Election Postmortem

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If you’re one of those folks who’s wondering what (s)he could’ve done differently to stop Donald Trump from the White House, let me throw some water on that. This election was a perfect shit-storm, and there is nothing that any individual could’ve done to alter its appropriately shitty outcome. Okay, there are a few high-profile agents you could blame—you know who I’m talking about—but looking back on this, historians are going to view this more as a slow-burning accumulation of multiple small causes than as one massive eruption. Hillary Clinton and her campaign turned complacent and choked. The DNC played favorites and ate crow for it. Some Sanders voters made good on their stupid, nihilistic Bernie or Bust promise and either stayed home or went for a third party. There was voter fraud—by which I mean, voter ID laws and other measures were instituted in key states to prevent “voter fraud,” which is GOP code for non-whites, millennials and poor people voting. There was a severe Obama backlash. There was a sharp backlash to PC culture. Every long-simmering prejudice you can think of resurfaced. The economic alienation of the Rust Belt pushed it rightward. The anti-intellectual conservative propaganda machine flew off the handle. Every major ideological branch of the GOP sold out and convinced enough of their base that Trump was a normal candidate and they should stay loyal to the party. The FBI intervened—with help from, among others, an overgrown fuckboy who once dreamed of being mayor of New York and who now needs to depart the public eye for good. Russia intervened—with help from, among others, a certain tool of theirs in London’s Ecuadorian embassy—for several variously troubling reasons.

(Let’s unpack that last one, since to me, it is the most disturbing of contributions to Trump’s good luck. What did Vladimir Putin want so bad that he was impelled to violate American sovereignty to get it? Does he hope to do to the Baltic states what he’s done to Crimea? Maybe he thought Clinton’s proposed no-fly zone over Syria would lead to WWIII and he sought to deploy some realpolitik to prevent that—which is understandable. More likely, he wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power—which is disgusting. Maybe he perceives America being the world’s sole superpower as hazardous and wants to take it down a peg and equalize Russia—granted it’s a thin line between that and elevating Russia to the status of world’s sole superpower. Worst-case scenario: Putin is a power-mad Soviet hanger-on who aims to envelop the world into a hard right-wing political paradigm in which might is right and strength is measured by crushing dissent, in which political elites form friendly relations based on their shared belief in demonstrating willpower by keeping their respective subjects leashed, in which Putin can disregard national sovereignty even more wantonly than he is wont to, in which he can influence the lives of Americans such as yours truly for his own pleasure and subject our democratic republic to death by a thousand cuts. If that’s the case, he’s not only winning—he’s penetrating the Iron Curtain and dismantling the West in ways Stalin could never have imagined. And we thought the Cold War was over.)

Our political system has become dominated by spite—no wonder the more spiteful candidate prevailed. Our two major parties have grown so polarized and so internally divided that many think the U.S. is on the verge of Balkanizing—and yes, I am taking the threat of California seceding very seriously, because at this point, anything goes. The shit has hit the fan. Do you really think Trump would have a problem with a Calexit? Politically, it’d be all to his advantage. (Gov. Jerry Brown would and will resist it, and for good reason.) We have grown contemptuous of the other perspective to the point of devolving into narrow cultish mindsets. This goes well beyond standard issue confirmation bias. I am noticing a disturbing trend on the right, among many Trump voters, of taking everything around oneself as confirming their deepest beliefs, tragically mistaken as they are. When Trump speaks to what they feel, they are gratified. But when the opposition—liberal media and such, plus people that had an existential investment in seeing Trump defeated—protests and counter-argues, it gratifies them even more. They hate the opposition so much and are so convinced of their ineptitude, they see the pain of the “other” as further proof that Trump is right. Do they think that our pain is contrived and selfish? Or that their pain is greater? Or is it just that it bothers them to hear about it? Don’t overthink it: this is a defense mechanism meant to discourage and tame the opposition, and it’s present in several GOP superstars, from Mitch McConnell—who relishes his villainous reputation—to Steve Bannon—who is proud to be called an anti-Semite by the New York Times and CNN. These men, with Trump at the helm, have abandoned the idea of politics as a cooperative endeavor, preferring to make it a victors-get-spoils zero-sum game in which the losers’ angst is part of the fun. Trump did not cause this gross authoritarian way of thought; he catalyzed it.

