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Chris Rock: Risky Insights or Flat Notes?

29 Feb

Even before last night’s Academy Award ceremony was over, online columnists were congratulating Chris Rock for his “thorny, meaty, and hilarious” and “brilliant and brave” opening monologue. While he certainly made points that took the Oscars in a better direction – and spared us the nearly revanchist embarrassment of Neil Patrick Harris as host – perhaps I am alone in finding it flat and oddly reassuring when it could have been risky and provocative.

I applaud the way Rock explained and exposed “sorority racism,” but it was also an opportunity to introduce America, using biting satire, to structural racism more broadly. Let’s recognize that Rock is now of a stature where he has little to lose.  So to say that the issues people are facing today are less serious or significant than those of fifty years ago may be, on some level, empirically true, but structural racism, economic and educational equality, mass incarceration, and police violence are still pretty significant manifestations of oppression that continues today.  It’s not just a question of “opportunity.”  It is a question of inequity when it comes to who produces pictures, who is hired in positions of power and decision-making, and who is actually purchasing most of the movie tickets in this country and this world.  Structural racism is perpetuated by those kinds of disproportionate imbalances between the producers, the artists getting work, and the people buying the tickets and buying into the dream.

So no, I don’t think his speech would qualify as “meaty” or as “brave.”  The past couple of weeks, I have been showing my students films about the Black Panthers, Nina Simone, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos – people who risked and sometimes lost everything and yet who are unknown by college students (even adult ones) today.  Compare them to Beyoncé, for example.  I found Rock last night to be not his usual edgy self, but safe, even at times reassuring that we will be able to get past today’s issues.  To me his message included a kind of subtext that said, Hollywood, we know once you provide more opportunity things will get better, without really digging in to why it’s more than just a Hollywood problem and more than just an opportunity deficit.  He had the stage and could have had a moment where the satire was as sharp as he has been in the past, but to me his message was blunted.

But one line really bothered me.  The joke, quoted as “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short” hit a sour note for me for several reasons.  First, lynching is one of those rare topics that to me doesn’t belong in any joke or any line that’s going to end with a laugh.  It’s beyond the pale, even if the satire is in the service of a larger, just point.  I know he wasn’t making light of it in any way, but even as a throwaway to an intro, the image is too horrible to even turn around and laugh, no matter the gallows of this particular humor.

But second, and more subtle, is that “best documentary foreign short” actually is very important for all of the same reasons why we struggle for diversity.  Those other categories at the Oscars, especially the documentaries but also foreign films from time to time, are exactly where the issues of racism, violence, injustice and so forth have been openly discussed when Hollywood and mainstream cinema has been way too timid to take risks.  People need to see those documentaries, precisely because they are not trivial, because they do cover lynching. In fact, this very year’s winner for Short Documentary is about honor killings in Pakistan, which are indeed lynchings – some irony there, no?  (Shout out to director Sharmeen Obaid, who generously agreed to meet with me and my students at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival showing of her radiant documentary Song of Lahore.)  Without documentaries like this one, how would we know or learn about killings like this around the world.  While I haven’t seen it yet, I am also eagerly awaiting 3 1/2 Minutes – 10 Bullets which was short-listed this year though not nominated.

To be brave you have to risk something.  To be meaty, brilliant, and thorny you have to provide insights that don’t just voice what most of the people in the room would like to say, but that takes them to a different level of understanding or provokes them to investigate further.  With great respect for Chris Rock’s career, I don’t think last night he achieved either.  Then again, I grew up in an era of Oscar telecasts with acceptance speeches that included congratulations from the Viet Cong, condemnations of fascism, McCarthyism, and anti-Semitism, parallels between U.S. intervention in Central America and Vietnam, the role of American corporations in the nuclear weapons industry and pollution, and more recently speeches by Michael Moore and Errol Morris two years in a row.  None of these Oscar speeches were so celebrated, and in fact most were derided as inappropriate.  Sad to say, but the Salon and Mother Jones commentators may be too young to remember when political protest wasn’t so safe and watered down as it is today.

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On a brighter note, lost in the discussion of the absence of people of color in the acting categories, was the fact that of the award-winning filmmakers themselves, the winners’ circle was actually quite diverse.  The Best Director award went to Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu for the second year in a row – and in fact the third consecutive year for a Mexican director.  As mentioned above, the winner for short documentary was Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid, winning her second Academy Award as well.  (She may be only the second woman to win two directing awards, after Barbara Kopple – I’ll have to check.)  The animated short film was directed and produced in Chile, and the director of the feature documentary, Amy, is British of South Asian descent.  Also, the producer of the full-length animated film is a U.S. American of Latino background.

