The Rich and the Poor

March 20, 2016

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One of the curious things about our society is that the rich and the poor often have a lot more contact with one another than any member of the middle class usually has with either group. I will illustrate this point with a couple of anecdotes.

Years ago, I was in desperate need of a job, because my unemployment insurance had run out. I applied at this party rental company for a job at their warehouse. I was hoping to get a clerical job, but instead they offered me a job as a “helper”, meaning I would set up tents and tables and other party equipment at various events, as well as unload trucks at the warehouse. The job only paid minimum wage, but I had no other offers, and I was running out of money. The company catered to private companies, as well as doing events at USC and UCLA, but it also provided supplies for private parties.

One day I was sent out with another employee, who was designated as a “driver”, to deliver supplies to a house in Beverly Hills. Some of the older neighborhoods in Southern California have these wide alleys that you can drive through behind the houses, and this place was in one of those types of neighborhoods. There was a gate in the fence behind the house, and the driver pressed a buzzer to have a house servant open the gate. There was a swimming pool in the backyard. The place wasn’t much bigger than the house I spent most of my middle class childhood in, but in the living room there was a large bronze statue of a naked woman with her arms raised in the air. Anyway, when we first arrived in the back alley, the driver went in first, because he had to get the customer to sign some paperwork before we could bring in the rental items. He told me to wait by the truck, which I did. Shortly after that, a middle-aged woman carrying two bags of groceries came walking by. She stopped and asked me if I could do her a favor. She said that further up the alley was an abandoned couch, and a homeless man who lived in the area would sometimes lie on this couch. This man would sometimes say rude things to her when she walked past. She asked me if I could go up ahead and see if this man was there.

I agreed to do this. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it was just a latent sense of chivalry in me. Anyway, I walked quite a ways up the alley before I finally saw the couch. There was no one there. I turned around, and as I walked back, I found that the woman had followed me part of the way there. I told her that the homeless guy wasn’t at the couch. She seemed relieved and grateful, and she thanked for me for checking for her. I told her it was no problem, and I started walking back to the truck. I suddenly realized at this point that I had actually devoted quite a large chunk of time to this endeavor; I worried that the driver may have come out to find that I was not where I was supposed to be. When I came to the truck, I saw the driver standing there. I was afraid he would be angry at me for wandering away. Instead, he asked me in a mildly curious tone of voice where I had been. When I explained to him as best as I could what had happened, he simply nodded and motioned for me to help him start unloading stuff from the truck. I can only assume that what happened to me was a normal sort of occurrence in this neighborhood.

But that’s not the story I really want to tell. Here’s the story I actually want to tell you. Most of the people who worked in the warehouse were from either Mexico or El Salvador or Honduras. Most of them spoke only a limited amount of English, and some of them spoke barely any English at all. However, there was this one guy who was from Belize. He was so unique in this respect, that the other workers would sometimes call him “Belize”. (I can’t remember his name, so I will call him Belize as well.) As you would expect from someone from a former British colony, he spoke fluent English. His job was maintaining and setting up gas grilles. The company would sometimes send me out on assignments with him as his helper. I would basically be an extra set of hands for him in case he needed them. I liked talking to him, partly because we had similarly critical views of the way the company was run, and partly because he always seemed wound up in a way that I found vaguely amusing. He was always complaining that the company was making unreasonable demands on him and making him work long hours and so on. He once told me that he had a wife and daughter in Belize. He hadn’t seen them in a long time, because he had to work so much in order to support them.

One day the company sent him and me out on an assignment in Bel Air. A couple of grilles had to be hooked up for a private party there. It was fairly late in the day, and Belize immediately began grumbling that it was going to take a long time to drive out there and back in rush hour traffic. (The warehouse was in Inglewood, near the airport.) He pointed out that the event wasn’t scheduled for a couple more days, so he couldn’t understand why he had to hook up the grilles right now. The management would not be moved, however, so off we went.

