August 6, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Williams College professor Robert Jackall loves television detective shows, but unlike so many other fans, his profession has given him the opportunity to live out that fantasy, which he chronicles in his new book “Street Stories.” As a sociologist, Jackall spent years doing field work with the New York Police Department. Known as “The Professor” among the cops, Jackall didn’t just tag along as an outside observer, but found himself answering phones, watching suspects, and performing all sorts of other duties alongside the detectives.
Jackall said he gained such a position within the police fraternity by just being there all the time, showing interest in their cases, and not being judgmental. At first, the cops didn’t know quite what to make of him — he wasn’t a reporter, he wasn’t a screenwriter or director.
“This detective came over,” said Jackall, “and he was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, looking at me — this was a nervous habit that many of the old Irish guys had. He said ‘You know, I finally figured out who you are. You’re the professor. You want to understand us like nobody else that we’ve met does.’ I said ‘Yeah, that’s right.’”
Jackall’s study of police was born from his interest in investigative methods — that is, methods of uncovering the truth and determining responsibility — and their relationship with moral consciousness and occupational ethics. He ended up tagging along with the New York police at the peak of a massive crime epidemic in the 1990s, with more than 2,200 murders a year. Jackall also documented this time in his previous book, “Wild Cowboys,” which centers on drug-related violence.
Jackall found the NYPD to be quite open to his effort, something he found was the result of a common viewpoint among detectives there.
“From their standpoint, what they do is tremendously interesting, fascinating,” said Jackall, “and they can understand why anybody would want to come and study it. In a sense, they have a tremendous amount of occupational pride and they’re amazed that more people don’t want to learn about it.”
A portion of Jackall’s work was done by pouring over official police records and talking to the police about their cases. The natural rhythm and structure of the detectives’ answers was sprawling in such a way that Jackall would get a detailed lesson in precinct history from the simplest inquiry.
“You talk to detectives and you say, ‘How do you go about interrogating people?’” said Jackall, “and they’d say ‘Well, that’s simple, what you do interrogating people, I had a guy in the other day and this guy was a real scumbag, he was banging a girl named Jamieand she was something else, too,’ and suddenly you’re down the rabbit hole. One story is connected to another story is connected to yet another story. It all comes back together and comes full circle, eventually he will get back to the guy that he started with and he’ll answer your question but he’ll answer your question only through a series of complicated stories.”
Something that Jackall found fascinating was the relationships between criminals and detectives, an arrangement that often required the so-called good guys to put themselves in the place of the so-called bad guys — sometimes, entering their skin in a transformative way.
“A great deal of their talk and a great deal of their ability to do investigative work,” said Jackall, “depends upon their ability to enter in on the thought waves and morality of the criminal underworld. From a sociological standpoint, it’s called moral alternation, the ability to switch moral frameworks quickly and easily.”
This chameleon-like manner in which police structure their investigative work is something that Jackall feels feeds into public mistrust of police as a group, and yet it is mandatory to accomplish their assigned job. In many ways, police have to work with criminals in order to work against them.
“Part of detective work is sorting through the mass of contradictory stories,” said Jackall, “and knowing which stories to accept as true and which to discount. It’s not easy. It’s trade kind of thing, it’s not a professionalism in the way that we normally use the term, it’s the kind of trade experience that comes only from working the streets and only talking to these people again and again and again and seeing the same kinds of patterns emerge.”
Another odd form of collaboration between police and criminals is the careful dance of questioning a suspect in order to lead to a confession. The detectives call the practice “giving them an out” and it entails suggesting a justification for the crime to the perpetrator, one that makes sense to him and he can live with and can be used in the courtroom without embarrassment.
“This may seem like a strange phenomenon,” said Jackall, “but one of the things that’s so immediately evident is how important the detectives are in providing the vocabulary that criminals use in situations that are unfamiliar to the criminals — that is to say, the official arena of our society that is the court.”
In other words, cops work as interpreters, providing vocabulary for two different worlds to communicate. This dynamic has its own plusses and minuses in context of the system.
“If the criminal is confessing and then offers that excuse in a public court, it’s accepted usually,” said Jackall, “but there’s a consequence that’s interesting. It simultaneously sanitizes the crime in an interesting way, because almost invariably, you’re giving the guy an excuse that he can live with, and that is a sanitized version of what he did. That then becomes ‘the official reality.’”
Much like reporters who have knowledge of “off-the-record” events and opinions, police often know more about any given related situation than the general public.
