Archive for December, 2011

2011: A Glimmer of Hope

December 31, 2011

2011 was the best year of my life. True, this year had more than its share of tragedies, most notably the terrible tsunamis in Japan and the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors (we will be living with the consequences of the latter for generations). What I’m referring to here is that this year we saw mass demonstrations against the ravages of capitalism, beginning in Tunisia and spreading to various parts of the globe, most recently in China and in Russia. I have never seen anything like this before. The “anti-capitalist” upsurge of 1999 to 2001 was paltry compared to this.

Not everything has gone smoothly, of course. The demonstrations in Bahrain have been defeated (so far). The struggle is still uncertain in Syria. There has been an Islamist backlash in Tunisia and in Egypt. The National Transitional Council in Libya is dominated by former Khadafyites. Yet the problems that led to the initial uprisings in these countries are not going away.

The 99% movement has changed the political landscape here in the U.S. The Tea Party hoax is dead. The mainstream media have been forced to talk about issues such as economic inequality. Six months ago, all they were talking about was the need to cut government spending. What was perhaps most striking about the movement was the way it continued to grow in the face of savage police repression. The sight of cops beating and pepper-spraying people only seemed to make people want to join the resistance. The tactic of occupying public spaces seems to have run its course. However, new methods of stuggle are starting to emerge, such as occupying foreclosed homes.

This December, U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq. This was, as I made clear in an earlier post, partly the result of the revelations provided by WikiLeaks, which also helped to fuel the uprisings in other parts of the world. We should support Private Bradley Manning as the government tries to railroad him. We owe a lot to this brave young man.

2012 should prove to be an interesting year.

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Update on Occupy Eugene

December 27, 2011

Rick Youngblood, the man who suffered a heart attack on the occupation site on December 19, died on the morning of December 23. You can read about it here. OE held a candlelight vigil for him that evening at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in downtown Eugene.

On December 24, OE issued the following press release:

Eugene’s Homeless Back on the Streets for Christmas

For 75 days, in one of the longest running occupations in the US, Occupy Eugene provided a legal place to sleep, three meals daily, professional medical assistance, job skills trainings, and most importantly, a community for hundreds of homeless folks in Eugene. Simultaneously, we have explored with the city how Eugene might better serve homeless people.

This week, the city of Eugene unilaterally shut down the site at Washington Jefferson Park, and after two nights of the Wheeler Pavilion being open to provide beds for those coming from the Occupation, folks are back on the street again, just in time for Christmas.

Occupy Eugene appreciates that the city has put forth additional funds, created a task force with seats for homeless people, and expanded the car camping program by adding sites and allowing tents. However, these efforts do not add up to the far greater support that was available at the Occupy Eugene site, and none of the city’s efforts are happening on a community basis among equals, which was more respectful than a government handout.

The alarming number of people who are homeless is a consequence of our deeply unjust economic and political systems, systems which Occupy Eugene is dedicated to changing. In the meantime, we are proud to have taken on the task of helping some of the people most affected – entirely with volunteered time, and as a community.

Occupy Eugene remains strong, renting an office in the Grower’s Market Building and making use of a donated warehouse on 7th and Polk. Plans to participate in the national Occupy the Courts protest are underway, and the unfair foreclosure of many Eugene homes presents another opportunity for Occupy Eugene to support people impacted by unjust systems.

We invite the community to join in our efforts to address systemic injustice while we continue to occupy the minds of Eugene.

This Press Release was approved by the general assembly of Occupy Eugene.

Melancholia

December 25, 2011

I have never been a huge admirer of Lars von Trier. His films have always struck me as being both portentous and pretentious. (Two of my least favorite words beginning with the letter “p”.) He is a sort of bargain basement Ingmar Bergmann. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see his latest film, until some of my friends told me they found it depressing, and others said they found it hilarious. This piqued my curiosity, so I went to see it. I did not find it depressing, but I did not quite find it hilarious.

