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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who the hell are you to say a woman can't sell her body?!

San Francisco, via Proposition K, is attempting to decriminalize prostitution. That might sound radical to you if you live in America, but it is probably common sense to you if you live in Europe. I am continually amazed that in our Western liberal legal tradition we have somehow permitted ourselves to outlaw consensual acts between two adults. Robbery, stabbing, rape--sure, make them illegal, because one person in the equation is definitely not willing the transaction. But drug use, prostitution, vacations to Cuba...we think we have the right to tell people they're being victimized when they might not think so? Check out the comments of San Francisco D.A. Pardini:

"The proponents usually paint a fairly rosy picture of two consenting adults and a monetary exchange at the end," Pardini said. "They don't factor in the people that are being exploited and people that are being controlled, the ones manipulated both physically and chemically."

Right on. Pardini paints a fairly rosy picture of himself as defender of the exploited, controlled, and manipulated, physically and chemically. I actually find that a noble sentiment, but in the tradition of impartial, impersonal Western justice, let's go all the way and criminalize all exploitation and chemical/physical control: let's criminalize candy and soda companies for their exploiting of consumers via chemical addiction to one of the most destructive drugs in America, refined sugar. Let's criminalize Michael Bay, Joel Schumacher, Larry Clarke, and other American filmakers who exploit the human capacity to be hynotized and morally shut-down by addictive action-images, or plots that keep us asking what's next instead of what's now, what do we have here. Let's criminalize campaign finance, advertising, HMOs, automobile companies, Walmart, and everyone and everything else that uses physically and chemically addicting substances, the fear of poor health or death, and manipulative rhetoric to accomplish their aims. I'd go so far as to claim that legalized prostitution is LESS exploitative than your average American job, considering how many live at or below the poverty level, and how companies like Walmart are run by greedy pimps, selling out anyone and everyone for that most sinister of euphemisms: 'competitiveness.'

Once again, I'm all for criminalizing exploitation, which is to say: initiating a socialist revolution (not necessarily violent, of course). But if that makes you uncomfortable, then at least be consistent and don't criminalize drug use or prostitution. Or do you really think Michael Bay is less whorish than, well...whores?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Notes from the American Nightmare: the Southwest

