Brexit, Skinheads, Clinton v. Trump, and the Crappiest Ongoing News Cycle in a Long Time

eu-large_transqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8

Prejudice is not a bogeyman. It is not an indicator of innate evil and sadism, tucked safely into less developed times and places that won’t return because lessons have been learned. It is not something you are invulnerable to because you have a brain and you’re your own person. It’s not a novelty. Prejudice is a Venus flytrap that catches you when you’re not paying attention. It’s an attitude that shows itself in fleeting spurts, in average people you don’t expect to see it in. It’s present in family, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, passersby, me, you, everyone. It’s the easy, simple, convenient associations you make between physical makeup and moral behavior to relieve stress, put your mind at ease, make decisions faster, and do the job better. It’s what you feel when you encounter the unfamiliar, when someone argues a viewpoint that you think is watertight. It’s what you shrug off with pathetic excuses, clichéd justifications, kneejerk defense mechanisms, urgent downplaying. It’s a cover for weakness, ambivalence, cowardice, and pain. It’s mostly another way in which humans err.

Last month, the United Kingdom—goaded and brainwashed by far-right, anti-immigration sentiment—voted, in a referendum, to leave the European Union, and in the media, I noticed a slight but significant semantic change accompanying that paradigm shift. Before the vote, it was referred to as “Brexit,” a portmanteau for “Britain’s [then hypothetical] exit”—a savvy new word, a peculiar code, a disyllabic soundbyte that grew more ambiguous and rolled off the tongue easier when the X in exit was altered from [gz] to [ks], a decision that belonged uniquely to Britain and that was Britain’s to make, almost a hip get-out-the-vote command (“Brex it, baby!”) Now, more and more, it is “the Brexit,” as in something that could well be short for “the [voter-approved] British exit”—official, political, dead serious, no longer a potential but a concrete reality, a force to be reckoned with, a choice made and settled, with repercussions far out of Britain’s or anyone else’s control. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the [gz] sound coming back a little in that phrasing, leaving little doubt as to what it is and represents. Even the men behind the Leave campaign—UKIP head Nigel Farage and London ex-mayor Boris Johnson—were so intimidated by the fact of their success, they chickened out of responsibility for it and have now retreated from the Prime Minister-ship. Meaning: they are con men, and their campaign was a shameless ploy, done for money, publicity and provocation, damn the consequences that their nation has to face because of it. Here in the United States, there’s an obvious parallel—more on that in a New York minute.

The Brexit vote seems to have been merely the inception of a long, hot, traumatic summer in what is already one of the ugliest years in recent memory for the world at large, let alone for the West. I can’t name the last day that hasn’t gone by without the news reporting a death toll of some scale. In the time I have been drafting this essay, I have read about a fit of road rage-cum-terrorist attack in Nice—on Bastille Day!—that has killed over eighty; a half-assed coup attempt in Istanbul that has claimed hundreds and that might have produced a military junta far more repressive than Erdogan; and the assassination of three cops in Baton Rouge, likely a retaliation for the murder of Alton Sterling, and an echo of a sniper shooting that downed five cops in Dallas. Battle lines are falling between civilian and state, left and right, centrist and extremist, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, racism and color, Islamism and “infidel”. Those interested in peace are confined to venting their rage on social media, too raw to know how to react otherwise, too numb and unsurprised to figure out a solution. Those interested in prolonging, intensifying and profiting from all the conflict are winning, and the media—maybe unwittingly, maybe deliberately—are fanning their flames for all the sensation they can report.

tumblr_m4y1z8db4j1rvrkxeo1_1280

Since Brexit, through this summer, I’ve been thinking much about a British indie film called This Is England, made a decade ago, set during the Thatcher years, and only growing more relevant. It’s about a disaffected adolescent from Sheffield, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who lost his father in the Falklands War, and who falls in by chance with a crew of skinheads. Fact, little known to Americans: the skinheads, at least in the British sense, were originally punks who—besides being bald—bonded based on a mutual interest in Caribbean music and New Wave fashion, and whose time was spent apolitically goofing off. Not kidding. Look it up. Shaun comes of age, finds his niche in the crew, and rebels against his frazzled mother in doing so. Then, one Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison, reunites with the gang, and uses them as a captive audience to his homilies on England belonging to the English, the welfare state fucking everything up, and the “Paki bastards” hoarding the place. Combo’s rival, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), is a sweet, caring guy, and his charms are what initially draws Shaun in and returns peace and joy into his life—but like too many sweet, caring guys, he lacks Combo’s charisma and psychological acuity and can only watch as Combo exploits the Falklands War to manipulate Shaun and a few others into siding with him. This of course is a microcosm of how the skinheads transitioned into what we think of them as today—namely, fascist-populist goons.

