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This is Bryan Newbury's page:


Number of posts: 54
Web site: http://www.documentaryfilms.net
 
Apr
05
    

By Bryan Newbury
Twitter: @asiplease

As a reviewer, I am usually loath to do what I just did. Namely, first-person reviews or reactions. I always cringe seeing that “I” on a page, whether it is here or in the New York Times. Certain subjects demand stripping any pretense of objectivity, though, and American: The Bill Hicks Story is definitely one of them. This is because Bill Hicks is my comedian. I caught his One Night Stand in Chicago on the cusp of my formative years and it changed me as a person. I made sure to tape it on second airing and proceeded to memorize every bit in it… despite the fact that, unlike Mr. Hicks, I did not consider comedy a viable career option. That thirty minutes was up there with anything Pryor had ever done. It was all mine.

Until five years later, when Bill Hicks started popping up in all sorts of places. The most memorable encounter I had with Hicksmobilia was at the apartment of a person I didn’t know from Adam. He lived upstairs from a friend of mine and had the beer or taco sauce or whatever we were lacking at that particular moment. In the corner of his living room was a framed portrait of Bill Hicks. It took three glances to confirm, but there it was. Memories are tricky things, and they often graft embellishments into the psyche, but I swear it was an oil painting. Now, that is commitment to a comedian.

A few of these experiences were enough to find out that Bill Hicks had a following. In his case, the word ‘following’ is more what we’d ascribe to the Dalai Lama or Rabindranath Tagore than, say, Bob Saget. As the years go by, that following gets larger and more fervent, revelatory and more high profile. (I am thinking here of Keith Olbermann’s ‘Bill Hicks is still ahead of his time’ segment.) As is the pattern with genius, this all comes well after Hicks ‘left in love, in laughter, and in truth,’ largely because his message and material become more incredibly incisive with every passing war, crisis or bastardization of the aesthetic landscape.

If Hicks is your comedian, you’ve no doubt seen every bit of video available, listened to each album – listened to it backwards as well – know every bit by heart from Randy Pan the Goat Boy to We Live In A World to Ding Dong (the last one is incredibly timely) and have by this time discovered that there were layers of meaning and bits of cosmic truth that become more evident in 2011 than in 1999. You don’t need my recommendation to see American. Tough shit. You’re getting it. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Mar
23
    

A reaction by Bryan Newbury
Twitter: @asiplease

A little more than half way through The Most Dangerous Man in America, there is a revelation worthy of its own feature length film: What if a person sacrificed his occupation, family and freedom to get the truth to the American public and nobody seemed to care? This takes up only a few minutes of screen time, but, from where the viewer sits, seeing 162 Tomahawk missiles fall on Libya while two seemingly endless wars go on in Iraq & Afghanistan and Julian Assange rotates headquarters from a charming country home in England to a courtroom in Stockholm to – why the hell not? – a subterranean compound beneath the Denver airport, it is the point most deserving of rumination.

There can be no doubt that much of the acclaim The Most Dangerous Man in America has received since its opening stems from the inescapable parallels of Vietnam and whichever current war you choose. This documentary would have been valuable in 1997, to be sure, but there is no denying the importance of its message at this moment.

While the reviewer is proposing new features stemming from this film, allow him to go one further, if indeed it hasn’t been done. Why not give us two additional hours on the lies behind every war? Better still, how about a film that spends all its time asking just how a nation can turn around in the span of one generation and lose the lessons which so many of us always suspect, but in the case of Daniel Ellsberg’s release of The Pentagon Papers was proven in black and white?

To hear the Nixon tapes, to be reminded of the fact that the Vietnam War was being planned by Eisenhower and Kennedy, if through proxies or by our own military, up until the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” which served as the cover story catalyst for an 11-year disaster that resulted in the loss of over two million lives, untold treasure and a considerable blow to our international reputation, to see the footage from Washington to Saigon, is to beg another question; namely, what in the hell is wrong with us?

After all, the lies leading up to the Iraq War were fairly transparent and in plain view to anyone who cared to look. We needed no Ellsberg… we had UN reports. The rationalizations were the same, though, and they shall surely remain so until the public calls its leaders out on the ruse.

If we are to stretch out ever so slightly to divine that symbolic, poetic meaning of The Most Dangerous Man in America, it is the disheartening cliché that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is telling that Ellsberg found a strange resistance among anti-war legislators when he attempted to circulate his secret history of the Vietnam War through them. We see Howard Zinn explain this, commenting on the culture of deference and capitulation within the legislative branch. It is difficult to escape the feeling that it goes beyond deference. Is it possible that public debate is simply an act of theater, with the real decisions being made in corridors of power that aren’t available on CSPAN? The more one looks into it, the less outlandish this contention appears.

Things stay the same in the public mind, which never ceases to find a way to ignore revelations like The Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, the recent piece in Der Spiegel and countless others. Many go beyond the bounds of a normal life in their condemnation of diversions and frivolity. It is hard to imagine how one can stay sane without basketball games, a bit of comedy, etc. Still, disconcerting is too small a word when considering the American public’s ability to answer crimes and horrors with a shrug.

As with all poetic, symbolic imagery, the aforementioned isn’t quite precise. As we learn, 1970’s America isn’t exactly analogous to the America of the 2000’s. For starters, the Horatio to Ellsberg’s Hamlet turns out to be a brave and vibrant press. While we have our share of online resources that go beyond what organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun Times, et al. were capable of then or are now, they do little to mitigate the maddening compliance our major media has displayed for the last 30 years. Publication of the Wikileaks cables notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine today’s Times and Post coordinating so effectively under a threat as real as the Nixon Administration offered. Second, we see press freedom held up in a 6-3 Supreme Court vote. If you think that the current Judiciary, which we learn is basically the only coequal branch of government to our Executive, would walk out on that limb against the interests of our politicians and profiteers, it is probably best that you return to diversions and frivolity.

The courage and consequence of Daniel Ellsberg’s actions cannot be questioned. The Most Dangerous Man in America is a tremendous appraisal of the man, his path, his life. As the film posits, it is quite clear that The Pentagon Papers were integral in the downfall of a presidency if not the immediate conclusion of a war. What is unnerving about these findings is that, while presidents come and go, wars seem to live out their own biographies. Whether it is Vietnam from Eisenhower to Nixon – and let us not forget the two gentlemen in-between – or Iraq from Bush to Obama and, lamentably, beyond, the continuity of agenda is equal parts perplexing and maddening. One cannot help but think that altering this reality doesn’t require heroic acts by the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world. It only requires that we listen to them.

—-

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Directed by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

Color and Black & White, 92 minutes, 2009


 
Aug
03
    

By Bryan Newbury
August 3, 2010

Being a product review, as the film review by Michael Sragow precludes any further efforts at reviewing the film, which shall be discussed presently…

Aficionados of old time music, to understate matters a bit, tend to be completists. They may specialize in one genre or even one artist. Some, given the right conditions and resources, fill rooms with 78’s and hard drives full of obscure material. Others are named Joe Bussard. Regardless of what category an OTM obsessive falls under, there is little doubt that he will be purchasing a copy of Terry Zwigoff’s unsurpassable Louie Bluie, the DVD Edition of which is soon to be available from The Criterion Collection.

If for nothing else, the film is worth owning based on footage alone. Yank Rachell trading quips with Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong… Armstrong giving longtime partner Ted Bogan endless grief while haggling him out of a pair of Technicolor trousers… Armstrong reminiscing with an old acquaintance in La Follette, Tennessee… Armstrong back in Chicago, sharing his indescribable work, ABC’s of Pornography… and then, there’s the music.

These would certainly be enough to merit repeated viewings. That Zwigoff crafted the film with an uncanny dexterity is simply a bonus.

Louie Bluie does what all good documentaries on the subject should do, provided the film has the advantage of firsthand footage of the performers: it gives the viewer the impression of being a visitor, taking in the scenes as they happen. Zwigoff eclipses such outstanding filmmakers as Les Blank in his deft touch, convincing the viewer that he is such a visitor, while interspersing the straight interview material in such a way that he feels that the archival footage comes from a story and the pictures of earlier days were sat on your lap in the form of a large album, the kind with defective adhesive and stubborn vellum paper. It could be argued that a character as immense as Armstrong might have deserved more lionizing treatment, (this is a man who, despite the storybook childhood we all expect – that of poverty, fish fries, barn dances, a preaching father, etc. – managed to speak enough Italian to get by in Chicago’s immigrant quarters, boasts a calligraphy that is immaculate, and parallels artists as imminent as Louis Paul Boon in his literary pornography), and no doubt a study of Armstrong the autodidact would be a very worthy undertaking, but that is another project altogether, and one Zwigoff hadn’t the resources to accomplish. Besides, that would be a profound turnoff to the OTM enthusiast, this film’s primary audience. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Mar
09
    

By Bryan Newbury
March 9, 2010

Many say that America is a Christian nation. Among those claimants, there is a burgeoning ideology, which seeks to reclaim the historical record – the same crew have been marginally successful with this approach towards pure science, so there is little reason to doubt that history would be any less malleable – and put an image of snake handling evangelicals in the place of pragmatic deists. Dubious as their claims are, the Christian nationalists, for want of a better moniker, do have one bit of fact on their side: nominally, at least, the majority of Americans do identify as Christians. In Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore poses the question, “So, are we?”