At the beginning of this film, the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is played in its entirety. (Bits and pieces of this music will be played now and then during the rest of the film.) We see dreamlike scenes that foreshadow events in the film’s story.

Part One of this film is titled “Justine”. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from depression, but she nevertheless has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They arrive late at the reception held at the home of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who are evidently filthy rich, because they live in an enormous mansion with stables and an eighteen-hole golf course. (The film was shot at Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden.) We’re told that John is a “scientist”. We meet Justine’s father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling). After meeting all of her family, one can see why Justine is depressed, since it would be hard to imagine a more unlikeable group of people, although Justine is no better herself. During the reception, Justine has an attack of depression, with disastrous results. By the time dawn arrives, she has had sex with her boss’s nephew, she has been fired by her boss, and Michael has left her. Although she has gotten hardly any sleep, in the morning she goes horseback riding with her sister through a foggy landscape with Tristan und Isolde playing in the background.

Part Two is titled “Claire”. Some time after the wedding reception, Justine has a mental breakdown, so she goes to live with Claire and John. Justine mopes around and cries a lot. The plot thickens when a rogue planet emerges from behind the sun and heads towards Earth. John, who reminds everyone that he is a scientist, cheerfully asserts that this planet will miss Earth, even though it has the ominous name of “Melancholia”. Claire worries that this might be the end of the world, but Justine seems to welcome this possibility. “The Earth is evil,” she says. “No one will miss it.” Justine and Claire then have a debate over whether there is life in the universe besides that on Earth. (I’m not making this up.) The ever-cheerful Justine takes the “No” position. On the night when Melancholia passes closest to Earth, Justine, John, Claire, and Claire’s son, Leo, sit in their vast (and I mean vast) front yard to watch it. When Claire experiences shortness of breath, John assures her that this is only because Melancholia’s gravity has ripped away part of Earth’s atmosphere, and it will soon pass. (Yeah, this doesn’t make sense to me either.) Before the night is over, it becomes clear that Melancholia is receding from Earth.

Ah, but you can’t have a happy ending in Trierland. The next morning, John looks through his telescope and discovers that Melancholia has reversed course and is now heading towards Earth. (I’m not a physicist, but it seems to me that this would be impossible.) John then goes to the stable and kills himself. Claire finds his body and covers it with hay. She then fixes breakfast for Justine and Leo. Oh, why the hell talk about these people any more? All you really need to know about this film is that it ends with the world being destroyed. We see Justine, Claire and Leo sitting on a hillside, with Melancholia looming in the background. You guessed it, Tristan und Isolde is playing on the soundtrack. Just before Melancholia smashes into the Earth, the volume of the music increases to an almost earsplitting level. You have to actually experience this scene to know what I’m talking about, but this is unintentionally funny. (I think it safe to assume that Trier didn’t mean this to be funny.)

If Trier wanted to make a film about the end of the world, why does he subject us to two hours of unappealing characters saying things like “The Earth is evil”? To try to answer this question, I turned to the ever-helpful Wikipedia. According to the article, “A therapist had told Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen.” Justine is indeed more calm than the other characters, but since all life on Earth is wiped out, it doesn’t make any difference.

It’s too bad that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 isn’t on TV any more. This would be a perfect film for that show.

Occupy Eugene to Be Evicted

December 21, 2011

Late in the evening on Monday, December 19, a man who had apparently been in a fight was found unconscious at the OE occupation site. An OE medic performed CPR on the man, who was then taken to a hospital. The next day, the city council held an emergency meeting about this. This certainly isn’t the first time in Eugene’s history that a homeless man has been beaten up, but it appears to be the first time the City Council has considered such an event important enough to justify an emergency meeting. They voted 5-2 that the police should close down the occupation site “soon as practicable”. The decision may have been influenced by a letter that the Eugene Police Employees Association sent to Mayor Piercy, in which among other things, they claimed that “There is open drug use and distribution. There is prostitution of minors. There are used hypodermic needles on the ground inside and outside the tents.” I have been to the occupation site, and I have not seen any of these things. (That’s right, kids, the police are not our friends.)

