Friday, May 17, 2019

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Try to think of yourself as a producer.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

At it's limit freedom is the ability to reimagine and reprogram yourself in any way you choose.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

Combat Obscura (2019)

When she finished reading Into The Wild, my daughter wrote "one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience" on her full-length mirror in greasy, red lipstick from Lasting Finish's Kate Moss collection.

In the age of streamers and unlimited bandwidth, the World Wide Web offers more than its share of unfiltered viewing experiences to eat up the bandwidth of the Web and of people the center of whose lives the Web has become.

Of the two best known streamers, Netflix seems to be streaming better video than Amazon Prime these days. Both The Keepers and Roma, a film that probably should have been a series, were worth watching. But Amazon has streamed Combat Obscura (2019), distributed and promoted by Oscilloscope Labs, a viewing experience that may turn out to be more iconic and important than anything Netflix has come up with yet.

Combat Obscura is episodic, elliptical and, yes, unfiltered by anything except the time and bandwidth allotted to it by Amazon. Taped by Miles Lagoze, a Marine Corps videographer assigned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, shortly after Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo (2010), Combat Obscura is a fragmented and blurred view of combat, obscured not so much by the fog of war as by the videographer's tunnel vision, his shaky camera and his inability to decide what if anything is important.  It's a restless, no point, no center, no grasp, searching but not finding kind of video.  We never know where we are or when we are. Restlessness and indecision worry and finally defeat the entire video. Even video of a fire fight and a Marine with a head wound, the best combat footage in the video, fails to satisfy. The camera moves away from the wounded Marine just as the realization that he has been shot begins to sink in. Institutions like the Marine Corps imprint themselves on people like bulldog tattoos. Lagoze has a chance to mine that vein. He lets the moment pass him by.

I don't doubt there are viewers who will find Lagoze's tapes hard hitting and revealing. But for others they will be a collection of tropes. We've seen Marines and soldiers smoking dope so many times it would be surprising if they didn't smoke in front of Lagoze.  And we've seen things far worse on YouTube than the body of Lagoze's dead shopkeeper, an Afghan apparently shot by mistake.  Even the Marine Corps finally decided the stolen tapes weren't worth worrying about.

It's amazing how little we see that is new in the 68 minutes Combat Obscura takes up in our lives. Except for a few scenes and images whose promises are unfulfilled, most of the content is uninspired.  The form of the video may be worth talking about, however, if we can find a way to do that.

Since the footage is only structured by the videographer's tour of duty and what he could steal of his own and other videographers' work when his tour ended, deconstructing it ("unpacking" is the current buzzword) would do more harm than good. Although you might think that deconstruction would lighten the load a film or video carries, the opposite is true. Deconstruction lays on a heavy burden of significance that a little video like Combat Obscura would never bear up under.  We should settle for describing it if we can. What we need is something to compare it to.

But it's not that easy to say what Combat Obscura is like. Is it a Marine videographer's journey from youth to manhood? A coming of age story, a personal odyssey as Lagoze claims? We would have to take his word for that. There is no evidence of growth in the video itself. Even the fact that the videography seems to improve over time might be explained by the fact that Lagoze didn't shoot those segments.  Is it a "home movie" then?  It seems too intentional for that. And the aim is negative. Most of us don't shoot video of our friends and family to embarrass them. There is an urban myth that demonstrators spat on soldiers and Marines returning from Vietnam. That never happened. But Lagoze appears to have something like that in mind. "Stop looking at these kids as heroes," he told Stars and Stripes during a phone interview before the video's release.

As a "war film" Combat Obscura begs to be compared to Restrepo. Lagoze actually told The Daily Beast that he thought he was up to something "Restrepoesque" when he was on assignment in Afghanistan. If he was, he failed to pull it off.  Unlike Combat ObscuraRestrepo has a focal point.  We know where we are, when we are and why we are there.  Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle at the climax of Restrepo, fixes the action of that film in time and space. Nothing in Combat Obscura even comes close.  The creators of Combat Obscura ask us to buy the idea that narrative and structure are unnecessary to film and video, even undesirable, but Lagoze and Oscilloscope Labs haven't closed that sale with me.

What Combat Obscura is most like is the information leaks that WikiLeaks dumps into the blogosphere now and then for the media to amplify. And in a world where journalism professors call leaks the lifeblood of journalism, that may be the future of streaming video.  If that's the case, distributors like Oscilloscope Labs should give up the idea that the leaks have to be feature length and bundle short videos like tranches of sub-prime mortgages or collections of lipsticks.  And beyond that, maybe the way of the future is to cut out middle men like WikiLeaks and Oscilloscope Labs and stream video from drones, satellites, surveillance cameras and videographers like Miles Lagoze in real time to pump a constant intravenous fix of unfiltered experience directly into our overheated brains.



Saturday, May 4, 2019

mise-en-scènes: Most Of The Web's Are A Mess

We're all McLuhanistas now.

