Sep 28, 2009

Polanski's Cul de Sac

And I don't mean his fabulous movie, but his legal travails in the US. A very informative and fascinating documentary about his case was at the Quad last year. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, provides a sympathetic look at what actually transpired when Polanski was accused of raping a 13 year old girl and furnishing her with drugs, among other sensational things that apparently did all happen. The problem was his celebrity and a narcissistic judge who tried to exploit his case to make himself a star. That was the real reason why Polanski skipped town, never to come back to the US.
Because his wife had been gruesomely murdered by the Manson family, because he had directed Rosemary's Baby, and because he led an unapologetically fast life, even after the murder of Sharon Tate, the press in this country was extremely biased against him. Terrible, silly things were said and written about him; that he consorted with the devil, that he summoned bad luck, that he killed his own wife, (things that have a whiff of the old antisemitic blood libel in them).
Well, I have my own bias. I adore him and I adore his movies (like the French, who made him a Chevalier of Arts and Letters).
The movie intimates, without saying it in so many words, that the press disliked him intensely because he was a short Jew with a weird accent, talent, fame and fortune. I think it is also because he was defiant. The kind of things that undid him in the public eye were his appetite for partying and his penchant for young girls. He refused to act according to the media's idea of good behavior, and in turn he gave them fodder to sell a lot of papers.
Now, having sex with a 13 year old girl is very wrong, no matter how much of a film genius you are. However, as is usual in actual reality (a construct that the media in this country, and much of its adult population, refuse to acknowledge), reality can be murky.
Yes, Polanski exploited this girl. But this girl was exploited by her own mother, a wannabe actress who brought her daughter along to crazy Hollywood hippie parties and who allowed her to go unchaperoned with the notorious Polanski to a photo shoot. Who in their right mind, right? But the mind is not usually right in the blinding presence of fame and fortune. The victim is interviewed in the film, and she basically just obfuscates. She doesn't say much, but her attitude does. I guess for some legal reason that goes unexplained, and that requires explanation, some of the her testimony is not shown while other is. This is problematic. But perhaps that's the deal she struck to appear on camera.
Still, it seems from her demeanor that the sex was not entirely non-consensual, that at her tender age she knew what a quaalude was from first hand experience and agreed to take one. Today, she doesn't act like a self-righteous victim. She seems to be more of a victim of the scandal that was unleashed around her, than a victim of the rape. Years later, we learn she settled a civil suit against Polanski and she publicly pardoned him. Hmmm...
Now, what happened after their tryst that led her to sic the cops on him? Did she get scared and come crying to Mom, or did Mom pick her up and saw her intoxicated and could tell what went on and decided to press charges? This we don't know from the movie. The woman refuses to blame her mom or herself. It's understandable, but there is a whole chunk of essential information missing in her account. It is the part of personal responsibility that is awol. And this is not blaming the victim, but maybe they would think of acknowledging at least that they made a mistake in trusting him.
As for the appalling antics of the judge in the case, same thing. He was blinded by the potential exposure, by the floodlights of fame. He loved handling celebrity cases and he asked to be given this case. There are revelations of shocking judicial misconduct in the film. It is also not explained why the lawyers for the defense and the prosecutor at first agreed to accommodate the judge's illegal demands. I wonder if today they wouldn't immediately scream for his removal. Still, Polanski was lucky he got himself a fantastic lawyer, not in the ultra-tanned Hollywood celebrity mold, but a straight arrow, and also that the prosecutor was not one of those power hungry guys that use cases like this to advance their careers. He was also decent and competent, it seems, and between him and Polanski's lawyer, they ended up protecting him from the judge's abuses.
The whole thing is endlessly fascinating, legally, morally, humanly.