Combo takes Shaun and his protégés to a lodge in a clearing, where a nationalist politico running for office is speaking. He acknowledges that he and his fellow skinheads have been accused of racism. “We’re not racist!” he insists. Ah, but they are racist. Language is ultimately objective; otherwise, it would be too easy for people to excuse themselves for their racial insensitivity by contriving the definition of racism so that it doesn’t include and implicate their actions. On the contrary, too often and too easily, that is exactly what people try to do and what we let people do—because of course, most of us would not like to be labeled racist. (Look at how George W. Bush and his neocon cronies absolve themselves of war crimes just by narrowing the definition of torture to exclude waterboarding—a totally wrong shaggy-dog semantic corruption.) And that is why racial profiling is depicted as an efficient way to manage and discourage crime, when it is really textbook racism because it assumes certain demographics are disposed to crime and does not account for—nor aim to alleviate—the socioeconomic forces that breed crime as a way of life, some of which are reinforced by the state purposely to maintain a racial hierarchy. That is also why immigrants to the U.K. (and the U.S., etc.) who try to bring along their cultural spheres, often including their native tongues, and who don’t assimilate to the liking of the dominant race—regardless of whether they are citizens or not—face demonization, mostly from the right wing. This is racism, beyond dispute. It insists that there is nothing of value worth learning from foreign cultures.

If This Is England has a flaw—besides the abrupt ending—it’s that there’s no developed alternative perspective from any of the Indian and Pakistani persons who become the targets of Combo’s curry-themed verbal and physical taunts, which Shaun imitates and is thus complicit in. It does, however, throw an ambivalence into the proceedings with the presence of a Black proto-skinhead, Milky (Andrew Shim), who provides a conduit to Woody and company’s appreciation of reggae and ska, and who Combo admires because he claims he is English despite his Jamaican heritage—and because he sells Combo pot. Well, really, Combo’s attitude towards Milky is contingent on what shade of Milky’s cultural identity is showing at a given moment. It is obvious that his multiculturalism makes him more well-rounded than Combo will ever be, and Combo knows this, and his envy leads the film to a devastating, powerful climax. The film thus debunks the idea of “having Black friends” as proof that one is not racist. If your attitude towards minorities is conditional in any way, then you’re being racist. The film’s take on race and immigration is thus very postmodern and makes it essential viewing for anyone wondering how racism and friendly associations with people of color can exist in the same person, and how we are all liable to be wrestling with both. The director, Shane Meadows, has continued to follow these characters in three TV miniseries that span through Thatcher’s odious reign; I aim to watch them.

There are those who seek to make society as great as it can be for everyone given the resources, and there are those who are more impelled to compete against one another for a bigger slice. William James’ immortal essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” is instructive in this regard. Man is inclined towards competition; when not offered the diversions of sport, meritocracy and debate, he is more prone to getting suckered into going to war for the petty whims of the ruling class and the military-industrial complex. For the most loathsome of poor sportsmen, it isn’t enough that they win—their opponents must lose, lose badly, and suffer in the process. This entails the lowest among us picking fights with others based on race, sex, sexuality, gender, class, religion, ability, you name it. And so civilization is structured into suffocating hierarchies, and every time those below jostle for a fair share, those on top grow disturbed—spoiled as they are, their equilibrium is thrown off by any notion of societal equality and equity—and they suppress those below to restore homeostasis to themselves. Let it thus be said for the record that if you’re a white, elderly/middle-aged, cisgender, heterosexual, upper/middle-class, neurotypical man who feels the most discriminated-against because of the various social movements struggling for the rights of women, Blacks, Latin@s, indigenous tribes, LGBTQIA persons, youths, autists and Aspies—you’re being a bigot. Sorry, but you are. The protestors you see on media are fighting to survive in ways you’ve never had to do because you’re lucky. One argument in favor of keeping Blacks enslaved before the Civil War was an insane phobia of White enslavement by Blacks. So you see, pro-slavery Whites were aware of the trauma of the system they were perpetrating, but they kept perpetrating it because capitalist doctrine convinced them that they and the Blacks were locked in a zero-sum game, and racial coexistence was a myth.

