Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TFF Movie #6: Cropsey

The Documentary, Cropsey says it is about the exploration of an "urban legend" that comes true, but it is mostly a true-crime documentary about the cases of missing children on Staten Island in the 1980s and trials of Andre Rand, convicted in two kidnappings. The film conveyed the horror of these disappearances as well as the generally creepy atmosphere around the grounds of the old Willowbrook State School, where Rand used to work, and where he continued to camp out after it was closed down in 1983. It is also the grounds where the body of one of the missing children, Jennifer Schweiger, was finally found.
The film-makers worked very hard to track down people who knew Rand, and established a correspondence with him while he was in prison during his trial for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes, who like the other missing children from Staten island in the 1980s has never been found. However, they were never able to get an interview with Rand, so the film has to rely on comments by police, neighbors, and the defense attorneys. Their treatment of Rand is balanced, and they present a nuanced analysis of the atmosphere around the trial by comparing Rand to the urban legend of "Cropsey" and describing him as a "perfect scapegoat" for a community traumatized by horrible, unsolved disappearances of children. These disappearances are truly tragic and I felt so terrible for the Staten Island community while I was watching the film. I had never known about these cases before.
Another truly tragic story in the film is about the Willowbrook state school, which is the most convincing connection between Rand and the missing children. Many of the missing children were developmentally disabled and Willowbrook was a school for the "mentally retarded" with a truly scandalous history. According to police, when they showed Rand footage from Geraldo Rivera's 1972 expose of the school, he became very, very disturbed - his eyes rolled, he drooled, and he began rocking. Having been so traumatized by working in a school where children were left naked, lying on the floor in their own feces, Rand then continued to live on the grounds of the institution, which has an elaborate underground tunnel system, after it had closed.
While the film-makers interweave a discussion of growing up on Staten Island with the tales of the abandoned grounds and tunnels of Willowbrook, which they tramp through several times, I think the film might have been more interesting if they had done more with their own experiences as kids growing up in a town where children disappeared. People talk about Staten Island as a "dumping ground" in a general way in the film, but that aspect of the story could have been elaborated more. To me, the most surprising story in the film was told by a Black man from the island who was, along with about five others, taken on a "trip" in a van by a man and didn't know at the time that he was actually being "kidnapped"! Was there a connection to Rand? We don't know. Instead of delving further into how people felt as these news stories about disappearances came out, they investigate truly ridiculous claims by police that Rand was the Jim Jones of Staten Island, the leader of a secret Satanic cult lodged in the tunnels of Willowbrook. That's where I thought the film really took a wrong-turn - literally, going back to the same tunnels again, where by that point, the dark images of dirty walls and trash had ceased to have an impact. Even though the film-makers don't wind up agreeing with the cult allegations, they don't weave them into their own "urban legend" analysis, which remained too superficial.
A more successful treatment of the impact on a community in such a case is the novel about Atlanta's child murders by Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta, which had much greater psychological depth. Of course, novels and films are totally different media, but without an answer about Rand, or going into greater depth about the surrounding community, it just became repetitive. I wearied of seeing grafitti-ed walls, clips of television coverage of the murders, the trial, and the Willowbrook school, and of the inconclusive hunt for the truth about Rand. This was an interesting film, but I thought it was foiled by an overuse of the generic conventions of "true crime" so that it felt more like a TV special than a feature film.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TFF Movie #5: Defamation