We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web, for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the world wide web, television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its content.

The web started out where the media that preceded it ended up, as a mass distribution network. The content of the web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films. (Or, for that matter, the way film, created for televison, is made "episodic.")

There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the web will look like -- unless it is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the web and real life as, essentially, one and the same -- much less, what the "art" of that medium might be.

Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to cable television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage -- usually without adding value -- to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the world wide web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content --print, film, television and the other media -- to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the web is -- with a few notable exceptions  -- a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die.

The history of television is instructive.  Film has been kinder to books than television -- the medium the web resembles most -- has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended time of series like The Sopranos, Rome, and Angels in America have given audiences more time with the characters and mise-en-scènes of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène -- a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script -- takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mise-en-scènes of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes whose blocking and cinematography develop the illusion of depth on the screen and recreate the real world.

Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up -- along with made for TV movies -- feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television -- just as novels may end up as films -- but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.

The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases, designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.

The web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing.

Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the world wide web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. (Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense.)

The web has not found a way to adapt content -- to transform a subject -- without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event -- a favorite of muckraking sites and tabloids -- their mise-en-scènes are, frankly, a mess. They quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Summer Of '67

The Summer of 1967, an army buddy and I took over the 2nd floor of an old duplex in Galveston and spent a lot of time arguing politics versus culture. He was a Marcusian and argued that politics shaped culture. I argued culture shaped politics.

It was the summer of the Six-Day War, and our favorite cartoon showed the aftermath of a collision between an Arab and an Israeli tank, the Arabs holding their hands in the air, the Jews holding their necks.

I read the Koran that summer, and I was impressed by the idea of houris.

I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Sitting by the pool one afternoon, I suddenly understood what a function was and lost my fear of mathematics forever.

My friend hung out at the beach all day while I programmed computers at an insurance company. After work every day, I'd drop a deck of punch cards off at the computer room, and the operators would run my latest Keynesian model for me on the IBM 7080. The models always blew up. I never got the accelerator and the multiplier right.

My friend relieved me of the burden of paying the note on my '65 Baracuda by totaling it on the boulevard one afternoon. He had just come back from the Monterey Jazz festival. The richest man in town sent him out there with some banker's wife, probably as a joke.

My friend ended up inheriting a department store in Basel and slowly disappearing, like that big cat. I wonder what he's doing sometimes, but never enough to try to find out.

The banker's wife ended up finding Jesus under the sink in the bathroom of a cheap motel in Laredo one night. She was crouched in the corner, desperate for help, and it was Jesus or the big cockroach that had just crawled out from under the sink. She hated roaches.

I still think it's about culture. About education in all its forms. If I don't know what a credit default swap is, never saw a play or an opera, never read a real book, don't know what a function is, never read any history, how can I believe I know enough to pick the people who are going to run my country?

And I'm not arguing for government by the elite.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Culture Of Dissent

Back in 2011, the establishment media made a stab at coping with protests outside the political process the oligarchy controls.  The venerable New York Times ran an opinion piece by Charles Blow, Hippies and Hipsters Exhale, that ranged from making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- pointing out that the protesters amused themselves with face-painting and pillow fights -- to fretting about the idea that the protesters on Wall Street might represent the avante garde of a completely disillusioned American majority.  Blow's "sage" advice to the protesters?  Join the political process.  Come be co-opted.  Step right up.

Of course, Blow completely missed or chose to ignore the point to protests like Occupy Wall Street.    The protesters have rejected politics.  They are wide awake.  They no longer believe a political solution to America's problems is possible.  They are determined to win or lose in the streets, and they are committed to the notion that culture trumps politics.  (Think about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, anti-draft movement that ended the Vietnam War and the Johnson Presidency, but at the price of undermining The Great Society and opening the door of the Oval Office to Richard Nixon.  The way, we used to say, the cookie crumbles.)

When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time smoking dope and arguing with a good friend -- a Marcusian who had ditched his Swiss name for "Baptiste" -- about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture.  I've never been more convinced I was right.  Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture.  Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea.  It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counter Culture of the Sixties and Seventies -- precisely the culture Blow derided in the title of his essay.

The real question is: Can the emerging protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counter Culture of the Sixties?  Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?

Near the end of the Sixties, the University of Texas School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach.  The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media.  The kicker -- the brainchild of Stan Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did.  The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge.  If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.

The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process.  The culture just isn't there to sustain it.

Connections

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight."

What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."

Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover one world that underlies all of the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not?

Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter?

Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg -- Red Mountain and Green Mountain -- le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the Fifties and Sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't even seeing the same things.

Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.

What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelettes.