Sep 24, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore can get on one's last nerve with his shtick but I am always very grateful for his indestructible outrage.  
Capitalism: A Love Story is more genuinely moving and less smartass than some of his other films. It's both funny and heartwrenching.
He seems to have matured. In one of his better pranks he surrounds the offices of the major Wall Street culprits with crime scene tape. It feels like performance art, and it speaks volumes.
The film is a passionate indictment of capitalism. It's major premise is that capitalism is evil. As far as I'm concerned, I'm glad to have him: he is about the only relatively mainstream entertainer with these pinko-reddish ideas. And he's found a unique way to express outrage much more effectively than with bleeding heart solemnity. If we can have vermin like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, we should certainly have room for the likes of Michael Moore. Unfortunately, he is not as popular as they are.
I'm not so sure that capitalism is Evil (historical experiments with other isms have not been very encouraging). But I'm absolutely certain that capitalism, in the unfettered, ruthless way it is practiced in this country is sick, evil and depraved.
Moore gives several jawdropping examples of this free market depravity: blue chip employers (you'd be astonished at the list) that take out life insurance policies on their employees, without their knowledge, and make a profit when the employees die.
How can this possibly be legal?
To this day, it is beyond my comprehension why the government has allowed the banks to foreclose millions of homes instead of forcing them to renegotiate mortgages with their customers. Entire communities, even cities, have been so decimated by greed, they actually look like war zones (see the excellent documentary American Casino. Your stomach will turn). One wonders, where are all those people going? What jobs are they going to find? Where are they going to live? 
An amazing figure emerges in Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur from Ohio, who in a speech to Congress urges foreclosed people not to leave their homes. Since the banks sold their debt to someone else, they have no right to take their homes away from them. After Henry Paulson and the Democratic majority make a backroom deal to award the bailout despite enormous public opposition, she tells Moore that neither the elected politicians nor the people have any control over the country.
She should be the next Democratic Presidential candidate, or start training for that.
Now, I am not so sure that the bailout was a bad thing (we liberals have to be pragmatists, otherwise we're toast). It was an unpopular measure that needed to happen to restore so-called confidence in the markets. But is not acceptable that there were no strings attached. That money should have come with stringent regulation.
Except for Roger & Me, Capitalism: A Love Story, is Moore's most personal film. Moore is the son of a GM factory worker, proud union member, who worked at GM for over 40 years and was able to give his family a perfectly solid middle class life because in those days unions were powerful and there was regulation. In a moving scene, he and his dad go to see the place where his dad used to work for 33 years; it is now a heap of rubble. GM destroyed the unions, laid off thousands of workers and still declared bankruptcy.
The Moores are also Irish Catholics, and members of a liberal Catholic community that, quite uniquely in this country (cf. the Kennedys), identifies for the most part with the downtrodden, not with the wealthy. Moore has two American priests and a bishop say that capitalism is Evil. I find it fascinating that he picks a fight with the Protestant/religious right and decides to skim over it. In the end, this is the crazy pendulum from which this country oscillates like a yo-yo, if you forgive the metaphor. We are caught between the impulse to guarantee a good life for all (F.D.R., Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, M.L.K, the Jesus who says "blessed are the poor"); or you are on your own (Reagan, The Bushes, the post-Reagan Democrats, a distorted Jesus that feels contempt for the weak). Worst of all, we can't seem to come to a happy middle without falling into hysterics, as the healthcare debate amply demonstrates.
Moore is a masterful manipulator and exaggerator, but his films would be even more powerful if he was a little less facile and dug a little deeper. It doesn't take that much to make the connections, but he suffers from glibness, and this is his Achilles heel.
For instance: he shows the magic moment when America learned that Barack Obama was elected. He claims the rise of Obama is a sign that the poor have finally had it with the rich. He also says that Goldman Sachs was Obama's biggest campaign contributor, and shows who is in charge of the Treasury now (all Goldman Sachs alumni) yet he squanders the opportunity to connect the dots.
Moore makes a point of showing pockets of change that are feasible. As a good lefty, he gets all teary eyed at the sight of factory workers in Chicago resisting their layoffs by staging a successful sit-in and forcing Bank of America to pay their outstanding salaries. He shows a robotics factory and a bakery that operate as cooperatives, with equal employee ownership. He tries to show that "socialism" isn't so bad. But his terminology is confused. He claims that the alternative to capitalism is democracy. This is not right. Democracy is a political system; capitalism is an economic system. The alternative to capitalism should be a social democracy, where government is strong, taxes are high, the government provides equal rights and basic services to its citizens, but they are still free to choose whether they want Froot Loops or Frosties for breakfast. As the Magnificent Arepa says, there's no real choice nor freedom when you are hungry.
Moore ends the film with footage of F.D.R. giving a speech to the nation in which he proposes a Second Bill of Rights that includes far reaching protections for all Americans. By invoking F.D.R, who led America through the Great Depression and a champion of social works, Moore is telling Obama what his model should be and where the opportunity is to turn this country around toward its original noble intent.
Sadly, it doesn't look like it's gonna happen.