I have been traveling across these marginally united states of America, a marginal citizen, given that most of the states I travel through wish that people like me would move to France. This is one of the few things on which I agree with them: I too wish I would move to France. Another belief we share: life is hard for the poor and we wish it were different. Where we diverge is that they actually admire and vote for the people and philosophies that make them poor, whereas I vote for the kind of people who could save them: the socialists. After all, so much of what is beautiful in this land is a direct result of socialists. How can that be, you say, having grown up as you have on a steady diet of Associated Press reports on Venezuela and Cuba. The national park system was largely built under the aegis of New Deal programs such as the WPA and CCC. Today we swam in a facility at Lea Lake, one of the “bottomless lakes” in New Mexico. This facility, like most at national parks, was built by New Deal workers. We all know that the New Deal was a structurally a socialist program. In fact, the late thirties into early forties was a politically socialist time in America. Why? Because we were facing hitherto unknown mass poverty.
Today, the rich-poor gap is higher than ever, the deficit is higher than ever, unemployment remains sky high, and millions of Americans suffer under inadequate health care and inept public schools, good education being affordable mostly for the middle class and up. And yet we have legislated no New Deal. I drove through Pecos, Texas today, a ramshackle town that rises coweringly out of a long stretch of flat desert scrub heading south from New Mexico. The town boasts the world’s first rodeo, the grave of the ‘gentleman outlaw’ (hmm, back in 1999 they told me there was no such thing), excellent cantaloupe, and the legend of Pecos Bill. In fact, the national monuments and western museum are about all that remain functioning in this all-too-common outpost in the most intense segment of the American Dream-cum-Nightmare: Texas. As we drove into town, we were greeted by scores of decrepit, gutted, boarded up, and collapsing houses. Where the houses were still occupied, the occupants seemed to be fighting a losing battle against economic and natural entropy. The sidewalks have lost out to the weeds, the churches have lost out to the bottle, and of course the businesses have lost out to the dogmatic religion of capitalism. About 25% of the businesses on Main Street remain functional. The rest are a motley collection of dirty FOR SALE signs, boarded up and broken windows, and long-since accurate town clocks, thermometers and celebratory signs. We stopped in for a Horchata shake at a fly-infested shop run by a 26-year old single mom, returned from San Antonio, TX to care for her ailing father. Therein I read the tiny Pecos Independent, with its bravely positive accounts of the Cantaloupe Decorating Contest and the rising unemployment. The opinion section was dominated by a ‘guest opinion’, whose credentials are a mystery, insisting that the “enviro-wacko, Marxist, liberal democrats”, assisted by the “biased mainstream media” (this mantra appeared three times), party line that high gas prices are good for us is in truth yet another totalitarian gesture designed to strip us of our independence. He also maintained that the battle to allow offshore oil drilling and to build refineries is the ‘battle for America’s soul.” Glad we straightened that out—‘soul’ has always been an elusive concept for me.
If Pecos, TX is independence, reduce my independence, please. Give me back generous funding of National Parks and life-saving preventative medicine. Give me an electric car at an affordable price to drive into the Joshua Tree National Park, so that the number of stars doesn’t fall by another eight thousand or so (last few decades). Give me that strong American collective spirit of activism not marshaled towards saving fetuses—cf. highway sign activism in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—but towards saving single mothers in their thirties.
I should mention that as I am writing this, a fearless skunk is strolling past me, tail high in the air like a burgee of skunk identity. I am at a campground in Ft. Something, Texas, typing in a cactus garden while my laundry finishes. I should also mention that I love how much empty land is left in this massive country: the bracing sense of possibility driving across these “wide open spaces” that the Dixie Chicks sing about. The sense of possibility once you reach the towns themselves, on the other hand, the towns where the Dixie Chicks records were burned for their exercise of the freedom that enviro-wackos want to take away…well, that sense is barely alive, mostly in the form of a possible afterlife. There, the sky is the limit when it comes to standard of living. Let’s first work on the standard of living down here, where 1/8 of Americans live below the poverty level, where 1/3 of Americans are classified “low-income”, and where the architects and town planners don’t even try to echo nature’s beauty.
I’m sounding… who out there will echo me?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Excerpt from novel “Anthem”, ©2008 The Sacred Dice

10.31.98 A Four-Part Symphony

10.31.98: Set I

In. We’re in. We’re very in. The ritual is in progress and the ceilinged sky awash with manic stars. The music! How could I ever doubt that music is the ground of all higher being? Like stepping into a wind tunnel of rarefied air. The music sits thick and dominant in the air. The music is the air. We are swimming through the rim of the bodysea breathing the shimmering sounds as a voice says “I keep forgetting to turn the earth so both sides get their share of darkness and of light.” If every human being in America was in one of these temples tonight, world history would sing better the next day. The networks should decide the next season’s lineup in the hour after a dip in such a sonic wash. Likewise for Hollywood producers and Group of Eighth Notes meetings.
Begin, begin, begun. Be gin, be gun. Ogive in chamber...cock, fire, twirl your piece. Ready
And in a flash: Ana!
Ana went! She is here! Somewhere between the temple door and the cella here where she stretches like a caryatid peeling off the column out of which she’d been carved back in La Canada, as she reconfigures her ANAtomy. Ana to my eyes jars with Ana to my mind. She is in control. She is stretching her arms out, chin up, eyes intent, committed to the scene here in Act I. Her outstretched hand accidentally brushes young red hair. Affectionate pat and onward, eyes up. Up to where? Posture is different—usually her shoulders hunch and belly is thrust forward. Now her chest is thrust up and out and her hips roll down and around, recalling her belly and presenting her understudy, pelvis. The music descends from overhead in waves, as the guitar winds its way downstream over and over guitar winds its way downstream winds its way down stream way down stream down and Ana up, strong salmon eyes, stronger than before. What has happened?
“What has happened to you?”
“The circus is the place for me,” she announces to me (to me? Is the addressee somewhere beyond me?) Now I feel at home.”
Strange, her response relaxed me and I think it’s because my mind tenses expecting, by now, a hesitant reply, a measured one. Something like “what do you mean?”, sullied with trepidation. But Hark! The cherry reply, not the chary one! Now the guitar has found a sweet note in the upper realms and slow dances around it for an eternity, her hair sonified.
“You really look beautiful,” I stammer.
She lowers her chin now for the first time at me, focus momentarily broken by blush, happy, but then the smile shapes itself again into the poised roomready one. “I think I just might be,” is her reply to my compliment. “Or becoming…”
I know what it is! What the beautiful people do. They are like Vincent: they stare intently. Ugliness is darty eyes. Beauty is fascination. Rapture. Intent. Not boredom, sighs, eyes imagining what they must look like looking out. Vincent stares all the time. Complete disregard for the laws of Been Around the Block Hip. Vincent hasn’t been around any block—every square inch of earth is a new block every time he turns his head. Look at him there, slackjawed stageward smile, eyes riveted on something up in the lighting apparatus, hands to his side as usual, posture irrelevant.
But the radical news—Ana has learned rapture! Her once solipsistic eyes fixed, now that they fix on things.
I hope this happens once again…