gty_donald_trump_ml_160304_12x5_1600

That’s the horn that Donald Trump is tooting. If This Is England and Brexit show a trend of English nativists fighting for a monopoly over what England is and what it ought to be—a monopoly in which foreign points-of-view mean less than jackshit—then Trump and his lemmings have thrived on a fantasy of an ideal America defined and bleached to their uncompromising preferences. “Make America Great Again,” they say, meaning that there was a time when America was great, after which we lost our way—but when? The Reagan years? The postwar era? The Roaring Twenties? The Gilded Age? No one’s bothered to specify. All I know is that Trump is looking to the past, going backwards, and reversing progress to the point where straight old wealthy white Protestant men reign supreme once again. Mexican immigrants? Trump wants them to become not just American citizens but Americans, just as Milky is only any good in Combo’s eyes when he’s English. Whoever doesn’t abide gets deported. The same will go for Muslim immigrants, whenever Trump plans to allow them in (as if). This is racism, objectively. I didn’t think such racism had any appeal anymore. I thought Trump’s campaign would crash and burn in record time. Alas—Trump has developed a terrifying ethos. Everything said about him, good and bad, seems to benefit him. Every iota of media attention gratifies him. Those who have voted and plan to vote for him show a streak of nihilism and hedonism. They don’t care about building a better nation. They care about winning, about beating the folks they hate—the more destruction, the better. It’s all a reality TV contest to them. They’d just as soon vote Kim Kardashian’s callypgous body into the Oval Office.

Maybe you, reader, are a Trump supporter and would like to insist you’re different. Maybe you lucked out of a job because of cheap labor. Maybe you’re genuinely anti-establishment, anti-incumbent, and think that the media at large want to uphold a status quo and rail against Trump out of panic. Maybe you just don’t like being “politically correct”. I understand. And because I’m committed to bettering society and promoting equality and equal opportunity—and not to competition for its own sake—I’ll reach out to you. I voted for Bernie Sanders. I used to detest Hillary Clinton because I believed Juanita Broaddrick when she said that Bill Clinton raped her and Hillary tried to threaten her into silence. I have written as much on this blog. I believe rape survivors as a matter of principle. As it turns out, Broaddrick has endorsed Trump—never mind his track record of gross misogyny, and the fact that he himself has faced down his own sexual misconduct accusations (which I believe). She has also allied herself with Kathleen Willey, a fellow Bill accuser and discredited conspiracy theorist who has implied that Bill arranged for her husband to be murdered on the same day of her alleged assault, and that Vince Foster was murdered. Not to mention, her Twitter feed has become a scroll of recurring, glib anti-Clinton potshots—trivial memes and such.

Individually, these might be lapses of poor judgment; together—along with the multiple issues of Broaddrick’s account (she doesn’t remember the date, she’s been inconsistent on whether Hillary or anyone threatened her, her witnesses have a conflict of interest, et al.)—they add up. One thought I’ve had is that maybe she consented after Bill gave her the old line about how mumps made him sterile, and then heard about Chelsea’s birth a couple years later and felt deceived—but why wouldn’t she clarify that? Where are her standards? Even if I never know what really happened (I won’t), this is something I feel I need to get right. If I say Bill Clinton is a rapist and I’m wrong, I falsely accuse an innocent and insult genuine rape survivors. If I say Juanita Broaddrick was not raped and she was, I deepen her trauma. I’m fucked either way. Right now, I’m going to trust my instincts. It is worth repeating the cliché that the medium is the message. Broaddrick isn’t airing her message through a feminist-activist lens; she’s doing so through the media of puerile right-wing Clinton-bashing, which toys with the truth to get Republicans voted into office where they can push a bluntly anti-feminist agenda. The case for Bill Clinton being a rapist and Hillary being an enabler is very doubtful, to say the least. Anything I have stated in the past to the effect of otherwise, I hereby rescind.

Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business Owners

What I’m trying to say is: I’ve changed. In an election cycle dominated by proud voters who claim their minds are made up, who grow more stubborn with each reasonable rebuttal to their positions, I—a fervent pseudo-socialist Sandernista—have warmed up to someone I once sneered at for being a pro-fracking, pro-TPP Wall Street sympathizer with ties to Henry Kissinger and Jeffrey Epstein. So just maybe, you could change, too. Take a step back. Look at the bigger picture. Pick pragmatism over tenacity. Listen to all the viewpoints. Be humble, realize where you might be and have been wrong, and admit it. Be willing to ask questions and have reservations, but don’t expect the politicians you vote for to be perfect and align with you on everything. That said, the question remains: would a vote for Hillary make me complicit in the missteps of her presidential term, or would it make me a stakeholder in her presidency who is more entitled to criticize her for stuff such as her reaction to the 2009 coup in Honduras than someone who sat out the vote? It’s up for debate. Here’s the bottom line, though: I want the Supreme Court to go left. I want Citizens United overturned, and I want to keep abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, the right to privacy and public unions safe for the next generation. I want to see legislation on climate change and gun control passed, I want college to be affordable, and I want a leader who doesn’t rely on the superficial appeal of charisma to win over constituents—in that way, Hillary Clinton’s lack of charisma turns out to be arguably her best asset.

Face it, ‘Merica: most of the attacks on Clinton are either misogynistic boilerplate or hypocritical. Benghazi? She showed clear contrition for her negligence when that happened, and the late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’ family (not unlike Vince Foster’s family) has stated that they do not want his death politicized. And yet, she can’t catch a break from the fear-mongering party that exploited the trauma of 9/11—which happened on their watch, after some very clear warnings—to create phantom WMDs and get national support for a half-assed vigilante coup in Iraq that destabilized the Middle East, worsened anti-American sentiment everywhere, and led directly to the rise of the Islamic State. Her emails? FBI director James Comey has admitted that his strong words against her were politically incentivized (read: dishonest). Bill’s infidelities? Folks, I am fairly certain that Hillary and Chelsea have taken him to task for that behind closed doors. The way things stand now, I intend to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. If anything goes wrong, I reserve my right to tell my fellow Democrats that they should’ve voted for Sanders. (I don’t mean to perpetrate the thought that this election is a two-party either-or decision. Jill Stein is great, and I actually agree with Gary Johnson on quite a few things. In a two-party system, the success of third parties depends on the classic game theory debacle of whether enough people plan to vote for a third party to make it worth risking your vote on said third party. Polarized as the nation is right now, I myself am not counting on it. If the Libertarian Party takes away enough votes from Trump, I’ll applaud them for it.) I no longer think that four years of Hillary Clinton would be unlivable; her staffers have given her universal praise and are baffled by the negative media perception of her. I will never not think that a Trump presidency would cause unmitigated global catastrophe. Alas, I’m confident Clinton will prevail. That doesn’t mean we as voters should be complacent, though. The threat of Trump is concrete, and he has already badly damaged the nation’s fabric and reputation.

I condemn Donald Trump entirely. I condemn his blatant disregard for the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion that are what truly make America great, if anything. I condemn his stated intent to commit war crimes such as killing the families of terrorists, regardless of their innocence. I condemn his propagation of conspiracy theories such as “Obama was born in Kenya” and “vaccines cause autism.” I condemn his intelligence-insulting lies, his incessant positional flip-flopping, his constant dodging of valid inquiries, and his evasion of personal responsibility. I condemn his emboldening of anti-Semites, the Ku Klux Klan, and other figures in the insidious alt-right, whom he has refused to disavow likely because he perceives them as a valuable voter bloc. I condemn his misogyny, his bigotry, his glibness, his incompetence, his confidence schemes, his abusive business and legal practices, his narcissism, and his cult of personality. I condemn that he has singlehandedly brought to the U.S. the same dangers the far-right has presented to the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Israel, and the Philippines. I condemn his call for a clash of civilizations, and for greater arms in anticipation of them. I condemn his noncommittal attitude and the implications he’s given off that it’s all a long con and he’s planning to forfeit his presidency and leave us stranded with lousy Hoosier Mike Pence should he win. More than anything, I condemn the culture of anti-intellectualism that he promotes and thrives on.

