Monthly archives of “June 2013


Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, Alex Gibney (2012)

Park-Avenue-2The indefatigable Alex Gibney is back with another solid documentary guaranteed to leave you staring into space with a horrified look on your face. He’s probably made another one in the time it took me to write that sentence. Like Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, two others of his I’ve admired, Park Avenue seems at once sober and manic. The research is clearly thorough and thoughtful, the ideas are presented clearly, the charts and graphs are cleanly designed and easily understood, but at the same time there’s this edge of hysterical incredulity running just under the surface the whole time, like the narrator’s forever on the brink of screaming “Can you effing believe this shit?!”

From the PBS web site for the film: “740 Park in Manhattan is currently home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the country. Across the river, less than five miles away, Park Avenue runs through the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the United States. In Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,Gibney states that while income disparity has always existed in the U.S., it has accelerated sharply over the last 40 years. As of 2010, the 400 richest Americans controlled more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the populace — 150 million people.”

Anyone who’s been paying attention already knows stuff like that, and that one is seven Americans receive food stamps, and so forth. But the film still manages to shock me again and again. The saddest part for me is seeing working-class and middle-class people duped by  politicians into thinking that it’s the poor (and the unions), not the rich, that are responsible for their problems. The second-saddest part is seeing that even Democratic administrations seem powerless, in the face of multi-billion dollar lobbying efforts, to do anything about income disparity. You come away from this feeling like if you have a dime, it’s because the 1% have decided it’s somehow to their advantage for you to have it.


Lasso the Wind, Timothy Egan (1999)

51POmzJuOKLRead this on our road trip through Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California in May, and it was a terrific companion. The West fascinates me, but I feel like I know less about it than I do about some foreign countries — the politics, the history, the relationship of the inhabitants to the environment, the controversial issues, the very light! are all so different from what I’m accustomed to as a Midwesterner by birth, Easterner by education, and Southerner by fate. I learned a great deal about cattle, mining, and above all (always always) water. For weeks after reading this I couldn’t turn on the tap without anxiety. One of many notions I’ll remember from this: Cattle ranchers staking their claims to be able to graze their cattle for free on public lands by lobbying for legislation to preserve the “custom and culture” of the “old west.” This despite the fact that Europeans only brought cattle to North America some 400 years ago, and widespread cattle ranching in the American West has been going on for less than 200 years. Bison, whose ancestors crossed over the Bering Strait into North America around 500,000 years ago, are not seen by these ranchers as part of the heritage of the “old west.” The chapters on the disastrous legacy of copper mining in Montana also blew my mind. Lots of fascinating and vertiginous thinking along these lines to be found in here.


Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro (2012)

imagesWhat are we supposed to think about Gregory Crewdson? His photographs, some of which I’ve seen in person, are overwhelming, incredibly-detailed large-format prints of Hopper-like (sometimes more Stephen-King-like) scenes of small-town life. The melancholy rag man pushing his cart, the melancholy waitress exhausted after her shift, the melancholy working-class family sitting down to their melancholy supper. It seems to be about 1972; the downtown single-screen movie theater is still going, folks drive Dodge Darts and wear girdles, no one has a computer or a cell phone. It’s always either dawn or early evening, the light is diffuse violets, blues, yellows, oranges. They’re interesting to look at, very engaging visually, tons of details to observe, and the figures are often found in slightly mysterious acts, peering at each other in ways that are strange, or ignoring each other for reasons we can’t know. So fine, right? Not super interesting, but interesting enough, right? Well, there’s a bit more to the story. Crewdson’s probably less known for the images themselves than he is for the processes by which he obtains them, which are, in a word, insane. Entire soundstages are constructed, entire towns are brought to a standstill, when he decides to make an image. He brings enough infrastructure to make an entire movie, but he produces only a single frame. Looking at the pictures, I can’t help but have this sense of their extravagant staging present in my mind, and that massive assertion of artifice becomes, for me, a part of the experience of the work. Now add in the fact that the people and settings of the images are generally working-class and low on luck, and the aura of the artwork gets even odder. I’m looking at a hugely expensive, extravagantly faked depiction of a sad little invisible domestic drama on a dead end street in a dead end town, and Gagosian is going to sell it for probably around $100K. I’m upside down trying to figure out the political ramifications of this process. Is Crewdson a hero for suggesting that so much depends upon a tired waitress it’s worth spending three days paying a crew of dozens to set up a shot depicting her? Or is Crewdson a creep along the lines of the rich Swiss scumbags in Detropia (review coming soon) who have come to Detroit to enjoy themselves by admiring the city’s decay? Is he empathizing or exploiting? My guess is that he himself would have no idea how to respond to these ideas. Judging from his presence in this documentary, he’s not a terribly self-aware person. He has pictures in his head and he wants to put them on the wall, and this is how he does it.


Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1982)

5DkE7GfUr6OMtT74A9sRcY7BruQThis is Fassbinder’s next-to-last film and the middle piece of the BRD Trilogy focusing on the years immediately following WWII in Germany. Veronika Voss is a washed-up film star, and Fassbinder obliges her much as Billy Wilder obliged Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, shooting in high-contrast black and white to make her feel at home, despite the fact that by 1955, when the film is set, we were well into the color era. 