Not being a scholar in divinity or a professed member of any religious group, it isn’t for this reviewer to sit in judgment. Having a cursory knowledge of the Gospels as they are laid out in the King James Bible, it is tempting to come down with a thunderous No. The reader likely will refuse to take this verdict, or, for that matter, Mr. Moore’s. Luckily, Moore provides credentialed men of the cloth to posit that if we are a Christian nation, we are nonetheless governed by a profoundly unchristian economic system. (Should there be confusion as to whether we are governed by an economic system rather than a political one, there is an instructive dialogue with an editor at The Wall Street Journal to allay that head scratcher.)

As usual, Moore builds his case on whimsical educational films from more innocent times, cataloguing the avaricious transgressions of the ruling class and juxtaposing those iniquities with the inevitable inequities and how they play out in those locales that the populations of Washington and Wall Street couldn’t give a good goddam about. It is a bit of a departure, however, to see the Flint of twenty years ago becoming the template for contemporary Miami. Moore has documented the progression, and we should be thankful for it. At this point, we all know what we know to expect, but where does Capitalism fit in the Moore œuvre?

Peculiarly, though expectedly, as a sort of prequel.

While the chronology and scenery suggest the conclusion to a larger body of work archiving the devolution of our republic from free state to fiefdom, there is reason to consider viewing Capitalism as Part I. were one to introduce Michael Moore to an alien observer. (Begging pardon if the observation has been made here before on the last of Moore’s “last” films, but this installment supplants the whole order of things where a marathon Michael Moore viewing is concerned.) After all, the narrative arc from Roger & Me to Sicko, including as it does our propensity for gun violence and general distaste for actual democracy, to say nothing of our “medieval health care nonsystem,” in the words of Rachel Maddow, is informed by a devaluation of human life and functional liberty. What is the true exception in American exceptionalism? An ideology of individualism as manifested by callousness towards our fellow man seems to be at the root of it. How can we stand alone among industrialized countries in both violent crime and lack of health care access? Look no further than the fundamentally unchristian nature of our republic’s economic system. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jan
27
    
It is fitting that the film begins with Larry Craig, who, by the way, is totally not gay. He wasn’t gay in the gay scene in Washington during the early eighties, he wasn’t gay when hooking up with other men a decade later, and he certainly wasn’t gay when rubbing feet in the stall of a Minneapolis airport W.C. If you need proof, his wife, and her three children from a previous marriage, will say so. Were it not for this incident, a project like Outrage might never see the light of day. Salacious as the trysts of David Dreier, Jim Kolbe and James McGreevey may be, they’d likely be swept under the rug save for Craig’s inspired moment in Prince’s hometown.
Using the Craig incident as a springboard, Dick launches into the seedy underbelly of D.C. nightlife. It should be said that the only way in which we can call it seedy with any modicum of intellectual honesty is in its covert nature. That people are hooking up in this den of iniquity isn’t altogether shocking… actually, the hole-and-corner nature of these lavender couplings is equally discernible… what stands out is the lengths to which our media goes to in an effort to maintain secrecy. The money moment in Outrage is a scene with Bill Maher on The Larry King Show that split-screens Maher’s actual comments on Ken Mehlman with the redacted broadcast. (Sadly, no Jeff Gannon references follow.)
It is telling that our media elite run interference on the story. If anyone is revealed as a villain in Outrage, it is them. Upon looking at the story, any sentient being can determine that the problem isn’t with evangelicals or their ilk exclusively; rather, it is with our society as a whole. Excepting our obtuse concept of sexuality, the road of hypocrisy and idiocy couldn’t be such an effortless excursion. The collective failure to come to terms with the vagaries of human sexuality reinforces those lies we insist on being told.
That reticence results in a general distaste for the concept of outing. The debate has raged for generations, pitting the sacrosanct dispensation for privacy against the interest of the body politic. It would be easy to err on the side of privacy were it not for the craven scapegoating of people based upon their genital preferences. An instructive scene in the film comes from criticizing Mary Cheney. To the majority, her failure to use public prominence in correcting our outlook appears prudent. When seen through the lens of a distressed minority, it is manifest as nothing short of cowardice, or worse, cynical posturing. In a society that accepts biological deviations from the norm, outing would be unnecessary. In one where Matthew Shepard dangles from a fencepost, it becomes mandatory.
Outrage won’t tell you anything you don’t already know if you’ve been paying

By Bryan Newbury
January 27, 2010

OutRageDoAskDoTellAside from a pun, there isn’t a conceptual device more deservedly pilloried than a truism. If there is a hobgoblin of discourse, this is indubitably the worthiest candidate. To say they are rhetorically ubiquitous is to fall into their clutches. It is with knowing rancor that this reviewer participates in this lowest form of colloquy, yet it needs to be said: if a person in public life becomes exorcised about an issue regarding genitalia, one can be certain that the behavior he or she (mostly he) rails about is one in which that person engages overtly, maliciously and often flamboyantly.

This is the general point behind Kirby Dick’s Outrage. The film’s concept is simple enough; namely, the people behind the most baleful and far-flung acts of legislative bigotry are the very same that participate in the actions legislated against.

It is fitting that the film begins with Larry Craig, who, by the way, is totally not gay. He wasn’t gay in the gay scene in Washington during the early eighties, he wasn’t gay when hooking up with other men a decade later, and he certainly wasn’t gay when rubbing feet in the stall of a Minneapolis airport W.C. If you need proof, his wife, and her three children from a previous marriage, will say so. Were it not for this incident, a project like Outrage might never see the light of day. Salacious as the trysts of David Dreier, Jim Kolbe and James McGreevey may be, they’d likely be swept under the rug save for Craig’s inspired moment in Prince’s hometown.

Using the Craig incident as a springboard, Dick launches into the seedy underbelly of D.C. nightlife. It should be said that the only way in which we can call it seedy with any modicum of intellectual honesty is in its covert nature. That people are hooking up in this den of iniquity isn’t altogether shocking… actually, the hole-and-corner nature of these lavender couplings is equally discernible… what stands out is the lengths to which our media goes to in an effort to maintain secrecy. The money moment in Outrage is a scene with Bill Maher on The Larry King Show that split-screens Maher’s actual comments on Ken Mehlman with the redacted broadcast. (Sadly, no Jeff Gannon references follow.)

It is telling that our media elite run interference on the story. If anyone is revealed as a villain in Outrage, it is them. Upon looking at the story, any sentient being can determine that the problem isn’t with evangelicals or their ilk exclusively; rather, it is with our society as a whole. Excepting our obtuse concept of sexuality, the road of hypocrisy and idiocy couldn’t be such an effortless excursion. The collective failure to come to terms with the vagaries of human sexuality reinforces those lies we insist on being told.

That reticence results in a general distaste for the concept of outing. The debate has raged for generations, pitting the sacrosanct dispensation for privacy against the interest of the body politic. It would be easy to err on the side of privacy were it not for the craven scapegoating of people based upon their genital preferences. An instructive scene in the film comes from criticizing Mary Cheney. To the majority, her failure to use public prominence in correcting our outlook appears prudent. When seen through the lens of a distressed minority, it is manifest as nothing short of cowardice, or worse, cynical posturing. In a society that accepts biological deviations from the norm, outing would be unnecessary. In one where Matthew Shepard dangles from a fencepost, it becomes mandatory.

Outrage won’t tell you anything you don’t already know if you’ve been paying attention. Those that run on family values are often the furthest from their objectives. The biggest enemy of human rights is the self-loathing striver. Barney Frank is a national treasure for his devotion to honesty. Shepard Smith was a twisted sexbot long before Roxxxy. It might shine a light on these unfortunate truths for those still laboring under the misapprehension that family values is anything but a marketing scheme. If one eye is opened, it is well worth the venture.

—–

Outrage

Written & Directed by Kirby Dick

Color, 90 minutes, 2009


 
Nov
18
    

By Bryan Newbury
November 18, 2009

TheGardenRecently, The New York Times ran a piece speculating upon what our thankfully nearly late decade should be dubbed. Among other ghastly appellations were The Era of Misplaced Anxiety and The Decade of Overshoot, to say nothing of the North going South and The Decade of Disruptions. Watching The Garden while looking back at the aughts, one is tempted to leap to hyperboles of wickedness so pernicious that he might be accused of striking at least a passing resemblance to the Yahwist.

The past decade has been nothing if not a paean to fiendishness. Attempts to define it and label it fall short not for lack of nuance; rather, these years burden the sensibilities with iniquities every bit as vile as they are complete that they bewilder the observer beyond reason. If one is inclined to bemoan the violations of American empire against its subjects and enemies, he is bound to recognize the equally dreadful thoughts and actions of the victims. As Wall Street speculated away the wealth of many nations, it did so with the consent of its victims, who were hoping for a share in the Sachs spoils. This decade has been an age without victims… all have come well short of the glory, or so says the reporting.

The Garden goes further than any documentary of the decade in defining an age where everything good has suffered from the rot of unthinking avarice. The story is simple enough and much to familiar in narrative arc. To be as succinct as possible, there once was a community garden in South Central Los Angeles tended by its (largely Latino) residents with nearly transcendental results. The plot was purchased by the city from a developer, whose irredeemably black soul shall be dealt with presently, following the riots of 1992. As time went on, the land was observed to have a great value in graft by an unscrupulous city councilwoman and erstwhile community activist. The land was sold back to the contemptible fellow in an extralegal process with the help of the corrupt councilwoman and the clout of the nefarious activist in order to line their pockets.

It would be a pedestrian tale were it not for the fact that the South Central Farmers had done something that is all too rare in our age: they made something beautiful and good.

To recount the abhorrent acts of venality and violence that occur would do a disservice to a film that should be seen by all. It is difficult to watch at times and equally difficult to describe without resorting to sloganeering reminiscent of the Paris commune. What transpires is a depiction of solid, honest people – even when they are at their worst, even as they battle amongst themselves – being thrown to the rapacious hydra that has become fully evolved in our America: the three devouring heads of corporatism, cronyism and complacency.

