Friday, July 17, 2015

MH17

I've been dreading this day for a year now: the first anniversary of when flight MH17 was shot down by thugs in eastern Ukraine with a Buk on loan from the Russian military. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A year and a day ago–on July 16th–I flew home from Europe via Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. On my first morning back in Texas, I was lying on the sofa catching up with my Twitter feed. I had come to rely on Twitter as the most useful news source months before when the Russian military began to invade and occupy Ukraine.

Most of the typical news sources were still referring to a fantastical place called "the Ukraine," so I instead found trusted journalists on Twitter who were in the region who actually knew what was going on or what had been going on since "the Ukraine" existed (1991). In fact, such frustration and utter exasperation with the press had prompted me to register for a course in journalism held in Prague that summer so that I would be in an even better position to get accurate information about Central and Eastern Europe, so that I could contribute to the dissemination of accurate information about the region. I was returning, via Schiphol, from a month of intensive training in journalism in Berlin and Prague.

On the sofa in the early morning haze of my first day of jet lag reading Twitter when one of the journalists in eastern Ukraine writes, Oh god… He quotes some thug bragging about shooting down a plane. Then minutes later: a missing passenger plane that was flying over eastern Ukraine. The events unfolded in real time in my timeline. There was–and still is–no doubt about who shot down that plane.

From several trips to Europe, I know Schiphol quite well. I know, for example, that if my layover is tediously long, I can get to the city center in less than 30 minutes by train. Or that I can buy a day pass at the hotel gym in order to use their exercise equipment and showers. I've done both multiple times. I know where to buy good coffee, a decent vegetarian meal, duty-free chocolates as gifts. I had spent a few hours there just the day before. A year-and-a-day ago now. Less than twenty-four hours before 298 passengers and crew boarded MH17 flying in the opposite direction. We ate at the same cafés, ordered from the same surly clerks, pissed in the same urinals.

But this isn't about my empathy, my sympathy, the sheer horror I still feel about their senseless deaths. It is about the lack of values, ethics, and human decency, the lack of political and diplomatic will to punish the assholes who did this. The long line of assholes that stretch all the way to Putin himself.

Let's be clear: the deaths of these 298 people lie squarely on Putin's shoulders. Any other explanation or conspiracy theory is propaganda, a provocation, a distraction. A lie.

For years, the Putin Doctrine has been to disrupt the region by infringing on the sovereignty of several nearby countries, most notably Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. And now for the past several months Russia has ramped up its own belligerence toward NATO and Western and Central Europe: kidnapping an Estonian policeman, sending its submarines to enter Swedish waters, countless military flyovers in European, Canadian, and even American (Alaskan) airspace, cyberattacks, etc. As far as Putin is concerned, in his decrepit, morally-bankrupt mind we are already fighting Cold War II. Except this war is unusually one-sided.

Writing this, I know, sets me up for various online attacks by assholes, both paid and voluntary. Russia's army of trolls is well documented, and I've had my run-ins with them before. That doesn't matter. What matters is that all tyrants will die and all terrorists–even state terrorists such as Putin–will perish.

To my Ukrainian friends and readers: You have my undying support as you work to make a viable democracy despite having your country hacked away by the thugs of a tyrant. Путін - хуйло! Крим наш!

Remember the people whose lives were snuffed out by state-sponsored terrorism a year ago. May the living live to see their murderers brought to justice. May their families know peace.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Angela Davis


When ostensibly asked is she supported violence while she was in jail, Angela Davis not only explained violence, but she related its origin: the violent state. Any violence perpetrated by the revolution, by the liberation of the oppressed, would merely reflect the violence under which the oppressed had lived and suffered at the hands of state terror (i.e., the police, the government, the military, institutional racism–whether de jure or de facto, etc.).
When you talk about a revolution, most people think of violence. Without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you're striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.
Governor Ronald Reagan, who was from early on in bed with the FBI/CIA as an informer and useful tool, and President Richard Nixon, whom we all know as the most despicable of Presidents, should have been the ones jailed, the ones on trial.

If you've tried to read Marcuse or Baudrillard or Žižek or even Derrida on violence and the state and still don't get it, then listen to the truth bombs detonated by someone once deemed the most dangerous woman in America. All your confusion will dissipate with the simple tale of her childhood in Birmingham.

This clip is taken from the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. You can watch the entire film on Netflix. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Frankie Says See This Film

Third film viewed at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Brendan Toller's Danny Says–a documentary about journalist-cum-punk prophet Danny Fields, who is credited with introducing Jim Morrison to Nico, with almost ruining the careers of the Beatles, with introducing Iggy Pop to David Bowie, with forming Patti Smith's band, and with managing the Ramones. This is worthwhile cinema solely for its historical and biographical content. But more so: it's an entertaining and engaging film about an atypical personage who happened to have impeccable and prescient taste in music at an extraordinary time in its history.

The more I know about the world, people, and music of this era, the more insatiable my nostalgic desire for it.