Trump supporters: how do you dare take pride in gaslighting and not caring about facts as a way of defending yourselves from being proven wrong? Please just take one minute to ask yourselves: do you really think that undocumented immigrants are the one thing preventing you from getting hired? If a minority becomes your coworker, what is it going to take for you to believe that (s)he got to your level on merit and not on affirmative action? Are you voting anti-establishment for its own sake? How does “Black Lives Matter” translate into “Only Black Lives Matter”? How can you say that Trump isn’t talking about all Mexicans and Muslims—or even Mexicans and Muslims in general—and that Quentin Tarantino is talking about all cops when he says, “I must call a murderer a murderer”? When you say the ends justify the means, have you failed to acknowledge those who have been traumatized by the means? And do you really think that political correctness is a magic wand that licenses you to say racist things while excusing yourself from accusations of racism, or to support racist policies under the conviction that what’s easy is what’s right and the-ends-justify-the-means? Freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibility. Language is powerful, it can harm, and you are responsible for your use of it, not least because language can become law—what is law but language?—and law has severe impact. When people grieve over a family getting slaughtered because a relative of theirs joined the Islamic State, through no fault of their own, will you dare blame them for being too politically correct?

If this essay convinces merely one person to not vote for Trump, I will consider it a success.

Advertisements
Brexit, Skinheads, Clinton v. Trump, and the Crappiest Ongoing News Cycle in a Long Time

I Have A Media Problem

151013_dem-debate-sanders-clinton-jazzhands-crop-promo-xlarge2

I like writing about cinema. It’s a hobby of mine, something I’d like to do more often. And up to this point, it’s all that I’ve done on this blog—on its WordPress incarnation, at least. That’s all this blog should be—a space for me to display my thoughts on film, and for you, whoever you may be, to read and consider them. It should not be a haven for ads. I do not try to gain your attention with shallow, misleading clickbait. If I link to anything outside the blog, I do so because I find it relevant and intriguing and am confident it will not lead my readers down an Internet rabbit hole. There is nothing frilly in the formatting; I picked this WordPress template (“Minnow”, it’s called) for its simplicity, and because it’s free of charge. My blog is in a sense my ideal for the Internet—absent of distraction, with a single, focused purpose. If there’s anything you’ve ever seen here that’s out of focus, it’s because most of my film reviews are quick, instinctive, stream-of-consciousness first drafts. There’s nothing contrived here, but I understand if it can get tricky to follow. Part of it is my natural writing style. But I’ll work on it. I might just make it one of my New Year’s Resolutions.

All this is more than I can say for the Internet as a whole. When scrolling down my Facebook news feed, for one, I often encounter a vast deluge of clickbait, much of which has a theme—political pessimism. Doomsday prophesying. People griping about the way things are and the direction they’re going in. Money runs the world, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s only going to get worse. We are slaves to the wealthy, and whoever tries to fight against that status quo will be completely defeated, so we should probably just grin and bear it. That sort of thing. All talk about problems, with nothing about potential solutions, and thus nothing useful. What I find especially fascinating is anything written in the tone of voice that says, “You didn’t know this was going on?! You thought the world was hunky-dory?! How naïve of you! This whole time, you’ve been hoodwinked by the political elite and their media monopoly!” There are few things in this world I despise more than the concept of open secrets—of taboo dealings that everyone knows about but no one discusses because of some ludicrous impulse to sustain a fragile veneer of respectability and decorum, if not to protect the innocent. I hold just as much chagrin at the people who pride themselves on the knowledge of such secrets, and who look down upon and exclude the innocents who are unaware of them. As a result, none of the injuries stemming from these secrets are ever remedied, and none of the problems they present are ever particularly solved. You can see why I try to limit my time on Facebook; looking at my news feed can often be a fatiguing, numbing ordeal.

