Monthly Archives: January 2017

Terror Management Theory and US Fascism

Per Baudrillard etc: The items/clothing/appliances we acquire/use are signifiers constructing our internal and external personas, through public display and the construction of our personal environment (the space in which we internally perform our “private” self.) The purchase of or refusal to purchase commodities is the primary means by which human identity is constructed in late capitalism.

The president is a commodity. The US population has been purposely trained over several decades to see their political choices as being primarily lifestyle signifiers. “I voted for X because I am this sort of person.” vs. “I voted for X because X furthers x, y, z causes.”

Implied lifestyle associations is the primary way language by which data collected on everyone through the internet, grocery store etc is actually sorted and catalogued. The Amazon “If you liked Tucker Max you might like 12 Pack Men’s Shaving Razors” became the Facebook “If you like this page or check in at this location you likely have this income level and work in this industry.”

It can cross reference face recognition tagged photos that are posted. This is how FB and Google analyze your activities in order to target advertising. “Smart billboards” and “smart cities” shows a social organization that developed as much from the shopping mall as the stasi. This is a noisy gaudy fascism.  The aspirational fantasies that were pacifying the populace cease to do so. The customary reassurances of eventual reacceptance into society, the endless fictional romances and killing sprees that seasonally reiterate our self-actualization fantasies, serve as the delayed payoff for the unbearable neurotic loneliness that is the actual experience of our myths of “self-reliance”.
Of course, no one can ever feel “actualized” in the current environment. The cultural monomyth doesn’t hold. Few outside the self-proclaimed meritocracy cult (perhaps even few within it) actually believe what they’re doing benefits society in any way. “Ethical consumerism” is   largely a socially self-imposed sin tax.

The irrational behavior on display on all sides is not the behavior of a society fighting for its life but one with different factions bitterly set on which hole they want to crawl into and die. On some level, by going to the brink they think they will prove that they can’t die.

People around the world are turning to the new fascists because climate change, automation and other horrors bring about universal cultural mortality salience. Mortality salience makes individuals cling to  cultural norms aggressively because the seeming immutability of the society itself is largely a constructed blinder against the awareness of death. The culture shifts to the right and becomes isolationist. Increased mortality salience has been linked to increased religiosity and would go some way to explaining why the Christian right embraced Trump, a man who superficially embraces none of their values.

The racist mob embraces the charismatic leader because the charismatic leader is willing to lie to them. When Trump tweets obvious lies, this is taken by his followers as a sign of virility because it represents a convincing umbrella against the possibility of death. Death being the pervasive tenor of the era, the denial of death in this case becomes the denial of reality itself. Post-truth etc etc

I’ve run into many people while walking dogs who say “Well I hope that it succeeds.” Which is sort of like seeing your house burning down and saying “Well I hope it all burns down. Fuck it.”

Do we actually think we are immortal? Is that why man smokes cigarettes?

America, We Hardly Knew Ye

I’ve had this article in the pipeline for the last couple of weeks now. I’m not sure what it is about it, exactly, that I remain unhappy with; perhaps I’m just unhappy to have been reduced to this sort of tone. At any rate, I have many more thoughts on the election and what’s come of it, particularly on Hillary Clinton, that hopefully I’ll be able to articulate to you at some later date. For now, though, Inauguration Day is tomorrow, and it’s time for this article to go up, ready or not.

“Truly, they were as gods who built this place!”
– Bender, examining the ruins of a 20th Century New York Pizzeria, “Futurama”

Negative 17 days into the Trump presidency, the brain drain had already begun. American students are applying to Canadian universities in record numbers, which, while predictable, demonstrates that American students are poorly educated on the topics of nuclear strike targets and of westerlies and trade winds. In the now-inevitable event of a nuclear exchange, pretty much anywhere in the northern hemisphere is the last place you’d want to be. Regardless of who were to launch first (assuming the hostile actor is America or Russia, but let’s be honest: we all know who we’re worried about here), all nuclear-capable nations will likely have fired off most of their arsenals before a single bomb landed. The targets of American bombs would be cities in Russia and, in all probability, China, while the targets of Russian (and possibly Chinese) bombs would be cities in America and in nuclear-capable countries allied with America, mainly those in Western Europe. From America, winds would carry the radioactive nuclear fallout into Canada, and the surfeit of fallout in North America and Eurasia would result in nuclear winter across the northern hemisphere, subjecting the survivors there to widespread crop failure. In unrelated news, Australia has greatly expanded their Working Holiday Visa program.

It took but mere moments for the post-election narrative of exactly what the hell had just happened to emerge. The right wing, tired of years of contempt and ostracization from the left–which they were definitely, never, ever, EVER, even maybe just once, guilty of themselves–came out in force to elect the most contemptible supervillain reality saw fit to cast upon us. Of course, there’s an obvious reason that this is immediately bullshit: Trump, taking advantage of a system which was designed to give states that permitted slavery extra representation beyond that of their voting citizens, managed to win an election despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. And how fitting is it, really, that the would-be American Mussolini should rise to power on the shoulders of a bizarre, antebellum voting mechanism with a uniquely racist history?

