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Monthly Archives: January 2010

12, in which New York druggies…

In the wake of the Sundance festival, where (most important matter) sales were said to be up, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times weighed in with what has become the perennial Independent Film is Dying/Being Reborn item.  The usual villains, the usual saviors – Hollywood of course wears the black hat, and new technology wears the white, and those eager youthful new filmmakers of the season are Twittering their way to new frontiers, etc.  Along the way the usual mainstream tactic of calling tired formulaic old tricks “new” and “independent” gets flogged once again.  See Manohla’s article.  I promptly sent off a missive to the Letters to Editors Dept, and if they are generous they’ll print it in the culture ghetto section, maybe next Sunday.  Or maybe not.  Here’s what I wrote:

Dear people

In her article Talking About a Revolution (Jan 29) writes “The frisson of the live concert experience partly explains why some independent filmmakers now show up at some of their screenings in person.”  Very partly: in-person presentation has been SOP in the independent/avant garde/experimental/etc. world since I began in 1964.  I myself did such a screening not so many years ago at the Nuart.  Not for the “frisson” of anything, but because for so-called “independent” cinema it is essentially the only way to get a showing and an audience, and $200-$500.  Plain and simple.  Slapping new names on the same old thing doesn’t make it new.  Through my career I have experienced the same basic tap dance of expectations with each new technology: videopacks back in the early 70’s, VHS, cable, satellite broadcast – each entered with the promise to revolutionize the media, and we got instead Blockbuster Video, the wrestling channel, and unless one made a basically conventional narrative film of its time (yes, Blair Witch too), you still had to show up at the few in-person sites available to make your $200.  And you still do.

Yes, the net is making a difference: now you can download Hollywood or about any film you might desire, including the wildest weirdest porniest you want, and pay nothing for it.  I sell DVDs via my website, though the same ones show up on BitTorrent as soon as I do.  So yes, it is changing things, but not necessarily for the better.  Amidst the avalanche of DIY film-video making now available most of it is easy conventional stuff like the mumble-core crowd, and most of it is simply bad.  Its independence is purely financial, not psychological or artistic: there is, sorry, very little genuine creativity or independence going on in it.  This has more to do with the stultifying cultural envelope which we live in, as shown in our politics and the idea that a concert with beat-to-death modes of rock and roll offers “frisson.”

We’ll probably exit this cultural cul-de-sac the same time the US Congress behaves like adults.  So I’d guess we have another 30 or 40 years given the current concept of “adulthood” that starts when you move out of your parents house (because you don’t have a job, have $40,000 or more in student loan debt, and are psychologically dependent anyway) sometime around when they drop dead.

Sincerely
Jon Jost

On reading the various newspaper and trade items on the festival the talk is primarily about money, wheeling and dealing, distribution chances, etc.; secondarily we get thumbnail sketches about the story, the theatrics. We get nothing about the art, probably because in most cases there isn’t any. Rather, formulaic cookie-cutter filmmaking that makes no challenge to the viewer outside of evading the boredom of the same old thing the same old way.  I’m rather certain that any such films that would challenge the viewer’s complacency would get kicked around rather badly.

Unfortunately this story is replicated in most festivals, which likewise play it safe, sticking to tried and true conventional films, albeit often ones with a little kinkiness about sex, drugs, exotic murders, gender fun and games, and the usual riot of PC acceptables. However straying from fixed narrative conventions is a no-no, as is something that is visually or temporally very far outside the TV base norm. An over-head shot a la the Coen brothers or Jarmusch is about as risky as allowed – oh so arty! To say a dismal range of stuff well within the norms of Hollywood but made with other money (sometimes).

Likewise this same reality is replicated in our politics where those few who dare to venture outside the rote words and rituals are promptly exiled (or worse). Can you imagine a candidate refusing to wear a stupid flag lapel, not standing in front of an array of American flags, not genuflecting to the mantra that America’s soldiers abroad are our “best,” not asserting we’re number one in myriad aspects? No, you can’t, because it would never be allowed. The confines of permissible discourse in America is as limited on screen as it is on the stump. Small wonder we’re in such a bad place.

William Eggleston

It would be nice to think some day we’ll outgrow this, be it in our cinemas or in Congress, but I wouldn’t make any bets on it happening anytime soon.

