Saturday, March 29, 2008

Big studio films on "issues", sort of: "Stop-Loss" "21"

Well, at least two major studios this weekend showed they were interested in releasing big budget films that can make meaningful statements about major issues, and still try to draw the big crowds in the suburban mall multiplexes rather than depend on arthouses for “serious fare.” This is most welcome, even if neither film is completely successful.

Paramount, along with MTV, offers “Stop-Loss” (directed by Kimberly Peirce) which refers to the Bush administration policy of forcing military personnel to stay in the armed forces (usually the Army) past their enlistment contracts and return to deployment, usually to Iraq. (Wiki entry). According to the end credits, through 2007. 650000 soldiers had served in Iraq, and 85000 had been stop-lossed. The legalities of this practice (in the enlistment contract) are of some controversy. Along with this has gone multiple deployments and extended deployments, even of Reserve and Guard units. This is said to have been necessitated by the lack of conscription, and the film makes that point (about the "back door draft"). The film shows graphic fire-fights in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities (it was actually shot in Morocco) in the opening, and then in flashbacks later, and shows the wounded soldiers from “anti-hero” Brandon King ‘s (a very grown up Ryan Phillippe – a long way from getting in to Studio “54” – and remember Breckin Meyer in that movie?) squad after the fact, with horrific effect. (I don’t know if these are real, or were done with CGI; compare to the documentary “Fighting for Life” reviewed here March 20). And the movie shows how the soldiers remain bonded together (they are in bad shape) in “unit cohesion” even when back in Texas. They do not live for themselves the way upper middle class people do, and that again makes a moral point, about the unevenness of “sacrifice”. The film does not question our motives for being in Iraq.

I did find the AWOL sequence (and all the complications that follow) a bit hard to believe, and wondered what it would be like to be the Lieutenant Srhiver (Channing Tatun) who is supposed to bring him back. We don’t get to like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Burgess) like we want to. The movie has the strict three-part structure, and is organized around the real compelling end (beating the Stop-Loss), and the ending might be a let-down for some viewed. The movie is 1.85:1, and could use a bigger look.

Columbia offers the libertarianesque topic of casino card counting (for Blackjack) in "21", a film by Robert Luketic. (Yup, you have to be good with numbers. The promotional title was the prosaic "21: The Movie.") Columbia opened with its rising torch-lady fanfare, and takes real ownership of the film (with Relativity Media and Trigger Street). The film looks grand in 2.35:1 and recalls the Oceans movies. Now, counting cards is controversial in that it seems to try to changing gambling into a “deterministic game” like chess, although it takes a team with coded steganographic signals. Since it is legal, casinos must use “private’ (the libertarian word) schemes to break it up. In the movie, that includes hired thugs; in real life, it would mean hiring other systems people to implement systems and controls to defeat it.

The movie, though supposedly based on a true story about MIT, is quite “3-act” plot driven. (I guess multiplex movies have to be “plot-driven”; ask any Hollywood agent who reads spec scripts.) It depends on making you like math nerd Ben Campbell, played well by the most wholesome and likeable British actor (talking American) Jim Sturgess. (Yes, he just has to “dazzle” the Dean someday to earn his med school scholarship; he just has to win his money and, like Miss Scarlet, get it all back once he loses it.) Celebrating his 21st birthday near the beginning without getting bashed, he is brilliant, but instead of being a nerd lost in his own world, he is quite sociable and his own ego grows during the story. He seems like a Clark Kent without the “powers”; maybe the character Sam (Jared Padalecki) in Supernatural makes a good comparison, as that “bookworm pre-law” character grows more assertive and “action-oriented” in successive episodes of the popular series. He seems like the perfect son, the ultimate reward for two decades of parenting. I have to say that Sturgess, in this film, looks, talks an acts so much like a college student that I met in Minneapolis through the LPMN (which used to have its spring conventions at Mystic Lake Casinos), that the resemblance is totally uncanny. I wonder if it’s not a coincidence.

What I think would be interesting would be a movie (or television series on, say, CWTV, or perhaps HBO or Showtime) where a Sturgess-like character goes through the process of competing to make it in Hollywood. There are lots of “stories” of real life actors. I have a particular script treatment called “Make the A List” where the protagonist promotes his career by “exploiting” a situation of a much older person who underwent a mysterious calamity a few decades ago, with ramifications still being felt today. Maybe an alternate working title could be “laugh a little, cry a little.”

Update: April 22

USA Today story on "stop-loss" policy in Army is discussed here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Fitna: online 16-minute short about the Koran and radical Islam creates controversy

This morning (March 28, 2008) there is a lot of controversy over the Dutch short film “Fitna,” directed by Scarlet Pimpernel and written by her and Geert Wilders (former Dutch legislator). The film runs for about 16:40 minutes. It appears to be self-distributed and the IMDB entry shows no corporate information. The word “Fitna” apparently refers to “strife” (in effect, Islamic civil war).