Sep 13, 2009

The September Issue

This is an extended commercial for Vogue, obviously done with the cooperation of Anna Wintour and the magazine. Even so, it was more interesting than I thought it would be, but not as interesting as it could have been. It's a puff piece.
However, I am grateful I was able to see Grace Coddington, the creative director, at work. She is brilliant and funny and long suffering, like all good creatives.
It's the same old story. Business vs. Creativity. Anna Wintour is very good at what she does, which is selling fashion to the masses and pages to her advertisers. And Grace Coddington is an amazing artist who does otherworldly fashion spreads that sometimes get killed by the Ice Queen, basically because they are too arty, or edgy, or moody. It's fun to see how they quietly, Britishly, butt heads. And it's inspiring to see that when Coddington is not around to direct the shoots, the result is ugly, mediocre and uninteresting. You can see her artistry and her eye and she is my new role model.
The film starts with Wintour saying that people (the commoners, the ugly masses, you and I) are afraid of fashion; they feel resentful, excluded and intimidated. Well, I'm not afraid of fashion but I am horrified by the prices. Most readers of Vogue could not afford half a designer gatke. I'm not saying that good clothes should be cheap, but some of the prices are capricious, inflated and obscene. Vogue makes us feel rejected, because we could never be so rich and so thin. So screw you, Miss Wintour.
It's a cynical industry. Who can afford the beautiful stuff? No one but heiresses. The rest of us are stuck with the sunglasses and the perfumes and the stupid bags that ruin your back.
The other issue that keeps people away (including Wintour's daughter Bee, as she herself says in the film) is the ridiculousness of the industry. They behave as if they had any relevance. As if any decision about a fringe or a ruffle is a crisis of international proportions. I once heard the exuberant André Leon Tally say "Fashion is hope". This is the kind of asinine pronouncement that gives the fashion world a bad name. I love the clothes, and I admire the artistry, but I hate the hype.
I've always disliked American Vogue. It's like watching porn. You get some sort of thrill at first and then you feel empty and slightly sullied and diminished by the whole experience (should I speak for myself?). My problem with Vogue is that it's boring and conventional. I hate the layout, which seems like it comes from the 80s, and is cluttered and inelegant. I don't particularly love the European editions which suffer from too much pretentiousness. At least in American Vogue you can see the clothes. But it feels like a fancy Sears catalog; bland, boring, unexciting; André Leon Tally notwithstanding.
I don't know why they bother with writers. The film never even concerns itself with any of the writing in the magazine. All it shows is the fashion. Understandably, because what could be more boring than showing wordsmiths at work, but then perhaps the magazine should do the same. Stop pretending they have something of substance to offer and just do the fashion.
Next, I have huge issues with the starvation policies of fashion. I think most of the women who work at Vogue could have a better working environment if they ate something. Most of them look like they are pinched with hunger (particularly Her Iciness). Not to mention the sacks of bones that pass for models these days. It is an ideal of beauty that is unsustainable, dangerous and horribly punishing. The "documentary" does not touch on any of this. It does show an impossibly thin model sinking her teeth into a French pastry after a shoot, and perhaps watching her ravenous, guilty pleasure is all you need to know about the issue.
Another thing I noticed was that absolutely everyone in that particular September issue was white. In one scene, Wintour looks at all her September books and she finds only one where she put a "controversial" Black woman on the cover.  Yes, they've had Salma Hayek, and once in a blue moon perhaps a woman "of color". But it is not right.
I'm afraid that we are going to be seeing more of this kind of infotainment that is cleverly marketed as film and is in fact an extended commercial for a brand, particularly in documentary format.
Viewers: exercise your judgement and beware.

Sep 8, 2009


Poor Oliver Stone and his paean to lefty Latin American governments, his new film South of the Border. The Venezuelans who oppose Chavez are furious with Stone for rendering Chavez as a hero (which he is, let me remind you, mostly to those who happen to be piss poor, which happen to be the majority of people in Venezuela). The Chavez haters claim Stone got paid for making this piece of commie agitprop. I don't think he was paid. He has always been sympathetic to lefty causes in Latin America (remember Salvador?). His entire career is a provocation against American power and influence: Wall Street, Salvador, Born on the fourth of July, Platoon, JFK... Didn't he shoot a glowing documentary about Fidel a few years back, which by the way, no one ever saw stateside? With all due respect, people who don't like Chavez and Evo and Lula, etc, should understand that if these lefties are in power, 1) this is a direct consequence of benighted American foreign policy in the region. And 2) Stone is not being paid or coerced or brainwashed. He is entitled to his sympathies, whether one thinks they are misguided or not.