The only things I can make accessible to anyone is what I see, hear and think when I watch a film.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Waste Land (2010) Everybody Has To Serve Somebody

Lucy Walker took some risks when she made Waste Land. There were physical risks -- dengue fever and kidnapping -- and there were artistic risks, too, hazards in the landscape that could have tripped up an emerging talent, seriously damaging her reputation as a film maker. She had to make her way carefully, avoiding sentimentality on the one hand, cynicism and exploitation on the other. She played with scale, filming the landscape from a great distance, so that the catadores, working the garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho landfill, looked like ants, until, gradually, as she approached them, coming closer and closer, they were revealed as beautiful people. (But that could have gone the other way. Had she slipped, she might have filmed interesting patterns, moving across a colorful landscape, that, on close inspection, turned out to be grostesque. Walker had to trust her cinematographers -- Dudu Miranda, Heloisa Passos and Aaron Phillips -- and they delivered.)

Walker tried, unsuccessfully I think, to contrast the poverty of the catadores with the conspicuous wealth of Rio's south zone. Ironically, in a film that makes a point of the enormous gap, separating rich Brazilians from the poor catadores who dig through their waste for recyclables, the only rich people in the film are the artists and the collectors they serve. Waste Land starts out promisingly enough, with shots of Carnaval and a short montage that follows the costumes and other garbage from Carnaval as it's loaded into garbage trucks and hauled off to the landfill. But after that, to contrast rich and poor, Walker uses the artists, auctioneers and art collectors who move Vik Muniz's images of the catadores through le monde. That narrows the field considerably. (But don't you worry, Reader. Charles Ferguson's Inside Job (2010), another Oscar contender, has enough rich people to go around.)

In a blog she wrote while she was making the film, Walker distances herself from le monde. She says Muniz describes Rio as St. Tropez, surrounded by Mogadishu. The "garbage-clad open sewer" favela her catadores live in is the worst in town. The landfill is the place where "posh rubbish from the south zone mixes with the cheap trash from the favelas."
"Evenings we return to the south zone, she writes. I sulk as I head to a delicious dinner in a bulletproof car, I'd rather be with the catadores than these billionaires moaning about the price of contemporary art. These are the people who are going to buy the art work that Vik is making in the garbage at our charity auction at Phillips. And these are the people whose garbage will be part of the piece. We're going to trace all these comings-and-goings of things."
Does she? Well, not quite, but if you've been around le monde a little, you can fill in the blanks. I remember wandering around the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston one afternoon and coming across a cocktail party in the sculpture garden. I asked the guard, a tall woman in a dark, blue suit: "What are they celebrating?" "Being so rich, I guess," she said.

All right. There always has been tension between artists and the patrons they serve. Why go to the dinner parties? Better yet, why not go and take a camera along? Even a little Flip would do. Or, best of all, why not broaden the scope of the film and give us a look at the life-style of the fat cats who live in the south zone? All of them, not just the collectors of art.

Walker does step in a hole now and then.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, she comes through the Jardim Gramacho landfill and the making of Waste Land with her artistic limbs, her integrity, and her reputation intact. Lucy Walker is an increasingly important talent, and Waste Land is a timely and engrossing film.

Early in Waste Land, while Walker's crew is filming the catadores who separate recyclables from the garbage at Jardim Gramacho, a catador, noticing the cameras, calls out: "They're filming Animal Planet!" Walker includes the remark in the film to confront the issue of exploitation head on, but the catador could not have been more wrong. Nature films are pure direct cinema. Lions maul a baby elephant. The film makers don't interfere. They record the kill and move on. Walker is up to something else.

In a statement about Waste Land, Walker tells us documentary film makers can't help interfering with their subjects. "Your presence is changing everything," she says, "there's no mistaking it. And you have a responsibility." Walker tells us Waste Land, like all of her work, is about getting to know people who you do not normally meet in your life. She aims, she says, to create an opportunity for the audience to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. That's actually a pretty limited goal. In fact, she has done much more.

Walker and her collaborator, photographer Vik Muniz, have made a genuinely anti-Fascist film.

It is the intention of Fascist art, architecture and film to reduce individual human beings to insignificance, to make them feel small. (Visit the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., or watch Leni Riefenstahl's Fascist documentary Triumph Of The Will and you'll see what I mean.) Walker and Muniz have the opposite in mind. The footage of Vik Muniz flying into Rio to make portraits of the catadores out of the recyclables they collect at Jardim Gramacho is strikingly similar to Riefenstahl's footage of Adolf Hitler flying into Nuremberg for the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. (The similarity could be a coincidence, but Walker is a student of film as well as a maker of films, and my guess is that she -- on some level -- made that connection.) The intention of the Riefenstahl film is the glorification of Hitler and the Fascist Third Reich, while the intention of Waste Land is homage to the little "guy," to the working poor. If anything is glorified in Waste Land, it is humanity.