The film enumerates a number of verses from the Koran, and shows clips (which appear to be real footage; a few may be recreated) of 9/11 (with voices of people inside the World Trade Center), of the London subway event in 2005, of various insurgencies in Iraq and attacks in Israel. Some of the footage is quite graphic. There are also clips of extremists from radical Islam giving “sermons” calling for the overthrow of western society, particularly in Europe. The film mentions the demographic population problem and assimilation problem in Europe, and suggests the danger to women and gays. The film presents the extreme positions of radical Islam on “morality” as being driven by religious doctrine alone, with no attempt at secular rationalization. Wilders maintains that this is a film about the inciteful tone of some specific verses on the Koran, not about Islam itself. Theo Van Gogh's short film "Submission" (and the tragedy that follows) is mentioned. The film plays background music from the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (the piece “Aase’s Death”). The filmmaker would have needed to purchase licenses from the orchestras that perform the music to use it in a public showing. There could be legal questions about showing specific individual victims (concerns from the families of the individual victims) if permission were not obtained first.

Wikipedia (besides giving a verse-by-verse detailed analysis of the film here) gives a link to an “official website” for Fitna, which the host Network Solutions has suspended for alleged violations of its Acceptable Use Policy. Obviously, someone “complained” about the unfavorable portrayal of radical Islam, but it is not apparent what the objective violation is. Controversy alone would not violate an AUP (otherwise most of my own sites would). Perhaps there is a problem with the use of music. Network Solutions AUP says that it is an AUP violation to intentionally link to another site which would violate the AUP. (Note: Wikipedia does note that this site is currently suspended.) Brian Krebs, in his “Security Fix” blog on The Washington Post, has an entry on Network Solutions ‘s decision, here. The blog entry suggests Network Solutions was concerned about the possible “unrest” the film could create and so "pre-censored" it when it learned about the intended content, but is that it’s call?

In any case, the video is available on Out of “prudence,” I won’t give the active hyperlink, but it is very easy to find (at least now) and watch. I had no problem getting in and no problem with slow response. The link there gives subordinate links to other videos that offer constructive comments about the film.

The Washington Post has a story this morning “Online: A Violent View of Islam: Anti-Immigration Dutch Lawmaker Characterizes His Film as ‘Tough Reality,’” by Molly Moore, p A08, link here. Toby Sterling has an AP article in the Washington Post (I couldn’t find it at AP) “Dutch Lawmaker Release Anti-Quran Film” here.
The AP reports protests in Pakistan over the film, in another story by Toby Sterling, “Protest in Pakistan over Anti-Quran Film,” link here.
Reuters has many stories on this matter (go to and search for “Fitna”) including Network Solutions ‘s action. There are stories about protests in Iran and Indonesia, but the most important story may be by Niclas Mika, “Dutch Koran Film Angers Iran and Indonesia”, link here. The Reuters search brings up a headline “Dutch relief at Muslim relief over Koran film,” but the hyperlink there brings up the same Iran and Indonesia story.

All of this is particularly sensitive in the Netherlands, Britain, France, and much of Europe, where there is a serious assimilation problem, as Bruce Bawer described in his book "While Europe Slept."

As with the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, we are still left wondering about the "sticks and stones" v. "words" problem. Some people, brought up to depend on religious belief and social hierarchy in which the invest a lot of emotion, find that "words" (and images) do hurt them, it seems.

On March 29, The Washington Times ran the "Foreign news" story "Dutch Muslims show tolerance to Islam film" by Leander Schaerlaeckens, link here, however the WT removed its video "Fitna premiere fails to shock". You can search the WT for "Fitna" and find some pre-release stories.

Update: March 30, 2008

Under "pressure," Livelink has removed the film. Going to the link, the visitor will find a statement for Livelink within the video link. It says "this is a sad day for free speech."

There is a more recent AP story dated March 30. There is a brief AP story on p A18, The Washington Post, "Anti-Koran Film Sparks Arab Call for New Laws," where Islamic leaders "called for international laws to prevent insults to religion."

In 2006, there was a controversial film at Landmark Theaters "Islam: What the West Needs to Know," review here. This did not stir up anything like the same level of unrest. What is it, then? Maybe it is the use of specific verses of the Koran the way the Fitna film presents them. After all, the Koran is a scripture. But, as I recall, so did the 2006 "West" film.

Update 2: March 30:

I understand that the video is now available on blogger, here.

Update: February 10, 2009

Geert Wilders may face conviction and sentencing in a Dutch court for "insulting Islam" with this film! I have a more recent blog posting on this situation on my International issues blog here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Radiant City" looks at suburban lifestyles and values

Radiant City (Koch Lorber, 2006, 86 min), directed by Jim Brown and Gary Burns, is a documentary examining the dead-ending of north American suburbia. I say North American because the film comes from Canada, and most of the communities seem to be in Alberta.

A key concept is “disaggregation”. (Also, “cartoonification”). When people live in cities, the activities and facilities are logistically “aggregated” in individual neighborhoods – the prime endpoint being something like a block association, common in New York City. In suburbs, houses or even condos are in one area; shops are in another, and office parks are still in another, and people drive between them. That is how the film presents it. Actually, there are suburban communities that are well-planned, such as Reston, VA (near Dulles Airport) and Columbia, MD (near Baltimore), that were planned and built in the early 70s.