When we arrived at the address, we found a long concrete wall facing the street, with a gate in the middle of it. Belize and I got out of the truck, and we went to the gate, where Belize spoke to someone through an intercom. After a moment, the gate opened up, and we walked in. There were trees in front of us, and the driveway curved to the left. I couldn’t see any house. Belize and I walked along the driveway, and we came to a large shed. There was a man there who was apparently the person who had spoken to Belize on the intercom. He told us that a vehicle would come to take us to the house. After a few minutes a large golf cart came, and Belize and I climbed in the back. The cart took off down the driveway. We suddenly came out of the trees, and there was in front of us this vast lawn, on the other side of which was a building that looked like a palace. The driveway skirted along the right-side of this expanse and went past the house. The cart stopped when we arrived at the back, and Belize and I got out. We walked up this brick path until we arrived at the back porch. It was semi-circular, and about about half the width of a football field. There were enormous glass doors on the mansion that opened out onto it. One the other side of the porch, a steep hill, with a staircase in the middle of it, sloped down about 300 yards. At the bottom of the hill was a large rectangular swimming pool, at one end of which was a semi-circular portico, supported by Roman-style columns. Inbetween the columns were marble statues. Workmen were in the process of covering the pool with a temporary dance floor.

One of the glass doors opened up, and a man came walking out. He had an air of authority about him. He was dressed in a blue pastel dress shirt, a blue pastel necktie, and blue pastel dress pants. He came up to Belize and me, and when he spoke to us, I immediately detected a French accent. My thought at the time was “Oh boy, this guy is going to be an asshole.” Yet he turned out to be pretty reasonable. He told us what had to be done, and he said that if we needed anything we should just ask him. Belize then set to work. There were two grilles that needed be hooked up, one on either side of the porch. Belize did the first one without any problem, but he had trouble getting the second grille to work. The man in blue pastel was patient with us and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Belize eventually figured out what the problem was, and he got the grille working. The man in blue pastel shook our hands and warmly thanked the both of us (although I really hadn’t done much). He then called to have the cart come to pick us up. Belize and I walked back to the driveway.

When we got back to the truck, and we had climbed in the cab, Belize suddenly realized that he had forgotten to get some paperwork signed. He told me to wait in the truck while he went back. It so happened that only a few hundred feet up the road some workmen were chopping down a large tree. A long flat bed truck pulled up, presumably they were going to load the felled tree onto it. One of the workmen came over and through the driver’s side window told me they needed to position the truck along the side of the road and our vehicle was in the way. He asked me if I could back it up. I explained to him that company did not allow me to drive the truck, because I wasn’t designated as a “driver”. I then told him the driver had gone inside and he would be out in a few minutes and that he would be more than willing to move the truck. I expected this person to be sympathetic to my situation, since he must have known that companies usually have strict rules about the handling of vehicles. To my surprise, he got angry. He demanded that I move the truck. I once again explained to him that I was not allowed to drive the truck, and I once again explained to him that the driver would be out in a few minutes and he would move the truck. This just seemed to make him more angry. The two of us shouted at each other for I don’t know how long. Another workmen came up and began shouting along with the first guy. They eventually seemed to get tired of this, and they walked back over to the flat bed, where they conferred with some other people. While this was going on, Belize came back out, hopped in the cab, and threw the paperwork down beside him. He started up the truck and pulled away from the curb. He was completely unaware of what had just happened. I thought I should tell him, so I did. I assumed he would be impressed that I had refused to cave in to those guys, but instead he just seemed to get angry. “You should never drive the truck,” he said to me in a harangueing tone of voice, even though I had just made it clear that I knew better than to do any such thing. He then went on about how if I had damaged the truck while moving it, he would have been liable for it. Which seemed to me be completely unnecessary.

That was the credit I got for doing my job right.

