Thursday, November 04, 2004

No wonder he calls it a bleat ...

Uber-blogger James Lileks has been reading Victor Klemperer's diaries, an exercise I would heartily recommend to anyone. Klemperer was an eyewitness to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and reading his account of everyday life under fascism can remind us of the freedoms we take for granted.

Of course, some of us have been reminded in a far more unpleasant manner -- we'll get to that in a minute. Lileks writes:

But imagine if every day you were informed of something you could no longer do, even if you didn’t do it. At first you take comfort to things you can still do, but it soon becomes apparent that any liberties you still possess are ones they have not yet gotten around to confiscating. But take them they will. There is time, and there is the will, and there are so many of them and so very few of you.

I'm glad to know that Lileks can feel sympathy for people who lived so long ago and far away. But perhaps he would be interested to learn that Gay and Lesbian Virginians don't have to imagine the scenario at all. Last July, the "Marriage Affirmation Act" stripped us of our right to private contract, insisting that any legal arrangement that even vaguely resembles a marriage between two persons of the same sex, is automatically null and void in the Commonwealth. Ever since that awful day, we've looked at our politicians, always thinking, Surely these people are satisfied with what they've done to us, surely they'll get tired and quit, surely I won't have to move away from my home, surely things will get better .... Of course, our leaders are not satisfied; even now, Virginia's political elite is devising more restrictive laws against me, my friends and my neighbors. But we all should have seen this coming, shouldn't we? How could we not have seen it?

Every day in Virginia -- when we see people make living wills, adopt children, collect benefits for their partners -- Gays and Lesbians are informed of something we can no longer do, even if we didn't do it. We take comfort in the things we're still allowed to do, but it soon becomes apparent that the liberties we still possess are ones the anti-Gay bigots have not yet confiscated. Take them they will, though: There is time, and there is the will, and it seems as if there are so many of them, and so very few of us ....

Now that Gays and Lesbians in eleven other states have joined us beneath the iron heel of governmental oppression, Lileks maintains a decorous silence -- the same decorous silence, it seems, which allowed evil to triumph (if only temporarily) in Germany. I wonder if Klemperer would have appreciated the irony.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Alternate Realities: An Endorsement

A few weeks ago, I attended a costume party at which my host, dressed as a pirate, expounded on the virtues of John Kerry. "Because the media doesn't report on it, Americans don't know how much the world hates us right now," he said to a chorus of amens from the guests. "Kerry can help us with these countries, and make it so they don't hate us anymore." He added that Saddam Hussein may have been bad for his people, "but there were ways to get him out of power other than war." War, you see, involves killing people, which is bad. I suppose he would have preferred more sanctions, or perhaps we could have just reasoned with the guy.

My host spoke on domestic matters: The Bush administration -- and not the bursting of the tech bubble -- was responsible for America's economic decline and massive job losses. Kerry would raise taxes, but only on the wealthy (which I think would have included several guests at the party), to put the American economy and the budget back on track, while providing massive public support for health care and getting rid of all the Wal-Marts. I thought, No wonder the guy looks like a pirate.

Kerry's election, he finally claimed, "would lead to a New World Order," in which nations would be able to resolve all disputes through reason and international law. America would know its true place in the world, and respond to foreign threats with humility. We would do nothing without full international approval, which would in turn ensure that our military actions would be reasonable, not extreme.

I doubt Miss Manners would approve of a costume party where the host suddenly launched into a political tirade -- and for my part, I was biting my tongue so hard it bled. But once he was safely out of earshot I muttered, "In the New World Order, will we have flying cars too?" (Another guest overheard the quip and giggled into her collar: "Yeah, really.")

Frankly, I've begun to think that conservatives and left-liberals live in radically different realities. My host seems in some alternate universe where Democrats wave their magic wand and everything gets better. I, on the other hand, live in a world where Democrats wave their magic wand and make everything worse. We no longer hear the same facts, read the same authors, or experience common points of culture or politics. They worship Michael Moore and don't read Andrew Sullivan; I read both of them, but I can't torture that bloated moonbat Moore into any kind of sense. Alas, all my efforts at liberal outreach are in vain. When I talk with my left-liberal neighbors, I start to feel that these people don't quite exist in the same dimensional plane. If I charged at one, I wouldn't be surprised if I just passed though him like a ghost.