I cannot and will not apply a double standard: the left is equally as mired in this sort of moral one-upmanship. Through the end of this traumatic election season, we assured ourselves that calling Trump supporters bigots for their mere willingness to associate with the guy would, one way or another, shame them into seeing the light and either voting for Clinton or staying home. Boy were we wrong. (And yes: I plead guilty.) The time for partisan demonization is long over. We must be attentive to how another’s unique life experiences have shaped his/her political outlook. We must show our political opponents that perceiving society as divided by severely contrasting demographic identities does not work for society in the long term and is bound to backfire. When a Black man lives in fear of running into a rogue cop who associates his skin color with a criminal disposition; when an undocumented immigrant brought across the Rio Grande as a mere infant lives in fear of deportation to the narco-state of his birth; when a Muslim family lives in fear of incessant NSA surveillance facilitated by a registry; when a woman lives in fear of losing her bodily autonomy to a rapist, or perhaps to the state; when a gay couple lives in fear of losing their marriage and being subject to a new Jim Crow regime; when a bright autism spectrum kid lives in fear of people focusing not on his intellect but on his eccentricities and claiming that we ought to get rid of them by getting rid of vaccines; when a working class family lives in fear of losing benefits and seeing their public sector union dismantled; when an indigenous people lives in fear of seeing their ancestral lands sold out by the government to an oil corporation; when millennials live in fear of facing arrested development in a quagmire of unpaid internships, student debt and mental health issues; when our military lives in fear of the government sending them into combat (maybe to clean up a mess it made) and then taking their service to America for granted; when the poor and homeless live in fear of more and more wealth being redistributed away from them; and when laymen all over live in fear that one day, they’ll fall victim to a gun massacre, or that one day, the effects of manmade climate change will pass the threshold of human adaptability because we prioritized short-term profit over long-term survival—we all neglect and lose something of the spirit of America, and we all suffer. These are legitimate concerns, and I don’t think I’m being a delicate snowflake or a hypersensitive crybaby by elevating them. If you have more of a problem with my expression of pain than my pain, or if you think I should swallow it because my side lost the election, that’s on you, not me.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric is henceforth moot. All I care about now are his actions, and the actions of his VP Mike Pence, a smooth-talking Santorum-level wack job who already seems to be playing Cheney to Trump’s Bush. Some questions remain, and there is still some benefit of the doubt, but most of those actions thus far—cabinet appointments among them—have been unusually irksome. For what it’s worth, I no longer have any use for the pessimism and sensationalism of the left-leaning news sources that I relied on before November 8. (The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg have been helpful, healing replacements in that regard.) There is no need to reiterate and dwell on all the ways the Trump presidency may well feel like a four-year prison sentence not just to liberals, but to the nostalgic Reaganite rural and working classes who are about to learn the hard way that this was not a gamble worth taking. We know the ways. Now is the time for activism—at the local and state level where the federal is bound to fail, because as the cliché goes: all politics is local. A situation in which stagnation is the best-case scenario is intolerable. Let it be said that the resisting grassroots mobilization I have seen take shape in the past month is awe-inspiring and unprecedented in my lifetime. I’d still be in a state of panicky despair without it. It’s what I need, and it’s what this nation needs now more than ever. The First Amendment is what, if anything, makes America great. If you are not capable of listening to, learning from and taking criticism from alternative perspectives—whether from dissenting speech, a gadfly press, or a protesting assembly—you are unfit for the presidency. As an artist, a writer and a principled devil’s advocate who has been and will continue to be vocal against Trumpism on this blog and elsewhere, I have invested in the First Amendment and stand to lose much if it is crippled. I feel on the brink of a unique historic maelstrom; we really are about to find out how strong our Constitution is. In the event that Clinton won, I was planning to write an extravagant über-dark alt-history Trump presidency-themed sci-fi novel. Chances are, if there’s a God, He put Trump in the Oval Office to prove to pessimists such as yours truly that America is more resilient than we think it is—or at least that we American millennials are more resilient than we yet know.