The corporatism is easy enough to understand. Ralph Horowitz is a grasping bastard bereft of a soul that sells high and buys low (truth be told, sells same buys same, but with the passing of time the depiction fits, as does the rhyme) and eventually refuses to sell higher still because of his contempt for humanity. In short, a businessman.

Juanita Tate and Jan Perry were likely human at one time. Perry became involved in institutional politics, which inevitably corrupts. If there is doubt on that, research what your Congresspeople have received in contributions from insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists within the last few years. Tate saw her golden ticket and punched it after years of activism. The examples of Tate and Perry set against that of Horowitz clearly illustrate a growing cognitive dissonance in popular thought. Business is irreparably amoral and government is irrevocably unethical. Meanwhile, business and government present themselves as adversaries. Business creates wealth which government taxes and government manages to regulate while business prevaricates. This becomes pure theatre when both aspire to similar aims. So, is it complacency when the victims of business protest the government charged with protecting them and their counterparts wail about those same agents advancing their cause?

In many ways, yes. Even as we inveigh against self-important celebrities sticking their noses in issues of public policy, we ignore every plight that doesn’t draw a camera. (The Garden is replete with celebrity appearances, from Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah to Joan Baez and Willie Nelson.) It is only natural to be consumed with outrage as the film draws to a close, but how often are we speechless witnesses to crimes such as these? What use is any of it if, to borrow from Phil Ochs, it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends?

It is nearly impossible to encapsulate the topics orbiting around the basic story told by The Garden. To give an honest and in depth accounting of the racial issues would require more space than is available here. When the spectre of antisemitsm is raised in regard to Mr. Horowitz to a bemused group of Mexican Americans who are in jeopardy of losing something great they’ve created, when we see African Americans on both sides of the fight, when we see those African Americans endeavoring to steer the issue into a brown on black battle (one area among many that Dan Stormer distinguishes himself as both ethical and intelligent) and when we see the LAPD exercise their trademark brutality on the South Central Farmers it defies definition. It seems to simply be, which might be the ultimate indictment on us, our decade, our species.

The Garden is a morality tale equally simple and multi-faceted where evil prevails. It reminds this reviewer of a Woody Guthrie statement that new and better curse words are required to describe certain people. It is a ballad depicting the conflict between verdancy and decency with the bankrupt ideology of mammon, the clash of humanity and saurian predation. Hopefully, it is the coda to a decade marred with needless acquisitiveness and an instructive document informing us of how we’ve gone wrong. In any event, it is as useful an interpretation of where we are and how we got there as the medium is likely to give us.

—–

The Garden
Written & Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
2008, Color, 80 minutes


 
Oct
04
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 5th, 2009

WhatsTheMatterWithKansas2Thank a merciful Christ I live in Lawrence.

This affirmation begins the day for many residents of Lawrence, Kan., which, as the bumper stickers say, represents 27 miles of reality surrounded by Kansas. Not that Lawrencians head en masse to their numerous coffee shops reciting the phrase with their various other Bikram-related mantras; however, they will often be heard to say something like this after watching the state news or a film such as Laura Cohen & Joe Winston’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Judging from What’s the Matter, Kansas can be a pretty scary place. A scary place with a long and obscured history festooned with the better angels of progressivism, but a scary place nonetheless.

The film takes its lead from Thomas Frank’s book of the same title, and can be forgiven for lacking the depth of the written word. Unfortunately, the portrayal the viewer is provided can tend toward myopia to the point of farce. Where Frank provides a thoughtful analysis of what could be called the Kansas Problem… namely, the issue of white working class voters casting ballots against their own economic interests… Cohen and Winston appear content to show us a vision of an evangelical backwater obsessed with the holy fetus.

Frank isn’t blameless as a writer, and it is important to stress that the Chicagoans who made What’s the Matter take a considerable lead from the Prairie Village, Kan. product. (For the benefit of readers who aren’t from Kansas, Prairie Village is to the state of Kansas as Plano is to Houston’s Fifth Ward circa 1983.) Being an actual Kansan – that is, a product of a depressed rural area who went to school in a depressed urban area – it is the reviewer’s duty to suggest that both Frank and the filmmakers could’ve spent a little more time with people like M.T. Ligget.

WhatsTheMatterWithKansas1Ligget, from Mullinville, provides a picture of the kind of Kansan most of us grew up with and around. The cantankerous septuagenarian delivers the most enjoyable lines in the film (“Gay marriage… who gives a shit?”) as well as a more accurate depiction of the attitudes of rural Kansans. If someone were inclined to plumb the depths of the flyover psyche, people like Ligget are the place to start, not the Barden family. The Bardens are the caricature that seems to comfort urban sophisticates the nation over. In one scene, we see the mother, called “mommy” even by her adolescent children, driving her brood to the bleeding Creation Museum in Kentucky. Brittany, the eldest daughter, eventually attends Patrick Henry College in Virginia, America’s leading educational outlet for folks uncomfortable with the whole “established science” thing. Throughout What’s the Matter, we’re inundated with people likely to TiVo The Colbert Report without thinking for a second that the program is satire, to say nothing of the terrorist splinter groups in and around Operation Rescue. One can just imagine Angelinos and Chicagoans moaning “Is this what is going on in Red America?” Well, is it?

The short answer, to borrow from Sarah Palin, is kinda’. It can’t be argued that these people aren’t out there in considerable number. They are. They’re in Wichita, Cleveland, Dallas, New York, even San Francisco. Do they represent a larger segment of Kansas’ population than that of Oregon or Massachusetts? Of course. To say that the megachurch-attending rube tips the electoral scales of our sylvan landscapes, however, does a disservice both to rural Americans and to our understanding of how our political realities are forged. After all, the year in which What’s The Matter was filmed saw the trouncing of the ultra-right’s favored candidates at the polls even in Kansas. Much is made of the candidacy of Phill Kline, still his loss in the AG’s race seems an inconvenient footnote, along with that of Jim Ryun and Kris Kobach.

Getting back to Ligget. The Frank formula, at the risk of oversimplification, is “God, guns and gays,” which is to say that social issues dominate the electoral map. Let it be submitted that one can safely omit God and gays from this calculation. One wonders what the producers made of Ligget’s take on Iraqi insurgents. The fellow, straight out of central casting, clad in overalls and baseball cap – the unofficial uniform of the rural Kansan – suggests that we reverse the rolls and imagine another country invading our own and dictating to us what our political system and cultural mores are to be. If you take up arms against that invading force, would you be an “insurgent”? “I know I would,” the man says without hesitation. Kansans, like most other small staters, are fiercely independent and mistrustful of anything resembling authoritarian or even official. Understanding this is paramount to getting past the bewilderment caused by analyzing the perceived cognitive dissonance of the rural voter. Credit where it’s due, the segments with Donn Teske go a long way in this direction. To an inattentive viewer, Teske’s stances seem like welcome bulwarks against a  Christofascist uprising, when indeed he is representative of exactly the mindset that makes Kansas fundamentally conservative. He is a populist, true, but he introduces himself as a “populist without a party.” What does that mean? Could it be that the Kansan outlook recognizes that neither party represents the interests of the lower classes? In one instructive scene, Teske tours The Garden of Eden, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor’s eccentric artistic and philosophical statement in stone. The mass sculpture, located in Lucas, has a centerpiece depicting the worker on a cross, being crucified, or bled, by lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker. Teske opines that there’s a lot of truth to it. This doesn’t mean that he is running to the local Democratic Party call center. Quite the contrary. Teske’d likely see it how many Kansans do: if the banker and preacher represent a Republican point of view, what do we say of the lawyer and doctor? There’s the rub. Like Teske, Ligget proclaims a great hatred for George W. Bush. This doesn’t necessarily serve as an endorsement for Bush’s official opposition. It only conveys a cynicism that we can find one half hour before Stephen Colbert’s speaking satiric truth to crazy.

In the end, Kansas isn’t the creationist lunatic asylum the film might suggest any more than the radical utopian outpost of Frank’s history books and graveyards. It is much more akin to the film’s Garden City scenes: awash in the Christian ethos that brought us both free clinics and clinic bombings, beleaguered by economic inequality, profoundly untrusting of bureaucracy yet collectively susceptible to simple solutions to complex problems, the latter being possible largely because no major political entity represents (or is allowed to represent) reasonable solutions to the problems life in the American outback is rife with. Could it be that we’ve spent a few too many years wondering what’s the matter with Kansas? Imagine Ralph Nader getting his five per cent or Ross Perot expanding his Reform Party beyond a genital measuring contest with his fellow Texans. Possibly Ronn Teske would be a populist with a party then. It leads one to wonder what the matter might be with California, New York, or any of the 2000 election’s other “safe” states.

—–

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Produced by Laura Cohen and Joe Winston

Color, 90 Minutes, 2009


 
Aug
07
    

By Bryan Newbury
August 7, 2009

Nine Lives of Marion Barry Setup CaughtBitch set me up.

Chances are, when someone outside of Washington, D.C. mentions the name Marion Barry, those four words will enter into the conversation. Like all things dealing with race in the United States, the jovial treads a very thin line before falling off of the precipice into the hateful. In the Middle West, we have a longstanding tradition of jovial skewing towards hateful. Hopefully, these little jabs come off for entertainment over beers. To claim that there is never a bit of racially charged humor in those bull sessions would be duplicitous. At the risk of breaking a little news, these conversations still happen in our new postracial America.