Naturally, because I inhabit a conservative plane of reality, I suspect that recent history sides with me. I find, for example, that Clinton and Carter, our last two Democratic president, have proven disastrous in foreign-policy matters, and that Carter's stagflation and repressive taxation were economically disastrous as well. Carter attended the birth of the current terrorist threat, and appeased the Soviet Union at nearly every turn. Clinton refused to respond to attacks against the US. His tendency to jump in, then withdraw from touchy international situations emboldened terrorist networks to mount an even larger strike once his presidency had ended. (Clinton also allowed Carter to strike an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program: A decade later, Kim Jong-Il announced he had developed a nuclear weapon and was ready to use it.) Of course, the UN has considered the idea of making Clinton its next Secretary-General, and Carter just won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Reagan's relentless confrontation of the Soviet Union brought about the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe, actions for which the broader international community will never forgive him. Ever.

But if I inhabited the left-liberal plane of reality, what would I see? I could claim that Cold War panic and paranoia were never higher than when Reagan gave his famous "Evil Empire" speech, just as fears of terrorism were never worse than when Bush fils spoke of the "axis of evil." I might note that Republicans tend to see the world in stark black-and-white terms; they lack the nuance one needs to deal capably with the complexities of global relations. I could even say that Reagan and Bush fils were never the brightest bulbs in the box: Never mind Bush's Harvard degree or Reagan's numerous, erudite letters, because we all know that conservatives are one step removed from hooting chimps. And after all, the Carter and Clinton administrations were peaceful times -- though Clinton had to wage a few itty-bitty scrapes just to get that vast right-wing conspiracy off his back. Plus, Democrats are smart -- ask them anytime. Carter, for example, is a particularly brilliant man, even though (like a certain big dumb ape we all know) he can't pronounce the word "nuclear" either.

I see the left-liberal allure. Kerry has promised that under his administration, we'd all get to "go back" to those happy times under Clinton, and the whole "War on Terror" would get a magical do-over. Terrorism would become a mere "nuisance" -- practically a gadfly, my dear, albeit one which occasionally kills several thousand people. Bush, on the other hand, offers me no candy canes, no hearts and flowers, no assurances or guarantees, just the same grim resolve to confront terrorism where we find it and restore the rule of law to beleaguered people. Somehow, though, I prefer that. It doesn't feel good, but for what it's worth it feels right.

Still, Bush has insulted me and my GLBT neighbors repeatedly. I don't like the man or the candidate, so I've searched for some reason to vote for Kerry. I've submitted myself to reels of left-liberal propaganda and hours of left-wing conversion therapy, praying for some long-awaited bullet to enter my brain. Alas, from where I stand, Kerry's alternate reality just looks like denial. If my left-liberal friends ever get a "regime change," start a major revolution, or fly up in a rapture and meet Karl Marx in the air, the event will have to occur in their own little world. I will most likely remain in this one, with its wars and rumors of wars.

Gentle reader, I will vote for Bush.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Virginia Film Festival, Day 4: Way Down South

I've missed several celebrity appearances at this year's festival. Sandra Bullock was here last night to present Miss Congeniality and hawk the upcoming sequel Miss Congeniality 2. She received this year's Virginia Film Award, though she claimed she couldn't figure out why. I'm told she is extremely witty, but I don't know: While she wowed the crowd at UVA's Culbreth Theater, I was listening to "hick-hop" singer Jim White downtown at the Gravity Lounge.

"Speed" Levitch was on hand to present The Cruise, a documentary which (like everything else in Levitch's life) is all about him. Because I believe that Levitch is one of the most annoying people in the universe, I was happy to skip him.

I also skipped a movie that probably won't be coming soon to a theater near you (or any theater, for that matter). Paul Wagner's Angels is a local production, shot in and around the city of Charlottesville. The film's protagonist, a cross between Faust and Scrooge, claims that he "met the devil in a bar in Staunton" -- which is actually pretty funny if you live in Staunton. (Staunton, you see, is a rather small town.) Most of the cast honed their acting chops at LiveArts, Charlottesville's community theater group; I probably would have recognized most of them had I actually seen the thing.