“I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetary. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”

JD Salinger, famed it seems as much for fleeing fame as for his handful of books, withdrew into a fierce reclusion, hiding out in rural New Hampshire half a century and more, declining interviews and all the other stuff of public life.     Doing so perhaps he showed himself merely an obtuse crank, or perhaps instead an prescient critic of the trajectory of America, where nowadays people seek out fame in and for itself, detached from any grounds for its being.   Catcher in the Rye became a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for some generations of disenchanted youth and remains a good seller today, considered an American classic, up with Mark Twain.

[Assuming what's in the paper is kind of true, for another take on Salinger see this.]

Jasper Johns

Demonstrating, again, that yes, for a politician he can give a good speech, President Obama held his ground in his required State of the Union address this evening.  Acknowledging the hard times from which he was speaking, he rolled out a laundry list of things done, things around the corner to do, and took attention-deficit-disorder-Americans on a brief leap back so they might remember just what a mess he’d inherited on taking office.  Taking a jab at the Republicans, who often seemed to take a deer-in-headlight stance (should I applaud, should I stand, will we all look like the Party of No if we uniformly sit here stolidly looking grumpy?) with which Obama played a bit, he underlined that the cut-taxes mantra had been tried 8 years and landed us in the present.  And tossing a bone to one disgruntled segment of his year-ago base he said he’d get don’t-ask-don’t-tell changed while the cameras showed the military chiefs sitting glumly.

Outlining his long-term economic intentions, he said it was necessary to get health-reform done as one part of it, and listed a range of pleasers for the left: high-speed trains, green industries, solar this; but then he handed out equal opportunity rightwing pleasers too:  nuclear power plants, clean coal, off-shore drilling.  Rattling bills and programs and numbers,  he risked playing the cliché politician/Democrat, handing out bon bons as vote buyers.  And, as an election year rolls in, he chided the assembled politicians for doing precisely what he was doing.

Jasper Johns, Numbers

Unlike his predecessor, who could find no faults in himself or his policies, he acknowledged errors on his part as he closed with an appeal for Americans to quit bickering, stop running Washington as a non-stop electioneering stage, and get down to the job at hand.

Throughout all this Joe Biden sat smiling, nodding, leaping to applaud, and otherwise playing lap-dog.  Ditto Nancy Pelosi.  The Congressmen and Senators on the Democratic side jumped to their feet frequently and shouted, as if the talk were a pep rally, while for the most part – except when Obama said he’d have a tax exemption for small businesses and a few other such things, like the off-shore drilling bit – the Republicans maintained party discipline and glumly sat.

For me this kind of political spectacle all rings phony, not really different than watching the old Soviet Politburo gathering for the obligatory genuflections, hand-waves, hand-shakes and all the other boiler plate of political theater.   Whether at this late date it will play in Peoria or not, I am skeptical.   Too many lost jobs, lost mortgages, too sour a collective atmosphere and too many broken promises.   While exuding his charms and even a touch of wit, and making a case for his programs, he’s probably lost too much of his base in the last months to get them back.   Eighteen months ago he could play the quasi-innocent outsider, which was a major ingredient in his capacity to generate enthusiasm and hope.   Twelve months in office, he’s squandered that energy on many dubious decisions – from keeping those establishment insiders of Wall Street and the Pentagon at his side and acting on their advice, to more or less dismissing the concerns of the latte-liberal sorts, not to mention skewering the delusions of those closet radicals who were actually anticipating Change You Can Believe In. The great balloon of hope that gathered a year ago in Washington for the inauguration is now trampled on the ground of practical realities.   It could have been otherwise, but it would have taken a very different approach, one which perhaps is outside of Mr Obama’s ken.

Through the looking glass

The Republican rejoinder, apparently done in the nearby Virginia State Capitol, was an embarrassment of the first rank, as the carefully choreographed putti angels of the public neatly surrounded the speaker, lower left a Caucasian military man, upper left an hispanic woman, upper right an Asian man, lower right a black man, all of them dutifully nodding assent as Governor Bob McDonald stiffly delivered mind-numbingly empty words.   I suspect the racial tick-tack-toe layout did not play well in Bubbaland, and would have been far too obvious a ploy for any stray independents inclined to drift that way.  The cynicism was overpowering.