The movie, however, makes a lot of fun of the suburban ethic. It traces the average square-footage of suburban homes from 1950 to now, and points out that suburban dwellers on average weigh six pounds more that city dwellers.

The suburbanization of America exploded after World War II. Suburban living was thought to be more “family friendly” and “safer” and perhaps it was, but there was a downside to this kind of thinking: a desire for a long time to retain some kind of de facto segregation.

I lived in New York, in the Village, from 1974-1978, and moved to Dallas at the beginning of 1979. For much of the time in Dallas, I lived in Oak Lawn, which was essentially urban living. Some newer developments in the 80s in North Dallas, especially around LBJ, became somewhat village-like. There was a desire to move “north” to get into the Richardson School District (part of which was in Dallas city limits) which, shall one say, had children from “higher income” families – de facto, again. My last 3+ years in Dallas I owned a condo in Pleasant Grove, and had a much more “suburban” lifestyle. Still, Mineyards was across the street. Slightly farther east there was a row of “countrified” businesses with quaint names like “Paps.”

Before World War II (during the Depression), it was often impractical for unmarried adults to have their own homes or even complete apartments; they often lived in rooming houses or Y’s. After World War II, as the housing boom started, there was still the idea that families should scatter into separate homestead-like single-family dwellings. Gradually, however, the idea of the urban condo, first often popular with single people, would come into being.

The film takes the position that energy and environmental issues may force “re-urbanization” with the bringing back of the urban neighborhood or mini-village, with all its services, for families, even extended families.

The film has real suburban dwellers, including kids, playing characters as “actors.” There is a paintball scene, and toward the end there is a musical making fun of suburban life. One housewife doesn’t want to go to a show “that makes fun of my home.”

The film was obviously made before the current subprime crisis took hold.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paranoid Park: Gus Van Sant's meditative storytelling

"Paranoid Park" (IFC films, Mk2, 85 min, R) is Gus Van Sant ‘s latest impressionistic meditation. (I understand that the film is offered on demand as well as in a platform release.) The story centers around an attractive but socially na├»ve skateboarder Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) who accidentally gets involved in the accidental death of a railroad security guard when he and a friend Jared (Jake Miller) are “playing” trying to catch a freight train in the yards near downtown Portland, OR. In fact, the death is quite graphic: the guard is cut in half, but actually crawls away. That is in the “middle” of the film, but the rest of the film is a series of impressions in somewhat arbitrary order, set up to leave an “impression”. Much of the activity centers around the skateboarders’ “Paranoid Park” near the railroad tracks, where the kids challenge each other – but none of them have the intensity of a Shaun White – and I kept wondering what the presence of a charismatic athlete like Shaun White (or Zac Efron for that matter) would do to this little film. Either superstar would shred it, in fact. The teenagers act and look innocent, much less capable than the grown young men that by age 20 or so can really become icons, sometimes by “acting” as kids. Much of the skateboarding is shot in Super 8. The detective Lu (Daniel Liu) comes to their high school to investigate, and constantly reassures them that none are suspects. (The behavior of the police reminds me of their ambiguous behavior in the classic 1945 film "Mildred Pierce"; I don't know if that's what Van Sant intended.) There’s one scene in an administrator’s area where the substitute teacher sign-in list shows, an interesting detail. That’s what makes Van Sant’s films: the little observations and details that add up to utter tragedy. The background music is interesting: choral portions from Beethoven’s Ninth play during the railroad scene, but much of the score comes from Nino Rota’s music for “Juliet and the Spirits”, much of which sounds familiar but has the interesting and complicated meters imposed on lilting melodies, giving a folk dance effect. I note also the opening shot of the movie, a cantilever bridge over the Willamette River in Portland. I think I drove over it in a rent car in 1996, and I think I saw some of the same scenery in “Untraceable.” The Burnside Ave. and Park area looked familiar, as I met with people there in 1996 when researching my book on gays in the military.

Van Sant’s 2003 film "Elephant" (HBO/Fine Line), about two students (played by Alex Frost and Eric Duelen) who instigate a Columbine-like horror on a high school, also presents itself in random, out of sequence fashion, without dramatic build-up to justify the material. The grainy video look adds to its unreal nature. The premise of the film (as well as some of the really cruel dialogue toward the end) may seem pointless and offensive to some – it is really even more disturbing than the real events in the 1990s that motivate the film. I saw it in the large auditorium in the Avalon in Washington DC.