Last night, as I watched Kinsey with an audience of UVA students, Jonathan Caouette's documentary Tarnation received its regional premiere. I get the sense that most of the serious film buffs were seeing Tarnation, as perhaps they should have been. Since this film opens in Washington D.C. in a few weeks, I'll get to see it before long. But missing Tarnation was the only thing I've regretted this weekend. Sometimes you just can't catch everything.

Four events today -- one workshop, one work-in-progress, a fiction film and a documentary. This time, the theme seems to be "Tales of the South":

Shot by Shot: Days of Heaven workshop (with David Gordon Green, editor Billy Weber, and UVA film professor Walter Korte). Roger Ebert began the Virginia Film Festival tradition of "shot-by-shot" workshops some years ago, giving audience members the chance to look at a film with the sort of intense focus and concentration that a true scholar might possess. Ebert's sessions actually move through a film shot by shot, and sometimes frame by frame, so that the overall process takes six hours. Even with all this time, the audience seldom makes it through an entire film.

This year's workshops were different: Paul Schrader offered a running commentary on Bresson's Pickpocket, but limited audience interaction so that the analysis stopped at about the two-hour mark. The workshop concerning Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978) may have been even briefer: Korte focused audience attention on a handful of scenes, and the audience was permitted to ask a few questions here and there. Green himself didn't participate much in the discussion, and his comments offered more insight into his own films than Malick's. The real star of the session was Days of Heaven editor Billy Weber (literally "phoning it in" via teleconference), who served up a number of juicy anecdotes about how this film took its present form.

I didn't care for Days of Heaven prior to this session, and I wasn't looking forward to an in-depth analysis of Terrence Malick's style or method. Frankly, I always thought the film was nothing more than a bunch of pretty pictures, with a yammering voiceover to create a semblance of narrative drive. The effect is like watching a slide show of your neighbors' summer vacation.

Weber's comments about the production turned me round. Weber claimed that most of the actors couldn't deliver dialogue convincingly, and sixteen-year-old actress Linda Manz (whose screen presence is astonishing) "barely even knew what a movie was." The finished film, with its alleged poetic and elegiac qualities, was little more than a collection of found artifacts. Manz's now-famous voiceover was patched together from ad lib sessions in which Malick showed her a rough cut of the film, and asked her to describe what she saw. (Malick and Weber would later remove any sequence she described too precisely). Shots were edited to eliminate as much dialogue as possible, further contributing to the film's elliptical style. Under the circumstances, it's astonishing that Days of Heaven was ever finished, and that it's even remotely watchable.

Even though Green didn't say much, he made a better impression on me than he did Friday night: He made a passing comment about the use of children's voices on Sesame Street that was full of insight, even if it wasn't especially germane to Days of Heaven. I suspect that Green possesses an authentically cinematic sensibility, one which discovers value in even the most seemingly mundane or disreputable film genres. In this respect he resembles no one so much as Quentin Tarantino -- and like Tarantino, his ability to scrutinize cinema for its formal qualities renders overall questions of good vs. bad taste irrelevant. (It also confirms my suspicion that filmmakers -- the really good ones, anyway -- see the world differently than the rest of us.)

Although Green is less bug-eyed and cartoonish than the director of Kill Bill, he seems every bit as intoxicated by the possibilities of cinema. (Plus, Green's easygoing, Southern-slacker personality grows on you after a while.) I wish Green had been allowed to choose his own film for a shot-by-shot analysis -- possibly one of those "hicksploitation" movies he adores. David Green on Billy Jack: Now there's a shot-by-shot workshop I'd sign up for!

The Last Home Movie (dir. David Williams, work-in-progress) and Motion Studies: A Series of Experiments (dir. Jake Mahaffy, 2004): I'll skip over Mahaffy's short films ("Gravity" was far and away the best, juxtaposing images of a man hanging himself with audio transmissions of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's untimely death), and go directly to David Williams. Williams teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. His best-known project is Thirteen (not to be confused with the Catherine Hardwicke film), which Roger Ebert has screened at several national festivals. This was the first time Last Home Movie has been screened before an audience, and only the first two-thirds of the film was ready.