President Obama inauguration, Legoland

A year ago Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into the office of President of the United States of America.   In a vast exhalation of euphoria much of the country bid farewell to George Bush and anticipated the fulfilling of the Obama campaign mantra, Change You Can Believe In.  The air was palpably filled with hope, despite the serious circumstance he was inheriting: 2 wars, an economy in a death swoon.    For a brief while the illusion held as a few Executive Orders were made, and Obama, though severely buffeted by Bush’s catastrophic economic leavings, ordered the closing of Guantanamo, the end of  torture as US policy, and so on.   But quickly the bloom was off, as Obama – seemingly to show needed “toughness” to ward off Republican charges of weakness – ordered another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.  And then surrounded himself with the same suits who had led the country into its fiscal collapse: Geithner, Summers, Bernanke, and then, with just a little less haste than Bush, tossed still more trillions at the bankers.  Foreclosures and unemployment rose, Detroit tottered toward oblivion.  Obama, as he’d said he would, “reached out” to Republicans who were having none of it.  Obama put forward his health reform proposals and now a year later a bloated compromise document of 2000 unreadable pages, offering a bit or a lot to nearly everyone, angers as many as it pleases.  Back room deals, real-politick as played by Rahm, and the whole foul smell of a corrupted culture wafts across the land, heightened by a shrill right-wing media gunning for Obama’s hide, no matter what he does – all this a mere 12 months later.   Obama’s enemies smell blood in the by-election in Massachusetts, and his allies and supporters of a year ago are abandoning him in droves, thoroughly disillusioned with his policies and his failure to lead.   Bitterly, it appears all too likely that the Republicans, having produced the disaster at hand, are likely to benefit from Obama’s incapacity to meaningfully address it.  He appears captive to the financial forces which run Wall Street, and to the military-industrial complex which now looms far larger than Eisenhower cautioned half a century ago.

Philip Guston

It’s a year later now and some Change You Can Believe In did indeed come, just not the kind most of those caught up in the euphoria of a year ago anticipated.  Some millions are out of their once-homes.  More millions are out of their job and there don’t appear to be any jobs out there to replace them.  More millions are about to run out their unemployment benefits, and like 1/4 of the populace, begin living on food-stamps.   And while the media do their best to keep it under wraps there’s probably worse to come.   And politics in America has taken a body blow from which it  is unlikely to recover any time soon.  A generation of young people, drawn to the Obama candidacy, are surely disillusioned and will be more so as life looks likely not to be offering a job while they default on their student loans the bank is shafting them on, and a mess of other assumptions of not long ago have disappeared.  Another generation of older voters is likely to feel utterly betrayed by a system they had gone along with, even after the Supreme Court theft of the 2000 election and the possible electronic theft of the 2004 one.   This time they thought they’d won, even by a good margin, and it turns out their guy was a put-up or a patsy.  We can almost be assured that those stepping into the vacuum thus provided will be the same old well-organized gang that marched in lock-step with GW Bush.   Given the Supreme Court ruling of last week, this is now virtually fore-ordained.  As ever in America:

So what do we make of Mr Obama’s less than thrilling first year in office?   That he was the beneficiary of a vast repulsion to Bush and all things akin, like Mr McCain?   That he was in truth little experienced in the hard-ball world of big league politics and on gaining office he was told in no uncertain terms what was expected of him, by whom and for what – or otherwise he’d be dancing to a magic bullet of some kind?  That in his passage through Columbia, Harvard, certain law offices, and other rites of the game, he’d been set up as the perfect Manchurian Candidate, loved by the liberal left, reviled by the racist right, a shoe-in for a deep Machiavellian bait ‘n switch, and a perfect set-up to assure future Republican victories?  Or simply that he was the sap left to hold Mr Bush’s toxic bag of debt, war, social disarray and the last legs of a staggering empire, a guaranteed losing position, no matter who took it?

Any of these seems a plausible explanation, if all equally tainted with the sour taste of something bitter.

