Movies in August, 2015 including The Weather Underground, Christo's Valley Curtain, Spy, The Devil-Doll, and The End of the Tour

  1. The Weather Underground at the Flying Squirrel, August 3: Born in 1970, I was barely aware of the Weather Underground when they were active from the tail end of the U.S.–Vietnam War through the early 1980s. They were a radical group most notorious for bombing U.S. targets in retaliation for injustices, starting with the "Days of Rage" designed to "bring the [Vietnam] war home". The film gives voice to the core members alive today. In general, their tone was remorseful about their actions but unashamed of their ideology. Watching it, I observed a couple things. First, when one's country's military is constantly murdering people for political and ideological reasons, it stands to reason that that rationale will steep in the minds of the citizenry—and that is just what happened with the Weather Underground. They felt that the only option was to murder their enemies as that had become the law of the land (much like it is in today's state of constant warfare.) Second, it underscored the absolute lack of a political "far left" (or even a "left" for that matter) today. I could at least look at the actions of the Weather Underground and say, "whoa—those people are way too radical for me." Instead, I am the radical in the room when I say things like, "maybe we should share our wealth instead of hoarding it"—and, call me crazy, but that is not "radical" or "far left" at all.
  2. Christo's Valley Curtain at the Dryden, August 5: I had have been curious about conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for some time—especially since visiting The Gates in NYC in 2005. This film is the Maysles' first in of many collaborations with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and I thought it quite exemplary. Its design is an inspiration to many modern documentarians today, splitting between a design timeline, and the days of the installation. The project itself was fascinating, and there are two standout people—both construction workers. One is flabbergasted that someone could conceive of such a project and is amazed by its immense beauty. Another, an iron worker operating the rigging to unfurl the curtain from its suspension cabling, is giddily nervous and waxes poetic, "I'm as nervous as a whore in a field of peckers."
  3. Running Fence at the Dryden, August 5: In some ways I thought this was not as good as "Valley Curtain" but the topic is much more complex. This time the central conflict is getting the legal approval to install a 18-foot-high, 25-mile-long fabric fence across two counties in California and display it for two weeks. I thought the film took some liberties with the timeline to make for a better story as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are initially rebuffed only to convince the effected ranchers individually in a montage, then be approved. However, I think the film is an excellent document of the collaborative and community nature of the duo's work.
  4. Spy at the Cinema, August 9: I read a positive review and convinced Jenn to go too. Indeed, Melissa McCarthy's performance was perfect and the whole film quite hilarious. The story goes that after the identities of their active agents are compromised, a "behind the earpiece" CIA agent Susan (McCarthy) volunteers to go into active duty to thwart an (admittedly ludicrous) plot. I also appreciated that the supporting characters were generally strong, particularly Allison Janney as Susan's wry boss Elaine, and Jason Statham as the ridiculously inappropriate agent Rick Ford. And while there were a few gags that played off McCarthy's average appearance, there were many more that made use of her quick wit and comedic timing.
  5. Terminator: Genisys at the Cinema, August 9: I figured I'd give this a shot although Jenn left after just a few minutes. I've seen the "Terminator" films so this one seemed like a kind of boring rehash … and it's full of flaws … but it was entertaining enough that I stayed to the end. I thought it rather funny that, with The Terminator being released in 1984, I remember thinking Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was an adult woman, while in this 2015 film, Emilia Clarke's Sarah Connor was just a girl even though both actors were 28 years old as of each film's release date. (And funny enough, Clarke was born exactly 2 years after the release of the earlier film.) It also kind of bugged me that Hamilton's feathered 1980s hairdo wasn't replicated, but I guess it would have been kind of distracting. Umm, yeah, anyway, the film is kind of meh. Stuff happens … there's inexplicable time travel … there's an inexplicable countdown … there's an inexplicably powerful enemy … a whole lot of inexplicable stuff, actually.
  6. The Devil-Doll at the Dryden, August 18: Jenn had already seen this, although not on the big screen in a long time. I admired the commitment to special effects of dogs and people shrunk to doll-size, and to be honest, the plot was rather tense (if flawed and absurd—science fiction aside.) Although characters and goals get dumped along the way, the central plot is that of Paul (played perfectly by Lionel Barrymore) who escapes from prison to exact revenge on his former partners who set him up 17 years prior.
  7. Islands at the Dryden, August 19: Jenn and I went to see these further collaborations between filmmaking brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles, and artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Islands documents the "Surrounded Islands" project around six islands in the Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida in 1983. With nearly the same structure as Running Fence, the artists are met with resistance, then acceptance following a montage of community outreach. I thought the resulting project was the least interesting I had seen, and long shots of its completion were made less appealing by a banal soundtrack.
  8. Christo in Paris at the Dryden, August 19: Although tired, Jenn stayed through this—partly because of better music. It documents the intertwined lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and "The Pont Neuf Wrapped" project, surrounding the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris. This later film recycles a fair amount of footage from Islands as it had meandered into this concurrent project as well. Perhaps most fascinating was the opinionated French debates of artistic merit on the pedestrian ways across the bridge at the completion of the project. And the politicking of then-mayor Jacques Chirac.
  9. The End of the Tour at the Little, August 23: Neither Jenn nor I knew much about author David Foster Wallace aside from an excerpt from a commencement speech on BrainPickings. Jason Segel admirably plays the part of Wallace (or at least makes for a character that embodies every letter of the script) and comes off as a likable misfit, too beautiful for this world. Jesse Eisenberg, meanwhile, fills the role of Rolling Stone interviewer as an everyman, clumsily hiding his jealousy.
  10. Umbrellas at the Dryden, August 26: I convinced Jenn to see this Maysles brothers film again showing the work of Christo and Jean-Claude. The artists installed thousands of large umbrellas—yellow ones in California and blue ones in Japan—for a temporary exhibition. I guess I continue to be fascinated by these artists as their work stands in such contrast to nearly any other artist I've heard of—both in scale and in its temporary nature.
  11. People Places Things at the Cinema, August 28: Jenn and I skipped the first feature and caught this film we had a passing interest in seeing. It's about a man who is shocked by the breakup with his longtime girlfriend and how he deals with it. Unfortunately he's a bit of a Mary Sue as he's got a consistently well-meaning, kind, and naïve perspective throughout, played against a half-dozen comparatively undeveloped characters—mostly women, although "Gary" is the biggest milquetoast pushover of them all. In all it's got a fair number of amusing moments, so it was mildly entertaining to watch.