While much can still be written about American cultural and cinematic hegemony – after all, there are thriving and major popular film industries coming out of India, Hong Kong, Mexico and many other countries, yet only the American Oscars are seen worldwide and American films exported with more force behind them than other countries’ films – the Oscars are changing with more foreign films and directors getting some recognition, or even work.  Who would have thought that the directors of Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También would come to Hollywood and win Oscars?  There is much here in the hidden diversity of Hollywood to be written about later, such as why, for example, no one ever seems to acknowledge that since 1980, there have been 33 women directors who have won Oscars for documentary films, including Barbara Kopple and Laura Poitras. That doesn’t excuse structural sexism – why women get to direct documentaries, and usually shorts, but not feature films – but it does complicate it.  But more on this another day.

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Finally, very happy for Mark Rylance.  (Again, time was when the Academy would have given it to Stallone for sentimental and commercial reasons.)  Though I haven’t yet seen Bridge of Spies, he is one of the great actors of our time.  I’ve been privileged to see him onstage three times: in Cymbeline in New York playing multiple roles, where I first took notice (especially when he played multiple characters in the same scene) and when, as he told Leonard Lopate this week, he was a complete unknown, then in one of his Tony-winning performances in Jerusalem, also a great play, and in London, as Richard III at the Globe.  I missed two or three of his great performances in New York, but the last few years have been tough for me to see a lot of theater.  It’s great that more of his work is being recorded on the big and small screen and he’ll be recognized by a larger public.  Hope he gets some leading roles in film now.

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Addendum (six days later): On the night of the Oscars, when I wrote this, I missed the middle third of the program while driving home.  For that reason, I didn’t get to see the appearance of the three young “accountants” – an Asian joke by Chris Rock that also included a Jewish stereotype.   Had I seen that I would have had lots to say about that too, another example of how Oscar broadcast writers never get it right, even when they have an opportunity for redemption.  I don’t know if Rock wrote that himself, or if they were writers he hired, or if he had veto power not to deliver such a joke, only that apparently the kids’ parents were not in on how their children would be used as the butts of the joke.  I also don’t know why the Oscar telecasts have lately been so badly written (not to mention inappropriate unfunny ad libs like Sean Penn’s gratuitous “who gave this guy a green card” before announcing a winner last year). Also glad to see that much of the press since last week has been more critical of Rock than the first reports I wrote about, especially this response in Colorlines. Strangely enough, back in the day when the choices were much more artistically conservative, I don’t remember this kind of controversy ever from the monologues of Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal.  So given that we like to think we have made so much progress when it comes to racial justice and equality, why have we become more insecure and more threatened about the topic of race and seem unable to find humor that doesn’t reinforce old forms of domination?


30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.


2015 Film festival experiences in review – Montreal, Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC

17 Dec

The following started out as just kind of notes to myself to remind me how I felt about films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. So I apologize in advance to my (at most) six readers for writing about something of no interest to anyone but myself. But then I realized, due to family circumstances beyond my control, almost all my moviegoing this year was to festivals, at least since this spring, when I saw the magnificent Thomas Hardy adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd.  But, largely thanks to the excuse of class trips, I was able to get to two films each at Tribeca, Margaret Mead, and DOC NYC, which I’ll discuss below.

My first festival has always been Montreal though.  This August I was able to go to the Montreal Festival for the first time in two years, and just for the first weekend; classes started the day after I returned (and there was the matter of a visit to the emergency room in between my return and my first class – but that’s another story) and I haven’t had a moment to breathe or catch up until now.  Montreal always has something like 400 films to choose from, lots of documentaries, from every corner of the world, much less commercial than its Toronto cousin.  While I am always drawn to Asian cinema, this year I seemed to lose my touch when it comes to choosing memorable experiences from the catalogue: ten films in four days, but only two were what I would call very good, one was from Nepal (which I’ll get to below) and the other from China.  For some reason though the festival website has taken down the program, so I have to use Google to find their names, since they’ll probably never be distributed here in the U.S.

I saw two films from China, actually, both on the same theme of traditional ways of life being displaced by the market forces of modernization.  This must be a source of anxiety in China, because I’ve already seen two other films on the same theme: the outstanding Canadian documentary, Up the Yangtze, which is actually more about the loss of traditional villages to dam-induced flooding, and Postmen in the Mountains, which I saw in Montreal thirteen years ago and which remains one of the best films I have ever seen at that festival.  So as I looked through the festival program, I thought, hey, this topic must be “a thing” in China and since cultural sustainability is a theme I have already announced I am interested in, I should check these out.  These two films were Drifting Goats, about the end of the river ferries on goatskin floats, and Song of the Phoenix. about the dying tradition of suona players.