The following morning OE sent out this press release:

    OE medics help to save another life at W/J Park despite generator noise hampering efforts; 25 OE organizers arrive within minutes to help keep site calm for Eugene Police and Medics

    On December 19th at approximately midnight a brief altercation occurred at the Occupy Eugene site. An extremely drunk individual with a heart condition came onto the OE site and started a fight with an OE occupant. Peacekeeper calls for de-escalation assistance went unheard because of the noise made by the four generators which now surround the site since high-powered security light towers were installed last Friday. Apparently Eugene Police were on site; the unconscious and injured instigator required CPR which the OE medic administered as EPD arrived on the scene. The man is in stable condition.

    This is the 5th time that OE first responders have helped to save a life.

    More than two dozen Occupy organizers and supporters arrived within minutes of notification. After establishing facts regarding the situation, they coordinated a peaceful vigil at the crime scene. Members of OE involved in the incident were given full community support. OE police liaisons provided relevant information to EPD officers. Police Chief Kerns, Lieutenant Kamkar, and City Councilor Ortiz were also on site. Lieutenant Kamkar did not expect any arrests as of 1:30am.

    This press release has been approved by the General Assembly of Occupy Eugene.

After the council’s decision, OE released this:

    Occupy Eugene Responds to Eviction by City Council

    Occupy Eugene is saddened by the City Council’s decision to evict protestors from Washington-Jefferson Park only 5 days before Christmas. The emergency meeting and decision to evict represents a clear betrayal of the collaborative relationship established between OE and the City.

    This decision will serve as further motivation to protesters here in Eugene and around the country to continue to struggle against unjust laws and regulations that propagate social and economic injustice.

    Occupy Eugene is grateful that some attempt was made to accommodate the immediate need for a safe place for homeless folks currently living at Washington Jefferson park by expanding car camping. However, this limited action will have little long-term impact on the problem of homelessness in Eugene and does nothing to replace the ability of the community to come together to solve its own problems.

    Over the course of the occupation in Washington Jefferson Park, the citizens of Eugene, homeless and not, have created a community to address immediate problems and root causes of homelessness.

    For the first time many of Eugene’s homeless population have had a consistent, safe place to sleep, three meals a day, medical care, job skills training, and a community to engage with based around mutual respect and equality. We invite the City of Eugene to take up a similar strategy in their attempts to address homelessness.

    As was reiterated in the City Council meeting by Mayor Kitty Piercy, we hope that the eviction will happen peacefully without any force or violence. The official Occupy Eugene response to the eviction by the City of Eugene will be nonviolent.

    The Occupation will continue with or without camp.

    This press release has been approved by the general assembly of Occupy Eugene.

One point that needs to be made here is that Washington-Jefferson Park has long been a high-crime area. (It is the one area of Eugene where I do not really feel safe at night.) Some members of OE initially opposed occupying this park for precisely this reason. It was only after the city had blocked OE from other sites that the decision was made to go there.

Whatever happens at this point, Occupy Eugene will continue to grow.

Intellectuals

December 19, 2011

In my earlier post about Paul Goodman, I pointed out that the only contemporary intellectual who has comparable influence in the U.S. is Noam Chomsky. This led me to a disturbing thought. Chomsky is in his eighties. When he is gone, who will be left? I mean, will there be any really influential intellectuals in this country? Will the deepest thinker that people have heard of be Anderson Cooper? It’s a depressing thought. However, I don’t know of anyone who can take Chomsky’s place. Slavoj Žižek is too European, and, besides, some of his ideas are, well, weird. There is Jared Diamond, of course, but a recent court case could do him irreparable damage. I know people who think that John Bellamy Foster should be as well known as Chomsky. He is certainly one of the more original Marxist thinkers around nowadays. Unfortunately, Foster is not a good public speaker. He tends to be long-winded, and he also tends to use a lot of academic jargon. One of the reasons Chomsky became famous is because he can discuss complex ideas in a clear and succinct manner, using (mostly) everyday English.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the current paucity of famous eggheads is that simply becoming an intellectual in our society is not easy. It requires being able to blot out a lot of noise. Let me give you an example. In one of the few amusing scenes in the otherwise dreary New Age film, I Am, someone asks Chomsky if he has ever seen Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. “Ace who?” says Chomsky, looking completely mystified. Lesson: you can’t be an intellectual if you watch movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. I know it sounds elitist of me to say that, but it happens to be true. (Mind you, this bit of wisdom comes from a man who just watched a movie titled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I’m not making this up.)