From now on, for every comment I receive from a troll, I donate $10 to a left-wing political activist organization of my choice.

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Election Postmortem

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Landscape in the Mist is elemental. It begins with two kids, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, walking towards a train station. They are unsupervised—a bizarre sight in the U.S., yet a familiar one in Europe, and as it turns out, we’re in Greece. The girl, Voula, asks her brother, Alexander, if he’s afraid; he says no, and they’re off. In two long takes, we see them head to the platform, but they’re interrupted by an adult and just miss boarding the train. We’re later given to understand that they’ve been told their father is in Germany, and they’d like to go meet him. Minutes later, they return to the station, in what at first feels like a total retread of the opening scene—only this time, there are no adult obstacles, and they board the train without conflict. This one simple change creates an exhilarating sensation. These two kids are indeed unafraid. They’re motivated, and we’re more than thrilled to join them on their journey, whatever the nature of it. Few if any films have as indelible and as effortless a hook as this one.

More through mood and implication than through dialogue, we learn early on that their mother told them on a whim that their father’s in Germany. In reality, she doesn’t know who the father is. Voula overhears an uncle speak to the effect of this—dismissively, talking to a railroad officer, while toying with knobs in his power plant—and accuses him of lying. Does she believe he’s lying? Or is she in denial of what her uncle says, and preferring to cling onto the myth of having a father? It doesn’t matter. We believe in the myth, too, because it’s what gives these scrappy young kids—and this film—their drive and their will to live, not to mention that film is myth. Landscape was made in 1988, in the twilight of the Cold War, but geopolitics mean nothing to our two protagonists and don’t discourage them. They may as well mean nothing to us, either. The USSR was on the verge of dismantling for good. Not unlike Kieslowski—who would move from his native Poland to France in The Double Life of Véronique one year later—this film’s director, Theo Angelopoulos, gazes westward. Horace Greeley’s urge to “Go West” applies well to the Europe of this time. For these kids, that urge is primal, and we root for them without thought. They are innocent, unadorned, precocious, and beautiful. No setup need be contrived to make them likable to an audience. We can jump into their lives and their travels without a second wasted.

You don’t need to be a film expert to understand why the train is the most critical symbol in all of cinema. Film as we know it owes its existence to the railroad industry more than anything else. Lynne Kirby’s Parallel Tracks, a two-pronged case study of the railroad and its rôle in developing early cinema, is a useful primer on this subject, and I will not sully it by summarizing it. (I used it extensively for my Haverford senior thesis.) So when Angelopoulos shows several interludes of Voula and Alexander riding trains through the Hellenic country—sitting in the aisle, sans tickets, cold and lonely, thinking of what they would say to their father—he’s cluing us in on how their journey is, among other things, a journey through film. The ever-forward movements of people, vehicles and film reels are one and the same in Angelopoulos’ eye, and this is the proper viewpoint. Landscape—like all, not most, all great films—is a commentary on film and hence on itself—its fallacy, its fragmentation, its sense of coming into these lives at a random moment in time, for a random length of time, only to capture an unsatisfying sliver of an eternity. Look at how keenly Angelopoulos isolates and calls attention to each of the bare bones of film production: theatre costumes hanging off a bus roof just like clothes hang off bodies, a violinist who steps into a restaurant to perform the film’s main musical theme for Alexander, a building floor plan in front of which one character holds up a scrap of film found in a pile of trash. That scrap shows a few frames of the title landscape, shrouded in mist, and we’ll see them again later, not as a separate film but as apart of this story. Like the floor plan, Angelopoulos here reveals his story’s structure: it’s a Möbius strip, allowing us to glimpse across at where the end will circle back around to the beginning.