On one hand I see Obama as lacking the taste for real politics, and while his calm and considered manner is suitable for some circumstances – far better than the shoot-from-the-hip cowboyism of his predecessor – it still lacks an essential component of the political arena.   Politics, for better and worse, is not really about what people need and should have; it is about what they want.   In his story of himself he tells of being careful not to come across as an angry black man, of learning how to put white’s at ease so he could move among them.  One wonders if along the way he did not psychologically emasculate himself so much that he know longer knows how and when and where it might be appropriate to be angered?  Or if along the way his desire to put others at ease, step by step in his transit through Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago, comfortable law offices, did not mean that he acquired the values and tastes of his fellow academics, lest he disturb them, and that, as a friend of mine who has known him some years in Chicago says, he is really a middle-class centrist from whom anything radical – never mind the stint in community organizing – is not to be expected, whatever our hysterics on the right imagine.   And so, thrust quickly into circumstances which cry out for radical steps to be taken, Obama is simply unmanned and unable to do what the situation calls for.   Elected on a mandate of Change You Can Believe In, he promptly left it in the dust and adopted the least offensive position he could for those around him:  Gates, Summers, Bernanke, Geithner, all of whom are drawn from the same elite realms he knew in Harvard.  That the reality he was confronting was far more disastrous than these parties could imagine – after all it was their doing that had a large hand in making it – and required far more radical surgery than their self-interested minds could imagine, Barack went along to get along.  Again.  A self-protective habit.   And in the process he lost the best political chip he had, the wave of communal enthusiasm which he had ridden into office.   And like clockwork he steadily chipped away at it with one misguided decision after another, doubtless wrapped up in a cocoon of others who in their bubble of institutional limitations could themselves not imagine what really needed to be done or simply did not want what really needs to be done.  And as he did this, the wave of support lapped away into the choppy froth of a windblown lake, no longer a source of energy and direction but instead a seething cauldron of misdirected angers.   To raise hopes, and Obama surely raised and intended to raise hopes, and then to let them down is to court the worst of emotions.   Jilted lovers are not often friends after the fact.

Tomorrow Obama will give his first State of the Union address.  The nation is a worse mess now than a year ago, in part owing to the playing out of events beyond Obama’s control.  But it is in part worse because the great energy in the nation which he unlocked as a candidate he has frittered away and trashed as a President.  His urge to go along to get along, learned in the hard psychological times of his youth, have served him poorly now, guiding him to a moderation that the urgencies of the time find thoroughly improper.   Mr Obama is missing an essential component of a true politician, and that is the capacity to seize the moment and drive it home.  Instead, in his instinct to please all, to “reach across the aisle” and live out the Rodney King mantra of “why can’t we all just get along” he’s relegated himself to the back of the bus.   And his large army of supporters is very unhappy.

Arms production expenditures

Aged 54 and 56, Tampa

Aged 18, homeless

Pittsburgh

In the three years prior to this year, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Sachs Goldman made $410,000,000 for his services.

Before we start, just a note that there’s a new posting up on www.jonjost.wordpress.com.  It has some beautiful images from my friend William Farley.

[For information on the earthquake in Japan, see this.]

 

A few days ago I finished reading John McPhee’s massive 700+ page work, Annals of the Former World.  Once you get into the swing of its tsunami of geological terminology, which is layered over poetically in an echoing of the layering of geological history, it takes on a giddy power, thrusting the reader directly into the deep physical history it describes.  Naturally that physical history rings with psychic powers and spiritual qualities: you don’t think 4 billion years without a little buzz in your soul.  At least I don’t.

It wasn’t for me something new, only this was a far more expansive and informative look than I’d had back in 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I did some research for one of the Hollywood blacklist folks – I think it was Lester Cole – a fellow who’d married a very rich socialite sort, and used the circumstances to further his notion of socialism.  In this case it was a film on the dubious real estate development of the area, with its earthquake realities, and so in my research I learned a bit about what at that time was just bursting onto the geological field, the theory of plate tectonics.   He was showing in his documentary how the cut and fill of the hillside terracing, as well as the Bay fill in places like Redwood City, would shake like a terraced pile of sand or liquify in the coming “big one.”   Houses in Redwood City were already the subject of suits as their concrete floors were cracking as they settled into the rushed landfill the developers had used.   So I’d had a taste, and then I lived in California a fair while more and had experienced a number of quakes (my girlfriend of the time had a family house which quite literally straddled the San Andreas fault in Woodside).   In McPhee’s book he takes a vast cross country roam with various geologists, from the aged and many times bent mountains of the east, across the Great Plains to the still rising Rockies and on to the seeming emptiness of Nevada into the Sierra and the fractured tectonic zones of California.   His is an exhilarating journey, not only laterally, but deep into the lithosphere, miles below the ground at your feet.  And he leaps far afield, to other active and inactive zones of geological upheaval around the world, and backwards and forwards in time.  If you have a taste for such things, I highly recommend (along with many before me).  Having myself traversed the USA many times, East to West, West to East, zig-zagging from the Canadian border down to Mexico, sticking to back roads (and sometimes much less than a backroad), I was familiar with many of the places McPhee describes, though should life allow – as is in our more distant plans – a long slow cross-country farewell trip, I will certainly see the landscape with far wiser eyes.