Drifting Goats is a father-son tale (like Postmen in the Mountains) in which the father is a ferryman on the old-fashioned river boats, and while the ferries are being replaced with more modern motorboats,  the growing local tourism industry is basically buying out the ferrymen and turning the picturesque and now exoticized ferries into a tourist attraction.  The stark choice comes down to, either you join the tourist industry and continue to make your livelihood from the boats, by giving rides to tourists, or you give up your ferry and your lifestyle and you retire.  With the son imploring the resistant father to recognize the flow of progress, eventually the ferrymen embrace the opportunity to stay on the river and tourism becomes the only way they can sustain their tradition – a happy ending in which traditions remain economically viable, which is what really matters, even in neoliberal rural China.

In contrast, Song of the Phoenix, while teasing us with the possibility that the folk musicians may give up their instruments and their folk music, stubbornly clings to the idea that traditional music and instruments cannot be replaced.  Nowhere is the criticism of pop commercialism more apparent then a kind of impromptu battle of the bands that arises when a pop group shows up to woo the village crowd away from the suona band.  Characters are not stuck in an idealized village setting and in fact the film acknowledges the tremendous pull away from the villages towards the industrialized wage-economy city.  But rather than espousing the liberal compromise of adapting to the new world, the film holds out for the necessary indomitability of folk music, even in a commercial world, and even for that matter in a commercial motion picture.  It is worth a second viewing.

Of course I’m going to be more favorable to a film with this point of view – and indeed if the story had gone the other way, I would have liked it far less and been less inclined to overlook its conventional or predictable elements.  I tend to have a strong rejection towards films no matter how well-made that espouse a reactionary point of view or that ask us to smugly accept the status quo (especially around issues of violence).  Rather than being open-minded as my society tells me I should be, I tend to think of the values expressed in the film and the damage they can cause by encouraging complacency and self-satisfaction.  It’s not that I can’t learn anything from that with which I disagree, but I do think we need to remember that cinema and television inevitably have an impact that exceeds other popular art forms.

Anyway, that said, even an art film like Postmen in the Mountains can have an impact, as it did on me, even more than just preaching to those naturally inclined to agree.  I saw it only once so far, in 2002 at the Montreal Film Festival, where, I just learned, it won the Audience Choice Award. Though it was made in China in 1999, it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2004.  (Eventually I’ll have to buy the DVD to see it again.)  Also a father-son tale, it’s the story of an elderly postman in rural Hunan province who has a three-day mail route to all the mountain villages, a job from which he will be retiring and handing off to his son after this last round.  I still remember not only the great performances, but the spectacular cinematography, reminiscent of Chinese watercolors in its composition.  But more than just nostalgia or a theme of anti-modernity, the film shows more than any other (including Song of the Phoenix) what is lost when the old ways will be no more.  It’s not just that those lifestyles and means of subsistence will be gone, it’s also that there’s something very deeply embedded in those practices that, when gone, will change the nature of humanity.  Part of the beauty of the film is that this is implicit, and I wish Song of the Phoenix shared more of its depth; after all, if delivering mail can be rendered meaningful on screen,  the role of traditional music for both villagers and the artists themselves and why it’s survived so long ought to be explored some.  For me, coming from a society in which success is tied in with achievement, and wealth, Postmen was the first I had seen to make the case that ministry to others is a noble achievement and necessary to maintaining the glue that keeps communities, and families for that matter, together.  You don’t have to know a lot about China to understand that people must be incredibly anxious about this, and that both modernization and the consumer economy make those moral choices that much more insanely difficult.

Speaking of both modernity and mountains, the other outstanding film I saw in Montreal this year was the Nepalese art film, Serdhak – The Golden Hill, a low-budget high-altitude film set in the Himalayan villages of northern Nepal.  Shot with a very small crew and using natural light, even for some impressive interior scenes, this independent, naturalistic film avoids cliches while depicting the everyday dramas of village life, in the kinds of villages that outsiders never get to see.  The mountains are not just gorgeous backdrops for exotic effect but are the land on and around which people survive.  (As opposed to the also outstanding documentary, Meru, where the mountains exist to be conquered by humans.  I loved it anyway, largely because of the photography but also the editing.)   The characters and their lives are real, neither sentimentalized nor overly dramatized and the film has the feeling of conveying a story very much within the framework of real life.  There too one of the internal battles characters must deal with is the pull of education in the city, with the ties to the home villages, and what will be lost in terms of beauty when educated young people must leave these villages for city – which becomes synonymous with modern – life.

