Wednesday, February 23, 2005
I first came across the idea of memes via mid-90’s Wired Magazine articles about Richard Dawkins and in Neil Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk opus of that period, Snow Crash. Stephenson posits that religion is a virus and that the brainstem can be hacked linguistically in order to program behavior. (For the esoterically inclined readers of this site, this was precisely the driving concept behind the neurolinguistic programming (NLP) movement that grew out of Milton Erickson’s hypnosis work.) Stephenson’s work subtly and effectively foreshadows all of the current and insidious waves of fundamentalism under the guise of sci-fi fun.
In the late 90’s, I hooked up with Bruce Kasanoff. At the time, Bruce was focused on the use of data to delight customers via personalization. And the good folks at places like Amazon have employed the ideas that Bruce was pioneering to good effect since then. But that was then.
In early 2005, I have noticed that there is a form of ‘big brother’ meme that is growing and mutating in the American cultural Petri dish. It is focused on the fear of the potential abuses of privacy as it regards data and personal privacy and, perhaps much more importantly, liberty. This meme focuses on and promulgates concerns about a post-Patriot Act, post-Homeland Security America where both government and business organizations are aggregating large databases for disparate purposes but with similar results: intimate knowledge of American citizens used without any kind of checks and balances in ways that could wreak classic Michael Crichton-style havoc.
Examples of the meme mutating and expressing itself in various media are Robert O'Harrow Jr.’s book No Place to Hide (Amazon and NPR interview). On the web, there is a proliferation of websites that document where the both government and privately owned surveillance cameras are. The most interesting expressions of concern to me, however, are two thought pieces published on the Internet, snarkmarket’s EPIC animation and the ACLU’s “Pizza Palace” animation. I recommend watching them both because they are well done and they express different facets of this new meme.
Watching the EPIC piece, I thought that given that certain industries have so successfully blurred the line between government and business, e.g., the frequent shifting of players from the military, government contractors, and the federal government itself, it's not surprising that some people are wondering when an economic power like Microsoft will become a threat of some sort. Part of what interested me about the EPIC story is that it had not yet occured to me that I should worry whether Microsoft is a threat beyond the sphere of capitalism.
The ACLU piece surprised me less. Government collects information, government abuses information. The J. Edgar Hoover story redux, right?
So now that I have been exposed to various strains of this big brother meme, I cannot help but wonder just how concerned should I be about data aggregation and my personal liberties. I think to myself, “I’m not a terrorist. What do I have to fear?”
And then I remember when in the aftermath of 9/11 a Pakistani colleague of mine raised money to take out an ad in the New York Times in order for his Pakistani friends to broadcast their solidarity with America. The result? The FBI saw a lot of transfers of small amounts of money into his bank account from Pakistanis (individual contributions for the very expensive full page ad) and showed up at his door for several days running to ask questions.
So if Homeland Security or any other government agency/contractor is aggregating my personal data, might it look suspicious? And if it does, can I be assured that I will have recourse to an attorney?
Say…this new meme is infectious. Read the rest of this post...
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Along with a sea of fellow Manhattanites, I went to Central Park to experience The Gates on opening weekend. I spent a couple of hours rambling from West 86th Street down alongside the lake and then cutting across the park towards Bethesda Fountain and the Boathouse. From there, turning downtown to meander through The Mall. Near the high 50’s on The Mall, we turned back and cut back west, skirting the Sheep Meadow and returning up the west side of the Park to 72nd Street. Truly, it was a delightful experience.
Returning to work on Monday, I was surprised to discover a number of colleagues who “didn’t get it” or simply did not appreciate it in concept. Were people really making an effort to see it? they asked. Preposterous. Twenty one million dollars? Ha. People are crazy.
No, I protested. It’s really worth seeing. Go see it.
Later, I was amongst a group of friends, many of whom are now or have been writers, artists, and performers. “It’s not art,” said a friend who works in an art gallery. “It’s a civic event.” “Orange,” said another. “Ugly.” And so it went. Truly, I was shocked. Not because they did not like it. But because they were judging it and they had not been to experience it for themselves.
