Friday, June 04, 2004

Trust etc.

I saw "Trust" last night over on theater row. Now, I said when starting this thing off I wasn't going to do theater reviews, and it pains me when I see a show and can't, you know, give you my full impressions of it. But I don't do theater reviews for a few reasons: first, it's a professional thing. This is a public website, and I'm an aspiring theater DIRECTOR not theater CRITIC, and I don't really feel like making enemies (and friends) based on what I think and say about people's work. Second, I don't want to watch a play as a critic, I want to watch it as an artist.

So let me say this about "Trust" (full disclosure: I went to the same college as the director, and the light designer designed my last show): It's really quite good. The script is taught and intense, the acting is good (Except for the lead actor and actress- they give powerhouse performances) the directing is smooth and effective, it has (this will sound weird, but see the show and you'll know what I mean) easily the ballsiest, most risk taking set changes I've ever seen.

I'd describe the show more, but it's a thriller (that's all I'll say) so the discovery of the relationships between the characters is part of the fun. Listen hard when you go see it- the Irish accents are thick and the slang flows a mile a minute. "Trust" is one of the best pieces of realism I've seen in a long time, and definitely worth the price of admission.

On to other matters- George Tenet resigned yesterday, as you probably well know. The coverage of this has been *insane* so far, and I have nothing really to add. I would recommend reading's two pieces (here and herer) and Josh Marshall here. I know these are center lefties, and you may (like me) put yourself further down in the "looney" area of the spectrum, but their analysis is good (and there's a couple of great jokes in there to boot).

I think President Bush is in some real trouble. Both Marshall and Fred Kaplan point it out, Kaplan saying that the temple is about to fall down on Bush's head. Let's review: his administration has already been called criminal for its Medicare propaganda, which is probably the least of the crimes committed (including attempted bribery of a congressman) in pursuit of passing a bill no one likes, Bush is hiring a personal lawyer for the Valerie Plame affair (remember her?), he had to fire his CIA chief because either A: they couldn't hide his massive incompetance anymore or B: he makes a good, loyal fall guy for everyone else, the American public will almost certainly see through the whole "handover" charade and realize that if over a hundred thousand troops are still in the country, nothing's really changed. And then there's Abu Ghraib, WMD, the death toll, the 9/11 commission, etc. etc. and so forth. Things are not looking good for him.

So where's John Kerry? Now might just be the time to get ambitious and say "see, all of his ideas were wrong. Here's some new ones." This is what people mean by a positive alternative vision. Bush's Presidency is a failure from top to bottom. I wish Kerry would stop saying "here's my similar idea to Bush's, but I'm a different guy, so I'm gonna do it right this time" and get creative for once. It feels like Kerry is trying to redo the cabinets in a burning building.

That said, he's a much better choice than the current guy.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Critiquing the Critics

Terry Teachout’s “About Last Night” is one of the reasons why I became a blogger. I figured that if a theater reviewer could figure out a way to be a cultural critic using a blog and still exercise enough discretion to keep his job, I would probably be able to as a director as well. Also, I find his writing funny, illuminating, intelligent and challenging. Terry’s also a good deal more conservative than I am, at least in taste (Balanchine instead of Trisha Brown or Cunningham, Satchmo instead of ‘Trane, etc.) Recently, Teachout used the burning down of the Saatchi warehouse in Britain as an opportunity to reflect on what he wrote about the Saatchi show “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum. There are a few troubling assertions made in the article that I would like to challenge as vocally as possible.

“Sensation”, you may recall, was the show at the Brooklyn Museum that New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani took great umbrage toward. Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary”, a take off on medieval icon painting using elephant dung instead of gold leaf had him so upset that he threatened to cut the Brooklyn Museum's public funding if they didn't close the show. The other artist to get enormous press off the show was Damien Hirst, who famously created sculptures using dismembered animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde.

Teachout hated the show. Of course he did, the show was bad. Most of the art in it was ridiculously smug and pompous and served little purpose other than to be…well… sensational. I liked more of it than he did, but that’s really beside the point.

What’s not beside the point is the following quote: “To be sure, most contemporary British art is boring, and has been for as long as I can remember. . . British novels and plays are still about class war, British composers are still trying to figure out minimalism, British choreographers are still into angst—and British artists . . . are still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous.” There are three ways to take this quote, and all three of them are troubling. The first is that he’s trying to be funny. I see no evidence to support that in the text, but perhaps he was. The second is that he’s trying to be provocative, in which case he is guilty of the same vice for which he faults the show. The third possibility is that he’s being serious, and that’s the most troubling of all.

