art, Film, music

Art and Pain

Painting By Francis Bacon

Painting By Francis Bacon

I am a fan of N.W.A., and I am looking forward to seeing the bio pic about their career “Straight Outta Compton”. I think their music & poetry is some of the most revolutionary & genius of the past 50 years. I also think that Dr. Dre is a woman-beating piece of shit. Believe it or not, it is possible to appreciate the art of someone who is a more often than not a terrible person. We do it every day when we listen to a Phil Spector produced Beatles track or read a Norman Mailer manuscript (the former was convicted of murder and the later stabbed his 2nd wife). There is nothing hypocritical about that…what IS hypocritical, though, is pretending that the artists who produce the works we so enjoy and love are flawless, paragons of virtue. They are not. The never have been and they never will be. This is not a problem with rappers, or rock gods or misanthropic writers…this is a human problem. When we choose to go underneath the surface of the art that inspires us, we must be prepared to confront that sometimes distasteful, sometimes downright horrid behaviors, ideas, and fantasies of the people who create it. Great art can and does come from great pain, both experienced and inflicted. We owe it to ourselves and to those who were victimized by the gross human nature of our heroes to not sweep the facts under the rug. In that spirit I am posting a link to this excellent, heartbreaking, and very revealing interview with music journalist Dee Barnes, who was brutally beaten by Dr. Dre at a party after an interview she conducted with former N.W.A member Ice Cube. We can love the art, but hate and condemn what the artist has done to others. Again, this does not make us hypocrites, it in fact makes us human

http://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and-1724735910

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Death

Robin Williams Dead At 63

RobinWilliamsMagnum

One of my favorite actors and comedians died today. Robin Williams committed suicide at his California home, according to his wife and his agent. He had suffered from clinical depression and substance abuse for most of his life.

Aladdin was one of my favorite films of all time and really influenced my own sense of humor. He also starred in classics like The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, 1 Hour Photo (one of his best roles in my opinion) and had a fantastic guest spot as the anarchic anti-hero Merritt Rook on Law & Order: SVU.

As a person who suffers from clinical depression and bouts of severe self-loathing I can relate to what Mr. Williams must have gone through. I hope his family can find some comfort from the fact that his comedy made literally MILLIONS of people laugh and his acting inspired a generation of people to get into the craft. Rarely does someone have such an impact on so many in such a positive way. It is no shame to succumb to depression, just as it is no shame to be done in by diabetes or cancer, but too many people still see mental illness as a disease one can “get over” or “overcome”. That is not the case. It is painful and ruinous and can destroy lives. If you or someone you care about is suffering from depression please see a doctor or talk to a counselor. If you need help RIGHT NOW contact the Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255 or @ http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

 

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essay, Film

RIP Harold Ramis…A Celebration of His Genius

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Harold Ramis died today at the age of 69. He was a talented actor, comedian, and writer but for me he will always be best remembered as a genius director. I could go on for pages and pages about his talent and ideas but instead I will limit myself to just a few words on what I believe is his masterpiece, the film Groundhog Day.

Everyone by now knows the plot of this great film. What people may not realize is how subtle and genius the philosophical issues underlining the plot are. It is essentially a story about a man living in a world he feels he cannot control. Phil (played by the grossly under-estimated and under-utilized Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop that causes him to repeat what may be the most banal day of his life. This film could have been nothing more than a comedy of errors that allowed Murray to run rampant through this little town using all the jokes and tropes in his bag of tricks but Ramis did not let the story go that route. Instead he gave Murray and the rest of the cast a task to explore what it means to be a human being confronted with the boring, bland and even oppressive monotony of the everyday. Ramis’ story is Nietzschean in its view of time and place, positing a eternal reoccurence of events and circumstance that starts out as comical and slowly moves on to the absurd, the tragic and then finally the transcendent.