Vik Muniz wanted to find out if he could change the lives of a group of people, using the same materials they dealt with every day. Muniz showed the catadores at Jardim Gramacho how to get big bucks for their recyclables by repackaging them as art. He put together a social experiment, and Waste Land documents that experiment. Unfortunately, the Pictures of Garbage (2008) series doesn't come through in the film. The process Muniz uses to create the work is complex and abstract. He photographs catadores, posing as figures in well-known works of art, La Mort de Marat, for example, then projects a giant image of the photographs on the floor. The catadores use recyclables to realize paintings -- collages really -- from the projected images, and Muniz photographs the catadores' "paintings" to make the final work of art. There are seven of them in the Pictures of Garbage series.

Tiao as Marat Muniz Studios

(Oddly enough, "Pictures of Garbage" -- as a title -- is most interesting in English, where it picks up some real complexity from the play on the word "garbage." The pictures are of people, not garbage. And the materials used to paint them aren't garbage either. They're recyclables. The recyclables are used to outline and shade -- you might say they are where the people are not -- so the people seem to emerge from the materials, from what Muniz calls: the "garbage." All of that nuance appears to be lost in Portugese. I checked around, and I hear Brazilians never use the word lixo to refer to people. Muniz is lucky to be working in the U.S.A., a mean country that has the idioms it needs to adequately express it's meanness.)

It doesn't matter. The Pictures of Garbage series isn't about art anyway. It's about action.

And, if Muniz's images don't come through, Walker's do. And, for me, they deliver what Walker promised, an opportunity to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. Walker makes that connection in an exceptionally filmic way. I want to show you a segment of the film. It's a little long, but for anyone who wants to understand what direct cinema can be in the hands of a gifted film maker, it's worth seeing.

The situation is this. When Walker started filming Waste Land, she met a catador, Valter dos Santos, riding his bicycle, and, Walker says, right then she knew she had a film. She describes Valter as the landfill's elder statesman, recycling guru and resident bard. He's been working at Jardim Gramacho for 26 years. "It's not bad to be poor," Valter teaches. "It's bad to be rich at the height of fame with your morals a dirty shame."

Vik Muniz doesn't make a portrait of Valter, and, while Vik and young Tiao dos Santos, the charismatic president of the pickers co-op, are out on the art circuit, Valter is back at the landfill. Take a look.

Waste Land by Lucy Walker Almega Projects and O2 Films

That's how documentary film makers synthesize experience and make emotionally moving films. It's how a film maker like Lucy Walker can "just tell it like it is" and still take sides. (Walker dedicated Waste Land to Valter dos Santos.)

Look. We need more artists like Lucy Walker and Vik Muniz, artists who have the power to remind us of who we were, back when we had a sense of community.

And -- at the risk of sounding too nationalistic -- we need American film makers to give us a James Agee, Walker Evans look at America -- and, yes, a Lucy Walker look at America -- and at the sore -- to borrow an image from Agee -- the hard, flat, incurable sore of poverty that is spreading across America.

We need American film makers to point the steady, unafraid lenses of their cameras at the real face of America, and we need to have faith that something magnificent can come from the simple act of seeing one another as we really are.

After watching Waste Land, I realize that I have chosen not to see, too often I have chosen not to even look. I have chosen not to look, because, if I looked, I might have seen, and, seeing, I might have had to do something. I have chosen not to look, just as you, Reader, and you, Mr. President, and you Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen have chosen not to look. But my eyes are wide open now. Are yours?

Next week, Inside Job (2010).

This has been a good year for documentary film. The five documentaries the Academy's mysterious nominating system picked are so good that I honestly can't say which one I'd vote for. Fortunately, I don't have to vote. The Academy, in its infinite wisdom, has not given me a vote, just as the universe has not given the ostrich the power of flight.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inside Job (2010)

I wrote this five years ago, right after Charles Ferguson won his Academy Award.  I think I have a pretty good idea now what Wall Street planned to package and sell next.

Inside Job (2010), Charles Ferguson's exposé of the takeover of American government by greedy financiers, is full of information.  It adds important details to the history of the worldwide financial disaster that triggered the Great Recession, and, even when Ferguson is being redundant, recounting facts that are generally well-known, he's entertaining.  Sunday night, Ferguson won an Academy Award.

The question is:  How relevant is the history of a ponzi scheme that caused a global financial disaster back in 2008 now that the folks Inside Job calls our "Wall Street government" have moved on to undermining civil liberties, torpedoing single-payer health insurance, busting unions and generally shredding the safety net we cobbled together during the Great Depression?


Inside Job (2010) Economic Crisis Film LLC

Will Charles Ferguson's documentary film bring down the Wall Street government?  Will it even break their stride?

I have no doubt that Inside Job will do what film and art are uniquely suited to do.  It will change the way we look at the world.  I don't think anyone who sees Inside Job will ever look at bankers and the finance industry, academia, our government, or the history of America over the last 30 years in the same way again.

Inside Job unfolds like a criminal trial as Ferguson carefully builds a case against the most prominent financial figures in America, many of whom are now in the Obama administration.  By the end of the trial, the verdict of history -- or at least of the historian, Ferguson -- is clear.  The finance industry and the government, on purpose, wrecked the world economy and destroyed millions of lives.