Sep 5, 2009

American Casino

I feel like getting a dvd of this documentary on the mortgage crisis and delivering it myself to President Obama. Perhaps this will convince him that bailing out the banks needs to come together with stringent regulation. 
After watching this movie, which explains quite cogently what the credit default swaps were and all those toxic instruments, I also vowed never ever to get into a mortgage.  If I want it, whatever it is, I will pay for it in cash. For I am not about to give one red cent to the industry that destroyed the global economy and the lives of millions of Americans, and continues to behave in the most disgusting way. There is no difference between the banks and lenders and Bernard Madoff.  The subprime lending crisis is nothing but a massive scam. A massive white collar crime.
I don't understand why there aren't any more judges out there like this guy in Brooklyn who has been denying banks the right to foreclose. Just as the government stepped in to bail these motherfuckers out, it should step in to stop foreclosures. The banks cannot repossess the homes, since they did not act in good faith to begin with. The banks should be forced to renegotiate the debts to help people keep their homes. Why is this not happening? Why are we helping the criminals instead of aiding their victims?
This documentary shows that some lenders like Wells Fargo deliberately targeted subprime loans to minorities, effectively converting certain incipient middle class neighborhoods into blighted areas, destroying the social and economic fabric of entire communities. It shows personal stories that make you want to tear your hair out in despair.
Alan Greenspan should be hung by the balls. And so should Henry Paulson. And so should Senator "Nation of Whiners" Phil Gramm. He should be executed.
But we Americans are a sorry bunch of losers who allow these criminals to roam the Earth unscathed. As long as we let this happen, we deserve everything that's coming to us. Land of the free, home of the SUCKERS!
My only consolation is to hope that some of those greedy bastards lost a lot of money. They should be forced to watch this movie to see what they did to honest, hardworking people who suddenly could not afford their monthly payments, not out of irresponsibility, as some would have us believe, but because they were lied to and there was no way they could understand what exactly they were signing.
Everybody should see this movie.
We were under the impression that this is a decent country with high moral standards. This is not the case. This is a vile and corrupt cesspool which is no better, even though it likes to feel superior to, than any classically corrupt third world country. Here the corruption is embedded in the system. The lack of regulation of the past 8 years just made it a free for all. And it doesn't seem like the current administration is in any hurry to really lay down the law with the banking and insurance industries.
It's revolting. 
And, as I am looking to link the Brooklyn judge this is what I find: Wall Street now wants to securitize life insurance policies and sell them to investors as bonds.
Please, check this out and tell me you don't want to tear your hair out. 
Man, a whole new 9 circles of hell should be devised for these people. The one we have is simply not roomy enough.

Sep 1, 2009

Theology 101

I have decided that movies are my religion. I worship at the altar of film. This religion, I've decided, is called Kinoism. It has a nice ring to it.