Footnote One: Let give you an idea of how well-known Chomsky is. One night I went to my local Papa John’s to order a pizza. From where I was standing at the counter, I could hear a radio in the kitchen. The voice on the radio sounded strangely familiar. It took me a moment to realize that it was Chomsky’s voice. About what other intellectual could you possibly tell a story like this?

Footnote Two: I meant to write a scathing review of I Am. The problem is that every time I think about that film, my eyelids start feeling heavy. I’m afraid of slumping forward and damaging my computer monitor.

Margin Call

December 17, 2011

Years ago I applied for a job as a financial advisor. The interviews went great. I seemed to be a shoo-in for the job. The hiring manager, however, told me that every applicant was required to take a personality test. He assured me that this was just a formality. I took the test, and several days later I received a phone call from the manager. I could tell from the tone of his voice that it was not good news. He said that they could not give me the position, because, according to the test results, I was “too nurturing”. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Today I have a job working in a warehouse. The company that told me that I was “too nurturing” was generously bailed out by the government following the 2008 financial crisis. No doubt they have given bonuses to their unnurturing employees.

I was reminded of all this when I went to see Margin Call, written and directed by T.C. Chandor, a loosely fictionalized account of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, which triggered the global economic meltdown in 2008. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is laid off from his job at a financial firm. As he is being escorted from the building, he hands, as an afterthought, a thumb drive containing a program he has been working on to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), warning him to “be careful”. Puzzled by this enigmatic comment, Sullivan begins crunching numbers with the program, and late in the evening he discovers that the company is in immediate danger of becoming insolvent. Right away, he calls his fellow employee, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), and senior salesman, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who then tells the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), about this. By the early morning, a meeting has been convened with the top members of the company, including the head of risk, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), the head of securities, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Tuld decides that the best thing they can do is sell off all of the company’s assets during the next trading day, even though this could cause a financial panic and put them out of business.

This film features fine ensemble acting. I especially liked Irons’s performance. He oozes smug complacency as he makes a decision that will ruin many people’s lives. Spacey is, as always, completely on the mark.

Margin Call quietly points out the insanity of an economic system in which bad decisions by one company can cause a global crisis. It also points out how non-productive and personally corrupting the financial system is. Rogers, for example, is strongly opposed to what the company is doing, but he ends up going along with it, because, as he explains, “I need the money”. The need for money guides the actions of all the characters in varying ways, while one gets the uncomfortable feeling that there is something lacking in their lives. In one scene, Tuld tries to console Rogers by telling him that he could have spent his life digging ditches. “If I had spent my life digging ditches, I would at least have holes in the ground to show for it,” Rogers says. This is one of the best lines I have ever heard in a movie. In another scene, Dale, a former engineer, reminisces about how he once designed a bridge. He inwardly yearns for a time when he made a positive contribution to other people’s lives. (Uh, would it be cynical to say that he wants to be “nurturing”?)

Margin Call is one of the best films of the year.

Into the Abyss

December 16, 2011

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an examination of murder and capital punishment. Although Herzog makes no secret of the fact that he is opposed to the death penalty, he resists the temptation to editorialize in this film, instead telling the story through interviews and leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. The result is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing work.

