Archive for August, 2010

Day 3: Int. Kitchen – Day

Posted in Films on August 27, 2010 by baker

Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  April 14, 2010.

Day 2: Int. Apt – Day/Night

Posted in Films on August 27, 2010 by baker

Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  April 13, 2010.

“Plastic” teaser

Posted in Films on August 25, 2010 by baker

Feeding the Faith with Hate.

Posted in Commentary on August 20, 2010 by baker

“The proposed community center in Lower Manhattan will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America, and globally.” – Cordoba Initiative

“O mankind!  Truly we have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another.  Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best in conduct.” – Qur’an, XLIX:13

“And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” – Bible, 1 Samuel 15:1

I’m not sure what freedoms our soldiers are fighting for when we object to our Muslim citizens putting a community center near Ground Zero.  Is it the freedom to act on fear – the one that Muslims are inherently terrorists, or even that the 9/11 hijackers were themselves Muslims?  They were not, any more than the Klan are Christians.  The argument I have yet to hear is the one that declares the Ground Zero center insensitive, and then carefully divides terrorists and followers of Islam instead of lumping them into the same villainous category.  The provincial worldview that refuses to do this – out of spite, hatred, or pure ignorance – has no business weighing in on an issue so clouded by shades of gray already, by the fears Muslims have that this facility could incite acts of violence against it, or become a haven for extremists.  What good is a reactionary, uninformed perspective?

This foreign fellow sees essentially the same dilemma in ideological tolerance as the rest of us.  There is no tolerating things like Nazism (or as he puts it, “Nazi-ism”.  If that sort of correction seems elitist to you – one of those is a word, the other merely believed to be one – I hope you now understand the grounds on which we differ).  But nowhere in his rant does he separate terrorists from Muslims; he actually goes way out of his way to broadly skewer Islam as a whole: “Apparently it is not enough that nearly 3,000 innocent people had to lose their lives in a hideous act of religious mass murder, but now their memory has to be insulted as well, and the religion that murdered them allowed to build a towering, triumphalist mosque on the ground where they died.”  This is all very eloquent in its way, but at its core is a venomous tunnel vision profoundly terrifying for those of us who would actually prefer to see peace one day in the world (however unreasonable we may know that to be).  This is not a complex argument seasoned with reason and the kinds of inexplicable contradictions one encounters in the world.  In speeches like this, it’s easy to see how Africans became slaves, how the Nazis murdered 11 million, how the Khmer Rouge murdered 2 million, how Stalin murdered 15 million – and for that matter, how Hussein and bin Laden can order the murder of innocents.  When you eliminate from your thinking perspectives other than your own, you make global math brutally simple.

The counterargument propagated by guys like Bill O’Reilly – that liberals, “that crew [who] is so hateful, so harmful to the nation”, are actually contributing to the problem by failing to embrace the obvious truth that Muslims enacted 9/11 – is almost amusingly childlike in its flagrant simplicity.  “Let’s get right down to it,” O’Reilly declares. “There are thousands of Americans who lost loved ones on 9/11.  Many of these people feel a Muslim display so near the attack zone is hurtful, because fanatical Muslims [his emphasis] killed their family and friends.  So.  Where is the tolerance toward the 9/11 families?  Where is the understanding and respect for their feelings?”  The actual argument here is that irrational bigotry should be respected because people died.  And yes, one is inherently a bigot to judge a group.  Note the definition: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance” (Merriam-Webster).  This is also, by the way, the same argument used to convince Americans that our soldiers need to be dying for us: that the 9/11 deaths not only justify our intolerance, but demand a simpler worldview in order to enact revenge without shame.  It’s much easier to kill a group if there’s no sense that a group is composed of individuals, with free will – which is, to my understanding, the thing we’re ostensibly defending in Iraq and Afghanistan (it’s recognized that Iraqis and Afghans are Muslims, right?).  Or was it our freedom we’re fighting for?  I don’t remember.  Do opponents of the Cordoba Initiative?