The unwelcome news in postracial Obaman America, of course, is that the jovial is rapidly ceding territory to the hateful. For some reason, farmer-tanned minions throughout our land seem unwilling to share in the collective joy we right-thinking individuals relish in regarding our first African-American president, our first Latina Supreme Court justice and a new release by Eminem. “White America,” whatever that might mean, is astonishingly adept at adopting a mentality of victimhood, and it appears that the lightly satiric Midwestern quips are increasingly becoming drowned out by verbiage more reminiscent of the Old South. Midwesterners tell funny stories, they say. Southerners tell stories funny. There is a world of difference.

When one throws something like The Nine Lives of Marion Barry into this confusing milieu, the results will be decidedly mixed.

ninelivesofmarionbarrysworninOutside of the District, and especially outside of the black community, the consensus is that Mr. Barry is a base pipe toking womanizer who has outlived his public usefulness. Inside of the District and its black community, the former is a forty-sixty proposition. The sixty readily identify with Mr. Barry’s trials and tribulations, having experienced the siege of narcotics and violence in their community, having lived through broken homes bought about in many respects by the willful efforts of the Anglo power structure to break those homes and communities. As the film points out early on, the District operated as an odd plantation protectorate well into the 1970’s, being administered by gents like John McMillan of South Carolina . Barry was indispensable in the fight to “Free D.C.” and make it possible for citizens of the overwhelmingly black city to enjoy basic rights other Americans take for granted, such as electing a city council and mayor.*

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry follows the rise and fall and resurrection and fall and rise and stumbling and rising again of Barry alongside that of his city, weaving in and out from historical context to his 2004 run for city council from Ward Eight, a notoriously hard-hit area of our nation’s capital. There is little hint of hagiography here. Effi Slaughter, Barry’s ex-wife, gets the lion’s share of interview time. It is easy to relate to her. Probably as easy as District residents find it to relate to their former mayor. She gives a cogent reckoning of her relationship with Mr. Barry, from his charismatic rise in D.C. activism and politics to his 1990 arrest and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jul
12
    

By Bryan Newbury
July 12, 2009

tedkennedy2008democraticconvention1Is it possible for a Kennedy to be overlooked and underappreciated? If you’re inclined to agree with or admire Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a viewing of HBO’s Teddy will certainly lead you to an affirmative answer.

Teddy begins in Denver, at the 2008 Democratic Convention. In terms of sheer artistry, vigor and conviction, his 1980 speech had this one beat. In filling out the Odyssean narrative that has been Teddy’s life, it couldn’t be more fitting. The speech, relatively soon after Kennedy’s being diagnosed with a large brain tumor, serves to sum up the man rather than the youngest brother. While it is true that simply being a Kennedy must define a person in many ways, Teddy is larger than that. A little thing like a brain tumor isn’t going to silence, stop, or even slow this fighter down.

That irrepressibility is the oil that lubricates the endearment of his fans and the ire of his detractors. Teddy Kennedy has a long list of formidable foes, from Nixon to the generation of conservatives after him to many in his own party to the vagaries of fate itself. No one would sooner assent to his life of privilege than the man himself, but even the fiercest of composers of enemies lists would grant that the senator from Massachusetts isn’t going to shy away from a fight.

To those detractors, there isn’t much in Teddy to like. The film, narrated by Kennedy, sticks its toe right to the hagiography line. Like everything else regarding Kennedy or politics in general, whether that line is crossed depends entirely on one’s persuasion. Chris Matthews will likely give this work an enthusiastic five-star endorsement. Rush Limbaugh’s review is surely to be more reserved. Though it goes far to illustrate the courage, convictions and strength of character Kennedy prides himself on, Teddy doesn’t avoid things that aren’t exactly comfortable subjects. Naturally, there are the untimely deaths of his siblings – Kunhardt and Nevins deserve much respect for treating the shootings of Jack and Bobby with the propriety so many have chosen to discard – his son’s bout with bone cancer, a plane crash, the wreckage of which would lead one to surmise that the passengers hadn’t a chance of surviving, let alone walking again, a few tips of the bottle, a failed campaign for the Democratic nomination and… Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jun
02
    

By Bryan Newbury

June 2, 2009 

witchhuntjeffmodahl“This does happen… and it can be you. Your neighbor, your son, daughter, it can happen right now, in your own home. There is no rhyme or reason why it happens. If somebody wants to do it, it can happen.”  

Jeff Modahl would know. One of the subjects of Witch Hunt, a film about prosecutions run mad in Kern County, California, Modahl brings fifteen years of that knowledge to this quote near the film’s conclusion. What might strike the viewer as astonishing is that it isn’t until this moment, at around eighty-two minutes in, that Witch Hunt really astonishes. Not that the story, subject matter or pacing is lacking. Not that the travails of the people profiled, all of them either wrongfully convicted of pedophilia or dealing with a life permanently altered by being party to said convictions, are in any way uncompelling. Not that Sean Penn is, as a narrator, anything short of being Sean Penn. 

What is striking about the film is that, provided one has read about, observed or experienced the American legal system, none of the story is especially difficult to believe.  

The early 1980’s saw Bakersfield with at least one of two problems: either there was a stunning rash of child molestation within its white working class community; or, there was an ill-trained police and social service force serving at the pleasure of a District Attorney driven to farcical lengths in zealotry and ambition. We’ll give readers five seconds to ruminate on which choice seems more likely.   Read the rest of this entry »


 
Feb
16
    

By Bryan Newbury
February 16, 2008 

Watching Seven Up is reminiscent of having one’s first potato chip… crisp, if you’re so inclined. Fourteen Up is like the fifth pack of cigarettes, Twenty One is like the first pack in your fifth year of smoking. When the viewer gets on to Twenty Eight and Thirty Five, he can only speculate as to what those Trainspotting characters are going through.  

Upon seeing the first installment, I ran to Liberty Hall video and rented the rest. Well, almost. I was at my limit with Thirty Five Up. Between viewing Twenty One and Twenty Eight Up, I returned the first two discs, knowing that by midnight, if all the loo breaks and crumpet toastings (if Apted is addictive, then Anglophilia may well be contagious) were timed appropriately, I’d be happily viewing the final installment available at the time. I’d followed these fourteen individuals through their lives in the space of a day, one of the finest film experiences a person can ask for. 

It was a while before 49 Up would come out. This was a problem. Do I bounce from search engine to search engine scouting out developments in the lives of these people? Do I wait through the excruciating months until Apted can deliver them to me? Each man must make his choice. 

A few things were certain: if I could, I would certainly allow John, Charles and Andrew foot my bill in London, swilling beer and sherry. I would then take a car up to Arncliffe and stroll about the Dales, breathtakingly depicted in Nick’s youthful interviews, on the way to meeting up with the one person I’d choose above all to have a conversation with; naturally, it would be Neil. 

Not all wishes can or should come true. This doesn’t preclude fortunate things from happening. First, it is with great pleasure that we announce The Up Series is now available as a DVD box set, with a new exclusive Michael Apted interview and featurette and audio commentary by Claire Lewis and others. Given that there is no better way to take in the Ups than in marathon form, viewers will get the opportunity to relive the bliss of each new discovery.  

It is regrettable that the Up series has apparently concluded with its sixth installment. Still, this unprecedented collection will serve to provide endless fixes for Up junkies. 

A small footnote to that is our opportunity to have a brief interview with the most captivating of the subjects, Neil Hughes. John, Charles and Andrew have refused my requests for air fare to Cumbria, so the interview was conducted via written questions. This, sadly, prevents much follow-up. Endeavoring to get the most out of it, my questions were admittedly compound if not pedantic. I make no apologies. I imagine that Mr. Hughes has answered enough questions about how the film and its subjects have impacted his life. If you want to know that, watch the films. It was quite a discovery to see that Neil is every bit the literary creature we might infer him to be, and a sad state of affairs indeed that his work hasn’t had the outlet of a publisher. New York and London, what are you waiting for? 

What are your thoughts on the relative mutability within the class system in contemporary Britain ? One might take from the Up films that its rigidity, if not conquered, is at least in question, yourself being a primary example. To what degree do you credit the film itself, its linking disparate individuals in class and geography, with influencing the class mobility of the subjects? 

The basic precept that you couldn’t cross class barriers is false, so whilst it may be true that people have gone down a variety of routes, there is still a lot of sympathy across the group. People can get along together; background doesn’t hold you back from doing so. My situation isn’t due to class background; it is due to my own life (genetic make up / social environment etc). 

Surely everyone would like to know how you’d describe the enigmatic Mr Hughes. Joyce once said that he considered Ulysses the only all-around character in literature. It would be fair to say that the person we see in the Up films is as complete, maybe even a bit more complex. Do you see yourself in the literary light that the Neil of the films suggests to the viewer? 

It’s funny that you mention that as I’ve been writing seriously since I was 16, despite never having found anyone who wanted to publish my plays and prose. That’s the real me, and I know you can’t spend your whole life writing unless you are privileged. But what I think is if someone claims to be a writer they have the write the play and then not comment in other arenas, the true essence of their thoughts is in their writing. 

Deviating a bit from the vicissitudes of politics and your mythological peregrinations, could we get a bit of the banal on Mr Hughes? Your ideal breakfast, favorite film and the like? 

Hmm well my ideal breakfast is a cereal with fruit in it and toast! I don’t have a favorite film as I haven’t watched films since I was a child. I do remember that as a child I loved the film Zulu, I even went back and watched that when I was at uni which really proves that the impact stayed with me. I like it because of the courage and the sense of the honour shown by the chief. Obviously there is a gloss put on it, but the message was of courage and people helping each other. I am incredibly interested in literature and plays, and I would say that Macbeth is definitely the greatest play. 