Those opposed to Trump are now routinely chastised in the media–often by others also opposed to Trump–for having a “smug superiority” to rural voters. The rise of Trump, we’re told, is because rural voters resent the left calling them racist when they do racist things, or sexist when they do sexist things. More laughably, it’s because of the attention cities receive, as if putting a majority of your attention on the places where a majority of your citizens and infrastructure are is just bananas (never mind that this isn’t actually where the U.S. budget is going). But of course, to get them to understand what bigoted things are when they say or do them is apparently folly. On the topic of People Who Hate Trump giving shit to Other People Who Hate Trump, this month’s most unbearable episode brings us the usually-astute Anthony Bourdain waxing idiotic about why the election was lost.

“The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good.”

Ah, so now we understand. We were the dicks this whole time for rejecting the notions of prejudice and hatred. The people who lament safe spaces in colleges and political correctness in society had their feelings hurt because people told them their racist jokes were racist. We have denied them their basic humanity! They’re nice people out there, in “gun-country,” in “God-fearing America.” Nice people advocate for sexual assault and xenophobia. It’s what all the nice people are doing! And to hell with you if you think you’re better than them because of it. A disposition which, again, they would never have. Right?

In short, the society rejected their bigoted bullying and intimidation, and so they elected a literal bully. The closest we came to racial understanding this year was Glenn Beck ranting about pie. Now, enough about the people who reject U. S. intelligence on the election but got tricked by Colin Powell and a vial of baking soda. Now I am going to talk shit about Hillary Clinton, and the real reason why the Democrats lost the election.

Hillary Clinton is nothing. Do you understand that? Hillary Clinton did not understand this. Hillary Clinton thought that having the most milquetoast, status quo policy positions would place her as a safe alternative against lunacy. Hillary Clinton was wrong, and–and this part is key, now–Bernie Sanders supporters were right. An election is not something that is won by popular opinion, as mandatory voting is not something that exists in America. An election is won with mobilization. And yes, Donald Trump mobilized many supporters on racism. But he gained even more when he hit Hillary on the banks, and her having been in the Obama Administration–yes, Democrats, you’re the establishment when you’re in charge–and her being investigated by the FBI, and her husband meeting with the U. S. Attorney General while she was being investigated, and all of this stupid, typical, smarmy politician bullshit that raises all kinds of red flags for corruption and inauthenticity. And to combat this barrage of credibility-damaging evidence, Hillary Clinton offered nothing. No particular plan, like Build A Wall, or Universal College Tuition, or Medicaid For All, that she was pushing, no grand vision that people could rally around. And, to put a fine point upon her carefully-cultivated image of Generic Politician Robot, she used electioneering software that told her not to even visit Wisconsin or Michigan, the latter of which she lost to Sanders in the primaries despite the same software telling her she had a comfortable lead then, as well. Instead of canvassing anywhere and everywhere there could be a potential Hillary voter, she went to high-stakes fundraising dinner after high-stakes fundraising dinner, determined to instill in the voters the knowledge that she would be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the gremlins pumping money into her coffers.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, however, a comfortable lead over Donald Trump is not something Hillary Clinton ever possessed, and for that Hillary Clinton is my biggest loser of 2016. Hillary Clinton gambled this country away trying to calculate her way toward being a more efficient politician. If elections were poker hands, Hillary Clinton put America on the table while holding a hand full of those cards that explain the rules for other card games. I started this article with a description of what happens when people fire lots of nuclear weapons at one another. You probably already understand this already as Mutually Assured Destruction. You understand this. I understand this. Vladimir Putin understands this. I voted for Hillary Clinton because she understands this. Donald Trump does not understand this. Donald Trump has the temperament of a small child. This is a problem. And Hillary Clinton’s incompetence gave you this problem.

Responsibility for this problem does not lie solely with Hillary Clinton, however, but also with the Democratic National Committee. They just couldn’t stand it, could they? With the barbarians at the gates, a true, progressive nominee for President, one who was mobilizing the democratically-advantageous younger generations to campaign and rally for him. They couldn’t handle it. Every fiber in their being yearns to be the establishment. Barney Frank was questioned during the primaries on Bernie Sanders’s small-donor fundraising and whether or not the Democratic Party should do that. He cautioned against “unilateral disarmament” and countered with a question of his own: “Do you think it would really be better for liberals, regulators, if all the money from the banks went to Republicans, as opposed to just 80 percent?”

Well, Barney, if I was told I was going to fight a guy, and that he’d be paid four times what I’d be paid, I’d have a pretty good idea that I was being paid to lose. Barney Frank, plainly, does not understand this. Hillary Clinton did not understand this. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wouldn’t understand this if it fell out of the sky, hit her on her head, and told her it was from Cuba and wanted asylum. The Democrats as a whole do not understand this.