Ferguson's explanation of how subprime mortages were bundled as derivatives, called Collateralized Debt Obligations -- CDOs for short -- and sold in unregulated markets along with Credit Default Swaps -- insurance policies that paid off when borrowers defaulted on the subprime loans in a CDO -- is easy to follow.  Because anyone could buy a Credit Default Swap against a CDO, whether they owned the CDO or not, firms like Goldman Sachs could sell CDOs and bet against them at the same time.  AIG, the main writer of Credit Default Swaps, collapsed -- and got bailed out -- when it couldn't pay off on the Credit Default Swaps it had written.   The financiers held on to the commissions and bonuses they made selling the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, even after the bubble burst.  The taxpayers held on to the dirty end of the stick.

Ferguson is a skillfull interviewer who balances skepticism with naiveté and knows how to follow up when he gets an opening.  The big names in finance and government were smart to dodge his interviews.  He is especially savage when he unmasks the academics -- the professors of economics and finance -- who sold out to the finance industry, covered up for crooks, and even invented economic theories to justify and defend Credit Default Swaps.

Inside Job is a film in the tradition of documentaries like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Harvest of Shame (1960).  It combines interviews and narration with archival video and photographs to make a point.  It's not particularly filmic, but the cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam is crisp and sophisticated.  It fits the subject.  The settings for the interviews are well chosen.  A fast-moving montage of mansions, yachts, jets, drugs and whores -- but where were the male prostitutes? -- adds a dimension to the history of the meltdown that was missing from the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.  To his credit, Ferguson sees Wall Street's obsession with wealth and its use of drugs and prostitutes more as character issues than as moral ones.  And he's not without humor.  The irony of Eliot Spitzer being reluctant to use the personal vices of Wall Street underlings to force them to flip on their overlords is not lost on him, or on us.  Equally ironic is the Bush administration's sacrifice of Lehman Brothers to "calm the markets," like Greeks, sacrificing to Poseidon to calm the seas.  If Inside Job has a weakness, it's in the way Ferguson brings the pain of the financial crisis down to the individual level.  Why interview workers in China when so many workers in the Midwest had lost their jobs?

Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year, but, in spite of Matt Damon's sappy reminder -- delivered as we gaze at the Statue of Liberty -- that "some things are worth fighting for," Inside Job may not accomplish as much as Ferguson hopes.

What we -- the survivors -- need now, instead of warnings and history, are tools.  We need to know how to get on down this Cormac McCarthy kind of road, past the charred, asphalt-covered bodies of the refugees who died when the death ray caught them pushing shopping carts, burdened with their last belongings, along the interstate.  We need stuff we can use.

And we need to know what the overlords -- the financiers who are, as Ferguson reminds us, still in power -- are going to do next.  What will they package and sell to create the next bubble?  Maybe we can get in on the ground floor.

A link to the complete film is here at YouTube.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Everybody Wins

Whether or not Exit Through The Gift Shop wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary, British artist Banksy's light-hearted romp through the world of underground street art is shaping up as a win for Banksy, for his fellow street artists, and even for the collectors who, according to Banksy, bought $1 million worth of kitsch, conceived and produced with Banksy's help by the documentary film maker turned street artist: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. "Mr. Brainwash." If the ebay value of the work the L.A. art geeks bought at Mr. Brainwash's massive 2008 Life Is Beautiful show is rising and falling with his fame, the geeks should be in better shape now than they were before Banksy released his chronicle of MBW's rise to stardom. MBW himself has made out quite well. In addition to the cash from his 2008 show, he landed a Madonna CD cover -- thereby meeting the minimum requirement for consideration as a serious graphic artist -- and he treated himself to a NYC show last year. But the biggest winner of all is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' mysterious "demopol", the nominating system that filled the Academy's hand in the category of Best Documentary by including Banksy's comedy among the five contenders.


Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Trailer banksyfilms

As the voting draws to a close, Academy members can choose from a list of documentaries that includes exposés of the global financial system and the natural gas industry, a film portrait of a rifle platoon on the ground in Afghanistan, and, remarkably, two documentaries about artists and the impact art has on people's lives. One of them is Waste Land (2010), Lucy Walker's sensitive study of Brazilian-born artist Vik Munoz and the catadores who separate recyclables from garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is the other one. It is, at the same time, an entertaining recollection and an "exposé" of the art scene. Lucy Walker had to walk a thin line between portraying her subjects and exploiting them. Banksy never had that problem. He just had to have fun.

Exploitation and expropriation is the main -- if not the only -- point to street art, formerly known as graffiti. The streets are the canvas, and, in Banksyland at night, they belong to art and to artists in search of a perfect wall. Exit Through The Gift Shop puts Banksy's permanent mark on street art and the L.A. art scene. It's a clever expropriation of underground street art and the artists who make it, especially Mr. Brainwash, who set out to document Banksy and got documented himself. The streets and street art belong to whomever can control them, and, in Exit Through the Gift Shop at least, Banksy is in full control.