The number of prominent English plays and novels that are not “still about class war” is astounding. (Were they ever about class warfare? I mean, they were about class, but rarely about class warfare) Novels: Graham Swift’s “Waterland” and “Last Orders”, Julian Barnes “History of the World in 10.5 Chapters”, the work of Jeanette Winterson (and she’s an avowed Marxist!), Kate Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Will Self, the list goes on and on. In fact, the only prominent English writer I can think of who writes almost exclusively about class is Martin Amis, and no one seems to take him seriously anymore.

Playwrights have even more distance from the topic: post “Mad Forest” Caryl Churchill isn’t about class, neither is the work of Tom Stoppard, Ben Elton, Harold Pinter, late period Martin Crimp or anything by the late Sarah Kane. Not to mention Peter Schaeffer or Alan Bennett. Is class inevitably in there somewhere? Sure, the Brits are conscious of their class system, and we’re (willfully) ignorant of ours. But none of these works or authors (all of them famous, at least in England) are about class warfare.

Moving on to music: I don’t really know much about British composers, but “classical” music is the wrong referent for “Sensation” anyway. “Sensation” was the art world moment of the “Cool Brittania” movement in the early to mid nineties. “Cool Brittania”’s representative music isn’t Benjamin Britten, it’s Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Massive Attack. “Sensation”’s artists are rock and roll artists (Hirst, for example, directed the video for Blur’s song “Country House”) just like Pop Artists in the states was better represented by The Velvet Underground and David Bowie than they were by their contemporaneous composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a manifesto. The point is this: Teachout is a cultural critic who displays (in this article) a disturbingly simple-minded view of culture. I’m pretty sure it’s a much narrower view than he actually possesses, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a cultural critic acts like an entire culture can be summed up and dismissed in a few short sentences. If this were about African or Arabian culture, everyone would get their panties in a bunch about racism.

Teachout also spends a great amount of time in the article defending Giuliani’s right to threaten to cut funding for the Brooklyn Museum because of their choice of art to show. A few salient quotes:
“you'd damned well better voice unequivocal agreement that the show must go on, Rudy or (preferably) no Rudy, if you want to keep getting asked to the right cocktail parties.

Me, I don't go to cocktail parties, and I also don't much care for the odious smugness displayed by the likes of Glenn Scott Wright, the London representative for Ofili, painter of "The Holy Virgin Mary," who claims that Giuliani's determination to shut the show down "is both totalitarian and fascist, a reprisal of the Nazi regime's censorship of the contemporary art of its time which it labeled 'degenerate art.' " I suppose it's possible that Ofili has been arrested by the New York branch of the Gestapo and shipped off to a prison camp on Staten Island, but if so, nobody told me about it…
(large edit)

The only people to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers, though the museum has more at stake and may be likelier to lose, the First Amendment not yet having been rewritten so as to stipulate that Congress shall make no law abridging the absolute right of taxpayer-subsidized museums to spend public monies in whatever way they see fit.”

Teachout is doing two things here. He’s chastising the Brooklyn Museum for staging a publicity stunt and calling it an art show. This is an important point to make if you think that’s what they’re doing. Charlatans and hucksters need to be exposed. The second thing he is doing is arguing that since it is legally permissible for the government to coerce a museum into changing what art it displays (or “censor” the art displayed) and since this particular show is displaying “bad art”, Giuliani’s efforts to crack down on questionable art should be greeted with a shrug, or maybe even encouragement.

In the NEA-4 case, the Supreme Court decided that Teachout is right about this. I happen to disagree with all of them, but leaving aside letter of the law for a second, let’s talk about spirit. Freedom of expression exists as a legal and social concept in order to protect expression we don’t like, not to protect expression we like. It is a concept borne out of restraining government’s ability to interfere with the ways we see and interact with the world, for this is art's most vital and important (and difficult job).

Giuliani specifically stated that he wanted to censor the Brooklyn Museum’s show because it offended his Catholic sensibilities. Teachout gives our mayor a pass because he doesn’t like the art that would be censored. I didn’t particularly like “Sensation” either; it was a record of a cultural moment that had already passed gussied up as something new and hip. I still support the right of the museum to display what they want, and that the government should not have the right to cut funding because they are disturbed by the art displayed. Otherwise, we are on the fabled slippery slope, sliding towards “official” art, forever perpetuating the status quo, never challenging ourselves, churning out boring semi-realist print after boring semi-realist print, unable to see the world in new and interesting ways.