It makes sense, too, for Voula and Alexander’s cinematic journey to intersect with cinematic journeys of past. A biker named Orestes meets them by chance on the road, takes a liking to them, and decides to guide them to the border. He’s an update of a character from another Angelopoulos film, The Traveling Players, a four-hour historical epic in which an acting troupe traverses Greece putting on productions of the show “Golfo the Shepherdess”, which are ceaselessly interrupted by WWII, the Communist coup and lesser quibbles. (The troupe itself is a modernization of the cast of characters from the Oresteia.) We of course see the troupe again here, and they’re in even worse shape than in the first story. They hold an open rehearsal for the two kids on a beach, and they don’t even get beyond their show’s prologue before the news comes that they’ve lost their venue. Later, to Orestes’ chagrin, they pawn their costumes. You see, interruptions are crucial to Angelopoulos—pitch-blackly comical interruptions that stop narratives before they can end, that mercifully stop narratives that seem to never end, yet that initiate their own Sisyphean process by which a story is repeated and dragged out for an eternity. (Compare to the kids trying to retell the Book of Genesis, then admitting, “This story will never end.”) The director’s writing partner here is Tonino Guerra, who also wrote for Fellini. Into this framework, Guerra inserts a jarringly random scene in which Voula, Alexander and Orestes watch as a helicopter lifts a large stone hand out of a bay. This is of course a riff on the opening of La Dolce Vita, in which a chopper, while transporting a statue of Christ across town, pauses above a rooftop to give the paparazzi a chance to flirt with the sunbathers. Here, the statue is reduced to a single appendage, stripped of all religious context and irony, opaquely and pathetically reaching towards land it can never grasp. The erosion of history is inexorable.

So, fragmented as it is, the story is by essence told in vignettes, which are paced with extreme care across just eighty-five takes (give or take a couple) in a hair over two hours. I could wax rhapsodic about any one vignette. Instead, I’ll focus on three, which stand out as some of cinema’s greatest set pieces:

#1: The horse. Like all journeys, Voula and Alexander’s involves experience, learning, coming of age. Film often portrays such things through sentiment and cliché. Yet, the lessons that these characters learn in this narrative are often painful and challenging, and Angelopoulos does not shy away from them. This is clear from one miniature mortality drama, in which the kids stumble into a town and find their path crossed by a carriage dragging a dying horse behind it. The horse’s suffering moves Alexander to tears. Meanwhile, a jubilant wedding party goes by, dancing, drinking, laughing, unaware of a life coming to an end nearby them. (Weddings are a big deal to this filmmaker, too.) They’ll never know that they could’ve witnessed this animal’s death, yet it is telling that Angelopoulos includes them in the scene, as he refuses to let their oblivion stand as an excuse to their ignorance. We must be vigilant, he seems to say. We must understand and never deny that there is death amidst life. Voula and Alexander understand that, and they take the time to mourn the horse and exhaust their grief, even when it hurts. The way Angelopoulos melds and juxtaposes these two spheres of feeling—joy and agony—is ingenious. 

#2: The truck. [Trigger warning.] The people who the kids encounter on their odyssey run the gamut from humane and genuine to vile and predatory. At the low end of that spectrum is a truck driver who the kids hitch a ride from in a rainstorm. The driver’s a creep—that much is made clear rather quickly—but that’s little preparation for the scene when he pulls off the road and orders Voula to get out. She senses something afoot and runs away, but the driver outruns her, carries her into the container, and rapes her. The incident takes place in one long static shot on the back of the truck, which has a tarp covering it. We see nothing. The truck itself looks hideous, but if you were flipping the channels and coming upon this scene and taking it out of context, you wouldn’t know what was going on. Nothing seems to happen. Cars keep driving. Alexander leaves the truck and calls for his sister. Two of them pull to the curb, and a brief exchange occurs between their passengers before they get back on the highway, oblivious to the trauma occurring nearby them. Our suspicions are only confirmed after the truck driver reemerges from the container, unfazed yet unsatisfied, followed by Voula, bleeding from the legs and stunned. There’s a case to be made for this being the best depiction of rape in cinema—not for the purity with which it fulfills the Hitchcockian ideal of leaving the trauma off-screen to make it even more terrifying, but for its perfect demystification of rape as a real-world issue. We as the audience are the drivers on the highway, absorbed in mundane banality. Somewhere in this world right now, as I write this and as you read this, someone is likely getting raped, and we may well never know a thing about it.