In the lower map the trace of red marks indicates where the tectonic plates which float on top of the earth’s magma meet up, latching, slipping by laterally, or subducting, digging trenches miles deep or tossing up mountains miles high, all in deep geological time.   What’s here now once wasn’t and will in future times no longer be.  The Great Plains were once seabed, the stuff in your gas tank was folded over, plunged into the earth, cooked, refined, and is now your fuel.  The dazzling beauty of a cut of marble on an altar-piece in Rome tells a billions of years old story of violence.

The lines above if you look closely go right by the island of Haiti, where the recent earthquake struck, announced as a tragedy, though from the larger cosmic viewpoint it was just a normal physical event, having nothing to do with people.  The tragedy is instead geo-political:  the collapsed ramshackle housing of Port-au-Prince is the by-product of deep poverty, and that poverty is the result of political-economic machinations, much of it emanating from the rich country to the North, the United States of America and its corporations, which have contrived to intervene when political events there took turns undesired for their interests.  It is an old story, the consequences of which are now written in the vast catastrophe which has taken 200,000 lives or probably many more when all is said and done.   Not to say that had the sordid US history in relation to Haiti and other Caribbean places not been so everything would be wonderful, there would be less dead, etc. but perhaps.  Under the thumb of a grinding poverty in part imposed from without, it was natural that buildings are flimsily made, and duly collapse.  They will collapse as well in San Francisco and Oakland and Los Angeles one of these days to come, as they have before – but not quite so easily and with such fearful cumulative consequences.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – devastation, desperation, moving out

For its “work” of the last year, as measured in profits, Wall Street is planning on rewarding itself with some 75 billion bonus bucks.  I think that’s on top of whatever their doubtless sizable “normal” pay is.  Imagine what just, say, 1/75th,  of that would do if well administered in Haiti.  Decent infra-structure, earthquake resistant buildings, some hospitals, housing – maybe an earthquake-surviving intelligent form of tent suitable to tropic climes, cheap but durable and able to withstand large movements; water and sewage treatment of some kind.  You know, basic things for life.  And imagine a slightly greater generosity!  Well, imagine away.  As John Lennon sang,

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

America will no doubt send in Marines, some water, food, tents and the usual rescue mission stuff, and it will duly pat itself on the back for its gesture of solidarity, humanity, and all.   And it will continue to do its best to erase its own sordid story in Haiti and elsewhere.  The duly and democratically elected President, Aristide, was toppled by US agencies because he had the audacity to think Haitians deserved a minimum wage.  Horrors!  That’s a tiny sliver of our real story.

Kabul, Afghanistan Jan 18 2010

In downtown Kabul, where the US is now invested in “nation building” (with drones, Marines, the CIA doing a lot of unbuilding as step one), verily on the steps of the Presidential Palace, as a follow-up to their penetration and bombing a few weeks ago of a major CIA operating base, in which 8 of America’s finest specialists in counterinsurgency were killed, the Taliban executed another major attack which apparently brought Kabul to a standstill as bombings and gunfights lasted a day.  Obama in the last days just asked for another 33 billion dollars to pursue this adventure, that on top of the 708 billion dollars for the “normal” military budget – a figure in excess of the combined military spending of the rest of the world, and a record for the United States.  Change you can believe in. This is the kind of tectonic political plate shifting that occurs as hyper-powers fall.   The external stresses have been quite readable in Iraq, in Afghanistan; the internal stresses will be read by tomorrow’s insta-pundits with the tea leaves of the Massachusetts special election, which, no matter which way it goes, will be interpreted with dire notions in every direction.

The world doesn’t feel topsy-turvy; it is topsy-turvy.

 