As an artist, that’s a frightening thing for a critic to shrug his shoulders at.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Civil Liberties have a fighting chance!

go read

Abu Ghraib: finally finished

Part Three: Shouldn’t We Have Guessed?

Next time I decide to write a post in several parts, i'll just write the whole thing at once and post it serially. Sorry its taken me like two weeks to get this thing done, but its still important I feel so here is part three.

For the introduction click here
For part one click here
For part two click here

The third way Abu Ghraib affects us is actually two ways in one. We are simultaneously hit with outrage (“What the hell is going on?! How could we have done this?!”) and a sense that we should’ve seen this coming. We gave the government carte blanche to set human rights policy, it in turn gave soldiers carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted (or “deemed necessary”) to soften up mainly innocent people for interrogation in order to extract information they didn’t have.

The question remains: why didn’t we see it coming? Or, to rephrase, why did we trust the government?

I am not some conspiracy theory spouting street preacher, or Lone Gunman wandering around seeking evidence of government ill will, nor am I part of the International ANSWER end of the left, where the American Government is the Great Satan attempting to spread its pernitious imperialistic influence wherever it goes. The fact still remains, however, that democracy requires of us that we be always skeptical and investigative of our government, and we have failed miserably at that as a nation.

Besides lofty political-theory reasons, we also should not have trusted our government because of history. History, especially the twentieth century, has shown us that governments are not to be trusted. Just to name a few examples from the US involvement in twentieth century politics: Japanese Internment, the overthrowing of Salvador Allende in Chile and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Watergate, both Red Scares, Jim Crow and Iran-Contra. All of these were done under cover of protecting us (or our “interests” those shadowy, never articulated reasons why the government does things). Judging from this list (and this leaves off other countries’ actions like Apartheid, the Holocaust etc.) there’s no reason why you would ever listen to someone in power when they say “trust us, we’ve got everything under control”.

But we did. We all did. Our elected representatives failed us, and we failed to hold them accountable (is anyone going to pay for voting for the Patriot Act in November? I doubt it). Colin Powell told us that we are observing “the spirit” of the Geneva Conventions if not the letter and we said, “oh, of course, the spirit. That makes sense.”

In effect, we turned a blind eye towards history. These United States are often singled out for how we have unshackled ourselves from the bonds of history, or at least slipped loose the coil of knowledge of history. Some people (especially neo cons) seem to think that’s what makes this country great. We are unburdened by our history and thus able to Dream Big. For some people (especially socialists and people from very old countries) it is what gives this country its dominating, debilitating ego. By ignoring history, we are lost, trying out ideas with no referent to guide us, navigating by dead reckoning, without even Polaris or some sense of humility to guide us.

I’m going to posit here that we did this willfully, if not necessarily knowingly. In the wake of 9/11, we wanted our government to be able to do whatever they wanted so long as we didn’t have to be confronted with what was really going on. We did this because we thought it would make us safer, and as long as we didn’t have to be confronted with the hypocrisy of drastically compromising liberty in order to defend it, we were okay.

This poses two problems, a factual one and a moral/ethical one. The first one is whether or not this actually made us safer in any way. According to the government, some amount of torture has yielded some amount of useful intelligence. Any safety created by this has however almost certainly been destroyed by the widespread knowledge that we torture people. This knowledge was created in part by these photographs, and it is only going to get worse. Indeed, the story of how Abu Ghraib went down seems to get worse every forty eight hours (the fact that “specialists” from Gitmo were at Abu Ghraib, for example, has all sorts of frightening implications). As more information comes out, we will get noticeably less and less safe. Retribution will be sought, and ranks of killers will swell.

The second problem is the moral/ethical one. Is it okay to torture people, ever, for whatever reason? My personal opinion is no, at least of a physical kind. Psychologically, I don’t really know where I stand, because the line between interrogation and psychological torture is almost nonexistent. Physical torture is not acceptable in my book, but it is in some. The “ticking time bomb” example is often used to justify torture. There is a terrorist. You know there is a bomb going to go off. You know that the terrorist has knowledge about the bomb. He’s in your custody, do you torture him? The “ticking time bomb” theory, however, is hard to take seriously if you think about all of the criteria that have to be met. You know this man has knowledge, you know a bomb is going to go off, but yet you don’t know where it is. Outside of “24”, the odds of this happening are staggeringly low. This example is used in order to make a case for torture and start us down the slippery slope. Once you say “okay” to this torture, why not say that every Arab in Iraq knows someone who is an insurgent (we think) so why not torture as many as possible to get information?