The film revolves around Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were accused of murdering three people. Perry was given the death penalty and Burkett was given a life sentence. As teenagers, Perry and Burkett decided they wanted to steal a red Camaro that belonged to Sandra Stotler, who was the mother of a friend of theirs, Adam Stotler. On October 24, 2001, they went to her house in a gated community near Conroe, Texas. They killed her and then dumped her body in a nearby lake. When they went back to get the Camaro, they found that the gate was closed. They waited around, hoping that someone might let them in. As luck would have it, Adam Stotler and his friend, Jeremy Richardson both showed up. Perry and Burkett told them that a friend of theirs had been injured in a hunting accident and they needed help. They led Stotler and Richardson to a wooded area and then shot them. They took the clicker from Stotler so they could open the gate. They also took the Isuzu Rodeo that Stotler had been driving, as well as Stotler’s wallet. They then went to the house and took the Camaro. (You can find a more detailed account of these events here.)

It was a stupid crime that was carried out in a stupid manner. Within a few day, both Perry and Burkett were arrested. There is no doubt about their guilt. Immediately after his arrest, Perry confessed to the murders and told where the bodies of Stotler and Richardson were. (Perry later claimed that the police coerced his confession. This is quite possibly true, but it begs the question of how he knew where the bodies were.) There were dozens of witnesses who saw Perry and Burkett with the stolen vehicles. Some said they heard them talk about the killings.

A large portion of this film is devoted to interviews with people who knew Perry and Burkett. Herzog takes us into a world where crime and punishment are everyday facts of life. While Burkett was growing up, his father was in and out of prison. The elder Burkett is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for multiple felonies. One of Burkett’s friends tells us that he learned how to read while in prison. Jeremy Richardson’s older brother served time in prison. While he was attending Jeremy’s funeral, the police arrested him for violating his parole.

There are extensive interviews with both Perry and Burkett. They seem like human opposites. Perry smiles a lot and tells us that he will go to Heaven. (Herzog interviewed him eight days before his execution.) Burkett is poker-faced, and he only discusses things relating to his case. It’s hard to imagine these two plotting a murder together. Neither one of them discusses the killings, no doubt because they were both appealing their convictions. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. The essential mystery of this story – why two seemingly sane persons would commit such terrible acts – remains unknowable.

In one scene, Herzog visits a yard where the red Camaro sits slowly rusting in the open air. “Three people died for this car,” a police detective observes. The sense of waste is palpable.

There are extensive interviews with relatives of the murder victims. Their grief is heartrending. There is also an interview with Burkett’s father, who turns out to be an interesting and articulate person. He blames himself for what his son did, and he expresses his sorrow for the victims’ families. He talks about how at one time he and his son were hand-cuffed together on a prison bus. He tells us that this moment made him feel like a “failure”. There is also an interview with a woman who married Burkett after he was convicted and who claims that she is pregnant with his child. In all honesty, I have no idea what to make of this person. And there is an interview with a man who supervised over 125 executions in Texas. After the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998, he began seeing the faces of all the people whose deaths he presided over. He resigned from his job, even though it cost him his pension. “No one has a right to take another person’s life,” he tells us.

This film makes it clear that the execution of Perry accomplished nothing. It also shows the unfairness of our criminal justice system: Burkett didn’t get the death penalty, even though he was just as guilty as Perry, if not more so. At Burkett’s trial, his father gave an emotional speech asking the jury for leniency, which resulted in Burkett getting a life sentence. Perry had no one to speak for him, so he was killed.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

December 12, 2011

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.

Republicans

December 9, 2011

Up until now I’ve resisted the temptation to write about the Republican presidential candidates. This is because they just didn’t seem worth it. This is the sorriest field of candidates I have ever seen. That’s a remarkable statement considering that I’ve seen some truly sorry candidates in my time. (Does anyone remember Al Haig? One of my favorite throwaway gags on The Simpsons was when Homer went rummaging through his attic and found an “Al Haig for President” t-shirt. Of course, Haig would look like Abraham Lincoln standing alongside this current bunch.) These people aren’t even competent bullshitters. (There are 14 million adult Americans who can’t find work, and Newt Gingrich is talking about bringing back child labor.) Yet what gets me is the seeming credulousness that the media show towards these bozos. CNN is an endless parade of talking heads solemnly discussing every nuance of the drivel that comes out of these people’s mouths. It’s as though Dorothy and her companions have discovered the man behind the curtain, but they still think that the giant head is real. (Yeah, I know, that’s the second Wizard of Oz metaphor that I’ve used this week. You have to admit that it’s appropriate, though.)