That is why they fail.

Sicario (2015)

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If Zero Dark Thirty were a good film, it would look something like Sicario. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s bloated CIA propaganda, Sicario not only has intelligent, subversive politics. It has a tightly written script that keeps you guessing until the very end. It won well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (the takes in Sicario are so well constructed they make the photography in other action films look like remedial cinematography), Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. It’s one of the best films of 2015.

On the surface, Sicario follows the conventions of pro-security-state propaganda pioneered by films like Silence of the Lambs. The film opens with Special Agent Kate Mercer, Emily Blunt cast in the Jodie Foster role, leading a SWAT team against a Sonora Cartel safe house somewhere in Phoenix. It’s fascist propaganda. If you were ever tempted to wonder why big city police departments need tanks, body armor, and automatic rifles, you won’t after the eminently fuckable Ms. Blunt — it’s hard to look away from her — kicks down a door and takes out a shotgun wielding narco thug with one burst from her AR15. That’s only the beginning. “What the fuck?” her partner Reggie Wayne, a young African American lawyer and FBI trainee played by Daniel Kaluuya, says as he rips open part of the wall. What he reveals not only makes you thankful the Phoenix Police Department has a heavily militarized police force. It makes you wonder if if an FBI SWAT team is really enough to fight the Sonora Cartel. I wouldn’t want to into a house like that unless I had a platoon of Navy Seals.

Soon, Kate Mercer gets just that. Dave Jennings, her superior at the bureau played by Victor Garber, calls her into his office to offer her a position on a joint Department of Defense-CIA task put together to hunt down and hopefully arrest Manuel Diaz, the Sonora Cartel lieutenant responsible for the house of horrors in Phoenix. With Jennings are two mysterious, but obviously important men, Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin, and an ex-Colombian prosecutor named Alejandro Gillick, Benicio Del Toro playing the scariest badass this side of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.” While the opening of Sicario was pure Silence of the Lambs/Zero Dark Thirty style government propaganda, director Denis Villeneuve throws us a curve ball Graver and Gillick want Kate Mercer. They don’t want Reggie Wayne. “We don’t need any lawyers on this detail,” Graver says, alerting anybody who’s ever read Richard III – “first we kill all the lawyers” – that the “opportunity” Dave Jennings is offering his young subordinate is more than a little shady. Dave Jennings, in fact, is a terrible supervisor. Like Jack Crawford, Jodie Foster’s superior in Silence of the Lambs played by Scott Glenn, Jennings is withholding information from his young agent. Unlike Jack Crawford, he doesn’t have her best interests in mind. He’s not only a cog in the government machine. He won’t even defend FBI turf against the CIA. Welcome to post-Patriot Act America.

Sicario’s opening is such a virtuoso piece of film making it’s difficult to imagine the rest of the film not being a letdown, but no. Sicario’s second act is almost as good. Since Kate Mercer has no idea what’s going on, she becomes, in effect, the audience’s surrogate, a witness to transformation of the American security state into a gang of amoral gangsters. Her physical beauty expresses a human vulnerability amidst the appalling carnage going on all around her, and what the camera is doing is not really objectification but identification. Since it’s so hard to look away from her, it’s even more difficult to look away from her point of view. To understand the second act of Sicario, it helps to know that Villeneuve developed the plot during the very height of the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, which at the time was one of the most violent cities in the world, a virtual war zone. The joint DOD-CIA operation headed by Graver and Gillick has been assigned to extradite Manuel Diaz’s brother from Mexico to the United States. In any other city, that would mean sending a couple of US Marshals to the Mexican authorities to bring him back in handcuffs, but since the Sonora Cartel isn’t going to allow one of their top lieutenants to be carried across the border without a fight, it takes three SUVs full of Navy Seals, and a convey of Mexican Federales in pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Sicario’s Juarez is such a violent place it makes the favela in City of God look like a nice American suburb. Not only will the mutilated bodies hanging underneath a bridge recall the Iraq War in 2004, the remarkable sense of paranoia Villeneuve manages to build will remind you of Vietnam. Mercer may be riding with a platoon of Navy Seals, but until they cross the border back into the United States at El Paso, death could come from any direction.