In some earlier films, however, Van Sant had more structure to his narrative. “Gerry” (2002, Miramax) really succeeds as a meditation of two young men, at the prime of their lives (with heavyweight "superstar" actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck [I think a better actor than Ben -- as in "Gone Baby Gone" which Ben directed]) fatally lost in the desert, as their approaching demise by heat and thirst becomes unbearable to watch. And we all know “Good Will Hunting,” (Miramax, 1997) which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write (mostly Matt – he says the original is still on his home hard drive in NYC). I have not seen Van Sant’s recreation shot-by-shot of Psycho, the point of which would escape me. I love the original black and white Hitchcock classic (1960). Of course, we shouldn't forget "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), which was a "must see" then in the indie world, where Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix (tragically short life) play hustlers in a story that parallels and invokes Shakespeare's "Henry IV", and explores the idea of "going straight" to qualify for a will (mandatory marriage has been tried in the movies from other directors, as with Gary Sinyor's "The Bachelor").

It's possible to imagine "Paranoid Park" resequenced to be more linear. The film "Keane" (2004, Magnolia) directed by Lodge Kerrigan, was repackaged and trimmed by Steven Soderbergh and makes more "sense" in sequence/

At this point, let me add that Van Sant's experimental storytelling style could work with some of my material. I've actually tried this in a script called "Make the A-List" where a young law student and aspiring actor's (an intentionally attractive twenty-something protagonist) has his own career and life altered by interaction with the events in the life of a much older gay man (based on me), and the flashback events make an embedded story that is more effective when told episodically. So Van Sant's latest films do give me ideas. (I have "Last Days" in the rental queue, will discuss later.)

For discussion of "Lords of Dogtown" (2005, Tri-Star, dir. Catherine Hardwicke) and "Dogtown and Z-Boys", see my other site, here.

March 24:

I thought I would mention a screenwriting blog that I just found, "Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog," here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Fighting for Life": harrowing documentary about military medical professionals treating war casualties from Iraq

Fighting for Life (2008, Truly Indie / American Film Project, 89 min, not rated but would be R because of the graphic war injuries shown on camera) (link) is a harrowing documentary about the treatment of wounded veterans in Iraq: on the battlefield, in transport, in Germany, and back home at Walter Reed. The film covers the experiences of military doctors who go to military medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences "USU" in Bethesda, MD, not far from NIH and the Naval Medical Center, but still a separate campus.

The students are already officers, and some may have graduated from service academies. Imagine, then the opportunity to get a four year education at a service academy, followed by four years of medical school, at military expense. I’m not sure how many years of service obligation are entailed. For a hard-working person from a disadvantaged background, it is a dream opportunity. Many of the officers (about half) were women.

The next issue, of course, is the horrific nature of the injuries. They are disfiguring, and they are crippling. The movie alternates between classroom scenes and battlefield and military medicine scenes following some specific patients.

I recall, shortly after my surgery for my acetabular fracture in Minneapolis in 1998, being in rehab for a week, and one day I watched a patient take his first steps with an artificial limb. That was shocking to see in person, close-up. In the film, there are some scenes like this, with a lot more medical equipment and paraphernalia, even on the transport planes, and open wounds, burns, and amputations are shown close-up and on camera.

These are men and women in repeat deployments, originally volunteers but now caught in this “back door draft,” making sacrifices for all of us. Some will have issues of function, and many will have issues of body image, particularly when many of them go back to their marriages, perhaps to be tested. I noticed that some (male) soldiers do not have the same perception of this matter that I would, having covered themselves with tattoos even before joining the military.

There are some specific moments in the film. At one point, a female doctor treats an Iraqi man who is horrifically injured and says he wants to die, that he feels ashamed in front of his family. She must comfort him with almost soap opera talk, telling him that he must "fight". In another scene, another female doctor says, that this is a professional job, and that the political issues regarding the merits of the war in Iraq have nothing to do with the job itself.

I thought again about the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Even if it were to be lifted (and if I could get into a time machine and become 22 years old again), this is simply not the kind of work I could ever deal with myself. I would never have entered combat, rehabilitative or orthopedic or plastic surgery myself as a career. The body image issue would be just too much. It is a special calling for the right person. The movie is important, but agonizing to watch. If you care about justice, then see it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Out of Balance: ExxonMobil's Impact on Climate Change

The short feature (available from Netflix on DVD) Out of Balance: ExxonMobil’s Impact on Climate Change (2007, Cinequest), dir. Tom Jackson, 65 min, Cinequest, is a documentary asserting ExxonMobil’s precarious place in the global warming debate.

To jump to the end, there are strident “left wing” demands not to buy ExxonMobol products, not to work for them, not to own their stock. Well, I’ve owned Exxon since 1975 and it has multiplied many times over, so I am one of the evil ones, I guess. I’ve actually practiced that kind of thinking in other areas, maintaining I should not work for DOD even as a civilian as long as there is a military ban.

The documentary presents the history of the company, with the Esso brand, and how Standard Oil of New Jersey was formed after a spinoff. The company hired trademark experts to develop the Exxon brand, and then merged with Mobil in 1999 to form the world’s largest company. The documentary accuses its predecessor of doing business with the Nazis as late as 1944.

The film shows some striking footage of the cleanup in Alaska after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. The crew is accused of “steaming” beach life in place, and of putting on a show to look good, and of waddling out of punitive damages. The awarded damages reportedly amounted to a little over $1000 per resident.