Back into politics. There are some very telling scenes in 49 Up, where one of the Eastenders has relocated to the Mediterranean . He suggests that his current situation is closer to the East End he knew as a child. Certainly much has changed in the time these films have been made, and many people have become bemused or concerned about the role of culture, race and religion in the west. How do you see what some call a clash playing out? What is the best way for Britain to absorb a demographic shift and, while retaining its “Britishness”, retain a welcoming atmosphere to its immigrants, particularly Muslim? 

It is fair to say that the ethic minority population has grown and diversified and I welcome that, I think it’s wonderful. The world is fluid, and there is still a great deal of injustice – but it isn’t down to minority groups. I find it curious that people love traveling and diversity, but then when they come to UK they are furious with the diversity in their country.  I did some teaching in Poland once and half of British contingent were non white, and they were welcomed as warmly as the white people. To our Polish hosts this was a sign of British diversity and they welcomed it, it is definitely a positive sign of being British. 

Finally, we’d love to know if you are at work on any pursuits of the pen. Will there be a memoir, a novel – possibly an epic poem – from Neil Hughes? 

I am constantly writing, at the moment I am part way through a poem, the third in a long cycle of plays I have written during my life. I’ve written on biblical themes and translated into modern life. Characters like Saul, David etc, all translated into modern drama. It is a reflection on contemporary political issues. I’m not so sure about the memoirs, my life isn’t terribly interesting.


 
Nov
25
    

By Bryan Newbury
November 25, 2008

Which came first, the egg or the hen phobia? This question seems at the root of Werner Herzog’s new documentary as well as his last one. While engaging in his “latest meditation on nature,” it is hard not to wonder just what Mr. Herzog has against the subject. 

Encounters At the End of the World is principally a film about people. Set in Antarctica, where the true significance of man is on brutal display, it guides us in and around the natural (and, at times, unnatural) world of the continent that fascinates, and endeavors to shine a light on what the film presumes is its most enchanting aspect: the men and women who choose to work there. Noted as much for his appreciation of opera as his irrational fear of all things altricial, it should be no surprise that the conflict between the central supposition and the footage and sound, which belie it, treads a precarious balance between symphonic and cacophonous.  

Beginning with the more endearing aspects, the footage is stunning. Whether in the miniature killing fields existing in the sea below the ice, in the baffling songs of the Waddell seals – Radiohead must sleep better knowing that a seal can’t file an infringement suit – or simply the sheer scope of the ice shelves, there is scarcely a moment where the strange setting isn’t compelling to the point of consuming. It appears obvious why Encounters has earned its far-flung accolades. The problem occurs when the viewer emerges from the audiovisual ayahuasca and lands in Herzog’s solipsistic universe.  

He can’t help himself. The jarring dissonance achieved by an aside from the narrator rivals the most bombastic flourishes in Tannhäuser. In a few interviews, we are treated to shortening of a long story. Apparently the most interesting part of Antarctica can be a bit of a gasser. Werner the Wise, after summarizing one resident’s complicated story, manages to strike a tone that confounds. Shortly after (rightfully) rendering judgment on a “stupid academic trend” a thought occurs to him. It would only occur to him, actually. “In our efforts to preserve endangered species,” he begins, “we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Never mind that the threat of mass extinctions is tangible throughout the film. Never mind that there is quite a distinction between extinction of an entire species and the presumed loss of the Winnebago Whitman. Forget, even, that ecological activism isn’t the most direct route to social acceptability. All we need ask in this moment is “what in ruddy frozen hell are you babbling about?”  

This is far from the only occasion where Herzog stretches a soliloquy to tell a point that hasn’t been shown. Returning to his inexplicable hatred for the animal kingdom, we see this odd proclivity acted out against Dr. David Ainley, a “taciturn man, who in his solitude, was not much into conversation with humans anymore.” As of the time of this review, there is little to suggest that Ainley has reconsidered. 

Herzog didn’t go down to Antarctica to do a penguin picture. He points this out early on. Presumably after contemplating the fact that everyone on the planet save him loves penguins, he does his own Herzogian bit on the adorable creatures. His questions, he reminds us, are harder to answer. Those questions, naturally, are about whether male penguins have a penchant for buggering each other, and whether penguins that deviate from the colony in travel or attitude are “deranged.” Can a penguin, that is, go batshit crazy? Does anyone give a cup of guano? The good German finds his deranged penguin after some investigation… or, at least what he determines to be a stark raving mad lunatic penguin, who, rather than going to sea to feed, turns back towards the mountains. There is a perceptible glee in the voice that assures us this flightless Fitzgerald is going on to certain death. Surely some share Herzog’s apparent disdain for bears evidenced in Grizzly Man; but, seriously, penguins? Yes, Dr. Ainley, you aren’t missing much. 

Let it be said that Herzog has accomplished what he was out to do. He has made an aurally and visually arresting anti-nature film. In it, we witness how Herzog’s Cartesian cant is becoming thematically barren through the research of men like Peter Gorham. In a fitting coda, the film documents the neutrino detection project. Dr. Gorham explains the baffling particles that suggest a cosmic oneness that subatomic physics might yet give voice to. What this portends for the philosophical outlook that begs a quote or two from the preface of “The Double Axe” is a shift in consciousness away from the infantile human ego. To the chagrin of Herzog and those like him, the universe does not revolve around us and likely would not mourn us. And the penguins will have a laugh at our collective funeral.

—–

Encounters At the End of the World

A Werner Herzog film

Color, 101 Minutes


 
Oct
20
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 20, 2008

 

Nearly six years ago, the United States committed itself to a costly and embarrassing debacle. In the end accounting, we’ll be looking at a $3 trillion price tag, in addition to the 4,181 (and counting) servicemen who’ve died in country (the statistics on casualties are subject to some creative accounting… it is hard to know the true number of American soldiers killed and maimed because of this), the 300,000 to 1.5 million Iraqi deaths (who’s counting?), and a few generations of international leprosy that make the 21st Century a hell of a time to manufacture Canadian flag backpack decals.  

While it is obvious that the likes of W., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and Kristol, among others in the neocon rogues’ gallery, were the team that brought us the fiasco, much has been made of who the bench team of blame might be. Is it the Congress, for rubber-stamping virtually any action the administration suggested? Is it a complicit media, who took a pass on their charge as the Fourth Estate and assumed the role of official stenographers? Could it be the American people, who should’ve known better despite government and media propaganda that seemed to fool only us?  

As Errol Morris artfully depicts in Standard Operating Procedure, the above list of possible co-conspirators has come to their own comforting conclusion. The people to blame, as it turns out, are low-level enlistees of the United States Army. 

While S.O.P. is a film about the Iraq War, specifically the sickening spectacle of Abu Ghraib, it is also a meditation on the role of women in the military, the idea of complicity in evil, and the digital camera. Morris is keen to point out that photographs are, in some ways, the central characters of the film. We begin with them and end with them, and most of S.O.P. pontificates on how a still photo, or even a moving picture, can simultaneously rescue events from the memory hole and frame our perception of events.  

Morris makes his case through a host of interviews with people involved in our war crimes theme park. We see the story through the eyes of the men and women who were implicated in the photographs our nation will not live down any time soon, from the PFCs and sergeants who actually took the fall, to a private contractor, up to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who fell on the sword the way generals do, not by way of a jail term but by professional hand slapping. As her interviews progress, it is hard to see whether even the hand slapping was merited, and she offers a few names who could be added to our ever-growing Nuremberg list.  

The film challenges our perceptions at every turn. More surprising than any revelation we get about the infamous Lyndie England are the photographs and letters of SPC Sabrina Harman, best known for her smiling, thumbs-up shot with a severely beaten dead man in a body bag full of melting ice. The question seems obvious, but, until Morris bothered, seems to have gone unasked: the shot is pretty gruesome, and obviously this young woman is quite disturbed… but, who killed the guy? This scene is the major chord around which the Abu Ghraib torture photos ascend and descend. When these pictures came out, people the world over were rightly disgusted, saddened and angered. Given the visceral reaction they elicited, it should be little surprise that the scope of investigation was myopic. The emotional impact of on-the-ground proof that we do indeed torture was such that the only psychological response for the vast majority of people is to recoil, punish the act and not go into the matter any further, giving birth and breath to the “bad apple” account of events. Send the grunts to the brig and this water will make our hands clean. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
12
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 12, 2008 

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

H.G. Wells
 

There seems to be a drumbeat. Through the ages, battles of ideas and territory (and, of course, acquisition of resources, which always brings about ideas on why someone wrongfully holds territory) have raged, to the point that it would seem to most observers that conflict and usurpation are simply part and parcel of the human condition. In the 20th Century, the model was that of the Cold War, where, as Ed Abbey put it succinctly, “In the Soviet Union, government controls industry. In the United States, industry controls government. That is the principal structural difference between the two great oligarchies of our time.” In 19th Century America, it was over the scourge of slavery, or, if you prefer, a clash between an outmoded agrarian culture and a new industrialized one. In the 18th, to venture further into a sort of romantic oversimplification, there was the battle between monarchy and representative governance. And on through the centuries, even back to the sieges of Lisbon, Jerusalem, Istanbul, et cetera.  

