October 26, 2006 § Leave a Comment
The old chestnut states that hindsight is 20/20, but in the case of the current war in Iraq, the wealth of information is such that we don’t need to wait a decade or two to see things clearly. Much of the clarity that is available has been made so through an astonishing number of documentary films.
With “Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers” director Robert Greenwald adds to his already impressive arsenal of editorial-style documentaries — he took on Fox in “Outfoxed” and Wal-Mart in “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices,” among other Bush-era targets. Off the radar of the mainstream American viewer, Greenwald has been diligently documenting the sorry state of modern America with a battery of connect-the-dots informational segments and first-person accounts by the people affected most by the corruption that Greenwald documents — ordinary, working Americans.
He repeats his formula with the same level of success with “Iraq For Sale” — as always, informative and energetic, not to mention dire. The film opens with some simple facts that portray the conflict as a business opportunity for some large corporations. It’s certainly common knowledge that this is the first war where the bulk of the work is being done by temps — that is, 100,000 contracted workers providing everything from food service for the military to repairs and shipping. In the case of places like Abu Ghraib, interrogation also is among the outsourced services.
It’s a lucrative business — Halliburton has managed to pack away $18.5 billion, a goliath when compared to the other corporations that profit, such as Parsons to the tune of $5.3 billion and DynoCorp’s paltry sum of $1.9 billion. At this point, 40 cents of every dollar spent on the war goes to private contractors.
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October 19, 2006 § Leave a Comment
If amusement parks have long worked as a powerful metaphor for the contrast between escapism and reality, then Coney Island must be king of them all, a lingering phantom that reminds visitors how exciting the future must have seemed 100 years ago and how disappointing the present can be. The corpse that is Coney Island provides the setting for most of “Little Fugitive,” a film by Joanna Lipper and a remake of a 1953 film of the same name but far more of a neo-realist aesthetic to it. Lipper’s version is far more of a structured drama, as it examines the relationship between brothers Joey (David Castro) and Lenny (Nicholas Salgado) and their destructive parents — a father in jail and a neglectful, alcoholic mother.
Both boys are fixated on Coney Island, particularly the rickety old rollercoaster, the Cyclone. Anyone who has ever looked at that contraption firsthand can certainly understand the concept of it being a rite of passage — it looks like its falling apart and death to any riders is imminent. Originally, Coney Island will be the scene of Lenny’s 12th birthday celebration, but following a series of dark events, it turns into the landscape through which the brothers escape their lives.
You really couldn’t pick a better location than Coney Island, which sits on the ocean like the corpse of a dream, and the cityscape that surrounds it is nothing but drab concrete, endless chain link fences, lumbering industrial buildings, all under a gray, oppressive sky. This is hardly the wonder that Coney Island promised a century ago and Lipper provides a context for the trampled dreams of the park’s visitors as you watch the boys become lost in the maze of confusion it has become.
At Lipper’s disposal is a wealth of footage from back in the day, when Coney Island was the most magical place on earth, long before Disneyland was even a glint in a psychologically disturbed gentleman’s eye. One of the most mesmerizing sequences involves the story of the elephant Tops, who is so abused by his owner that he eventually kills him. In crass reaction, an public execution is set up for the elephant, spearheaded by Thomas Edison, whose electric lights adorn the amusement park and creates the heavenly splendor that blinds the wonder-filled eyes of children. Edison’s magical ability of electricity, however, is here directed towards death and all the wonder inherent in Coney Island is used to electrocute Tops, whose body stiffens amidst the smoke created by its burning flesh, a victim of progress as personified by Edison.
Equally striking is the footage accompanying the tale of Coney Island’s premature baby house, where the preemies of hookers and drug addicts were given the care they needed to stay alive in exchange for being exhibited behind glass to the gawking onlookers who piled into the exhibit area.
After their Coney Island odyssey, the two Latino boys appear to be saved by the white mainstream establishment after being marginalized for years, but, as Tupper points out, suffering is entertainment to some and glittering dreamscapes are like roach traps for those who can amuse as they desperately grasp for something better. Coney Island is now, as the film reveals, still populated by the so-called dregs of society, but this time, they are no longer amusingly ugly ornaments on an otherwise shiny bauble, but maggots on a dead body.