We have a government that is rounding up people and putting them into camps. Most of them almost certainly fought against our country. Most of them (at least the ones who have been there for awhile) almost certainly have no more information to give us. We can guess from Abu Ghraib and what has come out since that the people in those camps are being tortured.

We have turned a blind eye to this ever since September 11th, and that’s not all. We’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that we have almost certainly killed more civilians in our two wars that died in the World Trade Center. We’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that our government never had a public reason for declaring war, that our opposition party totally and completely failed in its duty to the American public, that the man running for President for the Democrats was part of that massive failure. We’re turned a blind eye to the fact that, in Israel, we arm one side of the conflict while telling everyone we’re an honest broker. We turn a blind eye to the very idea that these people we’re killing are human beings. And finally, we’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that in a representative democracy, we are responsible for what our leaders do.
Abu Ghraib startles us because we have discovered that torturing people isn’t exactly kosher with us. We thought we could stand it so long as we didn’t have to hear about it, but now that we can see it, a bit of our humanity has crept back in, and it is scolding us for allowing this to happen. This, above all else, gives me hope. We live in the wealthiest society in the history of the world, and we have systemically eliminated as much humanism from our government and social spheres as we thought we could abide. It is throwing our society into crisis on all sorts of levels. Abu Ghraib is a psychological crisis. Americans are capable of this. They were almost certainly ordered to do it. This is the true face of war. We allowed it to happen.

In the face of disasters like Abu Ghraib, our obesity epidemic, a mendacious President, our murder rates, our child poverty rate, our incarceration rates, the price of good health care, and the brave men and women of our armed forces being picked off by insurgents all over a foreign land, only a bold change towards a new humanism in government offers and kind of lasting solution. Hopefully we can heed the call to make it come about, since our elected “leaders” certainly don’t seem to have any problems with business as usual.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Do they read their own paper?

William Safire has (yet another) ridiculous op-ed piece in today's Times that is more than contradicted by his own newspaper's reporting. You'd think the editors would pull the column to save their writer some face, but I guess not.

Safire: "Have you read the encouraging headlines from Iraq? "Monthly U.S. Combat Deaths Down by Half in May" is one. "Radical Shiite Cleric's Militia Decimated in Holy Cities" is another, and finally: "Iraqi Leaders, Defying U.S. and U.N. Dictates, Choose Prime Minister."

No, those were not headlines anybody could see. In Gloomy Gus newsrooms, good news is no news. And as Handover Day arrives in a month, casualties may well rise, the semi-truce with al-Sadr's force in Najaf may break down ("decimated" means reduced by 10 percent), and — most likely — political bickering may break into the open in the selection of an Iraqi sovereign transition government. But consider the possibility, for a change, that on our Memorial Day, we have cause for cautious optimism."

Headline in today's Times website: "2 U.S. Soldiers Killed as Truce in 2 Iraqi Cities Unravels"

From Safire again: "But the naysayers were astounded, along with the U.N.'s Lakhdar Brahimi and the White House's Robert Blackwill, when Iraqi leaders started acting last week like Iraqi leaders. No thanks, they said to the U.N.-U.S. notion of an interim government of toothless technocrats, and rejected Brahimi's choice for the top slot. Like real politicians, they cut a few deals and chose one of their own — a secular Shiite, not an Islamist or a Sunni or a Kurd — to be prime minister."

He follows this quote up with detailed (and head spinning) meaningless blather about how he thinks it all went down. But that doesn't really matter, when you could just read the Times this morning and get this: "One person conversant with the negotiations said Mr. Brahimi was presented with 'a fait accompli' after President Bush's envoy to Iraq, Robert D. Blackwill, 'railroaded' the Governing Council into coalescing around [Allawi]."

Why is Safire considered seriously in public debate in this country? Why does the Times still employ him? Why is his commentary considered anything but outright lies?

Quote of the Week!

In honor of Memorial Day, I felt it was important to put in an anti-war quote, so here we go, it's from Wilfred Owen (again), only this time, it's a whole poem:

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Some thoughts instead of a review

Last night Mary and I went to see "The Day After Tomorrow" the new Roland Emmerich-helmed disaster flick about massive sudden global climate change. I was originally going to write a review of it, but since you can read those pretty much anywhere, I thought I would offer instead a few reflections that I had whilst watching and talking about the movie.