This would not work the way it does if not for Ramis’ skill with framing scenes in such a way as to elicit a sort of cinematic/aesthetic deja vu. We do not see actors redoing scenes, we see them reliving them and in this it enhances Murray’s performance and allows him to interact with the characters in such a way as to bring out the desperation of a man who has realized that his life is a loop that is unable to be broken. We come to realize with Phil that the seemingly mystical redo of this day is not so mystical at all but just a more literal manifestation of the everyday. Nothing changes in the world, nothing except for how we react to it, the choices we make and the interactions we have with other people. For the first few days (or is it weeks, or years?) of Phil’s experience he continues to push himself to do the same thing over and over again, to try and recreate his experience from the perspective he brought to this town he did not want to visit to do a task he never wanted. But soon he realizes that he has a chance to not only change himself but to change the world around him. He learns to play the piano, he becomes an expert on the goings on of this town and its people, he makes friends, forms memories, and makes realizations about himself in relation to others. Nothing changes in the world around him but he changes, and through this he slowly begins to change the people and the world he interacts with. His interactions with his old high school chum, the insurance shill Ned, starts as a comedy of errors but Phil’s disdain for the man slowly becomes an affection that leads him to realize that in his own way Ned is trapped in his own loop. By interacting with him as a human being instead of just as an annoyance he is able to transcend the strangeness of their interactions and help release Ned from his nightmare, the everyday. This epiphany is repeated with other people, most notably his love interest played ably and believably by Andie McDowell, and most tragically with the homeless man who hides in plain sight on the margins of this little universe. He tries to help this man, to improve his life in some way, but continually runs into the true end of this endless loop: death. The man cannot be saved because this man has reached the end of his journey. Phil is thrown into a depression that is all the more profound because he once did not give a shit about anyone or anything. He tries to kill himself, countless times and in many creative and silly ways, but he cannot ever do the deed. Maybe this is because he is not ready to die? Maybe it is because he is not meant to? There is no answer to that question as there is no answer to the finality of death.

The the structure of the movie moves from cynicism to hilarity to farce to cynicism and eventually, inexorably to revelation. Not a religious experience, not some cheap throwaway message about eternal life or the inherent joy of existence. Instead change comes when Phil finally gives up trying to change the world and his circumstances and instead focuses on changing himself and being a good, compassionate friend to those around them. It does not matter in the end that they may not remember this or even reciprocate his generosity and friendship, what matters is the experience of the joy of the moment and the love of people and their flaws, stupidity, and imperfections. People are not meant to be perfected, they are meant to change. Change is not positive or negative but instead regenerative, a constant cycle of renewal and growth that, like the idea of natural selection in nature, moves the individual into greater harmony with and understanding of the world around them. The world itself, the whole, changes so slowly that it may as well be the same day over and over again. Phil embraces this and that is when he is freed from this perverse parody of the everyday.

It takes a real visionary to be able to take such a basic set of tools and turn them into something truly profound. Harold Ramis achieved that feat with Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day may be the most successful American comedy of the past 50 years in regards to its honesty, creativity, humor and craft. I try to watch the film at least once every year and I am continually inspired by Ramis’ ability to take what is essentially a ridiculous concept and turn it into a sort of  transcendent examination of what it means to live day to day and how our own choices are the main way we escape the drudgery of life. It is a perfect existentialist examination of what it means to be a person living in a world that does not change save for the actions of each person.

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Film, Liberty, Police, racism

The Film “Rampart” and White Male Fear

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“You’re a dinosaur, Date Rape. You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly, or maybe you don’t like yourself.”

Dave “Date Rape” Brown (played by Woody Harrelson) is all of these things, to be sure, and he knows this. His eldest daughter Helen does not have to tell him this, but she feels she needs to. It is always on her mind and it always lurks in the corner of her soul. Her father is a terrible man and he is unapologetic about this.

Dave is called “Date Rape” because he killed a man suspected of multiple rapes. I should say he “allegedly” killed this man or at least that is how he puts it to anyone who cares to listen. He administered the sort of “street justice” that he feels is sorely needed in a world gone mad around him. Of course this is just an excuse from a violent angry man who wishes to express that anger at will against those who cannot fight back.