I found all of this frustrating. I am not a fan of the Christos, per se. I’ve never experienced their work before and do not believe that I would like all of it. But I had an opportunity to see The Gates and I have to say, it’s more than seeing The Gates. It’s experiencing The Gates. It’s not about photos.
For me, The Gates is about raising the viewer’s consciousness on several levels. We fail to see our surroundings, no matter how spectacular, when they become familiar. The Gates forces us to see the park anew. And it does so by literally re-framing the experience. As you walk through the park and underneath the gates, you are being forced to wake up. Passing through each gate briefly brushes against some part of our consciousness and works on an animal level to rub lightly against our personal space like a cat causing static electricity and raising the hair on your arms as it runs over your lap.
On a visual level, the gates create new framed views every step of the way. And because of their fabric flag-like components, those views are not static. They continually play in the wind and in the light, the effects of which also serve to once again jog the viewer’s consciousness, wordlessly emanating a command to “Stop! Look!” and then after a few steps, “Look again!”
In Seeing is Forgetting the Thing of the Name One Sees, Lawrence Weschler (as I’ve noted on this site before) explains how Robert Irwin began his career as a painter and over time changed the focus of his work to shaping environments. Irwin began to see art as the experience that takes place in the viewer and not necessarily the physical (in Irwin’s case painted) object. As a result, over time Irwin’s work evolved to using lights and scrims to reshape gallery spaces and thereby create experiences for willing participants.
Over the years, Irwin’s artistic evolution led to him designing environments, including gardens and grounds. Perhaps most famous/notorious is his work for the Getty Museum in LA where architect Richard Meier was not pleased to have his fanatically rectilinear buildings complemented by Irwin’s circular plantings. Most recently, Irwin did the grounds and interiors of the refurbished factory that is Dia:Beacon.
At Dia:Beacon, in the midst of a lot of Irwin’s wonderful and subtle manipulation of the museum environment sits a monstrous achievement in creating experience in the viewer. Michael Heizer (recently profiled in the Sunday Time Magazine) has an installation that consists of primary geometrical shapes (circle, triangle, square, cone) cut deep into the foundation of the museum. I have linked to a photo, but you’ll have to trust me that experiencing the Heizer piece creates forceful feelings of primal fear, awe, and wonder. The experience is capable of imprinting itself on you in ways you cannot control.
I think The Gates make more sense in an Irwinian articulation than they might as explicated by Christo or Jeanne Claude. The Gates are not best understood as the saffron colored posts and fabric that they are made out of. The Gates better understood as the experience one has while moving in, around and among The Gates.
I am not arguing that the Christos should hold a place in the pantheon of great artists of the Western world. I don’t think that The Gates will stand the test of time precisely because it is so experiential. But for those who are here now, it provides a highly accessible opportunity to experience art.
And this leads to my final point. For a host of socio-economic reasons, the vast majority of the world will not have the opportunity to have a Bernini statue burn itself indelibly into their consciousness. The Christos have generously put their time and effort into a piece of art that will potentially change and inspire millions.
And to argue against that is to argue about whether it is a bad thing that most people love the simple happiness of Pachelbel's Canon, and do not appreciate the mysterious genius of Bartok. It’s a lack of gratitude both for the artists’ effort and for its peaceful and positive effect upon the multitudes that take the time to experience it. Read the rest of this post...
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Unknown White Male
A 34-year old man with a British accent turned up in Coney Island with no idea of who he was, or how he got there. Through luck and chance, the man was finally identified as Doug Bruce.
Rupert Murray, friend of 15 years, was erased from Doug Bruce’s along with all the rest of life. Hearing of what had transpired with his friend, Murray wrote Doug Bruce a letter and requested Bruce’s permission to document his predicament. They re-met and Mr. Bruce agreed. The result is an extraordinary film that follows an unimaginable journey to build a life anew. From re-meeting his father and sisters to seeing snow for what is effectively the first time, Mr. Bruce works to rewrite the blank slate of his mind. Watching Unknown White Male raises painful and fundamental existential questions about the interplay of memory, personality and identity in establishing our humanity. I found it astonishing, moving and terribly compelling.