#3: The dance. Voula’s innocence protects her, somewhat. She’s been hurt physically, yes, but she cannot yet fully register the significance of her trauma, as she does not yet comprehend sex. Neither she nor the film dwell on her rape; she and Alexander abandon the truck driver and keep on heading north, pressing towards the border, eventually reuniting with Orestes. The assault is only referred obliquely, in two more scenes. The first is set on a beach, on which some furniture is set. Nearby speakers are playing a Western punk tune—of course, since as the kids go further west, so does the music. Orestes invites a hesitant Voula to dance with him, and he barely does a two-step before she is moved to run away and collapse in tears. One might think that she’s struggling to trust him because of what she has endured. But when one listens to what Orestes tells a concerned Alexander right after, another shade of meaning is added to the scene: Voula is in love with Orestes. The pain of her trauma doubles the pain she feels amidst falling in love with her guardian, and Voula—once an innocent blank slate—is transformed into a character of enormous depth and palpability. This is not least because—and I think she knows this—her romance with Orestes is doomed from the start, as he is older and intends to join the Greek army soon, and the later scene of their final parting is shattering. Oh yeah, and there’s that second scene, when Voula runs into a figure that has been called the antithesis of the truck driver, the other end of the moral spectrum, a figure of charity and honor. This scene, which I better not spoil, portrays a complex scenario of misunderstanding with little dialogue and provides a tremendous emotional payoff.

Landscape is among the rare breed of film that’s so good, you cherish all the small details: the way a snowfall slowly freezes everyone in a town, the way Yorgos Arvanitis’ camera and Yannis Tsitsopoulos’ editing juxtaposes columns on a train station platform with mammoth smokestacks, the haunting motif of long roads curving off to the right and disappearing in mists of fog and darkness. You wonder about all the little people captured on film and where they are today and what they might be doing right now if they’re still alive, as if this were a documentary. That long row of cars driving along Thessaloniki Bay as the stone hand broods over them—who are their drivers? Where did they come from? What errands are they on? Where did they go? Such is the power of this film, to seem like life even at its most fantastical moments, to make you imagine the abstract and unknowable. Even this film’s principal actors have a touch of obscurity to them, at least here in the U.S. Stratos Tzortzoglou (Orestes) has had a solid acting career, yet Tania Palaiologou (Voula) has only had a few other roles, all of them in Greece, and this is the only known film role of Michalis Zeke (Alexander), on whom the Internet hardly has any information. All three give dynamite performances here. It’s astonishing how much these young actors put their bodies into the task of fleshing out the lumbering gravitas of the journey, and the physical toll of time. It would be an honor to get in touch with any one of them today. As for the late Angelopoulos, he was and remains honored in Europe—having won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Best European Film Award for this—and has been championed by the likes of Scorsese and Kurosawa. In the U.S., he is criminally unknown; no film of his but this one has been distributed in U.S. theaters. I imagine he felt that neglect. Observe the scene where the violinist plays the main theme (by Eleni Karaindrou), and the owner of the diner kicks him out midway, favoring economy over art. A rude interruption, indeed, even if he gets some applause from Alexander. Film buff or not, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

What happens at the end is unshakable. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful, I haven’t figured it out, and I don’t think I want to. Are Voula and Alexander in Germany? Eden? Both? Their ideal versions of either? Have they left reality and entered the myth of cinema? Or where they ever in reality to begin with?

This film is available for free on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”

I can recall a specific moment, during my viewing Memories of Underdevelopment, when I at last realized what the film was up to, or at least what it was trying to do. Before, the film was a hodgepodge of the recollections and observations of one Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a bourgeois Cuban stranded in Havana in the years soon after Castro’s revolution, and documentary clips depicting the trauma the island faced under the previous Batista regime. By themselves, the former scenes intrigued me for their experiment (Sergio’s reliance on voiceover and recordings, against a backdrop of relative silence; the P.O.V. shots dissecting and forcing us to connect with his mad pursuit of women) and for their ready wit (Sergio musing on the absence of a statue that Picasso promised for Havana’s skyline)—and the latter scenes are beyond critique in their urgent call for human rights. Together, they don’t work. The film reminded me of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which stitched together some very powerful indictments of America’s international war crimes and domestic trigger-happy jingoism, yet failed to converge on any succinct thematic foci. The first hour or so of Memories has a randomness to it that comes wholesale with a tone of forfeiture, an unwillingness to find a narrative thread on the broad canvas being painted. Then came a scene when a series of erotic film clips—dry-humping on a beach, stripping in a club, amour in bed—are repeated ad infinitum, in what seems at first a mockery of orgasm, or a Kantian takedown of our Sisyphean yearning for complete sexual fulfillment. We pull back to see a theater of political officials watching these clips, and we realize that these are scenes of extramarital passion that these Communists have censored from the cinema. And that’s when I had the epiphany: these scenes are the dregs of life from early-‘60s Cuba that Castro would not want you to see. In that way, it’s not really supposed to cohere.