Rampart is a film about a man trusted to uphold the law as a police officer. His story unfolds as the LAPD faces the disgraceful “Rampart” scandal that broke in the late 1990’s after years of systematic abuse of citizens and suspects and wide ranging corruption. The film, on more subtextual level, is about the death-throes of a certain culture and a way of life: white male privilege. At one point when he is confronted by a co-worker over his use citation of an obscure court case to excuse his violence to get information on a meth lab he smirks and implies that if the law is not on his side he will simply make up the law. It is not like anyone is going to challenge him on it ever.

Dave alludes to this fact of life throughout the film: he has the power. He misses no chance to insult or undermine anyone who does not look or behave like he does. He torments his young female co-worker about her eating habits and her upbringing, he sneers at the artistic talent of his lesbian daughter Helen. He clearly has little respect for women; in fact he married two sisters one after the other, having a child with each, and insists that they all live together in one strange incestuous household/compound. He is kind to his daughters in a superficial sense but he is never there for them emotionally and he treats them more like possessions than anything else. He cannot love something that he does not own or control in some way.

Dave both knows and denies he is a racist, depending upon the situation and the audience. When he is with his cop father’s old drinking buddy planning their next robbery of illegal property and money he quips about “scum” and “brown skinned” criminals. He also castigates the “new” LAPD that is at least making the effort to become less violent and intolerant in at least a cosmetic sense. What the streets need, in his view, is the sort of rage and violence that he meets out on a daily basis. He puts his theory into practice when a latino driver slams into his police vehicle while running a red light; he beats the man within an inch of his life and later explains away his actions as “merciful” in that he could have shot the man dead on the spot. The Police Union lawyer assigned to his case has a hard time finding this a compelling explanation to bring to her superiors. Dave thinks the charge is bullshit and that it is all a set up to make the Rampart corruption case go away in a haze of media scrutiny of his own actions. He seems to subscribe to the Richard Nixon theory of law and order: if Dave Brown does it then it is not illegal.

Dave seems to be obsessed with finding ways to nullify his racial animus in eyes of his peers and himself. He applauds himself for sleeping with an attractive black woman and police fetishist, as if this drunken sexual encounter explains away his brutality to those not of his race. When Dave is investigated for his killing of a gangster while attempting to rob him of his illegal gambling money (he needs the cash to defend himself in the brutality case) the man assigned to his case is black and this bothers Dave to no end. He tells Kyle Timpkins (Ice Cube), the man who is investigating him

“I am not a racist. Fact is, I hate all people equally. And if it helps, I’ve slept with some of your people. You wanna be mad at someone, try J. Edgar Hoover. He was a racist. Or the Founding Fathers, all slave-owners.”

Once more he mistakes his own misanthropic sense of universal loathing for tolerance. He hates everything equally, so doesn’t that make him tolerant and liberal? We never really know if he buys into his own bullshit but it does seem to be an apology that is well rehearsed and familiar to him. Maybe something he learned at the knee of his own father?

The one thing that immediately becomes apparent about Dave “Date Rape” Brown is that he is afraid; afraid of anyone and anything that may threaten his faltering grip on the circumstances of his life. He is a man, at least in his own mind, under siege: by the women in his life who demands respect and accountability from him, by his employers who are now making an effort to right the horrific wrongs of the past, by his lawyer mistress who is beginning to doubt his sanity and most of all by society itself which is changing and becoming ever less homogenized and repressed. His daughter is right: he is a fossil of an age that is now beginning in the late 90’s to fall apart under the weight of its own decadent hypocrisy. He is a violent criminal who rages against the petty faults and criminality of everyone else. He is a murderer who sees himself as a hero because he administers street “justice” against those with no ability to speak up in their own defense.

