A Face in the Crowd

Now I've never been one to believe the hype that the 1950s was the greatest time in American history. I think it's a shared delusion: "the time I grew up was the best". But A Face on the Crowd really puts the nail in the coffin of the 1950s being a better, simpler time. I had a chance to see it at the screening at the Dryden.

Andy Griffith plays Larry Rhodes: a hard-drinking egomaniac. We're introduced to him by Marcia (Patricia Neal) who finds him in the town jail (for being a drunk). She's there on a visit for her radio show highlighting the common man called "A Face in the Crowd." It turns out the radio audience is charmed by this man who refuses to give a first name, inspiring Marcia to improvise that he's called "Lonesome" Rhodes. And once news the radio station's ratings have improved because of that interview, they snatch him up on his way drifting out of town and give him his own show.

From there he quickly ascends to Nashville then New York and becomes a national TV presence. All the while, he plays up the act of being a simple country boy as he's courted by members of Congress and the wealthy elite to spread their unpopular and self-supporting ideas. None of it matters much to him, as it all serves to fulfill his sociopathic needs, making him a powerful voice: to the people.

The film spares no one. The entire government is predicated on elite like Senator Fuller, who believes his ideas for how "things should be" are so perfect as to usurp the beliefs of the supposed democratic masses. When Lonesome gets to judge a baton-twirling contest, he takes a 17-year-old bride home; all the while, men in the crowd leer like horny wolves at the taut little bodies and maleable young minds dancing before them. All anyone is interested in is jeir own interests: not a soul cares for another human being.

The whole thing comes off as cynical, but I'd say it's just the presentation that is cynical; it portrays an unflinching view of the truth. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the same kind of truth is told, only through a sympathetic lens: all parties are working for things to be as good as they can be, but every person is making compromises to do so.

But the joy of the film, for all its cynicism, is the details. Walter Matthau plays Mel, a writer for Lonesome's TV show. When we meet him in the writer's room, the wit is quick and clever, and the mood is of martyrdom. It's a perspective that shows a certain honesty, and implies the necessity of the environment. By that, I mean that kind of writer of that kind of show needs the alienation and martyrdom to foster the bay of solitude within the tumultuous showbiz ocean that would otherwise serve only as distraction.

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Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel's (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel's provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.

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Thoughts on Steve Jobs "Lost Interview"

I decided to check out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview at the Dryden. I think it was something to do with semi-morbid curiosity, and I feel like I have a connection somehow — what with being 10 years younger, but with a similar hunger for electronics and computers. We had Apple II's in our high school, and I learned machine programming and did some hacking, although my main expertise was with the TRS-80 Model III (and later Color Computer) we had at home. What I mean to say is that the seeds of how we lived our lives were rooted in the same kind of stuff.

Anyway, Robert X. Cringley, "during the making of his TV series Triumph of the Nerds about the birth of the PC, … taped an hour-long interview with Steve Jobs who proved witty, outspoken, and visionary." This was in 1995: 10 years after Jobs was ousted from Apple, during the time when he was developing NeXT computers on his own, a year prior to selling NeXT to Apple (which became the foundation for OS X), and 18 months before returning to Apple to take over as CEO.

From the film, I gather interviews Steve Jobs almost never gave interviews. In fact, I can't recall ever seeing him do one, knowing his presence only from the Apple shareholder meetings he was famous for. So it was a rare treat to see not only the interview, but also getting to see pretty much the whole thing without being edited down for television.

At one point, Jobs says he thinks computers are the greatest invention ever made. I reflexively agreed — I do everything with computers, and my job is centered around them — but I think I also agree more deeply. It's one of only a few tools ever invented that improve upon the qualities of the mind (akin to language, writing, books, etc.) rather than as a tool for saving labor or for improving health and safety. For instance, after the film, I noted that Joseph Fourier developed his Fourier analysis in the 1800's, but at that time, it was little more than theoretical math — worthless to everyday society. But with computers, we exploit it all the time, using it as a foundation for JPEG image compression and MP3's.

Also, I always seem to be surprised that someone had made a claim about the impact and significance of the Internet from its early days, as when Jobs claimed we'd be doing everything on the World Wide Web and the Internet. I remember, though, that it was pretty much obviously a big deal. Heck, even I had my first website sometime in 1996, although I didn't know exactly how it would manifest (nor did anybody else).

Overall I found it to be a fascinating time capsule, well worth seeking out.

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God Bless America at the Dryden

Curiosity got the best of me, I guess, and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see God Bless America. It's billed as a black comedy "revenge fantasy" although I think the philosophy runs deeper than that. Yes, it's a story that threads the needle of disbelief so we can have a "hero" who takes it upon himself to successfully go on a killing spree of people who, well, annoy him — "revenge fantasy".

