to do manual labor. This was part of a U.S. government program to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The aim was to destroy the cultures and identities of Native Americans. This was a form of genocide. Interestingly, the U.S. was doing this at the same time it was fighting the Nazis in Europe.

According to Banks, beatings were common at the boarding schools he was sent to. He ran away repeatedly. He escaped for the last time when he was fifteen. He felt bitter that his mother did not seem to write to him while he was in the schools. Three years ago, some people were doing a documentary about him. They went to an office in Kansas City where there are records of these schools. There, they found packets of letters that his mother had written him.

Banks founded one of the first AIM chapters in Minneapolis in 1968. He had observed the civil rights and anti-war movements, and he came to believe that a similar movement was needed to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In 1973, AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for seventy-one days to protest rampant corruption on the PIne Ridge Indian Reservation. (Banks prefers to say that they “secured” the town.) Afterwards Banks and Russell Means were charged with 16 felony counts and faced two hundred years in prison. Their trial lasted nine months. At one point an FBI agent testified, “My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” As he was leaving, he said to Banks, “I’m sorry, Mr. Banks. It was my job.” The government prosecutors repeatedly introduced fabricated evidence. Eventually, the judge threw out all the charges.

The second half of Banks’s talk was devoted to the problem of diabetes. He blamed it on the diet of most Americans. He pointed to the example of the Pimas, whose lands are bisected by the U.S.-Mexican border. The rate of diabetes among Pimas north of the border was far higher than among those in Mexico, even though the two groups are genetically identical. Banks believes that this is because the Pimas in the U.S. have adopted the U.S. diet of the twentieth century, meaning more fat and less starch and fiber. Oddly, Banks made it sound as though he has been fighting the medical establishment on this issue, even though the recommendations he made (eat more vegetables, get more exercise) are often made by doctors.

Banks’s talk went a bit long. In his discussion of diabetes, he made many of the same points over and over again. I have to admit, I became a bit fidgety towards the end. Nevertheless, Banks is a powerful and affecting speaker who has interesting and important things to say.


May 8, 2011

Super, written and directed by James Gunn, is about a short order cook, Frank (Rainn Wilson), whose wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), is stolen from him by a drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank becomes depressed, and after watching a TV show about a religious superhero, he has a religious vision in which he is told to become a superhero himself. He goes to a comic book store to do research on how to be a superhero, and there he meets Libby (Ellen Page), a store employee who helps him find appropriate comic books. Franks makes a red costume for himself and takes the moniker, “The Crimson Bolt”. He roams the streets at night, attacking criminals with a wrench. (Frank’s idea of “criminals” includes a man who cuts in line at a movie theatre.) Libby eventually finds out about what Frank is doing, and she demands that he make her his sidekick, “Boltie”. However, it soon becomes clear that Libby is less interested in fighting crime than in clobbering people. Frank’s feelings towards her become conflicted, but then he has a vision telling him he must rescue Sarah. He takes Libby with him for an attack on Jacques’s heavily guarded mansion.

I found Super mostly funny in a very dark sort of way. However, towards the end the film suddenly becomes merely mindlessly violent. (The turning point comes at about the point when Frank sets a man on fire.) I suppose that itself is intended as a sort of joke. Perhaps Gunn meant this film to be an elaborate shaggy dog story: the ending is less than what we are led to expect it to be.

Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page both give very good performances. (Page is wonderfully disturbing as Libby.) I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but I can really only recommend about four fifths of it.

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune

May 6, 2011

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was a folksinger and brilliant songwriter who gave us such songs as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “There but for Fortune”, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and “The War is Over”. Kenneth Bowser has put together a film documenting Ochs’s life and career. Ochs (pronounced “oaks”) came from a non-political middle class family that moved around the country as he grew up. Ochs attended a military academy, which is a bit ironic, in view of his later anti-military views. While he was still very young, he simultaneously became interested in politics and in the burgeoning folk music scene of the early 1960’s. He moved to Greenwich Village, where he met Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, and where he began to perform in coffee houses. Ochs was initially a supporter of John F. Kennedy, but in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements, he became increasingly radicalized, especially after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Ochs was associated with the Yippies for a time, but he eventually came to the conclusion that their tactic of carrying out public pranks was divisive and counterproductive. He believed that the Left needed some way to reach out to a wider range of people, including the working class. He argued that what the country needed was a “combination of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara”. He tried to find ways to broaden the appeal of his act, at one point going so far as to wear a gold lamé suit in imitation of Presley. These efforts yielded mixed results, but I think Ochs was right in believing that the Left has to find new ways to reach out to people.

Ochs supported the Allende government in Chile. The military coup in that country was a great emotional blow to him, especially since his friend, the folksinger Victor Jara, was brutally murdered by the army. (Ochs rightly suspected that the CIA was involved in Allende’s overthrow.) Ochs suffered from bipolar disorder and from alcoholism, and these conditions began to worsen at this time. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and he eventually stopped performing. He committed suicide when he was only 35-years old.

The film has many interviews with people who knew Ochs. Inexplicably, it also has an interview with Christopher Hitchens, who is precisely the sort of warmongering liberal that Ochs despised. Aside from that, Bowser’s film is a moving tribute to a remarkable human being. I highly recommend seeing it.