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I Would Hate Myself If I looked That Different 20 Years Ago

This was once really cool

Ever since what I was ridiculed for in high school--wearing two earings and tight clothes--became cool again, I have been bemused by how undisturbed everyone else is by the near universality of fashion sense. Watching Live Aid today, EVERYONE in 1985, from the great artists (Bob Dylan) to the mediocre artists (Phil Collins) to the useless (Hall and Oates), to the cameramen and audience, wore the same style. Apparently, we are not supposed to be concerned because, after all, it's just style. But if you're like me, and like theorists such as Baudrillard and Nietzsche, you understand that style influences concepts and judgments. Indeed, concepts and judgements are styles.

How can you not be disturbed, however, by the fact that those you rely on to hold their integrity in important decision-making sitautions all dressed the same in 1985? It means that our judgments are grossly affected, by osmosis, by the world that is given to us, immediately, around us. This is no secret to Heideggerians, of course, but it should still be disturbing. Are you less disturbed by the fact that if you weren't gay in 1985, you also made jokes about queers? Or that if you live in in 1960 you thought communists were the enemy? You'd like to think that you could never be racist, but unless you were an absolute visionary, you didn't want Blacks to vote in 1820. And don't get me started on the women who think they are feminists, but whose strict adherence to the 2008 sense of Woman proves that in the mid 1800s they would have firmly stood against women given political responsibilities.

Are you a visionary today, in 2008? Perhaps we should think about what is merely stylish now, but which we think is part of our unflinching identities. What is the equivalent of homophobia and racism today? Here are my guesses: I think that 100 years from now, we will scrunch our faces in disgust at the provincial closed-mindedness of people who made drugs illegal (as we do now at those who made one of them--alchohol--illegal 100 years ago). I think we will laugh at those who defended capitalism as the most just system of economic distribution. I think we will look upon as monsters those who denied global warming, and those who drove SUVs, those who continually vote against tax hikes in Los Angeles to fund a real subway system.

No trend is 'light enough to let go' if you are not aware of how it crept inside your system of judgment. Before you laugh at a mullet hairdo from 1983, remember that in 1983 journalists who turned against Lou Reed described his music as for sickos, drug users and faggots. The herd mentality is never a light matter.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I Believe in Harvey Dent...I Just Don't Believe in His Filmmaker!

I am writing not so much to analyze a film as analyze a culture wherein a combination of philosophical unsophistication, the power of advertising, and the sometimes desperate need to justify "escapist fare" has made it possible for film critics to fawn and drool over one of the worst films of the year, "The Dark Knight."

The first problem is that we do not here in Hollywood seem to know what profound is. To the extent that these critics could find Truffaut, Godard or Wenders profound, it's only because they heard that they are supposed to. Here is a Dallas critic's take on the profundity of the Nolan bros. script:

"The movie is almost Shakespearean in its fascination with the good and evil that resides within all of us. It suggests that the greatest challenge of life is not to reject dark impulses outright, but to learn how to control them so they don't overwhelm our loftier goals."

First of all, Shakespeare doesn't ever suggest something so crassly didactic. This in fact is the movie's most appalling trait. It purports to be a serious study of the chaos and indeterminacy at the heart of human Being, exemplified by the nihilism of the Joker, corruptibility of the "two-faced" idealist DA Harvey Dent, and Bush administration spy tactics of Batman. But the film does not have the courage to follow the Joker's clever lines about human hypocrisy to their conclusion. Instead, the scriptwriters write convenient closing speeches for Batman about 'the inherent goodness of people", and contrive a plot device with the most unrealistic account of the goodness of the common man since San Raimi made his apology for 9/11-ravaged New York, "Spiderman". It is a craven move, the kind of move that serious artists wouldn't let slip into their narrative, even drugged out on their favorite drug as most good artists tend to be.