Embrace of the Serpent

February 29, 2016

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The destruction of the Amazon rain forest is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s not just an environmental tragedy, but a human tragedy as well. Ciro Guerra’s film, Embrace of the Serpent, is a fierce condemnation of what European colonialism has done to the Amazon Indians.

The film has two stories running parallel. In 1909, a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) enlists the help of a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in finding a rare medicinal plant called yakruna. Thirty years later, the American botanist, Evan (Brionne Davis) gets an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) to help him look for the same plant. Karamakate is the last surviving member of his people. He has a deep distrust of whites, yet in each case he reluctantly agrees to help a stranger.

Embrace of the Serpent reminds one of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, in the ways it contrasts the values of a primitive hunter-gatherer with those modern people. Karamkate complains about the wastefulness of whites and about their attachment to “things”. This film also criticizes the way in which the knowledge of indigenous peoples of the Amazon, including their knowledge of medicinal plants, has been destroyed.

It is also critical of the influence of the Catholic church in the region. In one scene Theo and Karamakate come across a mission run by a Capuchin friar. He forbids the children there from speaking their native language, and he whips them when they disobey him. Years later, Evan and Karamakate find this same mission. It is now the site of a religious cult led by a white man who claims to be Jesus. The suppression of native culture has allowed a perverted existence to take its place.

Embrace of the Serpent is a great film.

Fired!

January 20, 2016

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The following is a talk that I gave for the Write Club at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles.

Getting fired has a stigma attached to it, and I think this is wrong. After all, when you are fired, what does it mean? It means you didn’t fit in at the corporation you were working for. And what is a corporation? It is a machine. It certainly isn’t a person. It exists merely to create value for shareholders. It exists for no other reason. And you are a cog in that machine. When you are fired, it shows that you are not a cog, but rather a unique individual, and therefore incompatible with the system.

It is better to be fired than it is to quit. When you quit, you are doing your boss’s job for him. Why should you? You’re not getting paid to do his job, are you? No, make the bastard fire you. Make him earn his pay. He gets paid to make you earn your pay, so make him earn his pay. Give him some reason to fire you. I don’t know, trim your toenails at your desk. Scratch your ass at the water cooler. Chew with your mouth open.

But whatever you do, don’t get fired for some grubby, venal reason. When I was working at Coca-Cola, they had this contest, in which one of the prizes was this retro Coca-Cola vending machine that you could have in your living room. A guy I worked with was doing the paperwork for this contest. He arranged things so that one of these machines was delivered to a friend of his, who hadn’t taken part in the contest. When the company figured out what he did, they fired him immediately. A couple of security guards escorted him out of the building. They didn’t even let clean out his desk. They wanted him off the property immediately. So, he sacrificed his job so a friend of his could have a Coca-Cola vending machine in his living room. Oh, please.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people go out of their way to get fired, but weren’t. This doesn’t seem right to me. To me, that is sort of like coitus interruptus. The climax was never reached. Years ago, I had a temp job working in a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. I was doing inventory with some other guys. It was a Lowe’s warehouse. We were going through some boxes, and I found this box with gold-plated toothbrushes in it. This struck me as the most pretentious yuppie thing I had ever seen in my life. I started laughing, and I pointed it out to the guys I was working with. “Hey, look at this,” I said. “Gold-plated toothbrushes.” I thought they would find it funny just like me. But that’s not what happened. Instead, their eyes lit up. They threw themselves upon the box, and they began grabbing fistfuls of toothbrushes and stuffing them inside their shirts and pants. Well, it was Friday, and at the end of the day, we had to go to the personnel office to have our time cards signed. So, all these guys go into the office with toothbrushes stuffed inside their shirts and pants. This one guy had so many toothbrushes stuffed inside his pants, that he was walking like this. (Imitate walk stiff-legged walk.) And there was this one manager there who kept staring intently at this guy. He looked as though he was about to say something. And I was thinking, “Oh God, this is my fate in life, to be arrested for stealing toothbrushes in Edison, New Jersey.” We were in that office for what seemed to me to be an eternity, as one of the managers signed our time cards. And during that whole time, this one manager kept staring at that guy. And when the guy had gotten his time card signed and turned to walk out, I thought, “Oh boy, this is it.” The manager watched him go out the door, and he didn’t say anything. And although I’m glad that manager didn’t say anything, I have to admit that I actually felt a little disappointed. There was no completion to this story, no dramatic confrontation. I found it aesthetically unsatisfying.