The movie presented former CEO Lee Raymond, current CEO Rex Tillerson, and Wall Street analyst Judy Goodrifge, who offered up the Enron example (at one time, “Enron” sounded too much like “Exxon”) as that of an empire whose value can vanish into nothingness. (How about Bear Stearnes?)

The film makes the point that the "corporation," as a legal person, allows individuals running it to escape responsibility for their actions. (Actually, that's not true: "officers" of companies are personally responsible.) This reminds one of the 2004 film from Zeitgeist, "The Corporation").

The film accuses ExxonMobil of bemusing the global warming debate with “junk science” to cause it to be questioned. It’s true that if you work for an enterprise in a publicly visible capacity (as an executive or spokesperson) then you can’t be personally honest in public about issues like this, because of conflict of interest. I’ve talked about that a lot on my other blogs.

Visitors can read ExxonMobil’s corporate citizenship statement here.

I didn't see this film listed in the DC Environmental Film Festival, although it obviously would have fit into it.

The documentary film from UFOTV / MadCow "Conspiracy: The Secret History: The Big Fix 2000" (2003, 56 min) about the conflict of interest problems in the voting technology industry (particularly Sequoia Pacific), especially as it affected the 2000 presidential election (I remember driving to an election night supper by the Libertarian Party of Minnesota, being stopped at a light in the snow, and hearing the announcement over the car radio that Gore's "win" in Florida was being taken back). Toward the end of the film, there is a suggesting that Mobil (before the merger with Exxon) became improperly involved in the election "business."

Visitors may want to visit a review by me of a film on Shell that I got in the mail free, last July, here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

National Archives: The New Deal on Film

The National Archives in Washington DC participated in the ED 16th Annual Environmental Film Festival with a full day Saturday, March 15, of old films on the theme “For a Better America: The New Deal on Film.” The event was held in the stadium-seated McGowan Theater downstairs, with free seating.

I attended the early Saturday PM program, “The Land and the Environment.” There were two shorts and two featurettes, all in black and white, all projected from open reel, all 4:3. I was interested because the first tow (shortest) films were based on the music of Virgil Thomson. The films were all produced by the New Deal FDR government, and tried to argue for what government should do. According to the Wikipedia article, Thomson was well known as gay.

The first film (link) is “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” (1936, 29 min, directed and written by Pare Lorentz, produced by the Resettlement Administration) to the orchestral suite by Virgil Thomson, with the same name. The music sounds like a mixture of “pop” and Copland, and is not real heavy, and even uses a couple of familiar hymn tunes. (The credits say thThe music, with a kind of poetic narrative, shows images of the high plains from Montana to West Texas (the “staked plane” above the Escarpment and Palo Dura Canyon), and accounts for the deterioration of the region into a dust bowl, partly because of careless ranching techniques, after conquering the land from the Native Americans. So the name of the musical piece is telling.

The second such film (link) is “The River” (1937, 32 min, dir. and written by Pare Lortentz, also produced by the Resettlement Administration) is a meditation on the Mississippi River, accounting for all of its feeder tributaries from Idaho to Pennsylvania. The film describes how New Orleans was reclaimed from the marsh, and hints that over engineering could eventually make it prone to floods (which would happen with Hurricane Katrina over 60 years later). It shows men making dikes with hard manual labor, and shows other floors, but oddly does not mention the disastrous 1927 flood (the PBS American Experience film “Fatal Flood” at Greenville MS, with the story of Leroy Percy and his gay son Will). Again, Virgil Thomson’s orchestral suite provides the music score, and it is similar in style to the other, with a touch of jazz in spots. Both Lortentz films have some board-game-like map studies. (There was also a film in 1984 from Universal called "The River" dir. Mark Rydell, with Mel Gibson, about farm prices in the 1980s.)

The third film in the set (link) was “Power and the Land” (1940, RKO Radio / U.S. Film Service, Rural Electrification Administration, dir. Joris Ivens, written and narrated by Stephen Vincent Benet, 39 min). The film traces the life of a farm family of five, the Parkinsons, in southwestern Ohio. The countryside is quite hilly and looks like the western edge of Appalachia. The film shows all of the daily tasks or chores on the farm before electricity: the boys sharpen equipment with a food-pedal lever; the wife washes and irons clothes by hand, and great attention is paid to cooling milk.

The film seems to make much of the way society depends on families like this to grow its food. There seems to be an issue of karma. There is an unspoken subtext about “family values.” In those days, rural men integrated family with work, and the intimate use of their own body (in marriage), whatever the man’s family lineage, could not be separated and mulled over as if it were somehow a separate “right.” A man needed a wife and children as economic assets, so love was not as obviously or copiously “romantic” as modern society wants. The family was part of adaptive living. Less competitive people stayed home and were looked after by family. This arrangement, it seemed, reduced the temptation for government to intervene, even if it obviously accepted large disparities of wealth among families or classes of people.