I just returned from seeing Yoav Shamir's documentary about the political use of anti-Semitism, Defamation. Shamir sets out at the beginning to explore anti-Semitism because it always gets major headlines in the Israeli newspapers, but he says he has never himself experienced it. Shamir goes looking for anti-Semitic incidents, and doesn't find much - though he does hear some odd comments from people, but most of the film is about how the Anti-Defamation League inflames people's fears of anti-Semitism without much justification. He interviews several rabbis who have very interesting and surprising things to say about the ADL and general anxieties about anti-Semitism. His conclusion at the end of the film is that it is not "good for the Jews" to be so obsessed with the Holocaust.
I'm glad that Shamir made the film and I think it was good, in fact important. Shamir is generally empathic with his subjects, which gives the film a feeling of balance, and is also probably why people open up to him. In one particularly interesting section of the film, three Black residents in Crown Heights start talking to him about the value of the book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The best part of the film concerns the tour of Poland's death camps by a group of Israeli high school students who are warned by their guides that dangerous anti-Semites may try to break into their hotel rooms at night. He interviews several of the teens, and in one powerful moment, a girl says that even before the visit to the camps (which 30,000 Israeli teens now make every year), she was raised knowing that she is "hated" and that believing that makes her feel angry and feel hatred herself. "What is this doing to US?" Shamir said he wants the audience to think about. For that reason it's very thought provoking; I'd say it's a film that Jewish people really need to see.
The person who has done the most serious work on the exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust is Norman Finkelstein, whose book The Holocaust Industry, is a brilliant expose of the manipulation of the Holocaust for political and financial gain. Shoav includes Finkelstein in the film, but it is a pity that he did not spend as much time with Finkelstein as he did with ADL members, and that he did not do much to actually interview him about his research, or even show some clips from previous talks that Finkelstein has given, since Abe Foxman gets quite a bit of screen time. Because of his criticisms of Israel's foreign policy, Finkelstein lost his job as a professor at DePaul University two years ago.
Like the fellow who keeps this blog, I thought that the film was unkind to Finkelstein. It's interesting that he and I both reached for that word; I made that comment in the Q&A earlier tonight. While Shamir compares Finkelstein to a prophet, his editing makes the scholar seem unhinged; he says things that outside of context don't make sense. However, in the closing section of his interview, despite Shamir's somewhat dismissive framing, I thought he got the better of the film-maker. After he jokes that Abe Foxman is "worse than Hitler" (it's true that Finkelstein is a provocateur and his polemical style is part of the problem that he's had in academia), he goes into detail about the way that every politician in Israel calls every opponent Hitler. "Remember Rabin, before he was shot?" he asks Shamir. We do get a window into the source of Finkelstein's own abrasiveness, however. He says "At my house, it was always the food is worse than Auschwitz!" Since Finkelstein is known to be the child of Holocaust survivors, people have often engaged in a bit ofarmchair psychology about his passion about the issue.
It's also puzzling to me that Shamir was more sympathetic to Walt and Mearsheimer, of whom both Finkelstein and Chomsky were critical for their inflation of Jewish power over American foreign policy in the pages of the London Review of Books when their work originally was published some years ago.
I wonder if Shamir, who commented negatively about Finkelstein as not that original and kind of "crazy," will ultimately come to understand him better. Having made this film, Shamir too will certainly be called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust Denier. It's too bad that he couldn't acknowledge the contributions that Finkelstein has made to the study of the very subject that his film set out to explore.

Here's what the great historian, Raul Hilberg had to say when Finkelstein was denied tenure:

“ the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.”

The cost to Finkelstein has been obvious. I hope that the cost to Shamir will not be as great. His style is gentle, so he may get through to more people.

Monday, April 27, 2009

at the "City Island" Premiere

TFF Movie #4: City Island

During the Great Depression, Americans crammed movie theaters to see something known as the "screwball comedy" combining hilarity and glamor. If Raymond De Felitta's City Island is any indication of the kind of comedy our current depression will bring, we will at least be laughing on the weekends before we go back to our million-hour-a week-jobs. It's relatively early in his career, and it's high praise I know, but writer/director De Felitta may ultimately be compared to the great movie-comedy writers of that era: Preston Sturges and George s. Kaufman.
After reading the synopsis in the Tribeca Film Fest guide, I was a bit dubious. The film seemed to combine so many things: a teen-ager with a fat-fetish, a prison guard with a secret? I thought it would be weird and quirky, a sleeper. But no, this was the funniest movie I have seen in a very long time. The audience was howling for almost the entire film. What makes the film funny is not weird unlikely situations, but that it takes something we all understand to an extreme. The comedy of City Island stems from the fact that everyone in the family is lying about something, or as the previously linked official movie website puts it, "keeping a secret." The humor and the interactions in the film reminded me of Moonstruck, another Italian-American recession-era comedy from 1987. Both films could be compared to screwball comedies because of their madcap situations and characters, but instead of the glitzy parlor comedies of that era, both films center on working-class to middle-class Italian-American families and the humor erupts in big emotional exchanges rather than the "witty repartee" of the 1930s era films.
While there is much here that draws on 30s-style comedy, there are elements that mark this film as one specifically of its time. The main character in the movie, played beautifully by Andy Garcia, is a prison guard, and one of the other major characters in the film is an ex-con. The internet and social networking also feature hilariously in the plot. I won't say more. The film does not yet have a distributor, but I believe that it will get one. I also see this film as a serious candidate for Tribeca's audience award. We shall see....