.5) "The Day After" is a much much better title than "The Day After Tomorrow".

1) We need a new definition of "indie film" or perhaps we need to scrap the category all together. What does it mean, precisely? Does it mean "not made by a big studio"? If so, then "Attack of the Clones" is an indie movie. Does it mean "executed with creative control by the director"? If so, then "The Day After Tomorrow" is an indie film par excellance, it's co-written, co-produced and directed by one man who has a relentlessly single minded focus on a specific type of movie. But it is clearly not what we mean when we say "indie" film. So what does the term mean?

2) The film is shockingly not-bad. That doesn't necessarily mean that it is good. It is a ridiculous cgi fest filled with cardboard cutout characters, clunky dialogue and one particularly laughable section involving wolves so poorly animated they look like they came out of "Clash of the Titans". That being said, as a retread of the 70's disaster flick, the film is tense, hopeful fun.

3) Having lived through a disaster movie two and a half years ago, let me offer some tips to the Emmerich and the rest of his staff: after witnessing something horrible (like a tital wave hit midtown Manhattan) and surviving/escaping it, the next scene between you and your friends would be one of shell shock, not comaraderie and tactical plannning. I remember September 11th, I remember sitting in someone's apartment, someone who I didn't even know that well but fuck it we went to college together and I had her phone number on me somewhere, and staring at the TV, unable to even cry as the BBC played shot after shot after shot of the plane. Talking was pretty much pointless. Someone would crack a joke every now and then and someone would distantly giggle. This is the horror of experience horror, the fact that for awhile it kills you even if you are actually still alive. And then the guilt sets in. Also, when survivors of tragedy find out there are other survivors, they would most likely WEEP, not SMILE KNOWINGLY because everythings gonna be okay.

4) The movie is beautiful. Except for the aforementioned terrible CGI shots, the movie is gorgeous.

5) The left-wing-isses-checklist that the movie runs down is HILARIOUS. There's global climate change, immigration, homelessness, pollution, human kindness and empathy, weak Presidents paired with domineering VPs etc. It's great. If you're a registered Democrat, you'll probably get a big knowing kick out of the film.

6) A far more interesting version of this movie would have been the following: The action takes place after the global climate change has already occured. Everyone knows that NYC freezes over because we've seen the ads. So anyway, we focus on the absentee father character, Jack (played by Dennis Quaid), as he ventures from Washington D.C. to NYC to find his son. That way we get as many shots of white-hued destruction as possible (because this is what is best about this movie especially a lake of frozen corpses straight out of Dante's "Inferno") and you can have all the Jack London style survivalist kicks anyone could ever want. Anyway, so we follow Jack and his party as they make their way North, not knowing what they will find. As he travels (in largely dialogue free "The Fast Runner" like segments) we cut with flashbacks where we learn how we got there. In the end, he doesn't find his son (who we learn is alive, but simply unfindable) and instead helps some people form a new society. Or something. I haven't figured out the ending, but the sea-of-white existential quest to find someone almost certainly dead would be more suspenseful, artful and interesting.

7) Keifer Sutherland used to be the low-rent Dennis Quaid. Since the start of "24", Dennis Quaid has become the low-rent Keifer Sutherland. I think soon it's gonna switch back again, but I'm not sure.

8) To answer the questions posed by the gang of 9 incredibly noisy teenagers sitting right behind me in no particular order: That was not Tobey Maguire, that was Jake Gyllenhall, although they do look a lot alike. Also, that was not the girl from "The Princess Diaries" that Jake Gyllenhall was in love with. That actres is Anne Hathaway, whereas Emily Rossum is in "The Day After Tomorrow". You may have seen her in "Mystic River" then again, probably not. Also, I don't know if the movie could reall happen, to tell you the truth, although I'm going to talk with my father about it (he's a scientist who knows a lot about this kind of thing). I think it could probably happen, just no where near that quickly. Also, that black guy hanging out with Ian Holm in Northern Scotland was most decidedly not the black kid from Parenthood, who's father, to answer another one of your questions, was played by Tom Hulce. None of the actors in this movie were in Harry Potter.

9) To answer some questions not posed by the gang of 9 sitting behind me: Yes, breathing on someone's neck bothers them, but not as much as screaming in their ear. No, you are not supposed to talk on your cell phone during a movie. Yes, you almost certainly ruined the movie going experience of everyone sitting anywhere near by you. No, "I'll write you letters" is a terrible pick up line. Yes, I will call the manager the next time I'm sitting anywhere near you.