In fact, it’s that conservative implementation of capitalism that comes under review in the New Deal. The power companies don’t find it profitable to extend electric service to rural areas, because there aren’t enough people to pay for the infrastructure. So, enter the government, to make loans to farmers with the idea that they will own the rural power grids as cooperatives when they pay back the loans with their electric bills.

At the end of the film, we see the “modern conveniences” that would eventually liberate both men and women somewhat from the complementarity of their gender roles, although that process would take years and follow a couple more wars. The washing machines still require wringers, however.

I wondered, if the federal government could do this for a few pennies a day as the film claimed, why couldn’t private companies then?

The last film (link) is called simply “The Land” (1939, U.S. Film Service / Agricultural Adjustment Administration, released 1942, dir. Robert Flaherty, 45 min) surveys erosion around the United States, from rain on embankments in the East and Appalachia to wind erosion in the plains. It shows sharecroppers, having lost their own farms to depression era farm prices, working the land of others for credit at the stores. It shows the migrants as in “The Grapes of Wrath” and says they are like pioneers. In Arizona and California, they had to compete with Mexicans and Filipinos for jobs, and these, the film says, were “strong.” The music score, by Richard Arnell, is rather “Aaron Copland” like, rising to climaxes that remind on of the latter's Third Symphony.

The first of these films advertised "noise free" sound -- the best that could be done in 1936.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

DC Environmental Film Festival: Green shorts

The DC Environmental Film Festival runs from March 11, 2008 to March 22 2008 at many various venues in Washington DC. Some films (like “The 11th Hour” on global warming) are already released commercial films. The PDF for the schedule is here.

The Green Film Forum deals with making films without leaving a carbon footprint; carbon neutral film, link here.

The Green Short Films (in the Forum) comprise five categories: (1) Water issues (2) Environmental Advvocacy (3) People/Culture (4) Wildlife (5) Animation

Free Swim (9 min) is a “film in progress” by Jennifer Gavin. It discusses the lifestyles of native people in the Bahamas who, live “inland” and work in the imported culture and find they have no reason to learn to swim. The film recounts an “Open Water” tragedy where two boys were caught at sea and one didn’t make it back. The finished film will be one hour.

I really did not learn to swim until college, and could get across the width of the pool for a C. It’s missing from me.

YouTube link:

Clean Water for Haiti – About Filters and Health Training

Chris Rolling at al discuss disease among the population, the pot bellies due to diarrhea and malnutrition even when there are sufficient calories, and the high child mortality rate. The film has graphic on location pictures of life in Haiti.

YouTube link:
Also, related National Geographic Event on Water for schools, link.
The following link (on my book reviews blog) mentions some other water projects around the world (such as one in Guatemala), toward the end of the link, here.

“A Walk on Water”: Autism, Mercury, & The Environment (5:30)

Film website:

This film takes a very strong position against mercury in vaccines and says that one sixth of all childbearing women have mercury already. The organization Safeminds is mentioned.

Yet, The Washington Post has an editorial March 12, p A18, "Keep Vaccinating: A recent case shouldn't discourage parents from having their children inoculated," link here.

YouTube link:

Robert Redford on Saving the Wildlife Refuge

This is about the Alaska Prudhoe Bay drilling area. Why can’t the drilling be done cleanly?

Film website for NRDC Action Fund.
Youtube link.

The Official Meatrix I

In blocked animation, “Babe” meats “The Matrix” as this four-minute short pans corporate farming as cruel to animals, immobilizing them (most of all, pigs) in pens.


Grocery Store Wars: 5:50

This little film takes off on “Star Wars” with a parody, as grocery store items become the characters fighting the laser battles (with a trace of Andy Samberg’s “Laser Cats” perhaps). The Salad Bar scene recalls the notorious “gay bar” scene from the first SW movie, with the same John Williams music.

Youtube link.

Jonah Soderberg 's film "The Planet" from Swedish Film (2006) is an 84 minute documentary shown at Georgetown University March 17. I could not make the venue, but a clip can be viewed at The point of the film is that planet change is much more than just climate change, it is also geography change. There is a shorter version for television. The film was written by Soderberg with Linus Torell and interviews 29 experts on the environment. It may appear later in the US in international film festivals.

I cannot find it on Amazon or Netflix. I do find that it can be ordered from Sweden for about 29 Euros (about $45). I am networking to see if a North American distributor is going to pick this film up. (If anyone knows about this, please comment.)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Kevin Booth's "Last White Hope" on Showtime

Kevin Booth’s documentary film “American Drug War: The Last White Hope” (120 min) from Sacred Cow aired on Showtime last night (March 5, 2008). I’m not sure if Sacred Cow is doing a theatrical release, or whether the film might be picked up by someone like Lions Gate, Roadside Attractions or Magnolia for theatrical release. It sounds like a good idea to me to release it, as the film makes an interesting statement.

I can remember Libertarian Party meetings at which Harry Browne would say, “And we must end this insane War on Drugs.” The film shows President Nixon “declaring” the war sometime around 1971, before he himself would go down to Watergate. New York State amplified the effort in 1973 with a draconian law, and subway signs reading “don’t get caught holding the bag.”