Artists synthesize experience. The successful ones also manage to create self-sustaining systems in which the sale of their work fuels the creation of more work until the balance tips in their favor and they are making enough money to expand the scope of their work. They become a brand. Banksy, of course, is there. He's able to sustain his own work, run an art factory, finance the work of other artists, and move out into new forms. And, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Banksy has a flair for film.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is the most personal of the documentaries up for an Academy Award this year. It's cinema verité that is exceptionally well done, and it neatly demonstrates the power of narrative to structure time and to entertain.

Banksy has the conventions of the exposé film down pat: the hooded sweatshirt, the pixilated faces, the voice-over that ties fragments of film together. He understands the use of foreshadowing as well as he understands what Tom Wolfe called "le monde", the insular little world of art makers, art dealers and art collectors. The first time we meet Mr. Brainwash, he's pawning off cheap clothes with unusual stitching as expensive designer clothes. The last time we see him, he's just sold a million bucks worth of art that's as questionable, from Banksy's point of view, as the money Banksy forged -- with Princess Di's face in place of the Queen's -- but was afraid to distribute. There is no law against the sale of bad art. As Wolfe famously noticed, le monde is very small, and collectors have always been driven to get in on the ground floor, running the risk of buying bargain basement clothes at designer prices, or near art -- the equivalent of the peripheral junk you pick up when you exit a museum through the gift shop.

But it is the brilliance of his editing, the way he alters reality by juxtaposing events, sequencing and resequencing time and space to sculpt a reality that never was or could be in the so-called real world, that finally sets Banksy apart. Somehow, from fragments of experience, recorded on hundreds of tapes, Banksy pulls together a complete narrative that, really, could not be any other narrative and still fit together so well. What's real and what isn't? Does it matter? I doubt there are two viewers anywhere who would agree on how much of Banksy's documentary is "made up" to provide continuity and context, or just to make a point. (Personally, I doubt Mr. Brainwash's grilling at the hands of Disneyland security after Banksy -- in one of the film's funniest scenes -- inserts a life-size, blow-up doll, wearing a black hood and orange Gitmo jumpsuit, into the Disney landscape. But I enjoy the Disneyland footage anyway.)

If Exit Through The Gift Shop -- and Banksy's work in general -- has a weakness, it's that his work is political. Banksy has a message. It's a cool message, but a message nevertheless, and Banksy has to lock it down. He can't leave room for the viewer to miss the point. He can't chance the kind of complexity that would make his art polyreferential, the kind of work that points to a multitude of things at once. Maybe that kind of work -- work that empowers the viewer to participate more in making the art -- would require Banksy to give up more control of his turf than he's willing to do right now.

And, finally, there is this.  The Life Is Beautiful show's success is all the more remarkable, because it occurs in 2008 when the American economy was already in free fall and the fault line, separating rich America and poor America -- a fissure conservatives had been hammering on since Reagan -- finally split, sending the two Americas drifting apart, though not so far apart that the poor Americans can't still see rich America and the American dream sailing away, forever out of reach.  Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be able to ignore that coincidence and judge Banksy's work on its artistic merits alone?

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Restrepo (2010)


View Larger Map

As you zoom in, the arrow points to the opening of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley at the Pech River, northwest of Asadabad, near the Pakistan border.  The Korengal valley is the location of what has been, arguably, the most documented engagement between U.S. forces and the local Taliban and their allied foreign fighters in Afghanistan.  The fight for control of the Korengal Valley has been recorded in award-winning photographs, a long article in the New York Times Magazine, and, of particular interest, in Restrepo, a direct cinema film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that's available for sale or rental as a DVD and as streaming video from Netflix and Amazon.  The film won an award at Sundance last year, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award.  There is not a lot of direct cinema around anymore, and this one deals with a serious subject, with life and death decisions.  On top of that, it must have been an exceptionally hard film to make. 

The Hetherington-Junger documentary illustrates the difference between documentary film on the one hand and photographs and print on the other for practioners of the art and for viewers of documentary films as well.  The challenges the film makers face in Restrepo are the same challenges direct cinema and cinéma vérité film makers always face:  telling a story without narration, tying episodes together seamlessly, slapping on enough detail to make the film come to life and give viewers a sense of being there.  In addition, they had to stay alive.












OP Restrepo as it appears in the film.  Whoever shot this scene is outside the outpost, exposed to enemy fire. (Update: Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, 4/20/2011.)

The efforts of the film makers and the film's subjects, the professional soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, are exceptional, but, as film, Restrepo is not exceptional.  As document, it fills some gaps that photography and print can't fill, and, for a few minutes, it achieves brilliance, but it relies too much on photography, print and a viewer's personal memories to fill the gaps in its incarnation as a 90-minute feature film.  I suspect there is an exceptional 30-minute film buried in Restrepo, but, if it's there, Junger and Hetherington didn't find it.