The drumbeat that Religulous continues, building on the rhythms of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, might be summed up thusly: Welcome to the New Dark Age. For the more hopeful, it could be tweaked to read “Let’s get a handle on this thing, or we’re looking squarely into the New Dark Age.” As Bill Maher inveighs against the reckless stupidity, arrogance and danger of religion in our time with rapier wit and a type of infectious charm, there is no secret that the thesis behind this comedy is no laughing matter. In fact, he sees the problem as important enough to eventually say it flat out. If those who value rational thought don’t begin to stand up to those of fundamentalist persuasions, we are courting disaster. The 21st Century will not be defined by American economic power versus a rising China, nor by a battle the world over for depleting resources, but by a final battle, pardoning the revelatory tone of such a phrase, between secular and scriptural. 

When one examines the last couple of decades, the pieces seem to fit. They seem to paint a picture that makes a compelling case for what would have seemed hysterical posturing. Even a few years ago, the concept of our time being defined by a tussle between faith and reason would raise nearly every eyebrow in the room. As political theology morphs and advances, as it becomes more sophisticated and savvy the world over, it becomes very hard to dispute the core statement of Religulous, that just such a battle will indeed define or devour us all.  

Maher’s grand statement is a must-see if only for timeliness and as a companion volume to the aforementioned authors on the subject. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is also brilliantly written, sleek in production, direct and coherent in narrative and simply hilarious.   Read the rest of this entry »


 
Oct
11
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 11, 2008
 

To state that the United States of America is increasingly politically polarized will do little to confirm one’s acuity in matters of state. By now, it has entered into bromide territory. The progression from observation to recognized fact to platitude is seldom a straight road, and the oddity with this particular bit of wisdom is just how incorrect – or imprecise, if you prefer – the definition of the division happens to be.  

It doesn’t take long for Split to point out the imprecision in the Red State/Blue State narrative. This is to be commended, because looking to closely at ill-defined macro classifications will invariably end up in a film, or even a conversation, losing the plot. As Jack Hitt and a host of others astutely observe, the notion of a neatly divided group of states defining the political culture of a nominally democratic republic is quite absurd. Were it true, we’d be in more trouble than we have already. Looking at demographic data, it’d be closer to accurate to describe the break as Rural versus Urban. Closer, but not quite there. 

Split certainly succeeds at viewing the political situation, so often represented by the primary colors equation, in a more reasoned and deliberate way. We get to see where the real divisions are and how geography, religion, media and money fit into the picture. There are real issues with the nature of the composition, which we’ll attend to later, but the film can be said to achieve its objective by illustrating how confusing and complex the American political landscape is. 

Religion looms large, and begs the viewer to ask himself whether that complexity is really there. Right now, and for some time before and likely to come, the split between secular and religious worldviews has dictated the debate in most of the world. The main sticking point with defining a person or group with so basic a term is that the definition becomes muddled when one considers that there are some in the “secular” camp that display characteristics more befitting our picture of the religious mindset and the other way about. (Think of the secular humanist who accepts nothing that our limited perspectives and perceptions can’t classify on the one hand and the progressive Christian who espouses the red words of the New Testament as beacons of tolerance on the other.) To make it plain, we could paraphrase an old division into the cognitive versus the moral. What we collectively describe as the “religious” outlook in the U.S. is largely understood to be the evangelical Christian element. Nyks speaks with a few proponents of this quaint watch post against rational thought, and the responses they give are telling, as are those of the people on the other side of the thought fence. What occurs reminds one of the ever- pervasive influence of Islam in western Europe more than any other correlative. 

What happens during Split conjures the debate of the Cologne mega mosque, which quickly deteriorated to a pissing match between pious Muslims and protofascist nationalists. Left on the sidelines to ponder the finer elements were the rational leftists. Eventually, they sided more often with the go-ahead on building. After all, what are progressive western values if not tolerant? That the ambitions behind such structures don’t generally end up on the tolerant side of things had to be tossed aside in the final analysis. One can see the same type of losing battle the cognitive minority fights in an interviewee for the film, who asserts that it isn’t in the national interest (maybe not even possible) to divorce the faith of people from their view of governance, though it is a great danger when such faith can be manipulated and then foist upon the population through legislation and overall atmosphere in the public discourse. While it is pretty to think so, it is madness to assume that religion, when mobilized to a political end, will do anything else. So, there you have why the assorted crackpots and snake oil men, along with their snake handling cousins, are winning the war globally as well as nationally. For the religious section of this split, there are really three factions. The first are the types who insist the Founding Fathers thought the bible should be the law of the land and who illustrate issues of human sexuality with hardware implements. The second are stridently secular or involved with a much more nuanced view of history and religion. The third are of a secular bent, but wouldn’t want to dictate their outlook to the other two. Groups two and three being roughly equal to group one, it is little surprise that the lack of fight in the third opens us all to the whim of the first.   Read the rest of this entry »


 
Sep
16
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 16, 2008

“You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I’m only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, Sir, are you sure, Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms…”

José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
(Giovanni Pontiero, translator.)

Astra Taylor’s Zizek!, like the film’s namesake, provides a challenge to the reviewer in a way many ostensibly similar films – think You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and Manufacturing Consent – do not. There are quite a few reasons for this: brevity of run time; the difference between “activist” theoreticians, historians and philosophers like Zinn and Chomsky and the more urbane and inactivist bloke that Zizek personifies; the rarified air of Lacanian psychoanalysis versus the relative simplicity and utility of pure social science. In a sense, to wax postmodernist, the reviewer is burdened with the same role as the director. The observer is inside, aiming to describe a description, or depiction, that was the implicit purpose of the film itself.

This is a conundrum above the reviewer’s pay grade, unless he is arrogant enough to presume he can cut through to the marrow of Zizek’s unity within paradox within unity, or perfidious enough to claim to have read the source texts so beautifully displayed by Molly Schwartz’s animation. How to attack it, then?

In a state of deep contemplation, this reviewer considered the José Raimundo Silva option, to say, emphatically and unironically, that Slavoj Zizek does not embrace a Lacanian-Marxist hybrid, that he did not call himself a monster, that the viewer does not question whether paradox is unity and chaos order. This brief flirtation with critical liberation was snuffed out precisely because it begged all of the mendacity and conceit mentioned above.

The only way to view Zizek! is the most direct one: what is Taylor seeking to accomplish and how entertaining and thought provoking were here efforts?

The first question requires a certain presumptuousness. Having been duly acquitted of fraud and deception, the reviewer can expect some latitude in this direction. It would be fair to say that the goal is an introduction to Mr. Zizek and his outlook. If it were an overture to cultural theory wonks and professional academics, it would be lacking. Nothing in the presentation of the film suggests such soft failures. If the presumption is correct, then Taylor has certainly achieved her goal. Through a series of interviews, brief clips from lectures spanning from Buenos Aires to Boston, and artfully portrayed texts central to the disjointed unity of Zizek’s approach to, for lack of a more precise term, philosophy, the viewer is instantly gripped by the larger than life yet knowingly insignificant character Zizek cuts. There are bits and pieces, a successful introduction to just who the man is and what, at the surface, he thinks and why, just enough to cajole the viewer into further examining his works. It would be less presumptuous to posit that the person buying this film from the website of her choice would be wise to go ahead and employ the “people who bought this also…” option.

As to the second, Taylor and team couldn’t have done better. The shooting and editing subtly frame the film in a way that we might imagine Zizek appreciating. From the very beginning, with a short statement on creation, chaos, void and love, to the imaginatively sequenced subsections of the film (one of which has the humorous linguistic breakdown “PSYCO/ANAL/YSIS”), there is a harmony of presentation of a harmony of thought. The most impressive ingredient in the presentation is the work of Ms. Schwartz, who alights upon biographical snippets, bits of text and elegant yet enigmatic cultural theorizing with an aplomb that must make her quite sought after in her discipline. Her ability to illustrate complex concepts with a combination of aesthetic grace and edifying simplicity take the film up a few levels. Again, the documentary succeeds in artfully and entertainingly embracing its subject.

Zizek! does not look to be designed for group viewing or post-film (dare we say postfilm?) discussion among more than a roomful of people. Whether a film could present a more complete characterization of Zizek or his works in three hours, let alone one, is debatable. (The reviewer leans more to the contrary position on this question, and thankfully there is a wealth of extras on the DVD to soften the blow of the shockingly abrupt end leaving the viewer engaged in an Armageddon of the Ego, or possibly just politely asking for a bit more footage.) As an introduction, and an effective way to entice people into poring over Slavoj Zizek’s punctilious planet of paradoxes, Zizek! comes up roses.

Which would bring us to what roses actually are…

—–

Zizek!

Directed by Astra Taylor

Color, 2005, 71 minutes

English and Slovene with English subtitles

Zeitgiest Films


 
Aug
13
    

By Bryan Newbury
August 12, 2008

It has often been observed that all worthwhile traditional music emerges from suffering a combination of repression, violence and want. One could say often enough to make the sentiment platitudinous in the abstract. In the concrete, it is as essential a statement as could be made, especially to those who have been the ones experiencing the suffering.

If these tribulations are indeed the provenance of brilliant music, then no one has carried a heavier weight than the Roma people. 

A few additional elements are resourcefulness and soul, which the Roma have in spades. To argue which type of performance is more stirring, or to suggest that one kind of music is more soulful than another, is to court a series of debates which all turn up at a dead end. Then again, it would be difficult if not impossible to debate the earth moving spirit, the virtuosity, the proficiency and the originality of Roma, or gypsy, music. In the series of dead end roads, the dirt path trod by these beleaguered geniuses might well be the most magnificent. Whether playing on the traditional saarangi spike lute, the violin, the ney or the trombone, whether influencing Andalucían string music and dancing or appropriating Ottoman military marches, the Roma have historically absorbed hatred and bigotry and repaid their hosts with cultural expansion. 