The main point of the film is that corporate American benefits from the War on Drugs, and that is the main reason that, in the United States, users of mind-altering substances other than the “legal, profit-making” ones (tobacco and alcohol) are targeted for punishment and incarceration. Presumably, tobacco and liquor companies benefit from keeping other substances (particularly marijuana, even when medical) illegal. I don’t know if this argument really washes, when you look at the whole history of alcohol prohibition.

A good clue to what is going on comes from the lengthy appearance of Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Phoenix), who maintains a “tent city” at his county jail for drug offenders (mostly non-violent). In fact, he brags that they plead guilty to get into an air conditioned prison. (I had a friend in the coffee business in Minneapolis, and his comedy greeting (he wanted to do nightclub comedy) was “Stay out of the penitentiary.”)
The film shows the prisoners chained together marching and chanting in military boot camp style.

The film goes on to cover privately owned prisons. States are contracting out their prison management to private companies. Wackenut has become “Corrections Corporation of America.” Now Wall Street has a fiduciary interest in making the War on Drugs profitable. It can treat the prisoners as chattel and use them for “slave” labor. When you combine that with a perspective of American history, you can see how that comes across.

In the south (the film uses Tulia Texas as an example), some communities allegedly use the crackdown on drugs as a form of “ethnic cleansing” or “banishment” (see the posting March 1) or “economic lynching.”

The film made much of the fact that cancer and AIDS patients using medical marijuana for symptom relief (especially the nausea from chemotherapy) or even giving to other patients, even in states that have tried to legalize medical marijuana (California), are pursed by the fibbies.

At the same time, there is a large population of users easily enticed into substances that are so terribly destructive, like crystal methamphetamines, the disfiguring effects of which become so obvious in just a few months of use. The film showed the accumulation of heroin “balloons” on the streets of south central Los Angeles, as if they were snowflakes.

This is an unpleasant topic, and its tawdriness does not come across visually in the film (I think the film could have portrayed the physical effects on users more graphically).

One topic that it did not cover was employee drug testing (which blossomed as an industry in the 1980s – there are technologies like EMIT and gas chromatography), and the problems with false positives (caused by chemical confusion with legal substances, especially cold and allergy medications). There is also a problem that marijuana remains dissolved in fat cells and stays in the body much longer than many other, much more medically toxic illegal substances. There is a proliferation of websites that purport to tell people how to beat employer drug tests, and discuss the false-positive or “secondhand smoke exposure” problem that could appear from attendance at parties. I had to take such a test to get my last main IT job in 1990.

An earlier film on this problem was “Grass” (1999, Unapix and Lions Gate, directed by Ron Mann), with Woody Harrelson as narrator. I saw this at the University of Minnesota in that year. And there was the propaganda “Reefer Madness” (1936) which was spoofed by a musical film in 2005 on Showtime, directed by Andy Fickman.

Of course, don't forget 2007's "big film" about the war on drugs, Ridley Scott's 1970s saga, "American Gangster."

March 9, 2008

I am informed of this by a visitor who works in the corrections business:

"Wackenhut became "Wackenhut Corrections" and then "GEO Group" in 2003. It is the second largest for-profit prison corporation in the U.S., after CCA, but there is no connection between the two."

This was an email sent to me.

Note also, the following picture from Ron Paul 's campaign, near the Supreme Court building:

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Chicago 10: Brings back memories of my Army days, and what I didn't suspect then

On Tuesday, Aug. 26 1968 I was “enjoying” my draft-generated military service in khakis, with a safe job in the Pentagon with MOS 01E20 (“Mathematician”). I had finished Basic Combat Training in May, after getting recycled once through “Special Training Company,” tent city at Fort Jackson, SC. In fact, I recall one Thursday night, April 4, in April while still in STC (I would finally pass the PCPT five days later) that we assembled in the ramshackle wooden latrine (where you don’t call “Attention”) to clean up for “Red Alert.” They were really going to use troops from Basic as a “show of force” in downtown Columbia after the King assassination. There has already been fatal riots in Orangeburg. Well, they never did. Now, during the summer some of us privileged guys with graduate degrees would crack jokes in the office at the Pentagon, about lifers, about how military brass likes war and generates it for its own ends, and so on. I guess I had been overheard. When you combine that with my ongoing Top Secret Security clearance background investigation (and all my William and Mary stuff), and now a national controversy after just one day of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it should surprise no one that the lifer officers felt someone like me was not to be around all these sensitive numbers about deployments in combat, combat support, and combat service support in various specific areas of Vietnam.

I supposedly lived on Fort Myer South Post (white barracks near the cemetery), but my parents happened to live in North Arlington so I snuck away a lot. I was in the barracks the night that Senator Kennedy was assassinated in June. Later, I would set up a chess match there.