Remember the US/Russia Olympic Hockey rivalry? Now imagine it with quadriplegics! Murderball is about the men who play Quad Rugby – rugby played by ferocious quadriplegics in Mad Max style wheelchairs. You’ve never seen anything like it and you’ve probably never met anyone like them: their life stories are often worthy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
All of the subjects of Murderball are incredibly charismatic (especially the hard charging Mark Zupan), and the US/Canada rivalry is truly fierce. The rivalry is inspired because Joe Soares, the Canadian team coach, is a former American champion who became a turncoat when he was cut from the US team. (Soares is so tough that if there was a movie of his life he could only be portrayed by Robert Duvall.)
Murderball manages to weave fast-paced, down-to-the-buzzer sports action with the moving, compelling and inspiring stories of the athletes in competition. This film will win your heart and blow your mind. Don’t miss it.
Twist of Faith
This fantastic film was nominated for the Academy Award this year*. And it should have been because in my estimation, Twist of Faith is a classic example of what a documentary can do: illustrate the human complexities of a timely topic by using one person’s situation as a microcosm. The topic is child sexual abuse by clergy and our subject is Tony Comes, a brave Toledo firefighter.
Comes did not publicly acknowledge his childhood abuse at the hands of the family priest until he discovered that he had purchased a brand new home only five doors down from his abuser.
The Comes family make terrific subjects; Tony Comes is engaging, extremely forthcoming about his state of mind from moment to moment, and unexpectedly articulate to boot. Twist of Faith follows his (and his family’s) struggle to deal with the flood of emotions that burst forth when he tells his wife, parents and the world what happened as well. It also details his attempts to get the local archdiocese to acknowledge the wrongdoing. It’s a gripping, timely story and is presented extremely well.
It’s worth noting that one of the best parts of the Sundance experience is the opportunity you have to participate in Q&A with the film makers and, in the case of documentaries, with the subjects as well. The presence of Tony and Wendy Comes provided a cathartic experience for the audience at our screening. We were all so caught up in their story and so empathic for their struggles that I think collectively it was helpful to check in with the Comes family and get an update on their wellbeing.
*Interestingly, Twist is up against two other docs from last year’s festival, Born into Brothels and Super Size Me. And while I expect it will lose to Super Size Me because SSM is more innovative in terms of filmmaking technique, Twist of Faith is a far more emotionally resonant work.
Why We Fight
What a family the Jareckis are! Andrew made Capturing the Friedmans and his brother Eugene made The Trials of Henry Kissinger and now Why We Fight, which won best doc at Sundance.
Why We Fight is Eugene Jarecki’s exploration of how the forces that Eisenhower in his farewell speech dubbed the “military-industrial complex” have evolved into a triangle of relationships between the military, private contractors, and government officials. Jarecki interviews key players across all three legs of the military-industrial complex, along with members of what one subject argues is the latest addition to the web of symbiotic relationships: the
Chronologically, the film takes us from Eisenhower’s speech through various American military entanglements and finally into
For instance, the film details how Americans have been oversold on the efficacy of “smart weapons” by contrasting the original claims of their effectiveness in the so-called “decapitation strikes” that launched the war effort with scenes of the actual strike zones, making clear that where in specific cases there was 100% success and zero collateral damage reported, the ratio was exactly the opposite.
Why We Fight makes a cogent and balanced argument that these unchecked political forces have created a headless beast that has yielded the kind of “standing army” that our first president George Washington warned the country would turn the
In short, Why We Fight is the film Michael Moore might have made, were he as articulate and talented as he is driven.
Shakespeare Behind Bars
This film is the story of a group of convicts at a
It’s hard to describe how moved I was to see these men struggle with the text. And I don’t mean intellectually struggling to understand the text. These men have no more or less trouble than anyone else with that. I mean watching the struggle of a truly committed actor to find the truth in himself that will give him emotional access to the text. To watch a convict recognize Caliban’s rage as rage he himself has once owned. To watch a murderer who has a beloved daughter find in himself the connection to Propero’s relationship to Miranda. And to watch their director, the saintly Curt Tofteland who has entered their world every week for 10 years, facilitate their growth as individuals and as a group of friends and colleagues.