“In this sense, then, the detectives live in a world that is a world of secret knowledge,” said Jackall. “They know what really happened, often they can’t speak about that publicly, but they speak about it amongst themselves all the time.”
Jackall keeps in touch with several of the officers he befriended during the years he worked with them and nowadays finds his working coming full circle. He is currently doing a study of counter-terrorism that has taken him all around the world, from the U.S./Mexican borders to Israel to Jordan and back to New York City, where the NYPD has developed its own counter-terrorism unit with offices all over the world, bypassing the federal agencies that are charged with that mission. Jackall hopes to return to the precincts to study the NYPD intelligence division and is currently waiting for a decision on his proposal with the police commissioner.
In the meantime, Jackall deals with the feds. And what does the professor have to say about his new beat, which is defined by a level of secrecy that he never encountered with the NYPD?
“This is like entering another world,” said Jackall. “Talk about ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the cops were easy in comparison to this.”
July 7, 2005 § Leave a Comment
The Contemporary Arts Center is presenting its Berkshire Biennial Art Exhibition this Friday through Aug. 11, gathering several area artists — including Samuel T. Adams, Linda Mieko Allen, Edward Cating, Paul Chojnowski, Peggy Diggs, Peter Dodek, Julie McCarthy, David Ricci, Barbara Groves, and Adam Zaretsky — under one roof.
Several of the artists took the time to speak about their work.
Holding a mirror up for America
Williams College student Meleko Z. Mokgos pulls from his former home of Botswana and the world at large for his work. The two paintings he is showing pull from his social and political concerns and constitute not only a concern that he wishes to pass on to people who might not be aware of the depth of despair in parts of the world, but also an expression of what he has witnessed living in Africa.
“This work deals with the atrocities occurring in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Israel and Iraq,” said Mokgos. “I cannot try to feel or rationalize how that 13-year-old Sudanese girl feels or thinks as a consequence of being raped or having witnessed her mother being raped and abused. I cannot say I have experienced the sensations of not eating for four days in a row, nor can I vividly see with firsthand experience what Robert Mugabe (president of Zimbabwe) has done to his people. But I try to communicate these events and some of the emotions to change something”
Mokgos takes raising social awareness as his major artistic goal, not by instructing people’s thoughts and beliefs, but by holding up a mirror to the world, one that reveals the ugliness that has defiled human countenance — especially to the citizens of his current residence, who he feels needs to connect better with the tragedies infecting the rest of the world.
“A majority of the American masses have become consumed by mass culture, by Cadillac and the Red Sox,” said Mokgos. They lack awareness what is going on around them and even in their own country. By not addressing Robert Mugabe with the same urgency that he addressed Saddam, Big Brother showed that he really doesn’t give a s–t about anything he cannot benefit from.”
Mokgos’ paintings portray hurt faces and abusive routines that are common in the countries he takes as his subjects. He hopes that being exposed to the raw faces of the world beyond our borders will awaken something in Americans that goes beyond an economic system of self-preservation at all costs.
“Economic self-interest is undoubtedly the backbone of capitalism, the American dream,” said Mokgos. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 8, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Iconic German filmmaker Werner Herzog swooped down on Williamstown for what appeared to be an impromptu visit, but was in fact scheduled a year ago … and was actually supposed to occur in 2006. Apparently, the date just slipped Herzog’s mind amidst the book and three films that he has been working on this past year.
“These accidents sometimes have a special charm,” Herzog told his audience in the Oakley Center at Williams College.
At Williams, Herzog fielded questions from the seminar audience, which ushered in some lively storytelling from Herzog, covering his work and his life, as well as his philosophies and techniques in film making.
Herzog’s international breakthrough was the 1973 film “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” which featured the late Klaus Kinski as a 16th-century Spanish conquistador in search of El Dorado.
Herzog went onto direct films such as “Woyzeck” and “Fitzcarraldo” with Kinski, as well as the posthumous documentary about his association with the actor, “My Best Fiend.” Herzog also was featured in the short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which the director does just that after losing a bet to Massachusetts documentarian Errol Morris.
Many behind-the-scenes tales of his productions illustrated his place as a unique figure in the film industry, as with his insistence on filming a dancing arcade chicken for the finale of “Stroszek.” His crew thought the idea was stupid, so he sent them out for burgers and filmed it himself.
“It’s a very big metaphor,” Herzog said, “but a metaphor for what, I can’t tell you. But I know it is very big and it will stand the test of time.”
For Herzog, the chicken was just one more example of what he calls “the ecstatic truth,” something he tries to capture in all his films. In his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Herzog scripted a section that has the Vietnam pilot and former prisoner of war Dieter Dengler making a large show of opening and shutting doors repeatedly and what this symbolizes to him.