I got that call from a young “gay sounding” specialist in personnel, asking if I had heard the rumors about my transfer. He wouldn’t say where. Then, after Medium Cool time, I got another call, and then I heard from “The Colonel” (we had dug a ditch on bivouac, before night infiltration, “to catch a colonel”) that my slot was being “eliminated”. Maybe I could go to OSD. But pretty soon that rogue specialist called me and told me about my transfer to Fort Eustis.

I really didn’t appreciate the scope of the protests and police reaction in Chicago that last week of August. But I think military brass somehow connected me with it. I was lucky to be tucked away under the bed where I wouldn’t be cannon fodder. But I never did protest.

The movie “Chicago 10” (Roadside Attractions / Participant / River Road, dir. Brett Morgan, 99 min, R) shows the fall-to-winter 1969 trial of “the Chicago 8” (upped from 7) for conspiracy to stir up riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The number “10” comes from including the lawyers, who would eventually become defendants of contempt charges themselves. The trial scenes are in rotoscopic animation, in a style similar to that of “A Scanner Darkly”. The charges were trumped up and amounted to crossing state lines with conspiratorial thoughts. (As Randy Shilts wrote in “Conduct Unbecoming, “ “Thoughtcrimes.”) But the really compelling parts of the films are the events in Chicago, around Lincoln Park and various downtown areas, with real footage, a lot of it in black and white, with many clips of interviews of the real participants, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and David Dellinger. The tear gas clouds and riot assemblies right over the Chicago River bridges are quite striking. Even in 1968, Chicago was a gigantic city with many striking “modern” buildings. (In fact it was so decades before), and the real mood of the City then comes through.

The defendants would be acquitted in 1970, although some were convicted and jailed on other charges, including contempt, but these convictions were eventually overturned on appeal.

A couple of related films are, of course, "Medium Cool" (1969, Paramount, dir. Haskell Wexler, originally rated “X” or NC-17), and a film about a reporter’s ethics challenged at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, “This Revolution,” (2005) from Screen Media, dir. Stephen Marshall, where a journalist learns that his boss has secretly been “bought off” to turn over tapes of protesters to Homeland Security.

Roadside Attractions is a small distributor that emphasizes socially controversial films, both dramas and documentaries. Sometimes it works with LionsGate ("Right at your Door"). I love its guitar-music trademark and western-saloon corporate trade dress picture. The upcoming film "Teeth" sounds interesting. The company has a blog on blogger on which visitors can comment, here. "Sharpening teeth"? An irregular "noun." My goodness.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Banished" documentary shown on Howard University Television

The documentary “Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America” (2007, from Working Films and the Center for Investigative Reporting, dir. Marco Williams, 87 min) appeared in the AFI Silver documentary film festival in June 2007, and I missed it because of a scheduling conflict. Howard University television showed it in Washington DC tonight.

The documentary traces “purges” in three areas. The first is Forsyth County, Georgia, NE of Atlanta. I believe I flew over it in 1998 in the fall on a trip to Atlanta. The countryside is plateau-like, in the Appalachian foothills. The county is still said to be one of the "white-ist" in Georgia, and this seems to stem from a 1912 incident when African Americans were driven out of the county with violence. In succeeding generations their legal claims to their land were lost. The film shows a 1987 march where African Americans tried to return, and sometimes met Confederate flags. The film then traces the legal doctrine of “adverse possession” that is used to defend land titles today, and considers the question of reparations. I wondered if land title companies got involved.

The second portion dealt with Pierce City, MO, in the Ozarks, between Joplin and Springfield. There had been a “purge” in 1901. Aggressive newspaper reporting in 1991 and then recently uncovered the extent of the problem. I visited the area in 1983 when I lived in Dallas. African Americans had not been able to visit the graves of ancestors and some had been lost, and there were questions about exhumations.

The third portion dealt with Harrisonville, AK, in the Ozarks, east of Fayatteville. I believe I was in the area in 1981. The town presents itself as one of the country’s most desirable, filled with retirement communities offering a “four seasons climate.” There were “purges” in 1905 and 1909. The local churches were trying to achieve a climate of healing with ceremonies, services, and public foot washings.

The film should not be confused with the thriller film “Banished” directed by Omid Shabkhiz.

Related posting: CNN: Judgment in Jena, here.

The visitor should view the project for the film “American Lynching” at this site.

I assisted with a filming session in the Capitol on June 13, 2005 when the Senate passed a non-binding resolution apologizing for not doing more about lynching from the Civil War to the 1960s, with George Allen (R-VA), John Kerry (D-MA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and victim James Cameron. A clip that I took is here (also 1, 3, 4). The material in the film will deal with the same subject matter.

Visitors will want to check out "Rosewood" (1997, Warner Bros., dir. John Singleton) about the burning of an all black town in Florida in 1923.

Another related film is the PBS “American Experience” “Fatal Flood” about the 1927 Mississippi River flood and the treatment of African Americans displaced by Leroy Percy and son Will.

Also check out “Home of the Brave” (2004, HVE, dir. Paola di Florio, narrated by Stockard Channing) about the assassination of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo near the Selma, AL march in 1965. (No connection to an MGM film by the same name about returning veterans from Iraq.)