Movies give me solace, inspiration and insight; wonder, terror and awe.
Like in any religion, one has to be careful where one worships, but I see no difference from what I get from the movies to what I would get from a temple.
Actually, I do see the difference: with the movies, I get the spiritual nourishment I need and then some, whereas I picked a fight with regular religion since I first had use of reason and to this day I just don't buy it.
Plus, with Kinoism you get popcorn (our version of manna).
So here's the Theology of Kinoism for those who may want to worship with me (there are many of you already out there, you just don't know it):
• Kinoism is a pantheistic religion; not a monotheistic religion. It is pagan and definitely idolatrous, but nothing wrong with this. Beats arguing forever with the Main Bully.  Kinoism has many different gods, like ancient Greece, Egypt, Japan, Mexico.
• The Gods of Kinoism are the directors and writers, on occasion cinematographers, on occasion some outstanding actors (like Cary Grant or Gene Hackman or Anna Magnani or Mastroianni or Jeanne Moreau, Buster Keaton, Shirley Temple, etc.).
• You can worship different Gods of Kinoism for different reasons, seasons and needs. You can go to Buñuel, or Polanski or Kurosawa or Ozu or Hitchcock or Truffaut, or even Spielberg, when you need to. You can go to Billy Wilder, John Huston, Kubrick, Chaplin, Fellini, Lucrecia Martel... you get the idea.
• There are Demi-Gods, who are also a part of the Pantheon and can become Gods by their feats of wonder. Many of them are younger Gods, like the Coens or Spike Jonze or Kathryn Bigelow or whoever you choose.
• Unless they are Actor Gods (see above), the actors are the vessels through which the Gods communicate.  In the hierarchy of film adoration, actors take up plenty of worship. You can also adore production designers, composers, cinematographers, editors, foley artists, sound editors, costume designers, prop people, key grips. Some of them have the caliber of Gods, some of them are household idols, but this is a generous religion and you can worship them all. The more the merrier.
• As far as I'm concerned, this is the one instance where the concept of free will actually works in a logical framework, because it is unattached to a Creator that seems to operate on sheer whimsy.
You are free to choose who you worship, but be careful, because you can end up worshiping false idols. For instance, worship of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich will rob you of your soul. It's like believing in Jimmy Swaggart, or the Reverend Moon, or Joel Osteen, but hey, you worship at your own risk (just like regular religion).
As in true free will, you have to make some choices -- distinguish truth from cliché; good from evil: Miyazaki or Pixar? Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah?
• You don't have to like all the Gods. I much prefer Quetzalcóatl to Huitzilopochtli, like I much prefer Truffaut to Godard.  Some Gods (like Godard) are a pain in the ass.
• This is a dialectical religion. It thrives with passionate argument. Like in the Talmudic tradition, there is endless parsing to be enjoyed in Kinoism. You can parse scenes, angles, twists, the deliveries of lines of dialogue, turning points, dramatic ironies, establishing shots, etc. Feel free to go to town. It will only deepen your faith.
• As for the spiritual element of Kinoism, I have learned as much or more about human nature and life on Earth from movies than I have from the Bible (which is nothing but an epic movie before the invention of cinema). I will give you an example:

Yesterday I was stewing in anger the entire day. I was so furious, reason unimportant, that I had to get away from my own skin, it was so distracting. I decided to go to MoMa because Art is also a balm for harried souls. One look at some Art and I already felt better, but then I learned they were showing The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. I went in. Absolute rapture. RAPTURE.
But I was still angry.
Then I saw my friend Marta and we went to see Still Walking, a wonderful Japanese film. By the time this film was over, my anger had turned to forgiveness; indeed, it seemed petty and ridiculous, and I had been through a magnificent journey of discovery of the nooks and crannies of the human heart.
This never happened to me in Yom Kippur. Amen.

Gods of Cinema: Cary Grant

Boy, do we miss the likes of him. Nice assessment in the Times, due to the Cary Grant cycle about to begin at BAM Cinematek:
The character he created and then lived in for decades, a seemingly effortless production that was actually the result of years of practice and refinement and discipline, was an ideal of the ascendant American male (as observed by a young immigrant Cockney vaudevillian): urbane but athletic, absurdly handsome but self-effacing, a joker who could be a bit of a cad, even a little cruel, but would always do the right thing in the end. As (Pauline) Kael formulated it, he was the man women wanted and men wanted to be.

...none of those films would have been as charming or as satisfyingly adult, and none of the actresses as witty or desirable, without Grant’s presence. His in-on-the-joke sincerity, his not-quite-throwaway lines, the bits of physical business — the dancing way in which he kicks a door in “Holiday” or his graceful glide across the terrace as the gendarmes approach at the beginning of “To Catch a Thief” — serve less to glorify him than to flatter the intelligence of the women who can’t do without him.That might be the best reason to watch Grant today. Kael noted in 1975, during his lifetime, that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now. Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.
According to the indomitable miss Kael, he made a lot of clunkers. True. But many of the ones that aren't clunkers are not just good movies, but magnificent classics of romantic comedy. He had a long and quite dignified career.
Think about it:
Philadelphia Story
Bringing Up Baby
The Awful Truth
Arsenic and Old Lace
His Girl Friday
Sylvia Scarlett
My Favorite Wife
And these are the romantic comedies.

Once told by an interviewer, "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant," Grant is said to have replied, "So would I".