In one scene he sits in the pool at his girlfriend’s house, rain falling on his head, and demands that she jump into the pool with him to demonstrate that she is “on his team”. That she will not play his increasingly bizarre power games with him just proves his suspicion that she is just another “bitch” out to get him. He is a misogynist who nonetheless craves affection and attention from women. He uses the fact that he killed a rapist as a sort of macabre pick-up line and he evens tries to use this fact to sway his own daughters over to his “side”. They do not buy into his warped sense of chivalry and honor and abandon him to the fate that he has created for himself. This is the only moment in the film where Dave shows any sense of emotional vulnerability; he weeps into his pillow as his daughters turn their backs on him after he admits his evil deeds to them to their faces. He thought that if only they could understand that daddy did these things to “bad people” only…or at least to people who appeared bad, which in his world is really no different than actual guilt. Skin color, gender and sexual orientation dictate criminality. His own white skin protects him from culpability in his own mind.

After the tragic encounter with his daughters Dave decides he will give himself up to Timpkins…but only on his own terms. He admits to killing the alleged rapist and to other violent crimes against suspects and criminals. He does all this with the full expectation that he can buy himself a deal because, after all, he was committing his crimes in the name of “justice” and against people who look for all intents and purposes like the sort of people he assumes on sight to be guilty. When Timpkins laughs away this facile “confession” Dave is genuinely confused; isn’t this what his “enemies” want? To catch him in the act of being just a little bit too brutal? Timpkins just shakes his head at this self-righteous ignorance; he has admitted only to what he does not see as a crime. He withholds a confession to the crimes he committed out of greed and for his own personal benefit, like the gambling heist/murder. Timpkins will not allow Dave “Date Rape” Brown to martyr himself for the cause of white male power. He turns his back on Dave and leaves him raging and unable to comprehend his own irrelevancy and stupidity.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Dave seeming to finally accept that he will never again have the family life or the career he envisioned for himself, the life that he thought he had but never really did. Like the real life white male chauvinists from Rush Limbaugh to David Duke to Bill O’Reilly Dave Brown yearns for a society and a past that never really existed at all: a world where white might made right and everyone knows their place is under the boot of the Dave Brown’s of the world. Because Dave Brown, and Rush, and Bill, are afraid; they are afraid that the brutality and hate that the projected out into the world may someday come back and inflict itself upon them in the form of real justice.

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art, Democracy, Iran, Liberty

This. Is. NEO-CONSERVATISM: The Film 300 as Conservative Utopian Allegory

Each body is white and an example of impossible physical perfection. The women are strong and stoic but sexily sassy and domestically assertive. They are also constantly available for sex, consensual or otherwise. The children are taught the exact and unwavering belief in the society and its unforgiving principles. The civil government is skin crawlingly subservient to the military, to individual military figures in fact. The government is merely a means for effeminate men to feel good about themselves while serving to furnish the society with the barest of bare essentials while lionizing the military.

They practice infanticide, genocide really: weeding out all but the most perfect specimens and leaving the rest to exposure and the wolves.  It is that delightfully reactionary form of evolutionary science corrupted into xenophobic social policy known as eugenic that they seem to subscribe to. Find a way to naturally keep out the “darkies, uglies, pussies and gays”. Those boys (we never see a female child in the film) who survive to the age of seven and beyond are ripped screaming from their silently weeping mothers and sent to the agoge. This kills off even more of the less than herculean, and leaves a cadre of young men breed, weaned, reared and obsessed with the manly art of war. The glistening bodies of these men are perfect objects of desire…for the women, not their fellow men of course. There is no homosexuality in this land of the Spartans. That perversion is reserved for the despicable tyrants of the east.