As my friend Carter Wallace pointed out, the absurdity of pinioning justice on a 'noble lie' scenario becomes painfully apparent if you later on proclaim the inherent goodness in the average citizen's decision-making. The city is lied to about Batman and Harvey Dent, and we are supposed to think this move is noble. OK, we'll parce that out with Plato. But I won't accept for a minute that love, too, between best friends like Bruce Wayne and his butler, is assisted by noble lies. It's bullshit, and it calls into question all the more the filmmakers' slapdash theory of justice. Lying is the convenient plot device by which they resolve most of the dilemmas. Everyone's a liar except for the Joker. Harvey Dent is a great man, not a two-faced demon, and yet these two-faced filmmakers have him spouting comic-book villain lines 15 minutes after one of his noble speeches. If all it takes is a dead lover and physical trauma to become superevil, I guess all 9/11 victims should be locked up.

Thus, the so-called 'grey areas' of morality are not so grey after all. Harvey Dent's fall from idealistic crusader (more noble than Batman, to be sure) to comic book villian is comic in its simplicity, although critics love to talk about how this is the first comic book movie we can take as seriously as any real crime drama (huh? batman as crime drama? And comic movies have been serious since 1978, with Superman. Quite a few of them. As I recall the same critics attacked Ang Lee's studious "Hulk" for being 'too serious'). The moral dilemma for me is in the filmmakers' work--how can they show such vicious violence to a crowd coming to watch a movie about heroism? If they want to deconstruct the hero myth, that's fine, but they chicken out and throw in quite traditional comic book morality in the last half hour. For that, they are irresponsible to make the film so visciously real. At least the post-traumatic stress wrought by watching obscene violence in Scorcese's "The Departed" doesn't turn comic book on us in order to appease each substrata of the focus-poll audience. The audience doesn't know how to draw coherent meaning out of a film with a hyperreal tonality about a man dressed up like a bat, who is four times as effective as Achilles. And it's not their fault--no coherent theorist could do so. Rolling Stone's occasionally trenchant Peter Travers lioninzed the director for "bringing a gritty reality to a cartoon fantasy." That would OK if they didn't try to keep it cartoonish and fantastical in its convenient plot threads in the last 30 minutes. Of course this is the same reviewer who claims that "Eckhart earns major props for scarily and movingly portraying the DA's transformation into the dreaded Harvey Two-Face." Eckhart earns major props for movingly portraying the nobility of Harvey Dent, but the greatest actor alive couldn't movingly portray the shallow transformation the Nolan brothers came up with. The film encourages schizofrenic critical receptiveness, making the Joker's consistency a relief. We are thus induced to respect the sicko more than the two heroes, both of which are literally 'two-faced'. Add to that the fact that nobody exists or ever has existed like the Joker--one is not simultaneously that mad and capable of such exquisite self-control and planning. That's simply bad pscychology. Yet once again Travers praises the 'deft script" for refusing to explain the joker with recourse to pop psychology. True, but the effect is weakened by their explaining everyone and everything else with pop psychology.

Where the moral landscapes are grey, the scriptwriters don't seem to intend it. Batman causes millions of dollars of damage to the city, allows a dozen or so people to die because he 'won't negotiate with terrorists' (can we say reactionary agenda?), and refuses to kill the Joker because that, we are told, is what good guys do. These critics who think this film is courageously brazen and complex in its moral spelunkings,as well as subversive of the superhero genre, do they actually condone this kneejerk falling-back on the oldest superhero convention: good guys don't kill? The Greeks would be horrified. If they want to explore real moral complexity, here's what a complex moral hero says: "In fact, if Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm" - Che Guevara. Hopefully Soderbergh will make Che more interesting than Batman (who is an astoundingly bad actor, by the way, once he puts on the mask). The Nolan brothers need to take screenwriting class from another set of brothers, The Wachowskis. Their hero in V for Vendetta is truly negotiating moral liminal ground, and he does indeed kill. The Nolans, conversely, also chickedend out at the end of the otherwise superb Batman Begins, when Batman says "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." Well, isn't that a nice and tidy way to keep the PG-13 rating and the comic-book parents paying?