Early on, Frank meets up with Roxy — a disaffected teen who hungrily insists on joining him. The mechanics of the plot force the revenge killings to continue unabated, but there's bound to be at least one that's just a little too close to the viewer's own behavior. That, and as Frank and Roxy discuss their guidelines of who to kill, it's clear that it's all way too subjective: each individual has jeir own set of behaviors that jee deems wholly intolerable.

But there is one common thread in it all — one thing that I think everyone can agree on: those people are most responsible for irresponsible and immoral behavior today. You know who they are.

See, the thing we all have in common is the "problem" is with "others", not ourselves. And if we identify some behavior that is part of the problem, we are certainly not the worst offender: we have a plausible justification for our behavior.

So that leads me to three questions: how can I tell if it's me?, are you sure things are bad?, and why am I even thinking about this?

One thought experiment is to ask, "if everyone in the whole world behaved as I do, would that be okay?"

  • If everyone in the whole world used 4,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year, would that be okay? Hrmm … probably not.
  • If everyone in the world didn't own a car, would that be okay? That would probably improve things a bit.

Another experiment is to think of how complicated an explanation is necessary to defend your argument. I mean, I don't even see a need to justify holding the door for someone behind me. Or how about, "the other day this guy just walked out into the crosswalk and he almost got himself killed — I mean, what was he thinking? Didn't he know to look both ways before crossing the street? It's not like I could have stopped to wait for him because I was in a hurry because my presence is critical at my destination." And don't you think it's more consistent and straightforward to think that greed is more to blame for the problems in the world than some convoluted logic that somehow leads to homosexuality?

But a lot of times we should step back and think, "are things that bad?" I remember going on the highway with my parents in the 1970's. When traffic was moderately heavy, the whole highway stunk of gasoline, oil, and smoke. I mean stunk — like if you spilled some gas in your garage, only it was hot in the summer and the vapor just lingered there making everyone just a little queasy. But you can barely smell them now (except on a steep race track like the steep grades on I-70 west of Denver) even though there are literally twice as many cars now as in 1972.

And finally, what's the deal with finding someone to blame anyway? Why is our culture so hell-bent on doing that? It seems entirely counterproductive: it's so bad to be "ruining the world" that we are compelled to create convoluted explanations for our own behavior rather than just going, "yeah, that thing I'm doing is doing more harm than good so I'm going to change it."

See, the only way God Bless America makes any sense is if we are fully committed to shame so we feel absolutely justified in targeting someone else to blame.

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Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Too Hot for the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I had been joking that I was going to see a blaxploitation film with a bunch of white people under the guise of watching for "educational purposes". In at least one way I was incorrect: Sweetback is not a "blaxploitation film" unto itself. It's more of a pressure release on a tense period of strong, established racism on all levels: individual, institutional, and systemic. It follows a black male prostitute running from a racist police force out to get him.

The film has its own cinematic style that draws from counterculture examples of the late 1960's and early 1970's. Vanishing Point, released the same year, comes immediately to mind as well as Zabriskie Point, released the year prior. Sweetback isn't just some simple story to write off, but a pointed [despite lacking "point" in its name] and poignant condemnation of the flagrant racial stereotyping permeating the entirety of commercial cinema. It transcends its story and calls attention to the power that mass media holds, and how that power — when exploited in response to fear (e.g. fear of a powerful black man) — can fuel hatred and abuse.

But the amusing anecdote in the whole thing was, just as Sweetback himself was becoming a man, the fire alarm sounded in the theater and we had to be evacuated.

firetrucks visit the Eastman House

Too hot for the Dryden

Even 40 years later, the system still fears a black man.

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A Man Escaped at the Dryden

I got a chance to see Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped) at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.). Apparently, the director Robert Bresson's works are frequently characterized as cold and emotionless yet — despite the nature of the plot necessitating the characters to display little emotion — the film was warm, hopeful, and very moving.

The plot follows a man who is struggling to survive a Nazi prison during WWII with his humanity and WILL intact. As the title flaunts, the central action concerns his methodical plan to escape. And despite its past-tense reveal, the tension is palpable and relentless.

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Tuesday, After Christmas, at the Dryden

I cannot stop being mildly amused that I headed out on the Tuesday after Christmas to see Marti, dupa craciun (Tuesday, After Christmas) at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) — clearly a little film programming joke from Lori Donnelly.