Also breathtaking, in a different way, is the documentary Song of Lahore, which hasn’t received anywhere near the critical attention it deserves, although it was runner-up in the audience award for documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It tells one story spread out over two continents: the suppression of Pakistani, or Punjabi, traditional music under Islamist regimes, and the invitation of the musicians to join Wynton Marsalis at his Jazz at Lincoln Center program.  The film is about love and made with love: the love that the musicians have for their music, but also the love they have for one another and their families, expressed through music, as well as the love for a city and what it once offered culturally.  The way that the musicians in the film articulate their feelings about music, especially when it is silenced, is incredibly moving, and in a way useful to those of us who think about art and culture as a humanizing influence.  Co-directed by a Pakistani Oscar winner and an American, the film is so timely it’s hard to believe it hasn’t gotten distribution, and yet its themes transcend current events.  It’s one of the great films I have seen about music and musicians, shot and edited with warmth and compassionate sophistication.

Films can take us inside worlds we would never think we could see, and in documentary film this is especially true today.  At the Margaret Mead Festival, I saw the recent history of Kashmir and the city of Srinigar through the eyes of three artists – two of whom also incredibly insightful verbally – in the extraordinary documentary, Kasheer: Art, Culture, and the Struggle for Azadi, which is rich and thoughtful on at least two levels: telling the story of human political conflict through visual arts, while reflecting on what visual art can do in a time of upheaval and violence.  It also is one of the rare films I have seen to treat folk art and craft with the same respect as fine and graphic arts, and this is due largely to respectful camera work and editing that is nothing less than brilliant.  Likewise, The Anthropologist, which appeared at DOC NYC takes us to Siberia, Kiribati, and the ice glaciers in Peru with anthropologist Susan Crate to show us her work on climate change and its impact on culture.  My adult students who attended with me came out with the firm belief that we need not only more anthropologists, but more jobs to do this kind of necessary work.

Finally from Tribeca, I want to recall the landmark Romanian film, Aferim!, the first film from that country to acknowledge, let alone criticize, the enslavement and mistreatment of Roma people (known also as Gypsies) well into the 19th century.  Worth seeing for that reason alone, but also for the stunning black-and-white photography, the writing, and the disturbing depiction of Romanian 19th century mores – or is it human nature? – and one really unforgettable, incredible period hat.  I see that it’s going to be distributed in the U.S. in late January 2016.

(There.  Glad to have finally gotten all that off my mind and penned down, so to speak, however superficial it all may be.)

Color, grey, black and white: Notes from the 37th Montreal World Film Festival

6 Sep

I know that reading other people’s reviews of obscure art films may not be the most gripping reading, but I need to do justice to some of the films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. I’ve been going roughly every other year since 1995 at least for part of the Festival – my record for most films viewed in one week is 19 – and this year I managed to attend for four days. To their credit, they show many non-commercial films from a wide range of countries, and lots of documentaries, and tickets now cost C$7. I have seen some of the most memorable films of my life there over the years, including Postmen in the Mountains, The May Lady, Children of the Pyre, The Way to the West, Love Letter, In the Navel of the Sea, Siberia Mon Amour, and others I still can’t find online references to, and others which are memorable in every way except the title. (I’ll update this later as I find more links.)

In any case, this year I saw eight films, of which four were particularly memorable, including three documentaries. Here are a few profiles of the most memorable films.

    Cidade Cinza (Grey City)

This breathtaking film from Brazil depicts the work of half a dozen street and graffiti artists in painting colorful murals around the city. Color is the operative word here. Their spraypainting utilizes bright, rainbow colors as a means of breathing life into an otherwise drab and stultifying megacity. At the same time, the film follows the work of a crew of city officials – one of them a former graffiti artists – as they roam the city painting over the murals with grey paint. They decide – or so they claim – not to paint over the artistic ones, but the film opens with the painting over of a massive mural and its restoration by the artists, with the blessing (literally!) of the city.

Cidade Cinze (Grey City) is one of the greatest depictions of the artistic process I have ever seen on film. The images of the artists at work is fluid and dynamic, interspersed with interviews and clips of their work elsewhere around the city, and around the world as they achieve greater recognition. Their struggle to inject color into the city is nothing less than the struggle to inject art (and life!) into a neoliberal economic system that demands utility and cost-effectiveness over the freedom of expression.