In Maria Braun, Fassbinder offered a model for survival, but asserted that in order for the model to work, his countrymen would have to reorient their moral compasses a bit, giving up on the kind of rigid ideals of purity that had led to disaster. In Veronika Voss, he’s in an even less merciful frame of mind. Veronika — in some ways standing in, I can’t help but think, for the German people — shows herself desperate to live in a world of illusions, completely averse to facing reality, and thus makes herself completely vulnerable to the heartless and self-interested machinations of others. You know from the get-go that it’s not going to end well for her; I’m not giving anything away. 

That would have been enough, right there, for a richly metaphorical and allusive story, but Fassbinder, as usual, has layers upon layers to add. To me the most fascinating character here is the average-joe lunkhead sportswriter Robert — a sort of Oscar Madison type, it occurs to me; was Fassbinder aware of Simon’s play? — who inexplicably falls for the faded rose Veronika, throwing over his very nice girlfriend and almost losing his job in the course of trying to help and protect her. 

What explains Robert’s behavior? It’s a kind of fantasy-within-a-fantasy: In order for Veronika to believe she’s on top of the world, she needs someone else to believe it. But what does Robert need? I think that’s the question worth pursuing. Once you start counting up the master-slave dialectics in here — doctor/patient, suitor/pursued, director/actor, cop/criminal, pusher/addict, USA/Germany, editor/writer — you start to feel you’ve entered a hall of mirrors.

Sad, and sometimes (probably intentionally) cliche in its melodramatic gestures, completely engaging. 

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The Marriage of Maria Braun, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979)

The-Marriage-of-Maria-Braun-DIFassbinder used to intimidate me, or maybe confuse me — the idea of his oeuvre I have in my head is of a jumble of contradictory bits and pieces. It’s probably something to with his making 40 movies in fifteen years; that’s a body of work, one assumes on some instinctual level, that can’t possibly be coherent.

But my stars, look at this, an absolutely amazing film, fully-realized, resonant, challenging, timeless. He’d still have been thought a genius if he’d made only this one.

Maria Braun’s marriage is an unusual one. She marries Hermann Braun in 1943 when he’s home on leave for two days. He goes back to the front and at the end of the war is missing and presumed dead. Maria remains stubbornly faithful to him, always expecting his return. “Faithful” starts to become complicated when she’s driven by poverty to become a bar girl, and then even more complicated when she takes up with an American serviceman. So far the story could be a Hollywood melodrama; here’s where Fassbinder swerves. Maria’s relationship with Bill, the American soldier, follows neither of the two predictable formulae: She’s neither callously using him for nylons and chocolates nor falling madly in love with him. Instead, the both of them seem simply to enjoy each other, assuming nothing and expecting nothing. He’s middle-aged, a little overweight, and very sweet; she’s playful and frank; they eat and drink and sleep together and don’t make a big fuss about it. I’d like to say that what they have is an adult relationship. And it gets me thinking about how completely rare it is to see one of those represented on the screen. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul features a similar relationship. It might be my favorite thing about Fassbinder, this capacity, which shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, to show how human beings actually conduct themselves in real life. But at the same time the situation here is entirely unreal — this is postwar Germany and the world is completely upside-down for all these characters. The only thing that remains constant, the only compass point, is Maria’s commitment to Hermann, though that commitment does take increasingly strange forms as the story progresses.

I’m not going to say much more about the movements of the plot, which are both surprising and steeped in inevitability as in all the great tragedies. I think it’s just a miraculous movie, the way it does such good work probing the general terrified, voracious, survivalist atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder while also telling a very human stories of these characters. People will compare Maria Braun with Mother Courage (another strong woman who keeps her family’s integrity by inventing new definitions of integrity) and Fassbinder with Brecht. It’s true that Fassbinder uses some Brechtian techniques to alienate us from the emotional lives of the characters (famously, during emotionally volatile scenes in this movie (and in others of Fassbinder’s), the radio loudly and relentlessly broadcasts a football match in the sonic foreground of the scene), but Fassbinder’s characters do not seem like types to me. Maria, the men she loves, the men who love her, all seem whole and real, and the sociological commentary, though always incisive and fascinating, always seems secondary to me. I don’t think Fassbinder would have been pleased to hear that, but to me it’s a mark of his genius.

Next up: The second and third parts of what’s often called the BRD Trilogy. I think I’ll need to wait a few days before I watch Veronika Voss, though — I want to think about Maria a little longer.


The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Maggie Nelson (2011)

9780393072150_custom-6efc1a4f4cfc27330c6cf82b7a53f85d3073d3db-s6-c30I’ve been reading about cruelty (and failing to find a way to write about it) for some time now, and this is one of the more engaging and provocative pieces I’ve come across. It doesn’t have the academic cast of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, or the austere continental tone of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and for me those are good things. Go ahead and call me middlebrow if you want, see if I care! Nelson isn’t here to make statements or devise systems. She gets it right in her subtitle: she’s simply (though this isn’t very simple) trying to reckon with her own idiosyncratic reactions to representations of cruelty in artworks, and she does so with a nice facility for associative thinking, an engaging and often humorous voice, and a vast number of fascinating examples, many of which were new to me. If you’re a producer or consumer of culture who’s wondered how or whether or why, in a world soaked with real violence, artists ought to re-present that violence in their works, you’ll find this a super smart and useful read.


The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.


Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (2012)

beastin' on crab - _DSC8525.NEFI was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!

Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.


Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist (1810)

Michael-Kohlhaas-320x373Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.

This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.

Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole.  From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.