The experience of art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and fragmented videos like Restrepo require viewers to participate to an unusual extent.  The more we know about combat, the more gaps we can fill and the more complete and convincing Restrepo seems, especially as we recall the film a couple of days later, after the images have sunk in.

Restrepo was brought to my attention by a Marine who thought it captured the essence of combat better than any film he'd seen.  He and I are both aware of the movie's many shortcomings, its lack of a central theme beyond the notion that war is hell, its episodic and elliptical nature, the absence of a point-of-view that reveals what the GIs are shooting at -- we see bombs, rockets and mortars going off in the valley, but most of the time the soldiers could be firing their own weapons into thin air for all we know -- but, for him, the personalities of the soldiers make the film worthwhile.  For me, it's the greasy grill in the snack bar, the cramped bunks, the mysterious spotting device that looks like it was covered up to keep us from seeing what it is.  More cerebral than my Marine friend, I admire the idea of OP Restrepo, the gesture, while he admires the spirit of the men who manned the post.

For others, the appeal of Restrepo may lie in the irony of viewing a film about combat in the Korengal Valley, knowing that American troops withdrew from that valley in April of 2010, after entering it 5 years earlier specifically to pick a fight with the Taliban and the foreign fighters there.  America did not stay the course in the Korengal Valley.  Some might say the soldiers and Marines who died there died in vain.  And some might say that the valley is a metaphor for America's war in Afghanistan, a war that is sure to end in some kind of stalemate, with neither the United Nations nor the Taliban winning a clearcut victory.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley off and on during 2007 and 2008.  Other reporters were there at the same time, notably, Elizabeth Rubin.  Her story for the New York Times Magazine, Battle Company Is Out There, with photos by Lynsey Addario,  fills most of Restrepo's gaps.  Indeed, Restrepo works best for me when I think of it as video that illustrates Rubin's article.

Restrepo The Movie, a web site devoted to promoting the film and Junger's book version of the fight for the Korengal Valley, War, has photos of the 2nd Platoon, video interviews, some outcuts from the film and some Hetherington pictures.  A little blog at the site has an entry that reminds us that Juan Restrepo was a real person who died in combat and is remembered and mourned by his family.

Reading the Rubin article and spending some time at the Restrepo web site before you watch the film -- or reading Rubin and visiting the film's web site, then viewing the film again if you've already seen it -- may add to the depth of your viewing experience.  It's something I'd recommend you do.

The web site tells us that Restrepo is "an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you."  And, describing their film -- in all modesty I suppose, --- the directors themselves assure us that: "This is reality."

But the reality is that Junger and Hetherington's cameras do leave the valley.  They go to Italy with Battle Company when the company redeploys, and the film makers take the soldiers of Battle Company into a studio and interview them there.  Ironically, those interviews, those remembrances of combat, provide the glue that holds the video fragments Junger and Hetherington recorded on the ground in Afghanistan together.  And it is the interviews that come just before some fragments of video shot in the middle of operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day fight around the village of Yaka China, that -- for a few minutes -- lift Restrepo to the level of brilliant documentary. 

Like Junger's documentary book, A Perfect Storm, Junger and Hetherington's Restrepo is about death, even to the extent that, if nobody had been killed during the year they spent making the film, it's doubtful Restrepo would have been distributed.   But American soldiers did die in the Korengal Valley that year, and, as he did in A Perfect Storm, although he does not attend their deaths, Junger recreates their dying.  To be sure, Junger does not presume to tell us how it feels to die in combat the way he told us how it feels to drown in A Perfect Storm.  We learn from the soldiers that "Doc" Restrepo, the medic for whom outpost Restrepo and the film are named, was wounded soon after he arrived in the valley and bled to death in a medevac helicopter on the way to a field hospital.  We're not there when Restrepo dies.  But when another soldier, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, is killed, we're as close to the action and to the emotions of his comrades as it's possible to get without being there.

There is something uncomfortable -- disrespectful maybe --about deconstructing a film that shows an American soldier dying in a war that is, for some of us, morally, strategically and even tactically ambiguous.  After five years of fighting for the valley, the battleground turned out to be of no strategic value. The tactic of seizing the high ground and setting up an outpost -- OP Restrepo -- to draw the enemy in did not work.  The attack on the outpost never came, and Battle Company's CO, Dan Kearney, was forced to take his soldiers down the valley to engage the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle that is the climax of the film and the low point of Battle Company's deployment in the Korangel Valley.

Veteran combat photographers used to advise rookies to use fast film, a fast shutter, stop down, focus at 10 meters and shoot anything that moves.  That works to illustrate a story, but to tell a story with pictures, especially one that unfolds over months of fighting, much of it at night, needs a better plan.