Speaking of the killing, it is excessive. So many innocent people die in this film, it's a crime that it's not rated R. The only way to justify innocent deaths in a film is via serious grappling with the actual socio-economic injustices and challences of the civic enterprise, such as Blood Diamond. This film gaudily vaunts its ungaudy, gritty realism, but wants its cake and to eat it too: they're too afraid, as I said, to veer away from the superhero myth in the end. I say, if you want to make a superhero movie, then make one, like George Lucas does, or Tim Burton did in Batman Returns, a film so superior to this one Christopher Nolan should be penalized by serving Burton his coffee every morning for 10 years. If, on the other hand, you want to make a serious film about the darkness at the heart of human beings, don't conveniently dispense with the consequences of idealism run into the ground by force-feeding Harvey Dent ruthless villainous lines scarcely 10 minutes after he was delivering Erin Brockovich lines. And they say Anakin Skywalker's transformation was scantily developed?! At least Lucas took 3 movies, at a total running time of 7 1/2 hours, instead of cramming it into the last 30 min of a movie that already had a villain to develop in the Joker.

Two things in the film's defense: The joker has some brilliant lines, (and of course it's a brilliant performance, but I'm bored with talking about actors). Sadly these lines are cheapened and in the end left stranded, incoherent, unwoven into broad thematic layers, because the creators do not have the singular vision and committment that the Joker has. The denouement thus denudes the Joker's Gotham crusade of meaning, instead of allowing his verbal gems to cast far-reaching light. Indeed, it's hard not to respect the Joker more than we respect the filmmakers, except that he is a vicious killer with no ambition or scheme (unlike, say, Ras al Ghul in the movie that preceeded it). And in the end, this movie can't escape being like the Joker itself--brilliant in spurts but with no apparent ambition or scheme.

Which brings me to the 2nd thing I liked about it--the critique of money. Joker ridicules the mob bosses for being only concerned with money, instead of a message (although his message is a bit of letdown, philosophically: embrace the chaos. Stone did it better with Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers). More impressive, Harvey Dent the idealist DA corresponds to the socialist vision of careful altruistic planning. He thinks the the greed, selfishness and chaos of human beings can be controlled and amegliorated through effective political provisions and laws. Once he becomes Two-face (don't whine about giving away plot. If you don't know Harvey Dent is two-face, you have no business seeing a Batman film. Start with the Frank Miller comics) he becomes a capitalist, believing as capitalists do in pure chance as the last arbiter of real justice. Thus he flips a coin to decide everybody's fate. Here finally is a bit of courageous critique, especially coming as it does on the heels of the Joker's criticism of Harvey, Batman, and all other 'good guys' for being schemers. Idealists, then, are schemers. So, however, are filmmakers like the Wachowski brothers, who are not ashamed to present heroes with a shining, unflinching message. Their Speed Racer, (which was as anathema to the critic herd as Dark Knight is tonic), for an example of a movie that stays true to its comic surreality and joy without in the least falling in to fluff. It's a ruthless and unhip critique of capitalism. And it was not written by brothers assisted by the usual Hollywood screenwriting committee, but rather by brothers assisted by nobody and listening to noone, apparently, save for Herbert Marcuse, Baudrillard, and the masterminds behind Popmart.

As for HeathLedger, now I know why he got depressed enough to down such a dangerous cocktail of drugs--it was demoralizing to transition from a brilliant, coherent director like Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There") to this overblown hack, who makes Ledger exhaust himself in brilliance, only to flounder in a film without a vision to match either the Joker's or Ledger's.

From the L.A. Times review: "Can he live with what he would have to become to effectively fight the Joker and his spawn? Can he accept the unacceptable things that have to be done to be the hero? Can there be an ending to his story, and to this film, that creates a sense of closure, a sense of peace?" Yes of course, there can--this is Hollywood. All you have to do is create a noble lie and ignoble plot device to prove how good people are. Which is why it's so galling that critics think this film transcends Hollywood. It's mired right in the stink of it. Travers marvels at how Nolan "brings pop escapism whisper-close to enduring art. " Actually, he ruined the pop escapism with his violent realism, and ruined the enduring art with his pop escapist ending. Shame on him and his brother, who should go back to writing quality short stories.

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.