Why is grey the color of the new city, the new state, urban life as we have come to know it? The aerial shots of the rapidly built city that open the film could just as easily be Dhaka or any number of other megacities in which natural green has been replaced by the color of cement. (As an aside, the mayor of Kolkata decided to make Kolkata “the blue city” – her favorite color – and created a public works project to paint everything blue, including tree trunks, which were poisoned by the paints.) The larger aesthetic issue is why a top-down approach to color – and the designation of uniform colors – is the objective of the state. What is the state trying to achieve by driving color out of our lives? Lately there has been a response, through the vibrant street art of the hip-hop movement, and also in the rainbow symbolism of LGBTQ movements worldwide as well as the most recent struggle to protect parks in Istanbul from being turned into shopping malls.

The film also raises the question of aesthetic judgments and who gets to make them. Everyone is indeed a critic. The city over-painters make judgments on the spot about which murals are too artistic to be covered over and which ones are considered pollution. At the same time, a central question of our time is who owns the walls – whether private property or public space. I have long wondered why graffiti is considered offensive to the eyes and something to be covered, while more and more public space is turned over to advertising, whose only message is consumption. Yet there is never any state-sanctioned effort to paint over billboards or ads on buses (sometimes taking up the sides of entire buses).

But above all there is the pure delight of the artists themselves, the way they express feeling alive with a spray can in their hands. There is also the question of whether the practice of art is a worthwhile occupation, as clearly in our economy it is not seen as such. Again, the struggle of a global economic system of efficiency is to marginalize aesthetic expression as a hobby and to destroy opportunities to make a profession out of being creative, practicing the arts, and teaching them. All of these questions are raised in this profound film.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not also point out how extraordinarily beautiful this film is visually. The editing, the cinematography, and even the animation, make viewing this an exuberant experience. Documentaries about art can be visually enlivening, and this film does its subject justice. It is a work of visual art just like the murals it depicts. The filmmakers not only get inside the heads and hands of the creators, but treat our eyes as well. The camera never stops, the editing and montage work are brilliant. And the use of color, appropriately enough, serves as a weapon, and a challenge to all of us to live our lives and make even our ugliest surroundings beautiful.


The greatest fiction film I saw at the festival this year was (ironically, given my previous description) in black-and-white, a Korean film called Jiseul. Its use of black and white spans all the way from purely white screens to purely black, and every shade and combination in between. Its amazing and stylized cinematography, while referencing the silver-light quality of Kurosawa especially, creates a new language within the constrained cultural palette of the black/white spectrum. That in itself makes the film a stunning display of technique, not to mention the composition and remarkably original mise-en-scène by director O Muel with unforgettable tableaux of villagers nestled within a cave, two soldiers conversing in a lengthy dialogue sequence while suspended upside-down, a smoky house-to-house search for suspects, and more.

The upside-town sequence is a metaphor for the film itself, as it turns commonly advanced assumptions of heroes and villains in the Korean War upside down. The story is based on episodes after the Jeju Island uprisings of 1948, when the U.S. military gave the command that every Korean living outside the Korean peninsula itself could be considered a communist sympathizer and shot on sight as a result of local uprisings against the Korean government, unless they came forward and registered. While according to the film the U.S. continues to deny its involvement, as many as thirty thousand Jeju islanders are now estimated to have been killed – two years before the start of the formal conflict – and two-thirds of the villages on that island permanently destroyed. The film depicts the struggle of about thirty villagers to escape the slaughter by hiding in caves for two months, and at the same time, shows the range of South Korean soldiers from those who sadistically supported a military approach to pacification and tortured those soldiers who wouldn’t follow along, to those who considered desertion and refused to kill civilians. The would-be deserters and alleged communist sympathizers emerge as the heroes of this film – now supported by a more open South Korean government – in ways that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago. This indicates there has been a re-examination of the Korean War, at least on the Southern side, over the past few years, while such a reconsideration has yet to take place in the U.S., even after all this time.

Apparently, I learned later, the actors portraying the military speak in standard Korean, while the local actors playing the villages speak in the Jeju dialect. The title represents the local dialect word for “potato,” the main subsistence of the refugees during that time and a central metaphor for the film. I also read that the local actors were non-professionals, but I had no idea. I can’t wait to see it again, because the broad cast of characters and intertwined episodes makes following what happens to each character complicated, whereas I’m sure on a second viewing, more of its storylines would become clearer. (Also the five section headings, which cry out for a better English translation – not to mention the burning paper inscriptions at the very end.) Overall, though, this is an incredible war film about refugees and survivors, and I hope it gets attention and added to many lists of great films about life during wartime.