In the film, Paul is married to Adriana and together they have a child, but Paul is also involved in a long-term relationship with the girl's dentist, Raluca. There is no doubt how the story will play out: the relationship with Raluca will replace Paul's relationship with Adriana, and the film takes careful, deliberate steps to let us watch this unfold. As the Eastman House calendar so eloquently put it, the film captures "its trio of lived-in performances with graceful, uninterrupted long takes and a knowing sense of the human comedy."

As I watched with from my odd personal vantage point, I couldn't help but think, "it's such a shame they want it to go so badly — they really believe that anything but unwavering, complete monogamy is a fatal, destructive flaw."

Instead, what if the central couple understood that all of one's needs — intellectual, emotional, sexual, support, etc. — simply cannot be met adequately by one other person forever. Keep the core of devotion, but allow for needs and desires to be negotiated. If Adriana knew that Paul was sexually and emotionally in need, and she did not want to (or could not) fulfill those needs herself, why not let Paul fulfill them elsewhere? I'm sure likewise that Paul did not meet every one of Adriana's needs, so she too could be free to find fulfillment some other way. Why let it build from a mild hunger to desperate starvation when a tiny morsel at the outset would do just as well?

What we call a "normal healthy relationship" sure is weird to me.

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Watching Martha Marcy May Marlene and Margin Call at the Cinema

I missed out on Martha Marcy May Marlene when it screened at The Little (240 East Ave.) a few weeks back, but I got a chance to see it at The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) as part of a double-feature with Margin Call.

I'll start with Margin Call and say just a little: it's the story of the 2008 financial meltdown convincingly told with a sympathetic eye to the people closest to the problem. It really only served to reinforce my opinion that the stock market is nothing more than gambling with no relevance to any real value in the world. It was good, solid entertainment.

Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out largely in flashback: the tale of a woman indoctrinated into a rural cult. I think most people watch the film as a sort of horror/thriller, exposing the layers of lies, power, and brainwashing that get an otherwise reasonable person to embrace completely absurd notions. But I guess I come from a weird perspective, and saw it as a tale that compares two cults: one at a rural farm, and the other, American industrialized society. When Martha (a.k.a. Marcy May as named by the cult leaders, or Marlene when any of the women answered the phone) is reacquainted with her sister Lucy, she returns to Lucy and her husband Ted's summer home (none of who utters reference to a "cult" as none either knows or believes it). She first showers and when she rejoins Lucy on a bed, Lucy says, "oh, you're dripping", referring to Martha's wet hair. Particularly given the more important things going on, why is this even remotely important?: it is the Lucy/Ted/American culture's set of arbitrary and irrelevant rules.

Like Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (which I saw at the Dryden), the film acts as a mirror to our own society. My culture's foundation is violence: if I don't do what I'm supposed to do, society responds with force (which may sound familiar, taken from Derrick Jensen's philosophy). For instance, if I decide that the house I have been living in (exclusively, for the last 12 years, and no other person has come by to claim it is theirs) is mine and I decide to no longer pay my mortgage, eventually someone will come with a gun and tell me I have to leave. That is the incentive for paying my mortgage. Of course, it's conditioned from an early age, so it doesn't seem like that's the reason, but it ultimately is.

I of course know the differences between my culture and the cult, but the lines were pretty severely blurred by the end of the film. It's kind of a "choose your own poison" kind of tale. Martha is a pawn in the game where she's either enslaved to pay for her existence, or, well, enslaved to pay for her existence. There's happiness and misery to be found in both places only at different times and in different forms. But ultimately she's asking the right questions: why do I have to?

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Watching Le quattro volte at the Dryden

I was very impressed with Le quattro volte (The Four Times) when I got a chance to see it at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) It feels like a documentary but is actually a story as seen from the perspective of God, or the natural world, or the land rather than from an omniscient observer tending to a particular character or traditional story arc. It reminded me a bit of Bu san (Good Bye Dragon Inn) with its unusual narrator (in that case, the aging theater itself).

The film starts by following an old goat herder through his simple life. Like I say, it looks like a documentary, although I noticed a few little cinematic-style errors creep in, and (through the introduction) I already knew it was a narrative.

But you know, this isn't really the way to talk about the film. The mechanics of how it works aren't of much importance. It's a film about feeling, and about the broad strokes of reality. It'd be like trying to describe clouds by talking about evaporation.

It's got a refreshing way of using motion picture like a moving photograph. It's a snapshot of things as they are, and the nature of how "the way things are" is nonsensical since things are always changing. Life is change, death is change. And through this (pardon the apparently unavoidable cinematic metaphors) moving image — this lens into a world of our own from a vantage point seldom seen — we get hope, sadness, contemplation, and mirth all bundled untidily as life does.

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