In her latest film, Jasmine Dellal provides us with a glimpse into the music and lives of disparate yet unified Romani, as they venture from their homes in India, Romania, Spain and Macedonia on a North American tour. Equal parts performance film, travelogue and ethnological study, Gypsy Caravan does precisely what any fan of world music – music, for that matter – seeks. While treating us to largely uninterrupted sets (when interrupted with dialogue or shots from the performers’ home countries, done incredibly tastefully and without distraction) of some of the finest musicians and dancers in the world, it presents us with a look into just who the people are making their art. 

No character could be more arresting than the undisputed star of the film, Nicolae Neascu. Founder of the award winning and awe-inspiring group Taraf de Haïdouks, Nicolae was the living embodiment of a Romani musician. The viewer feels giddy and lucky at the prospect of listening to his setbacks, successes and desires, of seeing him interacting with kinsmen and countrymen, of hearing him proclaim from his humble abode that he is a star, and that “I am going to build a swimming pool, like Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp.” (Depp, of course, has spent a bit of time with Taraf. That alone establishes their must-know bona fides. Whenever someone is really worth knowing, Depp takes his plane out to hang with him/her/them, in order to bolster his greatest life ever credentials. Yes, ladies, Mr. Depp does appear in the film. Let us move on.) 

From Neascu’s village in southern Romania, to the Romania-Moldova border home of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the superlatively adept eleven-man brass band whose sound permeates Goran Bregovic’s stunning Underground soundtrack, to Skopje, Spain and northwestern India, Caravan commits to film something more than slice of life. In the stories and songs of Esma Redzepova, who can fairly be promoted from “Queen of the Gypsies” to “Patron Saint,” in the passionate torrent of Antonio el Pipa and the heart-rending saga of his aunt Juana, in the joyous and troubled qawwali blues of Maharaja and the cathartic dancing of their leader by fiat, Harish, we receive an adequate rendering of Roma music, culture and daily life. The word “adequate” seems harsh in most instances. In this case, it conveys the highest compliment. To expect a filmmaker to cover the millennial odyssey of such a colorful and complex people in a mere hour or two, while providing us with stirring live music from five distinct and enthralling ensembles would be beyond harsh. 

Dedicated to the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 (www.RomaDecade.org), Gypsy Caravan dispels popular mythology of the Roma people while providing footage of events and attitudes even in the United States, no stranger to prejudice, but with a much less present Roma Diaspora as that of Europe, that indicate the need for such mythology to be shattered. The Decade project prioritizes education, employment, health and housing, which the interviews in the film indicate are central to the dreams of Romani young and old. Among the less pernicious myths about the gypsy is his happiness with his lot of wandering and entertaining, a kind of Old World spin on the noble savage. It is clear that, while embracing a distinctive and many hued heritage, these people aspire to the same things the rest of us do. As Redzepova relates, the world could learn a few lessons from a people that have never engaged in warfare or occupation of a country. If one needs proof that music has the power to break barriers, to communicate and universalize the suffering of all, and to forge a path toward understanding and appreciation of his fellow man, he need look no further than Gypsy Caravan

If, however, the viewer wishes only to have a film whose music stirs the soul and injects frenetic energy and baffling musical proficiency, she might procure the exact same film.

—–

Gypsy Caravan: When The Road Bends…

Written, Directed and Produced by Jasmine Dellal

Color, 2006, 111 minutes

English; Romani, Spanish, Romanian, Macedonian, Hindi and Marwari with English Subtitles


 
Jul
30
    

By Bryan Newbury
July 30, 2008

Democracy, it could be argued, is a swindle. The quintessence of a bunco game perpetrated on the well meaning and cynical alike. This isn’t the exact conclusion one suspects Weijun Chen is aiming at delivering in his superlative documentary, but, for those predisposed to the notion, it is conveyed masterfully.

Please Vote for Me documents a class monitor election at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. It would be hard to argue that the Chinese haven’t the capacity or ability for electoral politics after this short hour. Indeed, they’re ducks in water.

The concept is novel. The third grade class will take part in an election for class monitor, as opposed to the selection that had always occurred. The candidates have been chosen by the instructors (free markets did lead to Western style democracy! Yaaay!) and put through the paces of what turns out to be a difficult, brutal and astonishingly mature election season. 

If the candidates were chosen specifically for the purpose of a film, it wouldn’t be surprising. The key to any good election… or election film, for that matter… is to have compelling candidates who fit certain profiles while belying the traits one expects and then return to home in a roundabout fashion. The characters typically break down thusly: an autocrat; a visionary; and a charlatan. It would seem that candidate Cheng Cheng fits the first and third categories nicely. Early on, he espouses the virtue of class monitor in starkly authoritarian terms. “The class monitor,” he reminds us, “gets to order people around.” Cheng Cheng does a good deal of this, both at school and at home. He is equal parts Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and Eric Cartman. Even as he begins his dirty tricks campaign against his adversaries – it took about four minutes – Cheng Cheng manages to charm and amaze with a combination of sweeping rhetoric and democratic ideals. At first, his motivations seem to be the purest of political ones, namely, that he wants the office and could use the control. As the film progresses, the child displays a personable and complex character. Few observers will argue early on that he isn’t a winner.

The next candidate, a female, is Xu Xiaofei. Unlike the two boys, Xu comes from a single parent home. We quickly see that bare knuckle campaigning just isn’t in her. Cheng Cheng deploys a sort of primitive Swift Boating during the musical competition, which leaves her in tears. She is kind and deliberate, not exactly the stuff of Tammany Hall. 

The third, and incumbent, candidate is Luo Lei. Much like Cheng Cheng, the first impression can be misleading. When discussing campaign strategy with his parents, Luo Lei insists that his compatriots should make their decision freely, and of sound mind. As the film develops, we learn that Luo defines bearing any burden through a clenched fist. There is an hilarious scene where both Xu Xiaofei and Cheng Cheng’s campaign staffers are compiling a list of Luo Lei’s shortcomings as class monitor. When Xu Xiaofei’s emissary gets around to Cheng Cheng himself, he states that a serious flaw in Luo Lei as monitor is that he beats the students too much. “We’ve got that one already,” she responds, to Cheng Cheng’s amusement.  In the course of debate, Cheng Cheng asks for a show of hands on who has been beaten by Luo Lei during his tenure as class monitor. There are quite a few volunteers. Luo Lei defends himself, as his parents suggested the night before, with very paternalistic reasoning. “Sure, I beat you, but only because you misbehave. If a parent beats his child, is it for no reason?” Cheng Cheng responds logically, stating that Luo Lei is a child himself, not an adult, then continues with a rhetorical flourish that eventually renders his opponent speechless. He has vanquished the more difficult foe, it seems.  Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jul
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
July 2, 2008

“Time is running out for Tibet. Every day, while we are sitting here praying for world peace, inside Tibet there’s more and more and more… and more… Chinese moving in. And, as I see it, the Chinese are playing for time… and we’re playing into their hands.”

Lhasang Tsering, Pro-Independence Tibetan in Exile.

Proposed diegesis:

08.08.08. The Olympic Torch has arrived in Beijing, give or take a few hundred human rights related expulsions on the way, and the grand flame is alight in the cauldron. Without warning, an international event ensues. The countries involved immediately scramble into action mode. For the United States, it could be a further incursion into the Near East. For Germany or France, a retribution through immigration reforms. For any number of countries, any number of scenarios. 

What of the host country, then? In the paranoiac surveillance state of China, there are a hundred ways to spin the event. Whatever the case of the victim country, China can surely parlay the unfortunate event into additional repression of a chosen group. The smart money may very well be on the largely ignored Uyghur dissidents in Xinjiang province. Why not? They are Muslim, as the assailants will no doubt be, and there are no celebrities to rally on their behalf. Then again, the Tibetans have long been the face with which China’s Orwellian boot has sought to step on eternally. Again, what would stop them, provided they share the requisite intelligence on the criminals in this hypothetical situation?

If The Unwinking Gaze is any indication, it wouldn’t be His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. 

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the Tibet situation. Aside from the vocal, well-meaning… and, likely, misguided… activists in the west – with their “Free Tibet” stickers and catchy chants in tow – any outside observer must confess an embarrassing inability to appreciate the nuance His Holiness is obliged to deal with.

Joshua Dugdale is to be commended for presentation. The film presents The Dalai Lama as he is; or, at least, as he is within the parameters of cameras and microphones. Following a brief introduction, we are given His Holiness and his supplicants without voiceover. Restrained narration is often a demerit in documentary filmmaking. In the case of The Unwinking Gaze, the viewer is rewarded greatly. Whatever frustration might arise from a seeming lack of context is subsequently acquitted in the conversation it elicits. 

A possible point of debate would be The Dalai Lama’s politic nature. From one perspective, it would appear to be callous, the proclamations of a false prophet. When listening to Tsering or the Tibetan Youth Congress quite literally shouting from rooftops, the long view of His Holiness – secure in his Dharamsala castle – it is forgivable for the viewer to share a profound consternation with the patient “Middle Way.” On the other hand, what would you have him, or his countrymen, do? As he points out, to the Chinese, the loss of 100,000 is nothing. To the Tibetans, the loss of 100 is substantial. “What of Castro, the Granma, and Ernesto Guevara?” the response comes, “Or Mao, for Chrissakes? Would the Tibetans not be served better by their own Mao, rather than this ineffectual holy man?” Whatever victory could be expected, the other side will respond, would redefine Pyrrhic. 