A couple of criticisms, however. Some photographs were shown multiple times without explanation. It was sometimes impossible to figure out what this image had to do with what Fields was talking about at that moment. Also, many times the image appeared onscreen for too short a time. With the difficult-to-read font and the quick scan of the text required, too often I was baffled about what or who I was seeing and why. Finally, despite the compelling stories and enormity of the archival material presented, I would've enjoyed even more personal narrative about Fields himself. Certainly, he had personal relationships that didn't involve big-name celebrities. Who were his loves? Did he have pets? Did his musical sensibilities come solely from his role as a listener? Simply: I wanted to know more about him.

Eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Trailer can be viewed here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Station to Station (or How Not to Make a Film)

Another film I saw at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Doug Aitken's Station to Station. Billed as 61 one-minute films, this quasi-documentary of a 24-day, 4000-mile, celebrity/artist-laden train journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific gives the lie to the holistic notion that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. In the program, this film supposedly "fully conceptualize[s] the idea of movement from place to place."

The program misguided us.

Instead of each one-minute segment enticing this viewer toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of time-space, the abrupt shift at the end of each 60-second cycle felt more like a pop-up ad blocking the text I was more interested in reading.

The passengers, all of whom could easily interest me singly–Patti Smith, Beck, Suicide, Kenneth Anger, etc.– come across more as props. Or worse: caricatures. (Especially Cat Power and Gary Indiana.) To be honest, though, even the train itself–the only constant aspect of almost all the snippets–seems an under-developed afterthought.

You know that the one-minute restriction is artificial, that it is meant to tease you toward a much larger backstory, context, experience. But you're never given anything more. There's no conceptualization of movement that doesn't come off the screen in perfectly predigested cliché. The lack of map or itinerary further decontextualizes what's happening so much so as to spoil the overarching theme of the film, the idea behind it. And the artworks and performances developed aboard: derivative at best.

If the train should jump the track, do you want your money back? Yes or no? Y-E-S spells yes. And this train certainly jumped the track. Regardless, here's the trailer. The film is basically a longer version.


STS - Feature Film Trailer from Station to Station on Vimeo.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tangerine Dreaming

"I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick." - Missing Persons

The fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival opened last night with a showing of dir. Sean Baker's Tangerine at the historic Texas Theatre. Baker's practice is to find a location and then develop characters and plot that best lay bare that site. In Tangerine everything intersects at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. in L.A. This physical intersection, though, is no mere two-dimensional trope.

There are far too many narrative threads to disentangle, plot structures to dismantle here, so let me just briefly mention some of them. The film begins with a homecoming of sorts on the day Sin-Dee is released from jail. It ends with having the very foundation of home pulled out from under the characters' feet. The rise and devastating fall of plot is punctuated by the tension (or "girl shit") between transsexual Sin-Dee and the "real fish" (whose name begins with D) that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/fiancé/pimp has been cheating on her with during her incarceration.

The structure of the family of choice (transsexual prostitutes, dealers, and street people) distorts–while perfectly mirroring the distortions of–the family of origin (the extended family of immigrant Armenians treading the furrow between ethnic identity and whitewashed American homogeneity). Members of both families seek to unmask as well as to collude in the masking of one another.

Technologically, this movie is significant because it was filmed on iPhones and actors were cast via Vine. With such social media savvy and such skill with personal technology, you would think that the film would be inundated with these prosthetic characters: the film as selfie writ large. The technological brilliance of this film, however, is how it strips the characters of such artifice, allowing for an almost overwhelming naturalism in and polished improvisation of the actors.

Much of the comedy stems from the fact that this is Christmas Eve. But except for the holiday meal and Christmas tree at the Armenians' apartment, there is no visual reference to this otherwise unbearably ubiquitous holiday. Despite the fact that this film takes place in L.A., it counters the old adage that nobody walks there. Unless, of course, we remember those other lines from that Missing Persons song: "Only a nobody walks in L.A."

Though there are indeed funny moments and comic lines, this is no campy romp. There are neither stock nor minor characters. Even if a character's screen time is only a few seconds, in that time you are induced to empathize, you are made to acknowledge her or his humanity. The surface humor is laced with a deeper, and insidious, pathos; what might otherwise be a throw-away scene casts a critical eye toward the injustices of gender, addiction, ethnicity, and sexuality. When wealth and celebrity can so easily lay siege to–and eclipse–the issues of identity politics, Tangerine offers a welcomed counter narrative.

Here, instead of an airbrushed covergirl, you get a sense of the depths of the economic, gendered, misogynist, racist, classist, homophobic (etc.) violence of our culture. Every line, every glance, reveals the easy, everyday kind of savagery of our systems of power. And you don't get off scot-free either: your gaze is implicated with several close-ups of the characters' asses as they walk across downtrodden Los Angeles. The audience's sympathy is wrenched even further with several shots of bare feet being dragged across the seedy concrete city. By the end of the movie we viscerally feel the characters' embodied pain.

The most dramatically delivered line: "I promise no drama." But we're glad the film didn't enforce that. Watching Tangerine was like seeing color for the first time or hearing a full spectrum of sound after years of the C Major scale. It is anti-Hollywood at its best. Hell, it's even Social Realism at its best, if we can use that term for a film saturated in orange. And even better: it is without any obvious ideological baggage. You'd be a fool not to be at Mary's at 7:00.