Sunday, April 26, 2009

washington square park at 90 degrees in April

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back to my garden

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extreme close-up tulip

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in line for "Fear Me Not"

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TFF Movie #3: Fear Me Not

Last night I went to see Fear Me Not , a very suspenseful film by Dogme co-founder, Kristian Levring. I don't want to spoil it by saying too much here because the movie's best feature was its suspense. Not that much happens in the film and the pace is much slower than the trailer might lead you to believe. Afterward as my friends and I talked, we discovered that we all had terrible fantasies about what the main character was about to do for almost the entire movie. I was anxious for half an hour after the film ended, so if that's the mark of a good suspense film, I should have given it a "five" rating on my audience award ballot. If you want to see something elegantly made, disturbing and suspenseful, go see it.
However, while I thought the movie was incredibly well-made, I found the character's shift into "evil" - as the director put it in the Q&A - unconvincing, going too quickly from relatively "normal" thoughts into violent actions without any seeming underlying hostility, fear, or anxiety. The way that the violence was directed against women in particular didn't make psychological sense to me. The film-makers said that there was much of the film that was meant to be unknown to the audience, but I think that's a bit of a cop-out. As one rather dismissive young woman in the audience put it in the Q&A, "so this is basically a mean guy who likes doing nasty things to ladies?" The implied statement I believe was, in this genre, we've seen that film so many times that the standard has to be higher if we're going to give it props as an artistic statement.
Levring's debt to Hitchcock was clear in the movie's pacing and visual storytelling - both were superb. But the film-makers got the surface of Hitchcock without the depth. They were all too postmodern in their refusal to dig for the "truth" about this character. Hitchcock's films remain satisfying because we can identify elements of ourselves or people we know in the characters. Even his sometimes ham-handed 1950s pop-Freudianism gave his films a lasting impact that I don't think a self-consciously flat post-modern characterization of the "evil everyman" can achieve.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

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Double Tulips

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this year's tulips

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Tribeca Film Review #2 - The Swimsuit Issue

A friend of mine told me about her friend, Jane, who coached an all-male synchronized swim team in Sweden and that there was a film about them at this year's TFF called "Swimsuit Issue"
I had thought the film would be a documentary about this real team but it turned out to be a comedy based on their story in the vein of The Full Monty. (and in fact, the film-maker cites that film as an influence)
It was very crowd-pleasing and entertaining, and like the previous film, also made a somewhat serious point about men and their emotional boundaries. The guys in the film get the idea for their synchro team after holding a mock synchronized swimming party in drag for one of their friends. Following that, they begin to take themselves more seriously and want to practice, but claim that "reverse gender discrimination" is rampant in the sports world when the local pool denies them access.
The film doesn't stay with such a simple analysis. As the men are about to leave to begin competing for the first time, the female synchronized swimming coach tells one of the men on the team that they've gotten more publicity than she has in her entire career. Also, it becomes clear that homophobia, rather than "reverse sexism" is the reason behind the refusal of most people to take men's "synchro" seriously. If you look at youtube videos, you'll see that the majority of comments on men's synchro impugn the masculinity of the performers, and in the interview with the director linked above he says that men's homophobia (along with cold water) was the biggest challenge of making the film. The process of confronting homophobia among members of the team is one of the most interesting parts of this charming movie.

At the Q&A it became clear that the people involved were serious about promoting men's synchronized swimming - and they are not alone. There is real men's synchronized swimming and it is associated both with both Queer culture and non-athletes. If you look at the Youtube videos of men's synchro world cup competitions you'll see a certain campiness, which makes these swimmers entertaining. You may also notice that the people doing it are not quite as athletic as the women's teams.
However, if men could be accepted as synchronized swimming competitors, that could probably change.
The American male synchronized swimmer, Bill May, really camps it up, but he's very serious about this as a sport. He is currently performing in Las Vegas in a duet with a woman, and, according to the film-makers, is working hard on getting such "mixed doubles" into the Olympic Games. I agree with the mission. It would be great to see a queer-identified sport with openly gay men and queer-friendly decidedly un-macho straight guys reach a wider audience. As one commenter on the Swedish tv clip linked above commented, that really "conspires the objective of sports." (whatever that means).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca Film Fest 2009: "Here and There"

Last night, I went to my first Tribeca Film of the year, "Here and There,", a romantic comedy set in Belgrade and New York. It was the first time I had ever stood on the "rush ticket" line and I got in quite easily, though I did get to the theater more than hour before the film began.
The film was very good - a simple story told economically about a broke American musician who makes a deal with a Serbian immigrant to go to Belgrade, marry the man's girlfriend and then bring her back to the U.S. It was unusually graceful, I thought - music was part of the story and worked beautifully; the juxtaposition of events in New York and Belgrade was seamless; and the love-story was very touching. The minor characters were great - the nationalist Serbian cab-driver who hates America, the woman in the convenience store who wants to go to America, the guy who stood on the corner, the Puerto Rican mechanic. It was interesting to see a film that shows economic struggles that real people go through without being maudlin or didactic. Indeed, it was quite funny, and it made sense when the film-maker revealed that the idea for the movie came from his own experience as a "man with a van" (pronounced "wan" in the movie) running his own "moving company" to get by in NYC while he was studying at CUNY. (Yes, CUNY students and profs should all go see "Here and There" )
The film reminded me of Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise" because of its story of relatively ordinary events, its low-key humor, and its generally hip affect, so I wasn't surprised when I read this interview in which the director, Darko Lungulov cited Jarmusch as an influence.