Elizabeth Rubin says she went to Afghanistan with a question:  Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes?   After a few days, that question sparked others.  Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign?  Why were more American troops being killed every year?

Those questions led Rubin to focus her article on the life and death decisions being made every day in the Korengal Valley and on the man making most of them:  Dan Kearney, the lord of the Korengal Valley.  She follows Kearney through a fire fight that ends with him killing a woman and a child when he destroys a house with armor-piercing missiles, and on into Operation Rock Avalanche, a mission Rubin says many thought insane.  It's during Rock Avalanche that Rubin's rendition of the battle for the Korengal Valley syncs up with Junger's and Hetherington's in her account of the action that cost Staff Sergeant Rougle his life.

I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood. The shot to his arm had hit an artery. Rice was shot in the stomach. A soldier was using the heating chemicals from a Meal Ready to Eat to warm Vandenberge and keep him from going into shock.

Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him. Someone had already covered him with a blanket. Only the soles of his boots were visible.

“There’s nothing you could do,” Piosa said, grabbing Clinard’s shoulder. “You got to be the man now. You can do it. I need you to get down to Rice and Vandenberge and get them to the medevac.” Clinard wiped his face, seemed to snap to and headed off through the trees.

It may be that some day someone like Sebastian Junger or Elizabeth Rubin will write a book, and the electronic version of that book will include hyperlinks to video clips that illustrate the author's prose.  The words and images and sounds will all come together in the same work, a new kind of art that combines the best of narrative, video, photography and sound.

Or maybe we'll have to keep pulling that kind of work together ourselves, creating cathedrals of our own imagining like my recollection of Restrepo, with chapels by Rubin and Junger, stained glass windows by Hetherington and Addario, statues of Restrepo, Rougle, Kearney and Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, clips from YouTube put up there by GIs -- and high up on a back roof a little gargoyle fashioned from these thoughts.

Restrepo is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gasland (2010) Dick Cheney's Legacy

Every race has a dark horse, running at long odds. In this year's race for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, the dark horse may be GasLand (2010), a film by Josh Fox that takes on almost everyone in the Oil and Gas Industry, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton over the use of "fracking" -- hydraulic fracturing -- to extract natural gas from vast deposits all over the United States.

GasLand (2010) HBO Documentary Films Low Resolution Fair Use Video

While he was Vice President, Dick Cheney forced a bill through Congress that exempts fracking from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act. The drillers don't have to tell the public what's in the fracking liquid they mix with water and shoot into gas deposits where it can seep into the water supply or return to the surface, either to evaporate or to be carried off and dumped.

Fox makes the case that fracking injects dangerous chemicals deep underground to break up rock and shale, releasing vast quantities of natural gas, while polluting the water supplies of homes and towns near the wells, which, if natural gas drilling proceeds as planned, will be just about every home and town in America. The industry denies the charge that fracking poisons the environment and the people and animals who depend on the environment for clean water.

Formally, GasLand is about as simple as documentary film gets. Maybe a Ken Burns special, cobbled together from old photos, with voice over and dramatic music, requires less of the film maker, but not much less. The subject of GasLand is Fox and his quest for information about what fracking is and what it is doing to people and the environment. We tag along, learning as we go. The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Supersize Me (2004), Religulous (2008), or any of Michael Moore's films. GasLand adheres closely to the form. We take a road trip, talk to people who have had their water poisoned by the frackers, see some drinking water catching fire right out of the tap, animals losing their fur, sick people describing their symptoms, big names in the oil and gas industry, including Boone Pickens, refusing to be interviewed, politicians ducking and obfuscating.

Fox has a personal stake in the issue. He owns 14 acres of unspoiled land in Pennsylvania -- his boyhood home -- that the gas industry is trying to lease for $100,000. Fox doesn't try to make the industry's offer into a will he lease or won't he lease cliff hanger. We find out he won't early in the film. The element of suspense in GasLand is situational. The issue of fracking is far from settled. Legislation to undo Cheney's exemption of natural gas drilling from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act is still working its way through Congress, and Pennsylvania and New York are struggling with the problem of how to protect their water supplies from the frackers. All of that counts in GasLand's favor. Timeliness is a plus for documentaries.

Fox is immensely likable. His rap is pleasant, his voice easy on the ears. Strangely enough -- and maybe it's the landscape he's traveling through -- he reminds me of Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog (1975). That Fox is able to conjure up an apocalyptic premonition of the future, using video of natural gas drillers at work in people's backyards and tap water catching fire, is a sign of his considerable talent.

Nevertheless, GasLand is a dark horse in the Oscar sweepstakes, because it's ahead of its time. To work as exposé, it has to make fracking relevant and build some outrage against the natural gas industry. Two of its competitors, Inside Job (2010) and Restrepo (2010) just have to tap into the outrage over the global financial meltdown and the war in Afghanistan that already exists.

GasLand is available on YouTube here.