Also remarkable was a slice-of-life documentary about the Gypsy tradition of Flamenco dance and music in Barcelona, called Bajarí,. Focusing around two outstanding performers, a young woman visiting Spain from Mexico, and her 5-year-old prodigy nephew, the film captures great examples of Flamenco dance and the accompanying music. The director, Eva Vila, has framed compelling long takes of flamenco dance, concentrating on the feet, and other isolated body parts rather than try to capture the entire body. Daring composition and long sequences that depict the spirit of the dancers are hallmarks of this distinctively shot and ultimately thrilling film. And it’s not all dance and music, as wonderful as that is. One of the most compelling sequences concerns the purchase and design of a new pair of dance shoes, but I won’t say more.

Like many great works of art it raises as many questions as it answers. In this case, even with the background on flamenco it provides, there are so many issues the audience walks away wanting to know about, not least a little more background about the Gypsies of Barcelona, and how two of the greatest dancers ended up moving to Mexico. I can’t say what is flamenco necessarily, after watching this film, nor what its role is within the Gypsy community itself. But its vibrancy, traditionality, health, power, all that is celebrated throughout. My heart was racing during the entire screening.

One linguistic note. While I know in Eastern Europe the term “Gypsy” is shunned and replaced now with the term “Roma” or “Romany,” the Castilian word “gitano” seems to be used here mostly, and the subtitles still carry on that unfortunate tradition of not capitalizing (in English) the word “gypsy.” Why this should still be allowed to pass unchallenged remains perplexing. But I have chosen to use the English term “Gypsy” here because that is what is used in the film.

    My Way to Olympia

Because of my interest in the Olympics, I was one of only a few people at the screening of the film My Way to Olympia, which the director, Niko von Glasow, jokes at the end he wanted to call “Triumph of the Will, Part 2” but it would require a copyright battle with Hitler. Von Glasow is kind of a German Michael Moore, a documentarian who occupies center stage in his own film, right down to the baseball cap, but one difference is von Glasow was born with the birth defects characteristic of mothers who took thalidomide when they were pregnant. Despite having no interest in sports, he decides to make a film profiling 4 Paralympics individual athletes and one Paralympics team. He uses his own disability, and social skills (awkward or adept?) as a way of opening up a discussion about disability with these athletes and asking daring questions that would be taboo for anyone else.

In doing so, his difficult questions and editor’s ear for the significant quote fill this film with insight after insight, about the nature of sport, humanity (in its perseverance as well as cruelty), and even the idea of winning. “The biggest disabilities are invisible,” says one coach, “the psychological traits pushing [people] or holding them back.” When von Glasow protests that he hates sports, Greg Polychronidis, a brilliant Greek bocce player with muscular dystrophy counters, “Sports are one of the best things in the world we live in. Many more things are worse.” Von Glasow: “But the Paralympics are expensive.” The bocce player responds, “But much more is spent on weapons.” Game, set, match.

Von Glasow asks Polychronidis if he fears his coming further incapacitation and death. He doesn’t, but his full-time caretaker admits to being frightened himself about what will happen to his friend. With echoes of the Lou Gehrig Story, Polychronidis – mostly paralyzed from the neck down and using a motorized wheelchair, he pitches the balls by means of a head set with a small extension arm – continues, “You may be the poorest, but if you find what you live for you will be happier than everyone. I consider myself lucky being one of the best in the world in something.” This is a film about winners and the importance of winning, in all of its multiple dimensions, about learning to stretch the abilities you do have to the extent you can achieve precision, speed, teamwork, a different kind of beauty.

Double meanings? Allegories in three films

26 May

These days it feels as if I’m seeing allegories everywhere, or at least hidden meanings and metaphors. Earlier this month, I saw two films that I was sure held double meanings, but a cursory look at reviews failed to find others making the same point, and now I’m wondering if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there, or if reviewers are not writing about this, or if I’m not reading the right people. One of the first people I met to discuss her blogs was a Princeton English professor, but I never thought anything I could say about films would be valuable to anyone. Well, ok, but if so many people are missing the point, is it worth chiming in myself? These films have insightful things to say about gender, class, and race, but insights that penetrate deeper than might at first appear on their surface. The three films are Renoir, Beijing Bicycle (from 2001, but I just saw it on TV), and 42.