From what I've seen, I can say that The Last Home Movie is thematically similar to Caouette's Tarnation. Both films record the mental decline of the filmmaker's mother: In Tarnation, the cause is schizophrenia, while in Last Home Movie it's Alzheimer's. I'm told that Caouette's frantic editing suggests -- possibly induces --Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Last Home Movie, on the other hand, uses long, static takes to chronicle his mother's relatively benign and prosaic madness. I found Williams's approach moving and appropriate, even if I had deeper reservations about the project itself.

The film is half-documentary and half-fiction: Williams uses his actual parents as the lead actors, and his mother does suffer from Alzheimer's, but the narrative structure is fictional, and the scenes are at least somewhat staged, Alas, despite Williams's humane intent, the project reeks of exploitation. The opening sequence toys clumsily with the audience, leading us to believe that Williams's elderly parents are dead. It feels a bit cruel. But the use of his mother as an actress within his semi-fictional film gives me the creeps: As an Alzheimer's patient, Williams's mother cannot give her informed consent to participate in this production, nor can she truly know when (or how) her son manipulates her responses for purposes of the film. As an audience member, participating in this intimate voyeurism, I wonder if I should be allowed to see this film. Perhaps The Last Home Movie ought to remain a home movie.

In a lengthy discussion with the audience, Williams mentioned that his ailing mother proved an ideal actress, because she took direction so easily, but she was less useful as a viewer because she couldn't remember anything she saw. Yet as I watched this film, I was struck by a few similarities between the Alzheimer's patient and a typical moviegoer: Subject experiences a flood of images and sounds, all operating in a radically discontinuous, distorted reality. Still retains ability to function in social situations, but forgets new experiences almost immediately.

Chrystal (dir. Ray McKinnon, 2004): Horror and religion both draw their power from the uncanny, the irrational and the perverse -- all qualities that Ray McKinnon's Chrystal possesses in spades. This melodrama, set and filmed in the Arkansas Ozarks, isn't a realistic examination of the perils and profits of pot farming (though it does take an uncommonly libertarian stance against the drug war). Instead, it mines the spiritual terrain of Flannery O'Connor, focusing on those two Southern Gothic chestnuts, Sin and Redemption. I can safely say I've never seen anything quite like this film, though the final scenes of Huston's Wise Blood come close. Writer-director McKinnon eschews a traditional three-act story structure in favor of two self-contained, nearly equal halves: Chrystal builds up to a harrowing climax within the first hour, then shifts gears to tell another story with the same characters in the second. The script is packed with enough bizarre compulsions and strange goings-on for a dozen Tennessee Williams plays, but Lisa Blount makes it credible with a stunning performance in the title role.

Tango, un giro extrano (dir. Mercedes Garcia Guevara, 2004): Charlottesville-area producer Ricardo Preve brought two films to this year's festival: Mondovino, a documentary about wine-making, and Tango, un giro extrano, an impressionistic tour of Argentina's tango scene. I knew two things about "tango" before seeing the film: 1) Tango is not just a dance, but an entire musical genre; and 2) this music is closely connected to Argentina's sense of national pride. I didn't learn anything new from the film itself, but I did see a few up-and-coming artists worth watching -- in particular, the Fernando Otero Quintet, which offers a heady mixture of traditional rhythms and modernist dissonance. (One could easily imagine the Kronos Quartet playing Otero's sophisticated compositions as highbrow classical music.) Director Mercedes Guevara alternates between talking-head interviews and performance footage. Fortunately, the performance footage more than compensates for the static (though mercifully brief) interview shots. Long, flowing takes and virtuoso camerawork capture the tango dancers' sinuous movements, while brisk, well-timed editing keeps the live performances fresh.

One major caveat prevents me from recommending Tango: The film never identifies its featured artists until the closing credits. By the time I finally figured out who most of these people were, it was too late for me to care; I had to take written notes to remember even Otero's name (which makes this film pointless as an introduction to up-and-coming tango musicians). The 16mm film stock can be a real eye-stabber, too, though I think I could have handled the grain if I hadn't seen about a dozen other movies over the weekend.

End of the day, end of the festival: Fourteen screenings in four days, six or seven articles to churn out over the next few weeks. My eyeballs are red as boiled lobsters, and right now I just want to sleep.

Drink, drink, crash.

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