The climax of Sicario’s second act is a shootout just over the bridge from Juarez and into El Paso. Gillick and Graver’s team clear immigration only to get hung up in a traffic jam just over the United States border. As the caravan inches its way forward, Grave and Gillick notice one car, then two, filled with Sonora Cartel soldiers setting up an ambush. That the outcome of the firefight is a foregone conclusion — don’t fuck with a platoon of Navy Seals — makes it no less suspenseful. Villeneuve puts us in the boots of American soldiers fighting a guerrilla war. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Paso, Graver intimates to Kate Mercer when she protests the operation’s dubious legality, the conflict between the global south and the global north has come home to the American Southwest. It sounds like Trumpite propaganda, and to be honest, that’s the way a Tea Partier will take it – “we’re being invaded” – but in Villeneuve’s imagination things are a lot more complex. After Graver and Gillick torture Manuel Diaz’s brother – the large plastic container Gillick carries into the interrogation session strongly hints that it’s actually an “enhanced” interrogation session that probably involves waterboarding – and extract the methods Diaz uses to launder money as well as a secrete tunnel running across the United States, Mexican border used by narcotrafficker, Kate Mercer wants to start making arrests. That’s not what Graver and Gillick, nor, for that matter, Dave Jennings, want. When men like this talk about a “war” on drugs, they mean a literal war.

After a brief interlude, where Kate Mercer is almost murdered by a prospective one-night-stand, who’s actually a dirty cop working for the cartel, the third act beings.  We find out not only what Graver and Gillick really want, but why it’s called “Sicario,” Spanish for “hitman” in the first place. Gillick, we begin to notice, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, begins to see himself as a kind of dark father figure to the film’s young, female protagonist. Who is this man? Mercer, wonders. What does he want? The “sicario” of the film’s title is in fact Alejandro Gillick. A former state prosecutor in Columbia, he had to watch Manuel Diaz’s boss Fausto Alarcón kill his wife and lower his daughter into a vat of acid right in front of his eyes. The first two acts of Sicario were a masterful piece of misdirection. Unlike Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario is not pro-security-state propaganda. It’s a revenge film. Gillick has decided to work with the CIA, not because he wants to enforce the law, but because he wants to track down Fausto Alarcón, get past his security, and laugh as he watches him die. The CIA and the American government, in turn, will give Gillick what he wants, not because the want to enforce the law, but because they want to get hold of the drug trade in the southwest, to concentrate all narcotics trafficking in the hands of one man they can control and kill off all his competition. They want Fausto Alarcón, whom they can’t control, dead. They don’t care how many rules they have to break to do it. The CIA and the FBI are nothing but more heavily armed gangsters.

If the third act of Sicario is weaker than the first two, it’s not because it’s any less tense or exciting, but because it’s so much less plausible. Alejandro Gillick is more than just a man. Indeed, the third of Sicario, is a superman story. Gillick’s rage has turned him into a cross between Dirty Harry and The Terminator. Graver, Kate Mercer, the platoon of Navy Seals, the whole joint DOD-CIA operation has been a ruse, a misdirection, to get Gillick back into Mexico and put him face to face with Fausto Alarcón. The more implausible Gillick’s descent into the heart of the Sonoran darkness becomes – he leaves a body count that surpasses some war films – the more demoralizing and disempowering Sicario becomes. Instead of driving a stake into the heart of pro-government Hollywood propaganda, Villeneuve, who’s limited by the action, revenge, thriller genre, goes down the path Richard Slotkin describes in his classic work Regeneration through Violence. Mexico, in effect, becomes “Indian territory,” and Gillick “the man who knew Indians,” the professional gunfighter and mercenary who goes to places neither we, nor Kate Mercer, who becomes almost irrelevant in the third act of the movie, can follow. He also commits an unspeakable act of evil that lifts Sicario above the typical Dirty Harry film – Harry never killed innocents – and hints at the kind of political critique of the American security state that Sicario might have been had it not pulled back at the last minute. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of Sicario’s very last scene, where Gillick meets Kate Mercer and, like Hannibal Lecter towards Clarice Starling, decides that the world is a more interesting place with in it. Even though the film studio has planned a sequel – with Brolin and Del Toro but without Denis Villeneuve and Emily Blunt — there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for his character to go. He’s already reached the ninth circle of hell.

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

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Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

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Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

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The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

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Picture Credits: British Film Institute

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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In 1969, a thirty-three-year-old English director named Ken Loach released Kes, a fiery protest against the British class system, and the film that would define his career. Set in the northern mining town of Newcastle, Kes dramatized the life of a teenage misfit named Billy Casper, a young man from the lower working class who had few, if any options in life. One day he finds a kestrel, the bird that inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins’ great poem The Windhover, and, in a sense, his own soul. For a brief period of time, he is set free from the dreary high school that seems determined, not only to deny his aspirations, but to crush his spirit. That all ends when his brutish older brother kills the bird, an act of pure spite that reflects how well the English working classes have internalized the the contempt of the ruling classes for their inferiors, themselves. As I wrote in my review of Kes, “In another film about alienated youth, like the French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun and a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches.” It’s forty-seven years later, and little has changed. Not only has the English class system gotten even worse, Ken Loach has lost none of his passionate hatred for the grubby little bureaucrats who destroy the lives of decent working-class people, and who have nothing to say for themselves but “I’m just doing my job.”