I can hence see what the filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and perhaps by extension the author of the source novel, Edmundo Desnoes, have in mind. They’re miming the structure of memory, which is of course essentially underdeveloped, to reflect the lack of urban progress that has plagued Cuba since 1959. If the film somehow felt developed, it would kind of defeat the purpose. I can appreciate that innovation, but I don’t agree with the execution. For a while, I daresay, the film exploits the traumatic underdevelopment of Cuba as an excuse to dispense with narrative logic. True, there may be no need for a plot—I’ve seen myriad great films without one—but there is a need for a point, a statement, an essence, a raison d’être. (To this, I imagine some filmmakers, maybe protégés of Alea, rebutting, “Why the hell should I pamper you with your idea of a ‘point,’ or a ‘theme’?! Don’t you find it a little dictatorial of you to impose your ideas of ‘logic’ and ‘structure’ on me?! I don’t need to make a point! I don’t need to contrive my art to affect history, as the Communists so strive to! That’s the freedom of art!” But wouldn’t you find that rather glib? If you feel that having a backbone is constrictive, you have a serious issue.) At most, the film culminates in the sexual escapades of Sergio, whose histrionic wife and family flee to Florida in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which gives him free rein to greedily pursue the younger Elena (Daisy Granados). He chases her down on the street. She’s wary of him but humors him and agrees to a date. He brings her to his place—or so I think it was his place—and ravishes her. She’s wary at first but relents and plays off the blurred-lines energy. One pro of Communism, amidst all its cons, was its emphasis on equality between the sexes, and Memories appears to combat that with a testament, or an elegy, to the primacy of alpha male lust.

You can tell I didn’t approve of that approach, and I was affirmed of my disapproval in the film’s final half-hour, when I saw the point on which the story does converge. To appease her conservative family, Elena accuses Sergio of rape. Ugh. The representation of rape in cinema as a whole disappoints me. Too many mainstream films—from The Graduate to Gone Girl—present rape as a falsehood that some femme fatale uses to discredit some man who has wronged her, and the public consumes them like ice cream because by and large, they don’t like to think that rape actually happens. As a result of this large-scale denial, great films that honestly struggle to deal with rape as a genuine plague in our society (Landscape in the Mist, The Piano Teacher, quite a few of the films I’ve seen this July) are more often than not consigned to an art-house niche, labeled as some sort of “disturbing” cinematic endurance test, and seen by few. Talk about dishonesty. Memories, in particular, has not dated well since the free-love ‘60s, and its false rape accusation subplot is near-total kitsch. Elena’s family comes off as hysterical, while one is wont to make the case that Sergio does kind of take advantage of Elena’s youth, and it becomes very difficult to care for anyone involved in this brouhaha, and to buy it in the first place. (Oh, and do you think that someone would escape such an accusation so easily in early-‘60s Cuba, or in any similar dictatorship? I doubt it.) The film seems like it’s going to culminate in some catharsis, with the missile crisis and looming and Sergio alone in his flat, contemplating suicide, or so I think. That catharsis never happens; the ending fizzles to nothing (the missile crisis’ fizzling to nothing notwithstanding), and it all feels like a cop-out, a noncommittal shrugging off, and a waste. There’s a large train of critics who declare Memories the masterpiece of Cuban cinema. You wanna know what that train smells like to me? Gravy.

Grade: C

31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty: “Memories of Underdevelopment”