Back and forth it goes, like the recently minted Olympic sport of table tennis. “The Tibetan leadership in exile seeks to retain only the linguistic, cultural and religious elements of society, happy to consign its brethren to slavery. What’s that, then? As long as they retain primitive control, they capitulate to the very modern Chinese concept of Market Stalinism?” “Would you have the Lamas and the Ayatollahs equated?” comes the reply. And on and on.

This is the magic within The Unwinking Gaze. To the detached viewer, it is anything but a naïve hosanna to His Holiness. There are fifty questions for every answer, which, in this case, is the best we can expect. The Dalai Lama may well qualify for sainthood. An argument exists for his being all too human. What better praise of a filmmaker than to say that he puts this complexity at our door? 

—–

The Unwinking Gaze: The Inside Story of the Dalai Lama’s Struggle for Tibet

Produced & Directed by Joshua Dugdale

Color, 69 minutes, 2008


 
Jun
11
    

By Bryan Newbury
June 11, 2008

Just a day after clinching the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Senator Barack Obama received helpful words from his erstwhile (so Democrats hope) adversary, Senator Hillary Clinton. It was at an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention, where she assured the audience that Obama would be a friend to Israel. The elephant sitting at table three could have pointed out that this goes without saying. In the United States, support for Israel is a requirement, whether running for state senate, the House of Representatives, or county clerk, let alone president.

It is understood by anyone who even casually follows politics, yet it retains elephant in the room status. This is one of the many “whys” regarding the influence of the Israel lobby, one that – like most of the others – will likely never be discussed in our media, and certainly not in our legislature. 

Dutch public broadcaster VPRO presents a balanced and knowledgeable look at the question, and it is vexing to contemplate why our PBS avoids the issue. As with so many things dealing with Israel or the Jewish Diaspora, it is tricky footing for any commentator. The dual nature of the Jewish people, that Janus face of perseverance and victimhood, opens any interrogation to a host of charges, along with observations that can tread easily into the realm of conspiracy theory. The deftest minds of the ages have fallen prey, and the current state of affairs hardly makes it any easier. Thus, the host of “whys,” such as: Why does the United States give more money to Israel than any other nation, though it is a comparatively wealthy nation state?; Why do we consistently veto any United Nations resolution that is infinitesimally critical of Israeli policy or action?; Why is it that the truism, as stated by Eric Hobsbawm, that “(t)he default position of any state is to pursue its interests,” seems to belie our relationship to this small Near Eastern nation?; fall into a dead zone of inquiry here. 

It would be simple to dismiss these questions, and others, as the stuff of conspiracy theory… as wild-eyed Anti-Semitic claptrap… were it not for the fact that a documentary such as this is virtually impossible to make or distribute in the United States. The findings and opinions contained therein would be rightly condemned as Illuminatiesque soothsaying, were it not for the palpable intimidation and atmosphere of silence cultivated by allies of the Israel lobby, the same kind of silencing that serves as primordial breeding ground for over-reaches and conspiracies. The only cure for hatred and darkness, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, is love and light.

Just why these tactics are employed, in academia, international affairs, and even domestic issues, isn’t addressed directly by the film, nor is it the subject. In quite objective fashion, The Israel Lobby chooses to poke the elephant by pointing out that these tactics do exist, and that the aforementioned groups are subject to the sort of chilling effect that they portend. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jun
02
    

A Reaction, by Bryan Newbury
June 2, 2008

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/diebold_accidentally_leaks

You might have seen a satirical Onion video this February about Diebold accidentally leaking the 2008 general election results. You might have laughed. You might have stopped to consider the likelihood of this fake news piece being, in many ways, more efficacious than hours of election coverage on mainstream networks. The laughter might have subsided when the realization hit.

For those of you who did indeed experience that, Uncounted will serve as a thought-provoking sermon to a convert. For those of you that might have, but haven’t seen it as yet, click the link. We’ll wait.

All right. Now, for everyone left outside of groups A and B (which one can only suppose fall into the ostrich camp, the third congressional district of Oklahoma, or the mainstream media), the film should serve as a wake-up call. It’s tough out there, but you’ve been hitting the snooze button for about a decade. While you were sleeping, we might have lost our democracy.

Uncounted, much like Hacking Democracy, is information dense and utterly shocking, if a bit uneven in strictly aesthetic terms. In the course of a short 81 minutes, David Earnhardt addresses the principle issues driving successful election fraud. We start, naturally, in Ohio, circa 2004. One can almost feel the tingling, as the ghosts of strongmen and box stuffers throughout the ages, from Chicago to New Orleans and beyond, simultaneously quiver with admiration and kick themselves with envy while witnessing the myriad of methods used to attain scandalous levels of voter disenfranchisement. Uncounted illustrates the oppressively long lines, the purging of voter rolls, the undervotes (more on this to follow), and, of course, the voting machines. This reviewer can relate on the latter only through the words of the eternal Viv Savage: “Quite exciting, this computer magic.” Read the rest of this entry »


 
Apr
28
    

By  Bryan Newbury
April 28, 2008

A person’s views on the death penalty don’t just change. They evolve. When someone takes the time to investigate the process and the punishment, the only intelligent conclusion he can arrive at is that capital punishment is a barbaric miscarriage of justice. This seems to be the case At the Death House Door puts forward, and it would be difficult to argue to the contrary.

Most who maintain a fervently anti-death penalty stance have a Road to Damascus moment in which the act of a state killing in order to discourage killing unravels before them. For some, it was the case of Roger Keith Coleman of Grundy, Virginia. In 1992, Coleman became a cause célébre. All the pieces seemed to fall into place. Here was a coal miner who seemed to have had to complete a decathlonesque performance en route to the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Key evidence seemed to point to at least a shadow of a doubt. Governor Wilder was up for reelection, and seemed to be hearing none of the case.

The same year saw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Though the evidence of his guilt wasn’t in question, the issue of trying, convicting and executing a man who was essentially retarded shone a light on the craven political advantage in vengeance and blood lust. Governor Bill Clinton took the time to return to Arkansas, mid-campaign, in order to make sure the execution transpired.  Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jan
21
    

By Bryan Newbury
January 21, 2008

The United States became a debtor nation in 1989. It was the first time the U.S. could be so classified since World War I. From that point to the present, the red ink has ebbed and flowed, but largely expanded to the point where some economists and social scientists are predicting the kind of flood we saw in New Orleans a few years back. Your family’s share of the national debt is a cozy $90,000 and growing. The Chinese are holding the note, and, as William Greider wrote in 2004, “[t]he poker game ends when one major player or another decides it has gotten the last dollar off the table and it’s time to go home. Creditor nations naturally have the upper hand, like any banker who can call the loan when he sees the borrower is hopelessly mired.” How did we get to this point?

Maxed Out doesn’t examine the foreign and economic policy big picture as much as it illustrates the situation through the credit problems of individual Americans. The parallels are unbearably odd, though the motivations and manipulations don’t correspond. As a debtor nation, we are seemingly going out of our way to leave ourselves vulnerable. As a matter of domestic policy, our leaders identify with the creditors (their American paymasters) leaving the working and middle class to the rapacious vultures of the banking and credit industry. Given this dichotomy, it would be nigh on impossible for the most skillful filmmaker to weave a coherent narrative connecting the debt crisis affecting Main Street Americans with the multi-trillion dollar deficit crunch of our government. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Jan
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
January 2, 2008

Near the end of January 2002, President Bush delivered a speech, and within it a line, that would shape the American psyche for some years to come. By declaring an “Axis of Evil,” the groundwork was laid for a public to be motivated by fear and hyperbole. Were it not for a number of brave people, make no mistake that the United States would be bombing Iran as this is written. Of course, the Iranians haven’t the capability – likely, they don’t have the desire – to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Even if they did, they would be unable to detonate the device anywhere near American soil, unless one counts the colony of Iraq. That hasn’t stopped us before.

As with most of the foreign policy posturing in the last six years, the exaggerations and bad faith declarations serve to obscure tangible threats to our republic and the world. One of the Axis members who has spent the last five years under the radar (insert physicality pun here) is the nation led by esteemed filmmaker, librettist and cargo jacket model Kim Jong Il. Read the rest of this entry »


 
Nov
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
November 2, 2007

Okinawa. Guadalcanal. Attu. Normandy.

If it seems that something in that list is rather amiss, you might consider making time to view Red White Black & Blue. In a war that has been substantially documented, that has no doubt been the subject of more popular American books and films than any other, the seeming absence of the Aleutian campaign has been crying for correction.

There are a number of reasons contributing to this deficiency. First off, the battle on Attu was a secret operation from the beginning. As Red White Black & Blue points out, the soldiers engaged in the fighting were themselves kept in the dark until the last available minute. Their training occurred in the desert. Many of the infantrymen who would soon perish on the most distant island in the Aleutian chain were under the impression that they would be fighting in North Africa or Germany… until their ship was pitching in the unforgiving North Pacific off of Russia. The secrecy went so far that the proper winter supplies, such as boots, heavy coats and gloves, were withheld so that the word of the counter-invasion wouldn’t leak.

It is difficult to blame the United States military for an interest in keeping the operation clandestine. Imagine the panic that could set in were the American public to find out that a foreign power had, as of June 1942, taken American soil, which might serve as a staging ground for a mainstream attack.

“Where’s Attu?”

“I’m… not… sure.”

“Is it near San Diego?”

“I – I think so!”

Not pretty. From a strategic point of view, it would be unwise to telegraph to the Japanese that U.S. troops were on the way. The profile in tight lips was key to retaking Attu, 19 days, 4,000 men and a few hundred cases of frostbite later. Read the rest of this entry »