Consider Rick Perry. He first came to national attention when he made a stupid comment about Texas seceding from the Union. He was than accused of allowing an innocent man to be executed. Yet when he announced his candidacy last summer, the media greeted it with a fanfare worthy of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. They seemed ready to inaugurate him right then. (Alexander Cockburn compared Perry to Ronald Reagan. Before that, he compared Sarah Palin to Ronald Reagan.) Almost immediately, Perry slit his own throat by attacking Social Security. (A large chunk of the Republicans’ voter base consists of elderly people. The one thing the Republicans can not attack is Social Security. I’m amazed that Perry’s handlers didn’t tell him that.) He then embarrassed himself during the debates, a remarkable achievement considering that he was on the same stage as Michele Bachmann.

And then there was Herman Cain. Here was a man with no political experience, whose only accomplishment in life was that he laid off employees at Godfather’s Pizza. (Strangely, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that his company’s name was based on an ethnic stereotype.) Yet reporters treated him as a serious candidate, a pretense that became increasingly difficult to maintain, as Cain didn’t try very hard to conceal his lack of interest in politics. (Concerning the sexual harassment allegations, should it surprise anyone that someone who runs a sordid company like Godfather’s Pizza would behave in a sordid manner?)

The news media do not exist to inform us. They exist to maintain the charade that is U.S. politics.

Hugo

December 8, 2011

Hugo is a film by Martin Scorcese, based on the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Set in Paris during the 1920’s, it tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who inhabits the Montparnasse train station in a manner similar to the way the Phantom inhabits the Paris Opera House. He keeps the clocks in the station running, a job that his missing uncle is supposed to be doing. He supports himself by stealing food and other goods from stores and cafes in the station. His life is made precarious by the presence of a Dickensian villain, Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), who want to put him in an orphanage. (Personal disclosure: as a film goer, I have a low tolerance level for Dickensian villains.) Hugo is caught stealing by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a toymaker who has a shop in the station. Georges makes Hugo work for him to make up for what he has stolen. Hugo meets Georges’s goddaughter, Isabella (Chloë Grace Moretz), and the two of them become friends. Through an elaborate series of events, Hugo and Isabella learn that Georges is actually Georges Méliès, the pioneering filmmaker whose works are now largely forgotten. Hugo and Isabella become determined to restore Georges’s reputation as an artist.

This film is a fond tribute to Méliès, one of the first film directors, who began making movies in the 1890’s. Towards the end, there is a montage of scenes from Méliès’s films. Even in this jaded age of CGI effects, they are fascinating to watch. Méliès had a visual imagination that makes most modern directors seem anemic. He was also a great technical innovator. (Among other things, Méliès made the first color films. Each frame was tinted by hand.) He made 500 films, most of which have, alas, been lost. I hope that this film will encourage a new generation to discover his work.

The film’s central conceit, that Méliès doesn’t want to be reminded of his past, is a bit thin and hard to believe. The main problem with this movie, however, is that at 126 minutes, it is too long. During the first half, the story unfolds with agonizing slowness, although the tempo does pick up during the second half. Also, the film is padded out with chase scenes that don’t advance the story, as well as numerous unfunny “funny” scenes featuring Inspector Gustave. (I know I’m not the only person who felt this way. The audience was mostly quiet during these scenes.) This character is played charmlessly by Baron Cohen, who at times seems to be doing an unsuccessful imitation of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

I would have liked this film better if there had been more scenes from Méliès’s films, and fewer scenes of Baron Cohen trying to be funny.

Here is Melies’s A Trip to the Moon. (Unfortunately, the tinting is washed out in this version.)