I don’t blame this all on Facebook. Rather, I speak of Facebook as a microcosm for the Internet as a whole—and when I say I’ve been trying to gauge my time on the Web, I mean it. What am I saying when I say I have a media problem? you may wonder. I’m essentially saying I have a trust problem. For an example, I’ll use an issue that I’d like to get to the bottom of, but that I likely never will because of the state of the Internet [trigger warning here]: the case of Juanita Broaddrick, who—at the height of Bill Clinton’s impeachment brouhaha—accused the ex-President of raping her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1978. Whether she is credible has been eagerly debated. Yet, I can’t find anything in the media (besides perhaps the late Christopher Hitchens) that I can rely on to objectively walk me through the case because everything about it has been obfuscated through the narrow lens of competitive partisan politics. Most conservative media seem to meld Broaddrick’s and other women’s accounts into their traditional Clinton-bashing, laden with conspiracies and designed more to get Republicans voted into office than to advance any genuine feminist cause. Most liberal media, in deferral to the Clintons, treat Broaddrick with what we in Japanese might call mokosatsu—which translates roughly into “indifference” or “contemptuous ignorance”—“murder by silence,” more literally. Google “Juanita Broaddrick,” and you’ll see what I mean. Most of what pops up is right-wing sensationalism and commentary from scrappy little blogs such as mine. Why is this? Why do women’s rights only matter to elites when they are convenient to their political outlook? Is it because of the perfect storm of institutionalized misogyny and hypocrisy that we call rape culture? Is the media negligent on this matter because we have consigned this case to a brand of pre-Internet ‘90s politics that the jaded American public is sick of hearing about? Frankly, that’d be pathetic.

For me, the case of Broaddrick and Clinton’s myriad other accusers lies at the very foundation—not so much the visible, above-water tip of the iceberg as its unseen, underwater bottom tip—of whether Hillary Clinton, who has stood by Bill despite his outrageous philandering (to say the least), can be trusted with the U.S. Presidency. I don’t think she can. I’m not going to go into the Broaddrick case blow-by-blow at this moment—though perhaps one day, I will, to provide the Internet with some of the objectivity that I’d like to see on it—but for the time being, let me say that right now, I think Broaddrick is credible. That feeling alone is enough to prompt me to display some serious mokosatsu towards all the polls, headlines and punditry trying to proclaim that Hillary’s already sewn up this whole election. She most certainly has not, no more than she had the ’08 election, when she was leading in all polls right up until Obama began showing his muster in the primaries. The media right now is not the American people talking; it’s the money talking. It’s the political and media elite struggling to convince the naïve to vote for Clinton, and to discourage the supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders from believing that their guy has a chance. The way I see it, on the left, the media’s gunning for Clinton, and everyone else is gunning for Sanders; just look at how Sanders has trounced Clinton in some of those online post-debate polls. Let me tell you: the most important issues to me are youth rights and education, feminism, LGBTQIA rights, racial equality, mental health, gun control, social mobility and the wealth gap, Mexico’s drug cartels (the essence of the border and immigration crises), campaign finance, accountability, climate change, and the U.S.’ responsibility for the calamity in the Middle East. I do not agree with Sanders on all issues, but my beliefs do line up with his on most issues—and I consider his commitment to the Nordic model, in particular, exemplary. Come Super Tuesday, he has my vote. (Don’t get me started on the GOP. In that party’s current state, they are against virtually everything I stand for.)

The great films are the ones you keep coming back to in your head. Network is one of those films. If you’ve never seen it, see it. It’s timeless. It has countless great scenes, and one of them is Howard Beale’s maximally ironic on-air rant on the power of television to brainwash, which ends with him pleading, “Turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! Turn them off!” Reader, when you reach the end of this essay, I beseech you to close this window, turn off your Internet connection, and turn off your computer. Do something else. It’s okay. Take a break from this. Take a break from the aimless pessimism, the exploitation of trauma for attention, the insults to the intelligence, and the relentless fear mongering in which the Web at large revels. The man who directed Network, the late Sidney Lumet, has a book called Making Movies, which is a great primer on the technical aspects of cinema for literary folks such as me. Lumet here says time and again that if a filmmaker is losing concentration during a rush, a take, or a scene, it means it’s not grabbing his/her attention, thus the audience will check out, too, and it should be cut. What I take from this is that maybe I ought to trust my instincts. If I’m losing focus while reading an online article, either don’t trust it or close the laptop. Or both. I should make that a golden rule. After all, I don’t feel excitement reading all the media extoling Clinton; I feel numbness, fatigue, nausea, disgust. I feel lies fighting to win at my expense. I want to escape from it all. I don’t want to wallow in thoughts of “inevitability”. None of us should. We should fight for change. We start by voting.

I Have A Media Problem

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”