The film raises many issues surrounding crime, punishment, incarceration and most of all redemption. Directed and edited with an extremely gentle hand, Shakespeare Behind Bars is both a bittersweet and unexpectedly joyful work.
This film is going to be a crowd pleaser, but there’s a lot more to it than what sits on the surface: Paul Green runs a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches very young kids and teens how to play rock and roll. And while Green can be bright, funny, entertaining and iconoclastic, he is also a self-centered, abusive crazy man. His students range from 6 year old twin Ozzie wannabees, to a young guitar prodigy to a talented young woman who may well some day climb the college rock charts. Some of the kids flourish under his tutelage and others suffer. Together, Green and his protégés have created a community of oddballs pursuing their peculiar urge to rock the house.
The Education of Shelby Knox
Shelby Knox a paradox. A high school student in
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story
Emile Griffith was a simple hat designer from the Caribbean working in
Timothy Treadwell lived among the Alaskan Grizzly bears for 13 summers. Styling himself as their protector from poachers, he filmed himself with the bears in their natural habitat. Werner Herzog uses Treadwell’s own footage to show us the fearsome nature of the bears, Treadwell’s tenuous existence in their midst, and his final descent into mania that lead to the inevitable for Treadwell and his unfortunate girlfriend. Bizarre, sad, shocking and chock-full of car wreck fascination.
Protocols of Zion
Given the fact that anti-Semites everywhere continue to disseminate this piece of Tsarist propaganda (If you don’t know what The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is, google it.), it bewilders me why filmmaker Mark Levin spends so little time on its origins. If you know nothing about modern anti-Semitism, then this film might be worth seeing. But for those who know, this film adds nothing. Additionally, Levin inserts himself needlessly into the film (e.g., filming himself watching Daniel Pearl’s murder).
Perhaps the most needless tragedy here is that Levin clearly missed the most interesting film that’s right in front of him: his family. The film skims briefly over such interesting things such as that his father Al Levin has let his graffiti artist grandchildren spray paint the exterior of his suburban New Jersey home and has apparently had a longstanding relationship with an imprisoned ex-white supremacist. Levin's grandfather, Herman Levin, helped to found the Jewish Reconstructionist movement in the 1930s after growing displeased with the role of women in his Conservative synagogue. Next time, Mr. Levin should take advantage of the great raw material in his own backyard.
A documentary about Los Angeles’ starring role in the reproductive technology arena, Frozen Angels has every reason to be more interesting than it is. It has a cast of characters that includes a loudmouth radio host who also runs a surrogacy agency and a woman who has been a surrogate for multiple families. Soporific editing and a tentative point of view make a needless bore out of what could have been a fascinating study. Read the rest of this post...
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
A number of folks have asked about all of the press about Sundance, celebrities and merchandise. The Hollywood folks mostly come the first week of the festival. The studio executives to buy films, the celebrities to promote their films, and the silly folks who are famous-for-being-famous to make a scene of some sort and thereby forestall the end of their fifteen minutes, even if only on Gawker.
K. and I purposely go for the second week of the festival in part to miss all of the nonsense. For a cinephile, going the second week of Sundance means no distractions. The festival is about seeing good films and given the crop of promising creations in the Sundance catalog, we planned several 5 film days and even one 6 film day!
Because there is so much to say about what we saw, I’m going to break up my Sundance experience into two posts. This week, I’ll talk about the dramas & comedies. Next week, I’ll discuss the documentaries. (By way of a teaser, I will mention that the documentaries were outstanding this year.)
The craftsmanship of Junebug is such that I was not surprised to learn that the screenwriter (Angus MacLachlan) is primarily a playwright. But that’s not to discount in any way the contributions of director Phil Morrison. Not only has he assembled a terrific ensemble cast, but he directs with a light hand and lets the actors deliver.
Madeleine, a Chicago gallery owner (the glorious Embeth Davidtz) specializing in outsider artists brings her new husband George (the underrated Alessandro Nivola) back to his hometown in North Carolina, primarily so she can pursue a local talent. This brings them into the orbit of his estranged family and neighbors, brought vividly to life by a remarkable team of performers that include character actress supreme Celia Weston as his mother, and Amy Adams in a potentially career defining role as Ashley, George’s pregnant sister-in-law.