When I was working at Coca-Cola, I was in the human resources department. Now, working in human resources is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. You’re supposed to make the employees feel that the company cares about them, but at the same time, you’re supposed to make it clear to these same employees that the company doesn’t really care about them. It’s a very nuanced message that you’re sending to people. But when you fire someone, the nuance is gone. The pretense is over. The company really doesn’t care about this person, and it doesn’t care about you either.

And so it was that I was eventually fired from Coca-Cola. It didn’t happen all at once. I was told that my services would no longer be required after the end of the year. They said that I was being “laid off”. Over the next several months, they gave me less and less to do. At the end, they gave me a going away party. None of my bosses attended. I got a cake and a nice severance package. I didn’t feel like looking for another job, so I went back to school, finished my art degree, then I came back to LA, met some really cool people, and now I’m doing shows like this. So, getting fired is not the end of the world, it is a beginning.

The Hateful Eight

January 9, 2016

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em>The Hateful Eight is billed as the “8th film by Quentin Tarantino”. This does nothing to reassure the uneasy feeling one gets that Tarantino thinks his films are more profound than they actually are.

While traveling to Red Rock, Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter, hitches a ride on a stage coach. On board are another bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a convicted murderer. The are soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Seeking shelter from a blizzard, they stop at a place called Millie’s Haberdashery. To Warren’s concern, the proprietors are not there. Instead, they are greeted by a mysterious stranger (Demián Bichir). Also seeking shelter at this place are an Englishman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), and a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern). Ruth confides to Warren that he believes there may be a plot afoot to help Daisy escape.

The Hateful Eight really only deals with two topics: racism and revenge. This is not enough to justify a two hour and forty-seven minute. One of the things I liked about Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs was they way it would leave certain things to the imagination. Tarantino’s recent films leave nothing to the imagination. They tell us things we don’t really need to know, and they show us things we don’t really need to see.

This is not to say that The Hateful Eight is a bad film. Quite the contrary, I found most of it entertaining, though it became wearing towards the end. (And it has a score by Ennio Morricone!) For all his flaws, Tarantino is one of the most interesting directors working. I just wish he would get some sense of perspective.

Spotlight

December 31, 2015

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My father was raised as a Catholic. He left the Catholic Church as a young man. I remember when I was growing up, my younger brother once attended a party at a neighbor’s house. My family learned afterwards that he had spoken to a priest at the party. My father become extremely upset when he heard about this. The rest of us couldn’t understand why.

Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe investigation of child sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church. When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives as the new editor of the Globe, people are afraid he’s going to cut jobs. Instead, he suggests to the paper’s Spotlight investigative team, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), that they investigate a case of a local priest who has been accused of molesting a child. In the course of their investigation, they learn that there may be as many as 87 pedophile priests in the city. They eventually learn that Cardinal Law, the head of the archdiocese, has been aware of this for over a decade.

I’ve never been able to share the admiration that some leftists have for Pope Francis. He is part of the system that produces the sort of behavior depicted in this film. It tells us something that the Church’s reaction to the scandal in Boston was to promote Law. At the very least, Law should have removed these pedophiles from the priesthood. Instead, he moved them from one parish to another, knowing that they would likely carry out the same abuses. Even in terms of self-interest, such behavior makes no sense. These pedophile priests cause people to leave the church. They undermine its moral authority. They cause the church to become embroiled in costly lawsuits. The fact that the church leaders can’t see this shows that they are out of touch with reality, let alone common decency.

Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015

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Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.