In fact, Dengler did not do this in his real life, but Herzog directed him to in order to get at that “ecstatic truth,” which he describes as a deeper truth, not a fact — facts, says Herzog, are the “accountant’s truth.”
“If the accountants come and tell me this is incorrect I will tell them ‘Bravo! You get a straight A for that!’” Herzog said. “But sometimes you fabricate an event in a documentary in order to dig into a much deeper strata of truth, a quintessential truth, which nobody else would reach unless you started to stylize, to invent, to use elements that you have seen and intensify them.”
To Herzog, movies have lost this sort of truth and no longer wish to uncover it — largely, it seems, because of the talent and effort it takes to recognize the conduits of such truth.
“It is a gift that you can develop,” said Herzog, “and you can develop it by experiencing fundamental things like knowing what it means to be starving, what it means to be incarcerated, knowing what it means to raise children, knowing what it means to be shot at unsuccessfully. That’s a deep experience, when people open fire at you and you aren’t hit. You experience that and you develop into a human being who knows the human part, knows it better than others, and knowing the heart of men.”
Herzog claims that this ability is one of his biggest talents and points to his documentary “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner” as an example of this strength at work. The film examines the psychology of champion ski-jumper and wood sculptor Walter Steiner in a manner that is very personal to Herzog, who once trained to be a ski jumper and went to competition until a friend’s skiing accident distressed him enough to give it up.
“I keep dreaming it and all of a sudden, there emerges a man,” Herzog said. “A wood carver, an artist, a sculptor, taciturn, lanky, not good on solid ground, but flying like a Frisbee in the air, and that’s what I always had dreamt about.”
Steiner is typical of the kind of person Herzog centers his films around and Herzog says that is because people like Steiner are more than the person they appear to be.
“Steiner is the embodiment of all our dreams,” said Herzog, “of humankind’s dreams of flying, and here there is a man who flies and flies, and doesn’t stop and almost flies into his own death, being punished for the ecstasy of flying. He embodies all the dreams of humankind, dreams of flight, dreams of soaring, dreams that you have at night of falling and flying. So, it’s not a singular person, he’s quintessential, what constitutes us as human beings. The same thing with Kinski, all the rage, all the paranoia, all the intensity is in a person, visible on a screen, that is part of many of us and audiences understand that.”
Herzog himself appears to be one of these people to anyone who meets him. After leaving a remote village in Bavaria as a teenager, Herzog worked the night shift in a welding factory to fund his first film, which he shot on a stolen camera.
“I never saw it as a theft,” said Herzog. “It was a rightful appropriation.”
Herzog’s life shifts into the legendary from that starting point. His global exploits involve tramping around the United States, death plots from and toward actor Klaus Kinski, risking his life and others’ to drag a boat over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle, filming on location in Kuwait in the center of the oil fires, and being imprisoned in Africa.
After such a life, it is Herzog’s contention that future filmmakers should be ready for crime if they wish to make films that reveal that “ecstatic truth” that he seeks — forging a document and stealing a car would definitely be on his curriculum as important survival skills for film directors.
“How to pick a lock, that would be the first thing I would teach,” said Herzog. “It doesn’t dawn on any film school to teach that.”
The shadows of criminality are Herzog’s own way of doing things and, therefore, his personal way of living and working. As a young German, he moved on from the Nazi era, unlike so many of his contemporaries, and that, perhaps, is the root to his message to students who now find themselves in modern world. Herzog’s advice? Accept it and move on.
“Create your own values of culture and put it against the values that you do not like,” said Herzog. “Just don’t complain, don’t lapse into the culture of complaint — roll up your sleeves and create your own art, create your own values, create your own cultural values, that’s what going to change things.”
March 24, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Williams College professor Mark C. Taylor’s life’s work is the examination of the culture of religion and its relationship to art, architecture, society and even economics. His latest book, “Confidence Games,” focuses on the market economy’s relationship with religion in order to further his ideas about the interconnectedness of everything.
“There is a religious dimension to all of culture,” said Taylor, “and part of the interpretive process is to try to show the religious dimensions of money and markets.”
Taylor said that the religious structure of the market dates back to Martin Luther, by way of Adam Smith, a Scottish Calivnist, who used metaphors lifted from John Calvin.
“The way in which the market functions is, for Smith and those down to the present day, the way in which God functions, the guiding hand of the market and all those kinds of metaphors,” said Taylor. « Read the rest of this entry »