Jan 15 2010, near Kwangju (not the big one down south), S Korea

Two weeks ago I casually commented to Marcella that I hoped we’d have a real winter this year, and not the inch or two of snow here and there we’d had the last two years here in Seoul.  And I gestured with my hand, indicating a foot or so.  Ask and you shall receive, and a few days later came a storm which dropped 6 inches overnight, greeting us as we peeked out the window with a quiet soft cover over everything.  As the day went on another 6 or more inches fell, bringing the city to a halt.  See here for some pics.  Later on saw in the news that this was a record for Seoul since they started keeping records.  And since, it’s been very cold, freezing over the vast width of the Han river, and breaking more records.  It’ll keep the LPG gas guy running too.  Second day of this, Marcella slipped on some side-walk ice, and banged her butt good, and after a check indicated no fracture she’s been hobbled and taking it easy on doc’s orders.   For me – except for yesterday when I went skiing for the first time in 17 years (minor falls twice in 4 hours) – it kept my nose to the computer screen, finalizing Swimming in Nebraska, which in turn begot a “nein, danke” from the Berlin Forum, to which I’d sent a not-too-rough edit.   Another film for no one?  On the other hand Parable, having gone begging the last 18 months of rejection notices, finally got asked to one (well, it did go to the Split, Croatia one), the San Jose Maverick festival.  I was the focus of their first one, 20 years ago.  Now banged up by 2 decades of mostly off-the-radar filmic existence, they invited me back.  If they pop for a ticket, we’ll go and see some friends in Bay Area.  If not, perhaps a trip to Philippines.

Other news includes that Yonsei has made clear they want me back another academic year, so we’re signed on to July 2011.  Given the increasingly grim economic news from US and Europe, I guess it’s a good thing to have a job.

Lloyd Blankfein, Jimmie Dimon, John Mack, Brian Moynihan

Appearing before the US Congress were the above, alleged Masters of their various Universes – Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America – and said almost nothing of import, intelligence or interest.  Each of them having participated in the vast fiscal rip-off of the last decade and more, and its subsequent collapsing of the US economy (don’t worry, there’s lots more collapsing coming) are to waltz off in the coming month with massive bonuses from their corporate fiefdoms, all of which magically are surging in profits while America lays on its back from the knock-out punches delivered by globalization, Reaganite economics, Bush tax-cuts, and all the rest of the hocus pocus that has funneled the wealth of America into the select hands of still fewer persons and stripped the majority of Americans of their jobs, 401-K’s, wealth, homes and perhaps self-respect.

Goldman Sachs is expected to pay its employees an average of about $595,000 apiece for 2009, one of the most profitable years in its 141-year history. Workers in the investment bank of JPMorgan Chase stand to collect about $463,000 on average.

For a little scoop on how these folks live – though the half mil apiece is chump change compared to the 70+ million Blankfein will get in bonuses this year for himself, and the 40+ million for the next down the totem pole –  see this. For all their “work.”

Ah, but it’s an old story in America, and as Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”   America is full of them, and as is said, “they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

AP Exclusive: Obama Wants $33 Billion More for War

Barack learns to salute (he already knew how to kiss ass)

Elected on the slogan of “Change You Can Believe In” Obama came in on a clear mandate to do just that.   While mouthing the occasional word to placate those who elected him, in one instance after the another Obama has demonstrated in his acts, again and again, that he is a bought man.   Whether he entered office under false pretenses, knowing that this is as he would act, or whether he came under pressures to behave a certain way, or else (…..), is not yet clear.  But what is clear is that he acts in the interests of bankers, insurance corporations, big pharma, and the military-industrial complex, for whom he’s worked out as a wonderful Step’nFetchit front-man, inoculated from criticism from the PC left who fear the smear of racism (see Reid, who merely said something true).   So clear is this that given the funding provided by the banks for his campaign, and given the general unrest of the populace in the wake of the Bush era, one wonders whether Obama’s meteoric rise was indeed not the consequence of a carefully planned manipulation in which his role was to mollify the left while cow-towing to the right.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration plans to ask Congress for an additional $33 billion to fight unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on top of a record request for $708 billion for the Defense Department next year, The Associated Press has learned.

Obama signs military appropriations bill, touted as “cutting” but in reality being largest ever.

If indeed this was an orchestrated Manchurian Candidate situation, I am afraid it is being unveiled a little bit more quickly than its makers might have hoped.   The Obama minstrel show is wearing out fast among his year-ago supporters, though this is likely to leave the door wide-open for a real right-winger to waltz into the vacuum come 3 years from now.  If so, the country will be ripped apart – if it isn’t already.