October 19, 2006 § Leave a Comment
In Barbara Ettinger’s “Two Square Miles,” the main conflict involves one small town’s battle against a Swiss-owned concrete plant that wants to open up for business there, but what lies beneath is a case study in the changing face of small town America and the bad blood that boils in that regard. The city of Hudson, N.Y., is close to North Adams socially as well as geographically. Over the years, Hudson has been home to industries such as whaling, ladies’ purses, matches and cement, but, lately, its industrial trappings are being revitalized — or invaded, depending on who you ask — by an outsider artistic community opening theaters, restaurants and shops there. On the economic front, the influx cleans up the downtown, provides locally-owned business that brings in dollars and some level of opportunity, but on the social one, the “new people” are seen as weird and snobby and working to exclude the old time residents through their efforts.
In fact, the trajectory of Hudson is very similar to that of North Adams and, in some areas, our New York State sister city is ahead of us. Whereas our downtown is still very much a work in progress and still part of the tug of war to figure out not only what the area needs but what will actually succeed there, Hudson’s seems to benefit from a shared vision between the entrepreneurial outsiders — it’s a hell of a lot more fully realized, it’s very obviously arrived at its destination.
With the success of the artistic community and the downtown area, the efforts naturally move onto a second phase of revitalization, involving the locals who have not been able to partake in that upward movement directly. In more further parallels to North Adams, the local government is portrayed as one not totally open and collaborative with its citizens — the term “fiefdom” comes up more than once in regard to their mayor, as well. Though the artistic community works hard with local outreach and education, it falls short for one very logical reason: All the cooking classes for teens in the world don’t create new jobs.
The point where the trajectories Hudson and North Adams veer off from twin courses arrives with the introduction of the one, big plan to save the city. In North Adams, it was a wacky art museum that might disturb some sensibilities, but little else. In Hudson, it was a pollution spewing plant proposed by the Swiss concern St. Lawrence Cement, a company notable for burning tires and hazardous material to reuse as fuel, and the reaction to accentuated the social divisions already at play in Hudson.
The citizen activists working against the plant are, as you have already guessed, spearheaded by the newer citizens, who often live up to their stereotype of artsy, big city, socially exclusive, sometimes pushy types. Those who support the plant are also exactly who you imagine them to be — old local residents who remember the glory days of being a factory town and are more than capable of living up to their own stereotype as well. So desperate for work are some of these folks that the details of the plant— which reveal not only the destruction of their own well-being but also out and out lies about the actual amount of jobs it will offer — are dismissed as unimportant details that the “antique dealers” are using to swindle the common man out of his livelihood.
As you can expect, the sentiments of the old time residents are spurred on by a local government — who see easy dollar in contrast to their own lack of transformative ideas — and a mayor who received campaign contributions from, you guessed it, St. Lawrence Cement.
How, oh, how can this all come together amicably?
Ettinger does a great job at laying out all the players and watching them at work during the fight. At times she manages to find some people who refuse to lay down and be stereotypes, most notably the local postman, who lays out his anti-factory stance through a cool, unbiased socio-economic analysis of a movement that he is not really a part of, and a restaurant owner, who worked in the old cement plants in his college years (and whose father worked in them all his life) and knows all too well the devastation on health and community that such industry has.
It is giving nothing away to say that, in the end, it all works out, there is no plant in Hudson, N.Y., and lungs are safe, at least from smoke stacks. There is still a much larger battle to be fought in the town and Ettinger, much like Nancy Kelly before her, steers the conclusion to the hopeful positivity of the victory rather than focusing on the further, rough nitty gritty that the situation perpetuates. The issues of Hudson were no more permanently solved by the defeat of the plant than the issues of North Adams were fixed by the opening of Mass MoCA.
As Ettinger so skillfully illustrates, there is not end in the progression of a town and it functions much like a living entity, with the same Darwinian backdrop to its survival. In other words, change is the one constant in the universe and you have to fashion survival by harnessing its power. You can not fuel the future of a city on nostalgia and until you can unite under that concept, you are doomed to travel sideways.
October 12, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Reflecting on your past can sometimes be an American hobby and the special nature of the age of 21 is that it really is the first year that you see the results of your past, the first time that you can really look back with regret or pride, and obsess with how what you did has shaped what you are doing.
“21 Up America” documents the lives of a group of Americans since the age of seven. Every seven years, filmmakers have gone back to catch up with them and their lives and what results is something along the lines of a therapy session with someone you might run into at the local mall every few years when you visit your parents on holidays.
The common denominator in people that age is, if this film is anything to judge by, loneliness. Sometimes, it is something that is thrust upon them, other times it is something that just lurks in the ether around them. Stranger still, sometimes loneliness becomes a reaction meant to protect them or make them better, a defense mechanism that allows them to build up what life has torn down.