I would like to think that Billy Casper, who was fifteen-years-old in 1969, and who would be about sixty now, grew up to be Daniel Blake, a fifty-nine-year-old carpenter, and widower, who also lives in Newcastle, and who has recently suffered a heart-attack. For Daniel Blake’s cardiologist, it’s an open and shut case. He’s not ready to look for work, clearly eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance benefits program, but Daniel Blake, an honest, forthright man who’s labored for over forty years in the skilled trade that he learned, perhaps, when he accepted the kind of apprenticeship that Billy Casper turned down, does not fully understand the forces that are conspiring for his destruction. The film opens with a phone call. Blake learns, to his chagrin, that it’s not his doctor who will make the decision to approve or deny benefits, but a “health care professional,” an insurance company bureaucrat who asks him a series of questions that have nothing to do with his heart. I would guess that for most people watching I, Daniel Blake, it’s pretty obvious. The “health care professional” is looking for an excuse to turn him down. He should calmly bullshit her “assessment.” Blake is no fool, but he is uneducated, and more importantly, innocent. In fact, if I had to describe Daniel Blake in one word it would be just that, “innocent.” Intellectually he understands what the assessment is all about. “Don’t you work for an American company?” he says to the woman interrogating him. “Don’t ask me about my ass. Ask me about my heart.” Deep down inside, however, Blake thinks the world is fair, that if he plays fair with the bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance program, they’ll play fair with him. Needless to say, they don’t.

Blake, who has no computer skills, is poorly prepared to navigate the bureaucracy at the Employment and Support Allowance program to appeal the decision to deny him benefits. He has to file the appeal online, but he doesn’t know how to use a computer. While in the waiting room at the “job center,” Daniel sees Katie Morgan, a single mother in her twenties who’s told her appointment’s been canceled because she’s late. Katie, a recent transplant to Newcastle who’s been gentrified out of London, protests that she had trouble navigating the bus system in her new city. She’s only a few minutes late, she pleads, clearly in distress. She has no money, and her children are hungry, but the little Eichmanns at the “job center” are as callous to the pretty young woman as they are towards the aging widower. If Billy Casper in Kes finds a pet falcon, Daniel Blake finds a surrogate daughter. Blake, who fights with his neighbors, and is often cranky and uncooperative, even with people trying to help him, immediately comes to Katie’s defense. They become friends. He meets her two children. Suddenly, like Billy Casper, Daniel Blake has a reason to live, two surrogate grandchildren and their mother who have just moved into a run down apartment badly in need of repair, and who can use his skills as a carpenter. As their relationship develops, we begin to think that the film just might have a happy ending, that by helping Katie and her children, Daniel is building an emotional home for himself, that solidarity between members of the working-class might help overcome the indifference of the callous English government. Sadly, it’s not that easy.

There is a moment at Katie Morgan’s apartment that brings home all of the pain the she feels all the more powerfully because of how she tries to hide it. After she cooks a meal for her two children, and for Blake, who has helped her insulate her windows against the coming Winter, Katie’s daughter asks her why she’s prepared three plates instead of four. I’ve already eaten, the young mother protests, but both her children knows lying. Kids aren’t stupid, especially where their parents are concerned. Blake pushes his plate back in Katie’s direction but she refuses the food she so badly needs. She wants the relationship between her family and Daniel Blake to be one of solidarity not charity, and for that she’s willing to go hungry. Later, Blake, Katie, and her two children go to a food bank together. There’s a long line, and an even longer wait, but when they finally get inside the pantry the staff are all kind and sympathetic, nothing like the callous bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance job center. One woman takes Katie’s two children aside and gives them breakfast. Another guides her through shelves filled with fresh vegetables and tins of meat, which, as modest as they are, also look like a rich bounty for the hungry single mother. Suddenly, Katie leans over into a corner, opens one of the cans, and starts eating the tinned meat with her fingers. She’s just so hungry, she sobs, as she’s led to a chair to finish her meal, then breaks down and cries. Katie, who can maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of indifference, can’t control herself in the face of even the most basic kindness, something, we suddenly realize, has been in short supply in her young life.

If I, Daniel Blake hasn’t pissed you off by this point, you’re probably not human, but this film is so powerful that even cold blooded, alien space lizards will be reaching for their pitchforks and torches by the time it’s all over. How could this be happening to good, hard working people in a rich first world country? Is this kind of government austerity really necessary? Did the bankers really need their bailout that badly? I am ambivalent about the ending of I, Daniel Blake, which is as bleak, and gut wrenching as the ending of Kes. I might have chosen differently. I don’t think a happy ending that came out of a friendship built on a spontaneous act of solidarity would have been taking the easy way out. But as with all great leftist agitprop, Ken Loach wants to come out of the theater full of rage. He wants to motivate us to take direct political action, not uplift us morally. I, Daniel Blake is not art for art’s sake. On the contrary, it has a very specific, very concrete objective, to dismantle a system that in Loach’s own words will inevitably drive people to “frustration, despair, hunger and possible suicide.”