Not surprisingly, when a big city art dealer comes to the rural south, worlds collide. But in this gentle and respectful film, they never collide in the ways that you might think. Small, but realistic surprises are around every corner of MacLachlan’s fine script. The cast fill their roles with nuances that pull the world, and the story, together into a coherent whole without filling in every blank.
It’s a small gem of a film and Amy Adams delivers one of those luminous performances that seem more like channeling than acting. The Sundance jury awarded her with a well deserved special acting honor.
The Squid and the Whale
What if Woody Allen had directed Hannah and Her Sisters in his early 30’s? Can you imagine what his career might look like now? After two early films that received some small notice, many New Yorker columns, and co-authoring The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, Baumbach has finally delivered the film that many suspected he had in him. And it is a very good film indeed.
The Squid and the Whale is a deeply personal film about two young children’s experience of their parents’ divorce. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney brilliantly portray a pair of Park Slope academics that thrive on their intellectual firepower.
Daniels' performance as the self-absorbed novelist/professor past his prime is jaw dropping in its ability to disgust and frustrate, all the while somehow generating empathy. Linney does some of her best work as the mother whose unexpectedly and late blooming creates utter chaos in the family. And Jesse Eisenberg and young Owen Kline turn in picture perfect performances as the 16 and 12 year old brothers seeking ways of navigating the wreckage. Squid’s only imperfection is its final (and too novelistic) scene, which feels abrupt and not entirely satisfying. But given that 99% of the film is excellent, this seems like a quibble. Funny, touching and well done all around.
I look forward to seeing what Mr. Baumbach delivers in the future.
Although my festival sherpa Dan derided it as pretentious, I thoroughly enjoyed director/screenwriter Rian Johnson’s Brick. In a move that is quirky, risky, and entertaining, Johnson has lifted the film noir genre and transposed it to a Southern California high school.
Our hero in hard-nosed detective role is Brendan (Third Rock’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an antisocial type who eats lunch alone behind the school. And it is no wonder that he does. Everyone wants something from him. The vice principal wants him as a stool pigeon, the police (“the bulls” in Brendan’s wonderfully specific patois) want to make a bust, the drama queen wants him back as a lover, his most recent ex-girlfriend wants him to save her from her downward spiral into a junkie’s life, and the biggest drug dealer around (“The Pin”- short for kingpin) wants him as a partner.
Johnson effectively creates a completely new world for his audience. We’ve seen this genre, but never this way. He packs his script with a complicated back-story that unravels continuously through the course of the film, gradually clarifying everyone’s motivations as Brendan races the clock to solve a murder. True to genre, he gets caught in a complex web of intrigue where he must play the many conflicting sides off each other.
While the quality of the acting is somewhat varied, the taut script, terrific sound production and impressive direction all keep you wrapped up in the action right to the end. Brick signals the arrival of a young director to be watched.
I have to admit that it was hard not to be affected by what preceded this film. Argentinean director/screenwriter Jorge Gaggero was very touching as he introduced his film, trying not to weep for his repeatedly bankrupt and bereft country. Live-In Maid is his way of sharing his countries difficulties through some wonderful storytelling.
The film is a detailed portrayal of the relationship between Beba, a formerly wealthy woman desperate to deny her true financial condition and Dora, the family maid of more than thirty years whom she can no longer afford to pay. Both women are strong in different ways and the complexities of their long relationship make it hard for them to easily unwind from each other. Both actresses give tremendous performances and the film succeeds in not being a sob story, despite being a microcosm of, and a proxy for, the dire circumstances of Argentina.
Likely to be dismissed as “a small film” by many reviewers, Live-In Maid offers a lot for audiences who are able to still their minds and watch two masters of their craft do their work for us.
Imagine if Lars von Trier had written Heathers with one eye turned back towards the 1950’s shocker classic, The Bad Seed. Pretty Persuasion is that film.