Fortunately, we’re endowed with a wonderful principle called logic, and when all else fails, there’s no evading its authority.  You just can’t be after freedom for all mankind if you’re going to dictate the terms of that freedom.  Bush made it clear that freedom was not his priority when he ditched Afghanistan for his private war in Iraq, and the nine languishing years of war, in a country with no real sense of itself as a unified nation, show no sign of easing into an all-encompassing freedom for all.  Allegiances are tribal.  The Taliban has grown powerful again, and grows geometrically stronger with each new region it controls.  And rejecting America’s stated reasons and objectives in these two wars cannot, as is so frequently the case, be smoothly conflated with supporting terrorism.  It is a small and malnourished mind that would make that leap so cleanly, in blind patriotic zeal – a mind not well suited to receiving and processing the infinite color that lends the world its magnificent and dangerous peculiarities.

Critics of the Ground Zero center point straight to the project’s founder and chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his comments relating American foreign policy with the 9/11 attacks.  It’s not a new or original suggestion, that America may have indirectly provided the means and the motivation for terrorists to strike us.  America put weapons and training into Afghanistan for more than five years during the Soviet occupation – not to mention into Iraq against Iran – and then, following the Taliban takeover in 1996, was one of few nations to briefly legitimize the Taliban is an official government.  We helped to provide a platform for organization for these people because they were fighting a common enemy, not because we agreed with their politics or religion.  Could we have predicted it would have spawned such extremist violence?  You can’t hand a gun to a guy you don’t trust and absolve yourself of any responsibility when he uses it against you.  Nor can he suggest you compelled him to shoot you.  He’s responsible for his own actions, and deserves repercussions.  The two truths coexist – does pointing it out make someone a terrorist sympathizer, or a rational thinker?

My own feelings about 9/11 are complicated.  There is shock and indignance on the one hand – recent reports that the Taliban lined up nine doctors, including several Americans, and executed them in the woods for “spreading Christianity” remind me how monolithic and monochromatic a perspective you’ve got to have to act with such cruelty.  Then there’s bewildered amazement that a plan so brawny and simple worked, and so effectively.  There was a mix of grief, fear, and fury in the days and weeks afterward – grief for the dead, fear that another attack could be on its way, fury at the whole goddamned thing – that brought out two distinct sides in us: the introspection and the vengeance.  Mortality never felt so concrete.  The skies above Vermont were never so quiet.  Anxiety was never quite so pervasive, and separate from me.  And then there was the overwhelming urge to annihilate the motherfuckers who did this, for killing indiscriminately in my country and for making me afraid.  But what I didn’t feel then, have never felt since, and, in light of having left America to visit some of the cultures from which fundamentalist Islamic terrorism sprung, don’t ever expect to feel, is a sense that Muslims did it.

Dawood and Mustapha. Northern Afghanistan.

If I thus far seem far-left shallow and repetitive to you, I ask you: what do I do with my Muslim friends, in Bahrain and Afghanistan, the ones who overlooked my faith in favor of my humanity, and in some cases safeguarded me against their own countrymen?  How should I regard Dawood, who carried a handgun through the heavily Pashtun areas north of the Salang Pass for our protection?  What about Hassan, who drove us around Bahrain for five weeks with his five-year-old?  Mohammed?  Ahmed?  Mustapha?  Shatha?  Am I supposed to condemn these people because they’re Muslims, or to treat their faith as the cause of our suffering and unworthy of our respect?  How do I do that?  Because they’re “them”, not “us”?  Isn’t that the attitude that gives rise to such atrocities?  And to the conservative who can’t reconcile that, or simply thinks I’m wrong, I ask this: why are the 9/11 victims heroes?  Because they were there?  Police, fire, and rescue aside, most of them did nothing that day but die, horribly, for absolutely nothing.  We are working backwards, lionizing our dead in order to justify our cause, so the cause self-perpetuates on the glorification of its victims.  Then why are our soldiers heroes?  Because we sent them there in our stead?  Because they speak for us, and fight for us, get wounded and die for us in order to spread our glorious freedom and democracy in a barbarous world so badly in need of our moral wisdom?  Or are they still just avenging our fallen, and it’s a battle between opposing faiths in groups: our faith in our guys, their faith in theirs?  In which case, the point seems to be that faith finally lies in nationality, and my Muslim friends are my enemy because they are not my countrymen.  Is that the limit of our social and cultural empathy?  Lines on a map?  Can I make an exception, then, for my Muslim friends living in America – Shahan, from Pakistan, or Usman, from Saudi Arabia?  What about the Muslims serving in the U.S. military?  Are they shit out of luck because a band of assassins identified themselves, without humility, with the same religion?