City of God (2002)

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In 1960, as a part of an ongoing campaign of “slum clearance,” the Brazilian state of Guanabara built a large housing project on the west of Rio de Janeiro. The settlement, also known as Cidade de Deus, the City of God, eventually became a dumping ground for the underclass of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Flint, Michigan or Lowell, Massachusetts, the “City of God” was built, not to house “workers,” but people who had no place in the economy. The result, as Paulo Lins dramatized in his semi-autobiographical, 1997 novel The City of God, was a suburb of 30,000 people ruled small gangs of, mostly young, drug-dealers and petty, organized criminals. By 2009, violence in the City of God had gotten so out of control that it was occupied by a “Police Pacifying Unit.”

City of God, the 2002 film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, is an adaptation of Paulo Lin’s novel. It has an almost legendary status on the American left, and among American film critics, as being one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m not sure why exactly it took me so long to finally getting around to watching it, but I would largely concur. Filmed with a remarkable degree of innovative skill, socially progressive and relevant, violently beautiful, it’s easily one of the best movies of the 2000s.

Lund and Meirelles, like all great directors, know how to grab the viewer by the throat and not let go until they’ve made us, not only understand, but experience what they want us to see. There were times watching City of God when I was tempted to think that every other film I’ve ever watched about the poor was wooden, sentimental, and irrelevant, that I wasn’t watching a movie, but reality. I know this is artifice. City of God dramatizes a reality that for most of us might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  I have no critical perspective from which to judge the vision that the directors have laid out in front of my eyes, nor do they attempt to provide me with one, but it doesn’t matter. My only option is to surrender myself to the immediate spectacle of Rio de Janeiro’s violent criminal gangs. That is the goal of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and in that they’ve succeeded. There will be time to think about it all after the film is over.

In the very first scene, Meirelles and Kátia Lund almost dare us to look away. Their camera zeroes on on chickens getting butchered in preparation for a feast, throats being slit, guts being pulled out of chicken buttholes, bloody feathers being scattered on the ground. Suddenly, one of the chickens escapes, running wildly through the streets of the City of God, pursued by an armed gang. We root for the chicken, not only because we want him to live, but because we realize that he’s a symbolic representative of the young men pursuing him. Standing in the middle of the street, a young photojournalist pauses to take a photo. In front of him is the armed ganging pursuing the chicken. Behind him are the police.

“If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you too.”

The photographer, whose nickname is “Rocket,” is also the film’s narrator. To help us understand the scene unfolding in front of us, he says, he has to take us back a decade and a half to his childhood in The City of God. Soon we learn that the leader of the armed gang chasing the chicken is named “Little Z,” and that he and Rocket grew up together. Little Z is bad news, really bad news, even for the leader of a drug gang. Even though “Little Z committed his first mass murder before he was in his teens” sounds almost comical typing it out, the film stages the act in a way that makes us believe in the idea of a deadly, preteen gunslinger. A decade later, and Little Z is not only the head of his own drug gang, he’s killed off the leaders of every rival gang except one. Needless to say, Rocket is terrified. The week before he had taken photos of Little Z and his friends that accidentally wound up getting put on the front page of a newspaper he hopes will hire him. No reporter at the newspaper had ever succeeded in getting inside the “City of God,” so this is his big break. It might also mean his death.

Many film critics have compared City of God to Meanstreets, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction, but its real spiritual godfather is Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s savage masterpiece about the slums of Mexico City. As a character named “Knockout Ned” learns, you can do everything right, obey the law, study, look for a job, join the army, but if you grow up in the City of God, you’re damned. Sooner or later, you will return. Your only option is to surrender to the violent energy of the Favela. Nor can you find salvation in the love of your fellow slum dwellers. Like Knockout Ned, a gang member named Benny tries to get out of the circle of the damned, only in his case, he tries to uplift his friends and neighbors with kindness, to share the money he’s made in the drug trade with people less fortunate than himself. It doesn’t matter. He dies anyway, violently, horribly, needlessly.

Rocket, a composite of a real Brazilian photographer and Paulo Lins, the witness, the observer, the voyeur, is the only one who only survives. That not everybody can make a living as a photojournalist, a poorly paid profession on cusp of being eliminated by digital cameras and smartphones, is part of what makes City of God an honest film. That Rocket also decides that if he doesn’t want to end up lying in a puddle of blood like the subjects of his photos there are things about the City of God he must not report — like the collusion between corrupt police and the drug gangs — is what makes it a great film. Rocket survives, but since his success as a journalist is tightly wound up with what he would like to escape, he doesn’t really make it out. In the end, the City of God claims him too.