A thoroughly caustic and misanthropic endeavor that stars wunderkind Evan Rachel Wood and includes star turns by James Woods and Jane Krakowski, Pretty Persuasion tells the story of a private school girl’s attempt to become a famous at all costs. Scenes that read like Sarah Silverman punchlines blow the roof off of any sense of propriety, each one overflowing with an outrageous potpourri of sex, misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism and constant skewering of American mores.
This film is going to be one hard sell, I can tell you that. Beyond the script written in the language of blue, Evan Rachel Wood, a very young actress, plays a character who performs a sultry striptease, delivers tons of (partially off screen) oral sex on both sexes, and freely owns to indulging in what one might now politely call the ballet dancer’s specialty.
I found Pretty Persuasion to be funny and outrageous, although not entirely successful. The people behind me were offended beyond recovery.
Based on the mini-cult off-off Broadway musical, which in turn was based on the original 30’s film which decried the dangers of marijuana usage, Reefer Madness desperately wants to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Based on that comparison alone, the impossibility of any sort of plot summary should be immediately obvious.)
The film’s opening number (“Reefer Madness”) is dreadful and it all gets off to a rocky (no pun) start. It picks up speed, however, and is largely enjoyable fluff.
While the songs themselves are not memorable, some of the performances certainly are. Alan Cumming chews on the scenery in all the appropriate places. Young lover ingénues Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell deliver the goods consistently throughout. Amy Spanger as a bad girl repeatedly kicks ass, singing and dancing. Robert Torti as a sexy, Vegas-style Jesus is hysterical. SNL regular Ana Gasteyer as the drug dealer’s moll is also a standout.
(Note: Reefer Madness was produced by Showtime. Theatrical release is unclear.)
A young woman goes in search of her missing sister in the border town of Tijuana. Very quickly, we enter a world of dream logic where scenes repeat with slightly different results. Hmmm. A world of dream logic. A border town. The movie that’s called Between. Could it be that our protagonist is…somehow not alive?
Although the buzz on Between was good, I have to say that this was one of the few out-and-out disappointments of the festival for me. The film is executed with workmanlike competence from a directorial standpoint (David Ocañas), but it feels like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as it might have been developed for the Lifetime Channel. Our comatose and dreaming protagonist (Poppy Montgomery as the “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” version of Naomi Watts) must choose between joining her gorgeous young husband who is already dead or returning to consciousness. Because this is the schmaltzy version of a tired trope, she goes off to Heaven as personified by a gorgeous suburban McMansion.
The Girl from Monday
Ah, Hal Hartley. From a New Yorker’s perspective, he practically created the quirky independent American film genre. Beginning the mid-80’s, Hartley has been writing, directing, producing and composing the music for his sizeable body of work, which includes such art house and cult favs as The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men and Henry Fool.
Unfortunately, The Girl from Monday is not a particularly good film. In fact, it’s really just a retelling of the mermaid fable. We find ourselves in the Earth of the future where the Orwellian world government is a media/military complex. The leader of the rebellion works in the government’s ad agency. He struggles to bring down the government, even as he comes up with some of the best ideas for keeping the people down through marketing. Suddenly, a beautiful woman from another world falls to our planet. On her world, individual identities are not differentiated and no one has a body. She has come in order to bring back a missing piece of her people. Someone who individuated to come to Earth and perhaps has forgotten who he is and how to return. Can you guess the rest of the plot from here? It’s the mermaid story, right? He can’t return to her (idyllic) world and she can’t stay in his (corrupt) world.
Watching The Girl from Monday, I couldn’t help but feel that the burden of doing it all is too much. Hartley desperately needs a collaborator. Someone to push him to develop certain themes more deeply. Someone to tell him to try a different angle. And someone to say no.
High School Record
This was the low point of the festival. Music video director Ben Wolfinsohn took a group of non-actors who are members of young LA bands and used improvisation to create a narrative.
The storyline is that two high schoolers are making a video record of the senior year of a group of students at an arts magnet school. While some scenes are genuinely funny and there is a lot of promise in the characters and some of the premises, the film is ultimately a desperately careless affair with some scenes finding a reason for existence and others falling terribly flat. When it was over, K. turned to a friend and said, “I want my two hours back.”
[NOTE: An apologies to the Yahoo Groups subscribers about getting this late. Technical difficulties.]