The true meaning of this propaganda is also underlined by what is not featured about this perfect Reaganesque society: it is all built upon the backs of helot slaves. In this movie we never see anyone of lesser rank than washer woman, and the backbone of this stolidly pastoral local is invisible to we the viewer, and absence of this aspect of society is in itself a tenet of their morality. Individuality in this world is essential, as long as it is driven to expressive itself in working for the benefit of the patriotic collective. Leonidas is the perfect leader: a un-morally compromised royal with unswerving loyalty to the mythology of the Spartan experience. He expresses his love and devotion to his society by rejecting an essentially beneficial thought pride-bruising offer to become part of the Persian Empire. All that is asked for is water and earth to symbolize submission. Presumably the entire society would benefit by the myriad and magnificent resources offered by the Pax Persica. Aside from the messengers being arrogant and colored a shade darker than pale white they offer no real challenge or danger to Sparta. They actually offer them a way out of the incipient and insipid culture of war in the Aegean.

But they are dark skinned. And they are asking for them to get on bended knee in front of them, and in front of their own Spartan women. That is not going to happen, so the offending political and cultural invader is dispatched along with his diplomatic corp. A move John Bolton would probably call a “good start”. I am not implying that the Spartans should have rolled over for the Persians, but  a simple gesture could have at least gotten them a seat at the table of the movers and shakers who were shaping the new world order of the greater Mediterranean/Middle Eastern region. Look at some of the other societies that did chose to become part or else fell to the overwhelming military, economic, and cultural tidal wave that was Persia: Egypt, The Palestinian Jews, Iran, Iraq, Syria and most of Anatolia really benefited from the patronage of the Persian Empire. A centralized information/postage system roads, stability, more equitable taxation, influx of Persian literature, art, science and philosophy: The industrious manly Spartans could not have that now could they?

That is liberty killing nanny state not befitting the machismo underlining their entire culture and philosophical system. The Spartan “final stand” merely slowed the growth of one of the most constructive and stabilizing forces of the millennium stretching from Homer to Charlemagne, and destroyed the chance for one of the more potentially pacifying and civilizing forces of that time period take hold in the West. Culturally the Persians had done little to dissuade or retard the cultural and intellectual discoveries and contributions. In some cases they had spread the influence of beneficial and world changing ideas, including the creed of Zoroastrianism and the philosophies that accompanied and buttressed the same. But then again Sparta may have never fit into this cosmopolitan, dare I say multi-cultural system. They were far too dependent on unsustainable economic and social systems justified by a bombastic, jingoistic and ever expanding military culture.

Liberty, that ever present little philosophical meme, seems to be the central moral precept revered by this society, at least if you do not count unnecessary chauvinism. Liberty takes on an extremist Libertarian definition, with the idea of being an individual for the sake of individuality. The rub about the extreme libertarian definition is that it is extremely proscribed by the male dominated culture, and that individuality is by its very nature only valuable as an asset to free white males. If it is expanded or seen as egalitarian in any way that essentially undermines the liberty of the men of Sparta to do what they wish how they wish it. There is a secretly agreed upon catch to the system of libertarianism: to work it must be based around the assumption the only some people are worthy of or really capable of practicing true liberty. Which is why the liberty of the Spartans seems so very…limited, clichéd, and uni-directionally focused towards the military realm.

We see get small, but thematically telling glimpses into the ‘multi-culti’ cesspool that is the Persian traveling court. Xerxes is of course that now passé mixture of “butch” lesbian stereotype and mincing Sado-Masochistic intellectualism. We get scenes of orgies, and wise viziers talking, and exotic fruits and dress. We see these things not in a neutral way though; we see them through mostly through of a physically grotesque miscreant who was rejected by the Spartans as a child and once more by Leonidas for the crime of being imperfect in the presence of a real man. He is seeing the opulent and contrary fantasy escape from the Spartan (no pun intended) and callous world we was born into. He is doubly cursed: he is Spartan by mentality, but he can only survive as a freak and as a stooge to a culture he instinctually sees as alien and disgustingly (and alluringly) physically and intellectually indulgent. The Republicans had lecherous and dangerously hedonistic welfare queens and Union Slush fund cheats, while the Spartans seem to see a world degenerating into one that resembles the “boy loving” and maddeningly rational and resourceful Athenians. They hate the rest of Greece, and really the rest of the world so much because it seems to have what they do not: a purpose outside of unwaveringly declaring that they have a purpose to their strange and soul crushing, body destroying and intellectually retarded system and its means of control and expansion.

