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Held together by a “Skeleton Crew”

15 Jun

When I had menial summer jobs during college, going to a good film the night before could upend the tedium for the entire shift the next day, and thoughts, impressions, and analysis of the film and its elements swirled in my mind. One of the strongest memories of this was working in a library, where I was doomed to change the labels on the front of card catalogue drawers all day – unscrew, remove old label and mylar covering, insert new label and mylar covering, provide paper backing for thickness, rescrew the assembly on to the front of the drawer – for minimum wage (then $3.35/hour), when I chanced to see Paul Schrader’s brilliantly written film, already in revival, Blue Collar with Richard Pryor in perhaps his greatest dramatic performance. That film, about auto workers in Detroit, brought me a lot to think about for all the hours the very next day and I still remember how in my mind’s replay it made the time pass but also let me bear down on the themes raised by the film and think about the unavoidable conflicts, class-based as well as racial, inherent in industrial capitalism.

Last night I had the chance to see another scripted Detroit-auto worker story, this time the new play, Skeleton Crew, by the young playwright Dominique Morisseau, with whom I had been unfamiliar until now. For one thing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for her other work from now on. This is a play that, in capturing the precarious existence even of skilled, union workers in the contemporary American economy, gives me hope that our theatre still can take on significant economic and social issues with sophistication and empathy, that theatre can do so much more than entertain by showing us the fragile humanity caught up in our crumbling economy. Our safety net has been ripped to tatters, even among the most strongly protected union jobs. Far from the labor optimism of Clifford Odets we now feel as if we are watching the sun set on union protection, as individual self-preservation is pitted every day against collective solidarity, because advancement comes at a moral cost.  In this sense, Morisseau’s play evokes Arthur Miller’s tragedies of psycho-economic conflict (Death of a Salesman most famously, but even more strongly both The Price and All My Sons). The dialogue is both natural and naturalistic, and yet at times with a tone as precise and ringing as that of The Crucible.

I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley in his rave review to provide more plot background to the play. But in brief, in this four-character play each of the thoroughly drawn characters occupies a tenuous position in the work hierarchy of a Detroit auto plant in danger of shutting down, including the union rep and two others who work with her on the assembly line  and the supervisor, now management, who has risen up from the union ranks to a position, though teetering, in the middle-class. We learn early on – though not all the characters know – that the plant will close, and it is up to the supervisor to make recommendations about who will be fired in advance or laid off, who will be transferred to other plants, who gets a good severance package, while the union has to scrape and scramble to protect its dwindling and vulnerable workers. One of the workers just bought a house, one is a year away from  full retirement benefits, one is saving up to start a small business, and one is about to go out on maternity as a single mom.

The play is not just an indictment of our economic system – our economic collapse as a country when it comes to providing a decent standard of living to increasing numbers of people (collapsing faster than Europe) – but also an inquiry into what happens to people morally when they get close to the line that separates management from workers, and those who think they can become secure from those who see themselves sliding into peril. We all have enough personal flaws and financial soft spots (e.g. cancer) to bring us down.  But the question remains whether the moral response in enough to offset the effects of an amoral economic system. Still, nothing in the play is contrived, there are no devices to move the plot forward, no sudden second-act revelation of secrets that forever changes the characters and the way we understand the play.  Life plays itself out without, as Brantley observes, melodrama. All of us who have worked in an office setting know the complicated ways that office mates get to know each another with a special kind of intimacy , as friends and sometimes not as friends even though we can spend as much awake time with them as we do with family.  The nature of the work relationship is different from worker and class solidarity – it is more complex, even in union shops (which I now know, working for the first time in my career in a unionized position). Friendship, comradeship, power plays, conflicts are all there, and we come to care about one another because of our frequent and purposeful contact.

This is highly engaged and perceptive theatre. What it offers over film is the intimacy of getting to know four complex and multidimensional characters by being physically close enough to touch them. And in so doing, and in seeing them in the flesh, as opposed to a two-dimensional screen, we can identify with their pain and anxiety, as (if) we come to know them. The actors have to become the people such that not one sentence can sound written.  The repartee, the comebacks, the conflicts must remain spontaneous.