Of the three, both Renoir and 42 are biopics, but really only 42 is true to the form. The film Renoir concerns actually two Renoirs, hence the ambiguous title, the father Pierre-Auguste the painter, and the son Jean the filmmaker. The film captures Auguste towards the end of his life, and the son just before he was to begin a career in film. While not having read anything about the film I went in thinking it was a biography of the elder, it turns out to be about much more.

The glorious cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin (who also did the camerawork for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love) actually recreates the palette of the impressionist himself in a kind of cinematic representation of the vision Renoir depicted on canvas. Lee’s use of light and color is breathtaking, and one can only imagine the pressure of trying to develop a cinematic portrayal of landscapes, nudes, and art in general that does justice to not only the painter Renoir but one of the early masters of French cinema as well. With this backdrop, we see the painter struggling to paint his last model, who became romantically involved with Jean and later starred in some of his early films. So the film is largely about transitions from father to son, from painting to cinema as the dominant medium of visual art, and from 19th century to 20th century treatments of women in art – “treatments of” as women continued (and continue) to be objectified even into the 21st century, gazed at, and manipulated, for art’s sake and not. Thinking of women as having been “painted” explains one of the more curious and intriguing moments of the film that involves the spattering of blue paint (which I’ll refrain from spelling out more here). If anything, the film to me is about these latter two themes: how visual art, and male artists’ use of women changed during the early decades of the 20th century, just as the archetypal father was replaced by the more virile son. The ample use of nudity recalls John Berger’s landmark essay in Ways of Seeing on the male gaze, but in this film, written by Jérome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Gilles Bourdos, and directed by Bourdos, it’s as much about male privilege generally and male privilege in the arts more particularly, which still of course exists today. And while the painted nude still exists as a genre and an art school exercise, painting a nude has been replaced in large part by filming or photographing the nude.

    Beijing Bicycle

Where Renoir is thematically concerned with art and women, Beijing Bicycle is more concerned with the rise of capitalism in China after Deng Xiaoping. I’ve read around about the film, found that it was banned for a while, but haven’t seen any criticism that discusses it as an allegory for the new capitalism. Without giving away too much, a young peasant from the countryside migrates to the city and leases a bicycle for his new job as courier. The bike is stolen, and he makes a deal with his boss that he won’t be fired if he can find the bike again – which he does, in the possession of a student, who bought it from the thief with money the student stole from his father. The peasant steals it back, the student takes it from him again with the help of his buddies, and the back and forth reaches a truce with the peasant and the student agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, effectively to share it. There’s more that happens in the end, which I won’t give away here, but for my purposes, what’s really significant is the film’s clear comment on the effect of the new capitalism on China’s core populations. After all, two of the stars in the Chinese flag represent peasants and students, as pillars of the Revolution. This film (unlike the film with which it normally draws a comparison, the Italian neorealist Bicycle Thieves), shows the peasant and the student pitted against each other by the cynical actions of the thief who steals to survive and sells his goods for cash – the capitalist. The peasant and the student, left to share what property is left to them, namely the bicycle, work out a makeshift arrangement that is good for neither, and the thief (whom we don’t see) presumably makes off with the money. The director, Wang Xiaoshuai, renders both the peasant and the student sympathetic (despite the student’s sins there are still ways we are lead to root for him, especially romantically). But they’ve been robbed of their prosperity, and even their future. If communism had been an ideology that at least professed sharing between peasants and students (at least in the early days), the class struggle has been reconstituted under capitalism such that they are pitted against each other, and even their uneasy alliance ruins both as they are powerless against the more materialist elements.


When I first saw the ads for 42 I wondered, Why now? I was surprised there hadn’t been a commercial film about Jackie Robinson that I had heard of, although he is the subject of arguably the most memorable episode of Ken Burns’s documentary, Baseball. I’m convinced it’s not just a biopic, but a film with a very useful message, because the struggle against segregation and degradation is so forgotten by the current younger generation. But there’s got to be more to it. In a way, the story does reinforce the American myth that one individual can make a difference, that social change occurs because of one person, rather than because of collective action. Look at the way the Rosa Parks story has been cast as the work of one resolute and courageous individual – which she was – rather than considering her training and connection to the Highlander School and hundreds if not thousands of other trained Civil Rights activists.