Eric Rohmer, dead at 89

Eric Rohmer has died,  and at 89 there can be no complaints.  I saw maybe 1/3rd of his films, and recall most of them with pleasure – a pleasure marked with the same discrete nature that seemed to mark his work.  He seems not to have gone out to knock you out with anything, but rather worked in a quiet craftsmanly way, illuminating the quirks and foibles of mostly middle-class souls.  Cinematically he tended to keep things simple, and I always felt a kinship in the hidden off-screen reality that most of the work I saw was clearly the product of a very small crew, using the most basic of tools – a camera, tripod, sound recorder and mikes and I suspect not much else.  Lighting seemed often whatever nature or the setting provided.   No razzle-dazzle tracking or crane shots, or if so, very few.  I related to this, and recall departing from the beautifully shot Claire’s Knee exclaiming to whomever it was I saw it with that it was really an elegantly made home-movie.  And that is very much the sense of most of the films I saw – intimate, quietly done, intelligent sketches of a certain kind of home.   Back when I saw it, I think my favorite of his films was Le Rayon Vert, which many seemed not to like as its focus was a grumpy not-likable woman who complained about this and that.  But at the end she, and the audience, are given a little epiphany which I felt worked wonderfully.

Le Rayon Vert

Quite by accident I worked with an actress, Emmanuelle Chaulet, who had done a film with him, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (L’Ami de mon amie).  Emmanuel played the female lead in my All the Vermeers in New York, opposite Steven Lack.  She was wonderful to work with and did a beautiful job at her role.  My friend, producer Jim Stark, had suggested her when I decided to shoot in New York, saying only that he knew a French actress who was in town studying at an actor’s studio for the year.  We met, I liked her (that is normally my “audition” requirement – meet, talk a bit, and decide I do/don’t like this person; no “acting” needed, or show reels etc.) and we began.  There was no script, so we embraced reality and she played, well, a French actress studying in New York!  I have no imagination.

Emmanuelle Chaulet in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend

Alternating with his “naturalist” or “realist” films, Rohmer also made a number of works steeped in artifice, among them Perceval le Gallois, done on a little stage-set with very theatrical props, and the most recent and last of his films, Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon.

The Lady and the Duke

In theater of another kind, America continues to fumble its way forward or is it backward – or can anyone really figure out which direction if any, or if it is the stasis of a very bad habit? – from one war zone to another.  Having just ordered the US military to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, Obama suddenly finds it is Yemen and perhaps Somalia which harbor the newest threats to America’s “national interests.”   Meantime our “intelligence agencies,” in the form of the CIA assisted by Blackwater/EX, funded with billions of US tax-dollars, find themselves out-foxed by al Qaeda, their FOB Chapman near Khost penetrated and 8 very high ranking and important agents blown-up by a would-be turned double-agent.   As one internal report on US intelligence capacities in Afghanistan had it, “I don’t want to say this, but we don’t have a clue.”   According to news reports on the agents they just lost, they have now a lot less of a clue.  Well, look at the picture below and perhaps it gives all too big a clue as to part of the problem:

Drone pilots, Langley, Virginia

Perhaps the military has been infected with the intellectual baggage of 1970-80’s academia, and as in that hot-house of theoretical confusion, they’ve gotten confused about signifiers, signs and all that.  The pilots above, decked out in camouflage  and combat boots are located not in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, under threat of engagement with “insurgents” or having to run for their lives in gritty sand and rock, but rather in a “war room” in Langley, Virginia.  Their dress is all costume, a rhetorical flourish to assert “we are at war” and once they’ve had their briefing they’ll retire to cubicles to (wo)man their weapons, some 10 thousand miles distant, the Predator drones.

Predator drone

So while America plays a very lethal and ugly video game, decked out in combat fatigues, al Qaeda manages to slip a bomb-vested would-be CIA asset into the heart of the “intelligence” agency’s top secret forward operating base out in the graveyard of Empires.  Meantime we read the White House is angry with the military which can’t get the promised 30,000 new troops out there by the summer deadline.  Can-do America may be high-tech, but it is so gummed up it’s Can’t Do America now.

Again, the New York Times censoring system eludes my understanding.  Yesterday, replying to the nearly always inane Thomas Friedman, whom rather hilariously the far-right commentors imagine to be “librul,” I was again not printed, though being fast off the start line.   The avalanche of critics mostly said in varying forms much the same thing I did, though there were a minority which agreed with never-doubting Thomas.  What I wrote was this:

There is no question that Arabic and Muslim cultures must address their own problems, genuinely and deeply, if the matter of jihadist terrorism is to be meaningfully dealt with as well as their own internal problems; correspondingly there is no question that American policies, attitudes and actions with respect to those same cultures needs to be genuinely addressed and changed as well. America must look honestly in its own mirror, regarding our long-term militarist behaviors, our imperialist economic tendencies, our policy of bedding down with whichever corrupt crooked dictator does our bidding whatever the costs to their own society. It must look at the reality that 5% of humanity consuming 25% of the material global wealth is certain to inspire resentments and its consequent behaviors. These steps of self-criticism are the corollary of lecturing to others about what they should do. Mr Friedman might start with himself, his sprawling home, his out-of-balance with the rest of America (except 1%) wealth. Can we really expect him to do so? Does he not mirror “official” America?