So a like the Post-Civil War South and its selective mythologizing/deification of its past institutions, mores and leaders. With its overly comfortable relationship with a suspiciously homo-eroticized military corps, its obsession with overrated and morally compromised intellectual and political leaders, and its whitewashing of the means of achieving the seemingly utopian and idyllic civilized society, the American south in period following 1870 up to and including the first decades of the 21st century. It is a story of a society where men can be men and women know what it means to be a woman, and where all authority is respected, trusted and beyond reproach if they adhere to the misogynistic, militaristic racialistic policies of the status quo political system. The problem comes when the ultimate representative of and stopgap to the governmental process, the too good to be anything but a postulate monarch in Plato’s Republic King Leonidas decides to up and lead a futile special forces vanity mission. Before his voluminous cape has disappeared out of sight everyone from the clergy, the leader of the chief representative body to the Queen herself compromises his or her morals in order to help perpetuate a system that only works if they lie to themselves about their own flawed humanity and its accompanying motivations. And as we know, any system that claims to be based on absolute moral and socio-political theories but cynically depends upon the work and resources created by the alternately hidden and derided “lower classes” has whether it knows it or not rejected the basis of and rational for its own existence.

But we are soon asked to forget all this when the Adonis like bodies of the elite 300 start tearing apart the flower of Persian warrior elite. It is a particularly beautiful example of the bread and circuses view of “rational” (i.e. Christian) military theory and a preplanned and perfectly expected example of it at that. We see that as soon as the offending African emissary is killed off earlier in the film that Leonidas and his cronies already have a plan in place for a war to protect all that is “wholesome” and “pure” about the morass of greedy xenophobia punctuated by occasional existential genius that is Western with a capital “W” Civilization. We see the blood spilt like the seed that the manly Spartan (Western) man cannot dare lose upon the toned thighs of his man at arms, we see the swords and spears penetrate the exotic and alluringly distasteful flesh of the Persian hordes. It is truly the only way the can consummate the love they feel for their fellow male citizens. They lust after them in a erroneously Platonic way and this warfare is the last acceptable expression of male on male sexuality and eroticism.

The battles and blades last as long as they need to distract us from the political machinations back home, where the Republic has been sold for what essentially amounts to a few bags of gold and a roll in the hay. It did not take long for the Great Greek (white?) Hope to go all “wishy washy” Athenian and decide that all means justify the one acceptable end of societal and moral perpetuation. Western Cultural Imperialist apologist and prophet Samuel Huntington moaned that “in terms of territorial control, in terms of economic preeminence, the western share of the gross world product is declining as Asian societies in particular develop economically”. It is a familiar bogey to we Americans and Westerners, we heirs of great civilized Euro/Anglo imperial systems and morality. The world of Sparta in 300 is the last best dream of the white Judeo-Christian Capitalist cabal that claims to represent that which is most Western about the West. It is a bloody and bawdy eulogy and justification of Neo-Conservatism, the necessity of Xenophobia and the subjective and situational basis of universal objective morality.

In the end the most honest and eloquent of Sparta’s men of war is chosen to be the one to survive the fatalistic maw of paternalistic self-justification that is the Thermopylae suicide mission. This most intellectually capable of Spartan manhood is tasked to carry the story of the appropriately  macho yet touching holy war to the people of Sparta, and to use the memory of a self-created martyrs to bludgeon a fascistic junta out of the comfortable but ineffectually petty Republican system they currently have. It is all a cathartic and perhaps unconscious act of collective spiritual and ethical cultural masturbation. And it works exactly as it is meant to. The inevitability of the East is held at bay, at least for now, and the West is allowed to live its lie for one more day. This is the Neoconservative dream. This is their meaning for existing. This is Sparta.

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