Yet at the same time, there is the paradox – external to the play itself – that people who share the background and social status of the characters could not afford to see this production, even at off-Broadway prices. For that reason (among the demands of real life), I personally cannot have seen as much contemporary theatre as I would like so I cannot say categorically that this kind of new social realism is rare, but I suspect it is.I hope it’s part of a new wave.

The reason we remember Miller, Odets, Lorraine Hansberry, is that they expose something real yet complex about the relationship of individuals and families within the economic matrix. Perhaps this is what it means to be American in the post-manufacturing age. And furthermore, even though race hovers over this play and the deep vulnerability of its characters, the racial positioning of the characters themselves is far more ambiguous and complicated than what Hansberry’s Younger family had to deal with: both moving into the middle-class and remaining in the working-class are fraught with dangers of different kinds.

All of these tensions become that much more heightened as – in every industry, whether manufacturing or healthcare or higher education – fewer and fewer full-time workers relative to the growing need are being asked to do more, work more, give more. We are all becoming the very skeleton crews keeping this nation’s professional engines generating, whether products, service, care, or knowledge, while our brother and sister workers, and dads and moms, are severed, cast off, demoted to precarious, contingent positions or, as the play points out, moving from skilled labor in auto plants to jobs with no human impact in copy centers. Unemployment may technically be low by quantitative measures, but there remains just a skeleton crew doing meaningful work, in both the middle-class and the working-class, leaving bare our open wounds of aspiration.

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.

*   *   *

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?

bell hooks to the rescue

1 Feb

I know that doubt can be one of the hallmarks of good teaching.  We want students to feel encouraged to challenge and reconsider their beliefs, especially those prejudices they have adopted without much thought and certainly, by definition, without considering the evidence.  But there’s another kind of existential doubt, when we’re so hammered by all the problems facing us in the world that we end up questioning the centrality of aspects of human life that we enjoy.  Can we make art, let alone study it, at a time when it is becoming more clear that without concerted action, climate change could kill us all?  And, given that citizens (and voters) are making choices about future leadership at a time when they are woefully uninformed about politics, current events, and science, what is the importance of studying the arts?

I know.  I’m not so doctrinaire that I believe we can have a society without art or education without art. Actually the opposite: I have always had a knee-jerk sense that arts and music and literature education have benefits that go beyond critical thinking and the wonderful list devised by Elliot Eisner.  But one place where I have gotten stuck is on the politics of the arts and arts education.

Doing my class reading for this week, I came across the following in bell hooks’s book of essays, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics:

“There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look.  Such a revolution would necessarily begin with diverse programs of critical education that would stimulate collective awareness that the creation and public sharing of art is essential to any practice of freedom.  If black folks are collectively to affirm our subjectivity in resistance, as we struggle against forces of domination and move toward the invention of the decolonized self, we must set our imaginations free.  Acknowledging that we have been and are colonized both in our minds and in our imaginations, we begin to understand the need for promoting and celebrating creative expression.”  (p. 4)

And this:

“Recently, at the end of a lecture on art and aesthetics at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, I was asked whether I thought art mattered, if it really made a difference in our lives.  From my own experience, I could testify to the transformative power of art.  I asked my audience to consider why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been other [sic?] appropriated or destroyed… It occurred to me then that if one could make a people lose touch with their capacity to create, lose sight of their will and their power to make art, then the work of subjugation, of colonization, is complete.” (p. xv)

I know with these words I am in the right course, I am following the right course, and that this conversation is vital, even/especially in the context of sociology.

Believe me, it is so easy not to practice, even when there is such urgency to practice, to create, to push ourselves to make work that transforms, or even just questions, the status quo. Every school district, every budget cut that reduces arts and music in schools is performing, in doing so, that work of subjugation.  And if you can’t imagine you can’t be free, you can’t envision anything better or different, or you are simply a prisoner of what the state wants and needs you to be for them.


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.


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.

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