It’s the overriding emotion in people like Kaneesha, who grew up in the projects in Chicago, eventually ended up in the suburbs and, by the end of the film, turns her back on her past and her family in a supreme moment of self-preservation for she and her daughter that invites alienation — she moves to Texas to further her education. That’s no spoiler, however — how Kaneesha gets to that point, where she applies the detachment from her own experience into a bid for survival that thumbs its nose at nostalgia, is the real story.
Similarly, other kids do the same with less of a plan. Kate grew up well-provided for in New York City, but felt like a freak in her concrete surroundings — yet a move to the suburbs helped her feel no less displaced. Eventually, she finds herself back in the city and halted by her proximity to the place in her childhood that gave her such distress. In reaction, she bolts from everything — and, in her flight, finds something of meaning.
By contrast, Lucy, with whom Kate is interviewed over the years, stays in New York City and manufactures angst, living up to the old notion that if New Yorkers couldn’t complain about how much they hated where they lived and how close they were to leaving, they wouldn’t actually have much to say. It’s all hot air when compared to the third in the interview partnership, Alexis, whose devotion to achievement involves the sacrifice of a life and, eventually, despair when everything falls through and no sign of Kaneesha’s willful survival skills are in evidence.
You can’t expect everyone’s life to be eventful in a seven-year span and the filmmakers adjust the narrative with this understanding, often using the experience of some to pepper the deeper study of others. For instance, no great drama has happened to Ashton, the bookish Christian boy scout from Nebraska, but, somehow, even in the even keel, the filmmakers are able to fete out his dissatisfaction with his conservative upbringing and his need to leave home to find new experiences that will somehow help him see himself apart from where he was raised.
However, Eric, the young entrepreneur, really embodies the specter of loneliness that haunts the fringes of the film. Even as a child and a teenager, Eric was a precocious kid, though honest, and assured in a way that kids just aren’t naturally. At 14, he became the CEO of his own company, pulling in millions of dollars, and becoming such an overachiever that he entered medical school at an early age and was well on his way to becoming Doogie Howser.
The tragedy of Eric is that he seems to have no one to share this success with in a deep way and he speaks in terms of being a solitary presence often. His entire worldview is built around the idea of everyone being alone in the world — but then, everyone is not him and these come off as things he must tell himself to justify why this bright, clever, confident fellow should find himself traveling around with no center.
The antithesis of Eric is Louis, who grew up in the slums of New York City and found his life very nearly derailed by his messed up parents, who routinely abandoned him and his siblings and left him to act as an adult far before most people. Louis eventually turns his back on all that life has dealt him, an action of self-preservation so harsh that once he has built himself back up, it is not easy for him to turn back his decisions and attempt to piece back the parts of his life that almost destroyed him. Such is the power and strength of Louis, who is easily the hero of the film and its moral center. Louis does not shy away from even the harshest tasks, but he is also not a cold, heartless guy — he is still, in fact, quite tender to his old monsters — but watching him grapple with these issues is enlightening and heartening.
With a film like this, it is tempting to see yourself and the people you know in the lives of those who participate – perhaps that is the appeal for many viewers. Certainly the emotional lines drawn between those in the film — and the obvious ironies in the outcomes of their lives — are the same as those you might use in your own experience. The larger message, though, is that most lives aren’t great big dramatic tragedies and for many of us, it’s the small heartaches and drama that seem so big that weigh us down and keep us fighting. In America, at least, it seems there are far more people with lives like Kate than like Louis and, in that fashion, the film at least shows us who we are and who we aren’t and allows us to marvel at the strengths of either.
October 12, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Artist Lisa Nilsson uses her attention to detail to create the small building blocks by which larger patterns are formed and the results are inseparable from their creator. Nilsson’s work, which some refer to as “box assemblages,” are the result of her fascination with multiple materials and forms and her desire to work both two and three dimensionally at the same time — and all on as small a scale as possible. The result is dense but sprawling mosaics that point to her own tiny obsessions but add up to something much larger in its representations of her very being.
“It’s frustrating walking around with me sometimes, I don’t always pay attention to the whole picture,” said Nilsson. “I tend to see life as a succession of details, I experience things in detail, I experience life in details, and I tend to think that any larger pattern applied to the detail is strictly random and so unknowable.”
Nilsson’s work reflects her thought process, with her pieces being built of small items she has fixated on, which could be anything from a balloon end to a dead fly, but which make a connection in her mind and, because of that attention, gain importance through the presentation.
“I have this idea that things are as important as the amount of attention paid to them,” said Nilsson, “so it’s this sort of economy of attention.”