This cannot be a war against Islam.  We will lose.  They will lose.  That war would never end, and could never bring anything we could use to build a safer, freer planet.  Nor can this be about our soldiers, except in ensuring they come home safely – they must remain our flesh-and-blood tool, putting their lives on hold and taking shrapnel in the face for our righteousness.  How many Taliban, al Qaeda, or insurgents are they supposed to kill for us?  At what point will we be sated – when 30,000 are dead?  100,000?  What’s the equation?  Unless you have a goal you can meet, you’re left by default with one you can never meet – and we will never kill them all.  Why are we surprised when our bombs kill Afghan villagers whose relatives subsequently join the opposition against us?  Doesn’t that illustrate just how neatly vengeance fails to resolve the conflict?  This cannot, then, be about honoring the dead of 9/11, except in striving to build a world where extremism has no force.  What brought it about was intolerance to begin with; reflecting it with intolerance of our own, hatred of our own, and shortsightedness of our own does nothing but inflame the fight.  And then we are hypocrites, transparently manufacturing an indefensible double standard that can’t handle the contradictions of both “them” and “us”.

What is available to us is the last decade of deeper knowledge, the ability to have learned from our mistakes and try something new.  Bullets don’t kill an insurgency any more than intolerance kills extremism.  Even the word “tolerance” is wrong.  It implies judgment, an assessment that although we are better, we must put up with the other guy’s inferiority.  The world is a messy, messy place, littered with human whim of far-reaching implications.  The stated goals of the Cordoba Initiative are absolutely a step in the right direction, a conciliatory gesture toward understanding that the men who tarnished the West’s perception of Islam played no part in carrying out its greater teachings.  How many untold buckets of global goodwill have we spilled since 2001?  Our current objectives in the Muslim world are muddy as hell, and we do no service to the Muslims who legitimately want peace by holding their religion – not the individuals who hid behind it – responsible for 9/11.  Ignorance is no excuse for bad faith.

Film: Christopher Nolan: Inception (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on August 1, 2010 by baker

The troubling thought Chris Nolan plants in my brain in Inception – and I’m sure he was aware that he was doing it, although he might not have found the thought quite as disturbing – is that movies as we know them are essentially predicated on other movies.  He litters the film with dramatic truisms lifted straight out of Robert McKee’s dogmatic screenwriting tome, “Story”: the bigger the stakes, the bigger the catharsis; the mind naturally turns to the positive, toward catharsis; etc.  And then he proceeds to build an entire film out of dramatic tropes borrowed from every potboiler thriller you can think of: the detective on one last job before he returns to his family, along with the crack team of specialists who all impart exactly the right piece of information when we need it; the ghost who haunts him; the gratuitous shootout that has no dramatic purpose except to punch up the pace of the thing; etc.  In addition to a detective story, it’s also a corporate morality tale (as was The Dark Knight), a love story, a science fiction story, and a consummate action film.  Did I miss any?