But why is Robinson’s story so important now? It is the story of one individual who was able to break the color line but only if he could turn the other cheek, and not become angry or strike back at those who oppressed, harassed, or abused him. Then I realized, during the film, this is the same story we are seeing played out every day in the Obama story. The U.S. is not baseball, but then baseball has long been a metaphor for the U.S. I am not inside the head of President Obama, nor can I imagine what he has gone through in his life nor the threats and vitriol he probably receives and that we may never fully know about in the future. But I can only imagine that the reaction to his election must rival that of what Robinson went through – and indeed, even Hank Aaron got death threats on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth’s record. There are levels of hate out there we can only guess at, and they are still out there. If anything explains Obama’s unwillingness to take on the goading, the disrespect dished up daily by McConnell, Boehner, Graham, and others, this is it. It is no secret that what lies beneath a lot of the hatred of Obama and the fear of his “socialism” is still the same old, perhaps more hidden, racism we’ve dealt with for centuries. And if Obama’s legacy really is to open the doors of power to leaders other than people of white European heritage, it’s going to have to be with a Robinsonesque restraint. The long-term goal of human equality may outweigh the short-term goals of trying to score a social justice agenda with a significant amount of economic redistribution. That was the political reality for Robinson in his day and it may still be the political reality today, no matter how much many of us in white America may think we have overcome.

Having said that, I kept thinking how smart Brian Helgeland’s script is. On the surface it’s a straightforward, slightly hagiographic biopic that works effectively without becoming too sentimental or hackneyed. It’s also helped by Mark Isham’s just-right and often beautiful scoring (Isham should give lessons to Hans Zimmer, by the way.) But it’s really a parable for our times. And when I realized this, it made me feel sorry for Tony Kushner, who I think completely misses the point in his discussion of Lincoln on Bill Moyers show, in which he compared Obama to Lincoln as master of the compromise. It’s too soon to tell, but I think it is wishful thinking to compare Obama to Lincoln in suggesting Obama’s compromises will save the union as Lincoln’s did. For me I now consider that the parallel for Obama is not Lincoln, but Robinson. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the breaking of the color barrier that links them, it’s the way they have had to use restraint to win. Obama doesn’t have to be a Lincoln to make his mark upon history, and indeed, he may not be – nor is there any guarantee his mark will be great. It is no stretch to say that getting Obamacare passed, or the raid on Bin Laden, may be his equivalent of winning the pennant, not winning the Civil War. Read this way, I think there’s more insight in Helgeland’s script than in Kushner’s, but either way, there’s something to think about as a result of seeing this film. The aptly named 42 is on the surface about #42, but one can’t help wondering if the title isn’t actually meant to draw a link from #42 to #44.

A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

Every (reservoir) dog has its day

28 Dec

Just for the record, I decided not to dignify Tarantino movies with my time even before it was cool. When I saw his first film, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992, I found loathsome his depiction of torture as something that could be entertaining and titillating. At the time, the U.S. was funding wars in El Salvador and Angola, among other places, and providing training in counterinsurgency and bankrolling torturers and human rights abusers. I went on to work at an NGO in New Jersey that had a psychological center for survivors of torture (which, by the way, could not sustain funding to keep its doors open). The role of creators of popular culture as apologists for torture is always troubling, and Tarantino’s concept of fun softened up an audience that would be apathetic in the face of torture, extraordinary rendition, disappearances, cluster bombs, phosphorus bombing, all sanctioned after 9/11 as long as we were dealing with “bad guys.” I decided then and there never to spend precious hours of my short life indulging Tarantino’s fantasies or lining his wallet. It is no surprise that he has gone on to see dollar signs in slavery. His whole shtick has always been to make a profit off of the trivialization of human suffering and making killing a fetishistic amusement. Torture and slavery are neither excuses for fun nor backdrops for dramas whose purpose is to sugar-coat violence to make money.

There are so many valuable and thoughtful films to be seen in the world, and we rarely get the chance because of the saturation of our local cinemas with American commercial films made or distributed by major corporations. Some bold independent films we have access to, like the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, that depict the realities of how torture degrades the torturers even as it degrades the tortured. Others come from directors and countries we seldom hear of and have little access to, despite the greater availability of film through the Internet, whether through streaming, downloading, or the international marketplace in DVDs.

This is also not to say I am against genre films, or even “spaghetti westerns.” Once upon a Time in the West is one classic, disturbing film of depth moral complexity, and there are others.

Life is short. If you want to see how great filmmakers portray the human condition in all its ugliness as well as its beauty, avoid cheap titillation and violence porn, don’t be seduced by flashy technique, and look for works by serious filmmakers with something insightful to say and unforgettable images to depict.

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