There was a also a funny little comedy of errors at the screening last night, which showed the real-life amiability of the people who had made such an amiable film. I was sitting in the seats right behind those reserved for the film-maker and cast and because these are, of course, prime seats, people all came up and tried to sit in them. Most see the tape and the "reserved" labels and walk away. Eventually, an older Serbian woman ignored the "reserved" mark and sat in one of the aisle seats. She continued to sit their blithely as one theater manager after another tried to figure out where to put the very large crew (one from New York one from Belgrade) along with cast members (including Cyndi Lauper), given the small number of seats as more and more people came into the theater from the "rush" line. They evicted one group of people who had unwittingly taken the seats designated for the film's star and his friends, but left the older woman, who seemed not to understand what was going on. "Are you with the film-makers?" one usher asked her. I couldn't hear her response. Shortly before the film was scheduled to begin, it was discovered that the star's friends were stuck outside ("this is not cool!" he said to the usher) and the ushers started strategizing about what to do with the woman, who continued to ignore everything that was going on around her. The artistic director, sound editor and others all vacated the prime seats and went to sit by themselves in various parts of the theater, but still, the woman stayed. At this point I heard Cyndi Lauper ask the person sitting next to her, "Who's Mom is she?"
So, finally the woman, who was not a cast-member's mother after all, did move and the star's friends got their seats. I think they all enjoyed the film, as did I.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea-Baggers vs. Anti-War Protests, Numbers and Media Coverage

I was in a red-state gym the other day, forced to watch a cardio-workout's worth of teabagger coverage on Fox news. I couldn't help wondering, as I looked at the numbers cited why THIS was considered a "huge" and newsworthy event while anti-war protests of this same size, and even larger would be considered irrelevant. Especially when we consider that anti-war protesters have had to maintain stamina since 2002, they've been a much more impressive movement than the astro-turfing swell of the teabaggers.

Let's review:
October 26, 2002: 100,000 march on DC; 50,000 march in San Francisco

A few months later, on January 18, 2003, even more came out against the war in DC and more occurred in cities throughout the U.S. I marched in DC that day in 20 degree weather and talked to my Mom and step-mom, while both were at marches in other cities.

But it was February 15, 2003 that was the biggest of them all. In New York City, counts ranged from 300,000 to 1 million marchers against the war. I was at that one too. We could not get to the U.N. where the actual protest converged, but remained stuck on feeder marches up to ten blocks away, where there were taxi-cubs who could not move because of the massive number of people in the streets - so I'd say that 1 million is not an exaggeration.

At the RNC convention in NY, in 2004, according to police, 800,000 marched against both Bush and the war.

Since then, anti-war marches in various cities have numbered at least in the "tens of thousands."
The last really big anti-war march on Washington was the one in September 24, 2005 where Cindy Sheehan was a featured speaker, and which C-Span estimated at 500,000.

And even in April 2006, a year when anti-war protests were smaller (despite increasing opposition to the war judging from both polls and midterm election results), 300,000 people marched against the war in New York City.

By 2007, hundreds of thousands were STILL showing up to protest the war, and yet coverage in the mainstream media was almost non-existant.

While protest numbers may not have always hit the 500k mark (though they did at least three times - in cold weather- no less), they remained in the tens of thousands, and increased in regions across the U.S., while poll numbers told the story of growing public opposition to the war in Iraq.

So, now how do yesterday's tea-bagger protests stack up?
According to "FiveThirtyEight," the anti-tax protests yesterday hit 262,026 mostly based on rallies of about 1000 each in a number of Southern cities. That's not an un-significant number, but the overall total is much smaller than the cumulative numbers of anti-war protests for any given date of major mobilization since late 2002. These numbers were achieved with the help of beautiful spring weather, massive media coverage (and not just on Fox), and the advocacy of the Republican Party. In addition, they have spurred stories taking their potential political impact seriously, even by non-right wing outlets.
In contrast, the larger anti-war mobilizations which were organized independently of political party support, and in the midst of a significant divide within the anti-war movement itself, have been underplayed, routinely under-counted, and mocked by the mainstream media, even the so-called liberal media.
The NYT, MSNBC, WAPO, CBS, and CNN all covered the tea-parties and the criticisms of their own coverage much more extensively than they covered much larger, and much more significant anti-war protests or the anti-war protester critiques of mass-media coverage.

Once more, corporate media spins the day.