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October 5, 2006 § Leave a Comment
French born cuatro player Oliver Conan paints New York City as a multicultural melting pot and offers his band, Las Rubias del Norte, as proof of what can happen in such an atmosphere. Conan, who also co-owns the celebrated Brooklyn club Barbes, is one of the founding members of the band, a distinction he shares with co-vocalists Emily Hurst and Allysssa Lamb, two former classical chorale singers who add an unusual dimension to the already eclectic mix that the band presents.
“Both singers have classical training, but at the same time, they are not singing classical music like they are aware of it,” said Conan. “They probably have a mutual delivery that is as equally influenced by popular music and the purity of the voices are the result.”
Las Rubias del Norte are renowned for being the Latin band that plays Mozart – Mozart’s Confutatis, to be exact — but they also play everything else from Perfidia to the Sons of the Pioneers and the variety reflects the background of each member. Conan had previously worked in a French and Latin bands, percussionist Greg Stare had been in a meringue band and bass player Taylor Bergren-Christman is in the Klezmer band Golem.
“We’ve all played different things,” said Conan, “but we all had a passion for Latin music.”
Las Rubias Del Norte began life when Hurst and Lamb, who had become friends while members of the New York Choral Society, began some extra curricular practices with the idea of forming a vocal duo and ended up moving into the realm of many forms of Latin pop music. Conan knew Lamb from a few years before when he had been seeking an accordion player for his band — until recently, Lamb was largely known as an accordionist and violinist, but tendonitis has caused her to concentrate more on vocals.
Always had a plan
“We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do,” said Conan. “They just started singing duets and I brought in a bunch of songs that I really liked and we came up with a sound and an approach that’s been pretty much the same ever since.”
The band acquired members organically, through a series of already-established connections that lead to playing together, exploring sounds and even putting together sets at parties.
“We had a community of musicians who all played in projects,” said Conan, “and that community came together for Las Rubias del Norte.”
The community also gave Conan the opportunity to function in the same world as many of his musical heroes even though he never imagined such a thing would ever happen. For one thing, he did not come to New York City to be a musician, it just ended up that way. He had done music in Paris, but had no plan to pursue it as a career.
“It just became the most exciting thing you could do in New York,” said Conan.
In France, Conan had listened to and loved the music of such as Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Eddie Charlie Palmieri, Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco. It was a total shock to him when he arrived to find that so many of his influences were not based in their native countries, but in his new home.
“I was shocked to discover that a lot of the Latin music I had been listening to actually came from New York,” said Conan. “The rest of the world thinks of them as in Puerto Rico or Cuba or the Domenican Republic, but they are actually from New York, and I got to see all those guys.”
Long after his own personal experience in bands and with his club, it seems obvious to Conan that this music came out of New York City.
“It was New York’s culture,” said Conan, “and it didn’t just happen to live there, it was this dynamic exchange between cultures and music that came out of it.”
It’s this exchange that not only created the music Conan loved, but the music Conan produced — it was an energy that he never found in Paris.
“It’s a much more exciting place to play music,” said Conan, “there are a lot of exciting styles here, African music and great classical traditions, with a lot of popular culture, it’s quite exciting. The musicianship in Paris is nowhere near what it is in New York.”
The band’s latest CD “Panamericana” has them directing their own diverse energy — as well as reflecting New York City’s — by performing a variety of Latin styles from across the world: Cumbia, huayno, ranchera, cancion and many others.
Conan says that the band has embraced an aesthetic is reminiscent of the Latin orchestras from the 30′s through the 50′s as epitomized by their biggest influence, the Lecuona Cuban Boys, who mixed Afro-Cuban rhythms with Western European-influenced arrangements in the 1930s. This criss-crossing comfortability in Latin music styles is the basis for the ever-evolving Pan-Latin-American sound.
“A typical Peruvian party band will hopscotch from New York Salsa to Colombian cumbias to Andean huaynos, and somehow claim it all as part of what is perceived as a global Latin heritage,” said Conan. “Las Rubias fits in that tradition. While we are rooted in what you could say is our local culture — certain New York sound, classical music, whatever our past and daily baggage may be — we think of the global Latin repertoire as readily available to us, even if we bring our idiosyncrasies to the interpretations.”
Some might consider the band’s idiosyncrasies might be pronounced, especially since they express their energy through some unusual and little-known building blocks like melodica, glockenspiel and the girls’ pure sounding classical tones, and make unsual choices of material to perform. On the other hand, it all translates into something subversively traditional and supremely New York.
“We make it our own, in our own way, on our own terms,” said Conan. “The only people to ever object to what they perceive is our lack of authenticity tend to be English speaking Americans. Latin audiences pretty much always understand what we do.”