Sicario

November 17, 2015

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Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a script by Taylor Sheridan, is a thriller set on the US-Mexican border.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent, who, along with her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), is recruited to a special operations force, led by a Department of Defense adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and by the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The ostensible purpose of the force is to combat a Mexican drug cartel that has been operating inside the US. However, Kate eventually discovers that the group has a more sinister aim.

Sicario is a powerful indictment of the futility and corruption of the “War on Drugs”. And I must say that after Zero Dark Thirty, it’s nice to see a film that shows the CIA in a bad light. My one quibble with this film is that the main character is too much of a Goodie Two Shoes. I find it hard to believe that an FBI agent would show as much outrage at what is going on as Kate does. After all, we’re talking about the people who gave us COINTELPRO, the Waco Massacre, the Leonard Peltier case, and Whitey Bulger. I guess the filmmakers felt they needed to give the film a moral center. Still, Sicario is a great film.

Truth

November 9, 2015

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Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, tells the story of the widely criticized CBS News report about Bush’s National Guard service. The controversy around the report resulted in several people losing their jobs, and it forced Dan Rather into early retirement.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a producer for CBS News. She organizes an investigation into Bush’s National Guard service during the 1970’s, specifically as to whether he received preferential treatment and whether he went AWOL at one point. Mapes is contacted by a former National Guard officer, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who gives her documents allegedly written by a now deceased National Guard officer, which are highly critical of Bush. The documents are used in a 60 Minutes report. Almost immediately, the Internet is flooded with accusations that the documents are forged.

I found Truth to be an intelligent and compelling drama, despite some hokey moments. The acting is quite good; Cate Blanchett is affecting as Mapes. However, there were some things about the film that bothered me. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Vanderbilt goes out of his way to depict Bill Burkett in a sympathetic light, despite the fact the he lied to Mapes about how he obtained the documents. This seems odd, especially since there is very good reason to believe that Burkett may have been the one who forged the documents. The paper trail ends with Burkett, and he possessed the necessary knowledge to write the documents. Also the film doesn’t mention that Burkett was an outspoken critic of Bush before he produced the documents, which was something that Mapes must have been aware of.

In one scene, a character makes a speech about corporate control of the news media. Although I think corporate control is a problem, I don’t think it has any bearing on this incident, and the film doesn’t make a convincing case that it does.

Truth does make a valid point that the pressure of deadlines can lead reporters to make unwise decisions. However, I think Mapes should have known better than to use the documents from Burkett in the report.

In my opinion, the The New York Times’s coverage of Iraq during the build-up to the Iraq war was far more egregious than what Mapes and CBS News did, since it created support for an illegal war. Yet only one person there, Judith Miller, lost her job because of it. I think this says something about the media’s priorities.

Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015

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Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.

Crimson Peak

October 17, 2015

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Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on a script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins is a haunted house movie set in Victorian times.

When Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is still a child, the ghost of her mother appears to her and warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak”. As an adult, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his icy sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). She falls in love with Thomas, but her father (Jim Beaver) disapproves of him. When her father is mysteriously murdered, however, Edith is free to marry Thomas. They move to the manor house that Thomas’s family has lived in for hundreds of years. It is a dilapidated structure with holes in the ceiling, which sits on top of more red clay than you will find in the whole state of Connecticut. We’re told that the red clay stains snow red, and Edith eventually learns that because of this, people call the place “Crimson Peak”. (Which doesn’t really make sense, because the house is located on flat ground.) Right away, Edith starts seeing ghosts. Even worse, she begins to suspect that Thomas and Lucille are keeping secrets from her.

Crimson Peak is not a bad film. It kept me entertained for two hours. Yet it left me feeling somehow unsatisfied. In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro took the traditional fairy tale and found a way to make it seem relevant to our times. In Crimson Peak, however, he seems satisfied to recycle familiar devices of Victorian melodrama. There is nothing in this film that seems really fresh or new.