Final Note: People often express confusion about the Marxist distinction between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariant, between the working class and the underclass. City of God consciously, and repeatedly, addresses the difference. One by one Rocket’s friends come to the point where they have to choose between being a “worker” and a “hoodlum.” One by one, the City of God chooses for them.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Horrible quality Youtube video but one of the best scenes in perhaps the greatest anti-fascist movie. A middle-aged, probably conservative leader of the French Resistance meets a young Communist in a Vichy detention camp. Under the eyes of their guards, they don’t have much time to talk. They’re able to let each other know in only a few words that they’re on the same side.

This is the process John Berger describes in his great essay “Fellow Prisoners.”

prisoners have their own vocabulary with which they think. Many words are kept secret and many are local, with countless variations. Small words and phrases, small yet containing a world: I’ll-show-you-my-way, sometimes-wonder, pajarillo, something-happening-in-B-wing, stripped, take-this-small-earring, died-for-us, go-for-it, etc.

https://www.guernicamag.com/john_berger_7_15_11/

Queen Christina (1933)

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If you had asked the typical American standing in line to buy a movie ticket in 1933 to name the most destructive war in history, most, if not all, would have answered “World War I,” or “The Great War.” Almost as many would have had strong opinions on the Presidential Election of 1928, which was marred by xenophobia and anti-Catholicism. You wouldn’t have had to tell anybody about the Great Depression, or the looming shadow of fascism in Europe, but I suspect that if you had asked them to name the most destructive war Europe had experienced before “The Great War” many would have drawn a blank. Some might have said “the Napoleonic Wars.” Some might have said “The Hundred Years War” or “The Seven Years War” or “The War of the Roses,” and they all would have been wrong. The correct answer would have been “The Thirty Years War,” the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics that was so destructive that it ruined the economy of the Spanish Empire and almost took Germany entirely out of western civilization.

The greatest Protestant general of the Thirty Years War was the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Before he was killed in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen, Swedish armies had conquered most of Central and Eastern Europe. Queen Christina, the pre-code movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and starring Greta Garbo in one of her most iconic roles, begins with his death. “Who are you?” a group of soldiers asks a man dying on the battlefield. “I was the King of Sweden,” he responds. In the next scene, we flash to the coronation of new “king”of Sweden, Christina, a seven-year-old girl played by Cora Sue Collins, and who, we’re told, was “raised as a boy.” Under the prodding of Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, she, or rather “he” vows to continue for the defense of the Protestant faith. Twenty years later, Christina, now played by Greta Garbo, isn’t quite so sure. Axel Oxenstierna, still Lord High Chancellor, wants her to marry her cousin Karl Gustav, and give Sweden a male heir. Not only does Christina reject the idea of marrying her cousin. War, she points out, will only continue to drain the treasury and bleed the common people dry.

Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!

Nobody in Europe or the United States in 1933 would have failed to make the connection between Christina’s Thirty Years War and the “Great War,” or between Karl Gustav, who literally shouts when he talks, and Hitler or Mussolini. The historical Christina actually did abdicate the throne to spend the last twenty years of her life studying art in Rome and in southern Europe, but it was mostly because she realized she was uninterested in governing. She was also probably a lesbian. Christina, as imagined by Rouben Mamoulian and realized by Greta Garbo, is much more, something close to an ideal head of state. She’s an intellectual who reads Moliere in the original French, and a populist who disguises herself as a young man to live among the people as one of them. She’s a utopian dreamer who tries to convince her sketpical advisers that “another world is possible.” She’s a lonely, anti-fascist monarch who tries, and fails to head off the catastrophe before it begins. Unlike the real Christiana, she’s also a beautiful, charismatic movie star who lends the Swedish throne an air of Hollywood glamour, then throws it all away for a doomed romance.

The great Catholic power of the age was, of course, the Spanish Empire. Under the Habsburg King Phillip IV, Spain crown ruled over 12.2 million square kilometers of land, not only in the Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, but in Central and Eastern Europe. Austria and the Holy Roman Empire were basically client states of the Spanish crown. Phillip has some down through history with the reputation as a weakling, dominated by his court. He was also a patron of artists like Diego Velázquez. When he sends an emissary to Sweden to propose marriage to Christina, therefore, the Swedish Queen sees an opportunity. A marriage to a Catholic monarch will effectively end the Thirty Years War, but Christina is also far too passionate a woman to coldly plot a marriage of convenience. Spain, Valasquez, all of Southern Europe eventually becomes personified in the form of the Spanish Ambassdor Antonio, played by Garbo’s real life lover John Gilbert, whom she meets on one of her incognito listening tours among the common people. Riding through the countryside with Aage, her loyal manservent and gentleman in waiting played by C. Aubrey Smith, she comes upon coach that’s gotten stuck in a snow drift, Antonio’s retinue. After Christina, disguised as a man, gives the Spaniards advice on how to get the coach moving again, Antonio tosses the “young man” a gold coin and precedes on his way.