As one correspondent here has suggested, perhaps the Times has a limit (though I note that there are a number of regulars who appear like clockwork, similarly fast off the publishing gun, who seem to get print when I get axed), or some other “reason” that explains it. It doesn’t seem to be the content as other excoriate doubtless Thomas in much harsher words (though not mentioning his house, wealth). Go figger.

On the same day, responding to an Op-Ed by Thomas Kean and John Farmer, I wrote this, which was printed:

It is the nature of bureaucracies to be filled with seat-warmers, people who do not want to ruffle any feathers by sticking their necks out. Safe and sound is the by-word. Small wonder such people fail time and again to do the obvious common-sense thing. Anyone who has had passing business with an American Embassy or Consular Office should know this well, never mind the mindlessness of other governmental agencies. Mr Kean’s own 9/11 Commission demonstrated this well, with a report which failed to deal with the collapse of WTC building 7, and myriad other factors that pointed the wrong way – towards an inside job – for the commissioners. We will get the bureaucracies that function well the same day we get a genuine investigation of 9/11, by non-insiders of the corporate-governmental nexus which runs the US of A. To say, evidently never.

So, whatever it is that triggers the censorship button, it certainly isn’t very consistent.

Street by our house, Seoul Jan. 5 2010

Of late, thanks to the winter break and a cold snowy weather – I’ve read the most snow Seoul has had since records were kept – we’ve been a bit locked in.   A week or so ago I told Marcella that I hoped we’d get a real snow this winter, as the last two had light falls, but nothing meaningful.  We had a wonderful snow storm here, a little over a foot in less than a day.  And its been staying very cold, so it’s sticking around.  While still hunkered down getting Swimming in Nebraska actually completed (almost there), have also been taking the time to see some films in our little bedroom cinema – projected to wall, about 5 feet across.   Films seen are an eclectic mess of catching up, old films and relatively new.  Two Hitchcock’s, North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train.  I thought they were both ridiculous, stagey, over-written, sneeringly acted.  Dropped my estimation of him a good bit.  Then saw Herzog’s Grizzly Man, mentioned earlier, and last night Fitzcarraldo.  A truly awful film with horrible acting, horrible scripting, very pedestrian directing/camera.  This film seems mostly known for his off-screen tale of his own crazy heroism in actually pushing the boat over a mountain (not to mention maltreatment of local Indians).   Herzog seems to get a pass for the great pile of truly bad films he’s made via his self-mythologizing, and his occasional good one.   Also saw Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, a silly and shallow caricature of some Italian behavior patterns, a very light entertainment.  And last night looked at Bresson’s second film, Les dames de Bois Boulogne (1944). A rather contrived melodrama of revenge, it only showed hints of his films to come – a bit in the form of the acting, and a bit in the redemptive conclusion – bad turns into good.  I’m afraid I’m a really lousy film watcher, getting more pain than pleasure most of the time.

Enough of kvetching.  Some time ago – 4 years? – at the Woods Hole (Cape Cod) festival I was on a jury for short films, and saw a film, Escape Velocity, a very nicely done kind of self-portrait done in animation technique using Photoshop. The maker was Scott Ligon.   I did my part to see that it got a prize, and since I’ve stayed in touch with Scott who’s now in Cleveland.  He’s got a new book on digital art techniques for Photoshop animation, and he’s sent me some advance stuff and it looks like its going to be very good.  If you’re interested in doing this kind of work, I’d seriously suggest you check it out.  He seems to cover a lot of turf, but not just the usual humdrum of technique, but also matters of aesthetics – not as a sequence of rules, but as creative possibilities.  The book is due out in March, but you can check out some of it on-line.

And while we’re at this, a note that my friend Nathaniel Dorsky will be having screenings of his decidedly celluloid work – and very wonderful –  as follows.  I’ll put up another reminder at a closer date:

Pacific Film Archive Feb 23, and NY MoMA April 12th (two unseen new films plus) and Centre Pompidou May 5 and 12.

Sarabande by Nathaniel Dorsky

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