What becomes interesting about Inception is how well Nolan directs the actors.  Their timing never feels unduly rushed; the editing doesn’t seem to have truncated interactions in a way designed to speed the film up.  Yes, the actors are also plunked into their generic types and need to transmit a hell of a lot of facts to us along the way – and there is no time to spare in this film – but there’s also a real sensitivity toward finding the right beats, the right gestures, letting things happen on the edge of frame that remind us that behind these characters, behind this entire construct we’re watching, is a human being talking to us.  There’s one tidy little grace note that I imagine Nolan directed, but even if he didn’t, he’s made the film in such a way that these things can happen: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb charges down a hallway, he guides himself into an elevator with a hand on the outside edge.  The gesture itself is somehow extremely real and right in the midst of Nolan’s dramatic chaos, but the presence of Cobb’s wedding ring on his finger rejiggers the scene, just a hair, back to what the film is really about.  The beat is over as soon as you notice it, but the framing and movement takes your eye straight to this hand – and for a moment, Nolan is close to being a real filmmaker.

But what then undoes this film – or at least relegates it to the puerile Choose Your Own Adventure video game fantasy it really is – is the suggestion that it’s not dreams that inspire filmmakers, but their memories of other movies.  Alex Proyas at least took the time to plant Dark City firmly in the ’40s noir genre, letting us know he doesn’t necessarily think all movies are to blame for the (narrow, amusing) scope of his (shorter, better) film, but Nolan’s pretenses are catching up to him.  I believe he’s actually got an imagination of his own, and he’s getting better at spatial orientation in his films, which indicates that perhaps he’s taking things a bit more seriously on their own terms instead of thinking all things cinematic are simply about effect – but then, all things in his films are simply about effect.  And so what?  How many countless, perfectly harmless movies have been made from and about movies?  My own addendum: how many of those are great films, inspiring the sort of self-reflection that gave birth to the concept of art to begin with?

The point is that this is, I think, a reductive and potentially harmful way to look at movies.  Our attention spans are growing shorter and less muscular every day as cell phones and computers speed up, causing the mechanical and practical concerns to slow down and piss us off.  If I’m committed to a film at home, I really need to close my laptop, or else I will tap the mouse pad every now and then to check my email – I can’t help it myself.  Neither can Nolan – he’s got no patience beyond complicating and explaining and building on his plot, and you feel carried along inside Inception as on a raft in whitewater, thinking just enough to skirt the rocks ahead.  There’s really no motivation to think any further, since Nolan isn’t actually saying anything (my co-attendee at the screening remarked that Inception is a perfect Rubik’s cube, which it is; once solved, there’s nothing else to do but solve it again ad infinitum, until it becomes rote).  Nolan’s not without skill, he’s just recycling things we’re already familiar with to make the whole concoction go down easier.  I’d be just fine with that if he didn’t also indicate, at every step, that this is how movies are made, this is what movies are. Theo Angelopoulos suggests films are an extension of our souls, David Lynch an extension of our psyches.  Nolan tells us they’re nothing of our own making anymore, that movies are made of what we recall – or imagine we recall, or can’t tell the difference anymore between conjuring and recalling – from movies.

He’s hardly the first to go down this road.  Spielberg, Scorsese, Bertolucci – they’ve all implied roughly the same thing.  But Nolan has made this idea an explicit part of Inception, in a film about planting ideas in people’s heads and making them think the idea is their own.  At best, this is just sad, indicative of our unwillingness, laziness, or indifference to exploring what’s in our own minds, but at worst it suggests the way a lot of filmmakers these days really approach filmmaking: as an appeal to things we no longer need to think about, because they’ve simply become part of the language we use to talk about movies, not life.  It’s a pulpy, self-reflexive attitude championed by guys like Tarantino, who at least goes out of his way to make a coherent, enjoyable experience filled with surprises.  Invocations of film history used to have a softer touch, in the hands of Woody Allen, Truffaut, Bertolucci.  There was a whimsical remembrance of the warmth to be found there, not this leaden immutability (see Bertolucci’s The Dreamers for a purer account of the dangerous mix of nostalgia and unreality inherent in cinephilia).  It’s detracting from the efforts of guys and gals who’d rather try something unique to themselves, and wrap this whole mysterious film medium around their own wayward thoughts and feelings instead of the other way around.  The Kelly Reichardts and the Gus Van Sants, the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Ramin Bahranis need all the encouragement and support they can get; we do not need audiences requiring cliches to feel satisfied from a cinematic experience.  Where else will all the future great films come from?