When Christina and Antonio run into each other again at a local Inn, where there’s only one vacant room they both have to share, he still believes she’s a man.Greta Garbo had a bit of an androgenous quality, but it takes some suspension of disbelief that anybody would believe she’s anything but a woman. Nevertheless, it serves its dramatic purpose. If there are hints that Christina is a lesbian, there are also hints that Antonio is gay, a possiblity we quickly forget about, and he dismisses with a great deal of relief when she removes her coat to reveal that she has breasts. They not only become lovers. The sex is so good that Christina remarks that she feels “like God must have felt after he created the world.” Detail by detail she memorizes the room at the Inn. Since she has a premonition she will come to a tragic end, she wants to remember the moment forever. She does not, however, see fit to tell Antonio that she’s not only a woman. She’s the Queen of Sweden. Antonio, in turn, doesn’t bother to ask her why she was riding through the countryside dressed as a man. It all reaches its climax, pun intended, a few days later when Antinio delivers his credentials to the Swedish court in Stockholm. The look on John Gilbert’s face says it all. “Holy shit. I just fucked the Queen.”

For Antnio, sex with the woman betrothed to King Phillip is something akin to treason. If he had been a samurai and not a “knight of the Holy Roman Empire” he probably would have had to committ seppuku, but Mamoulian’s film doesn’t really dwell on his dilemma. Instead, it’s all about Christina. Not only does she love Antonio, and not Karl Gustav or the far off Phillip IV, the impossible goal of marrying the Spanish Ambassador becomes the symbolic representation of her dreams of peace and a better world. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the film’s villain played by Ian Keith, and Christina’s spurned ex-lover, begins a whispering campaign against the Queen, and whips up xenophobic and anti-Catholic sentiment among the masses, it would have been hard for an American not to see parallels with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the viciously anti-Catholic smears against Al Smith in the Presidential election of 1928. Christina, for an American, would have represented the liberal ideals represented by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the promise of peace and prosperity in the middle of the Great Depression. Queen Christina, in many ways, is a remarkably prescient document. Magnus’ anti-Catholic mobs not only resemble American lynch mobs, they look forward to Nazi German and Kristalnaacht. “Kill the Spaniards. Kill the Catholics.” Do you really want to go back to the time of the Thirty Years War? Mamoulian seems to be saying as Christina faces down an angry horde of torch wielding peasants.

Queen Christina, I feel, could have been an even greater film than it is. All through the movie, there’s an implicit critique of mass propaganda. Disguised as a man, incognito among the people, Christiana settles a debate. Did the Queen have six lovers the previous year, or nine? “Twelve,” she says to the believing dupes, then remarks to Antonio that “truth is irrelevant when lies are told with enough authority.” The last third of Queen Christina stops short of fully exploring the political themes the film has succeeded in raising. After Christina abdicates her throne to Karl Gustav, we wonder what happened to her dream of peace. Karl Gustav is chomping at the bit to renew the war with Spain, something Magnus’ having killed their Ambassador in a duel will make that much easier. Has she really decided to throw it all away to run away to the “valley of the moon” — a clear reference to Sonoma County, California, where I suppose the Spanish did have settlements in the mid-sixteenth-century – with Antonio? I suppose she does, a move that certainly facilitates Garbo’s star turn – the final shot of Queen Christina on the prow of a Spanish ship carrying the body of the slain Antonio back to his estate in Spain is among the most famous in all of cinema – but which detracts from the political message the film has so successfully built over the previous ninety minutes. I suppose in 1930s Hollywood, love conquered all, even the possibility of a better world.

Images of My Suburban Dreamworld: 1

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I run 7.1 miles, usually late at night, five times a week. There was a snowstorm today, and running after a snowstorm is always a hassle. Nevertheless, snow makes for good light to take photos, so I grab my camera and go.

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It’s hard to imagine a more insignificant little town than Kenilworth, New Jersey, or a more architecturally nondescript town hall. But they keep the lights on all night and it looks pretty in the snow.

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I stop to count the icicles.

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Earlier today this intersection was full of police cars. A man died here last night, a teacher at a local high school. They found his body floating in the river this morning. Usually this intersection just annoys me. It’s always full of drunks stumbling out of the local bars, or walking home from the NJ Transit station. I ran past it tonight. I expected to find it a bit creepy, but I didn’t. It looks the same as it always does.

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They found the body in this river. The newspapers haven’t released much information. The comments sections are full of speculation that it was a suicide, but I’m skeptical. The river is very shallow, only about three or four feet deep, so it’s unlikely anybody who lives in the area would imagine you could kill yourself by leaping over that metal railing. That building in the background is a popular local bar. My guess is that he had a few drinks there alone, then decided to walk home. Perhaps he felt nostalgic for a river he had known in his youth, leaned over, slipped and fell into the water. Over the past week, the river has been swollen by rain. It’s also full of that thick mud that you can sink down into up to your knees, the kind of mud can make even a very shallow river dangerous. I suppose they’ll release more information when his family talks to the press. I can imagine that it would be pretty stressful being one of his students.