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Screenplay Reading of Citizens Band

Last year I wrote a screenplay titled "Citizens Band". I thought it was pretty good so I have been fiddling with it. I tried to get friends to read it, but only a couple did, and I got positive feedback from each one. So I continued.

I sent an e-mail to someone I met at a production company but jee never got back to me. That was about three days before the submission date for the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. But I waited because you can submit early and they will review your submission, then you can submit again for the contest and be reviewed again.

I thought the next logical step was to host my own screenplay reading. I sent an e-mail to a major local theater but never heard back. The MuCCC was supportive but alas booked solid for the year. I got started a bit with one person but jee dropped out for jeir own project so I got in touch with Phil Frey of ShakeCo: The Shakespeare Company who agreed to direct the reading.

Over the course of the last few months, I reformatted the script as a stage play (essentially adding a "Narrator" character who speaks the action.) I was looking into having copies printed but it would have cost close to a hundred bucks for 10 copies. Since I already have a [used] HP LaserJet 4000, I finally gave in and bought 3-hole punched paper for it. Unable to find recycled paper, I went with sustainably-grown eucalyptus paper. Over the course of 800 pages or so, it affected the paper feed mechanism and I had to hand-feed the last 40 pages to finish the set. But I digress.

Phil got hold of some actors, and we did a rehearsal on April 13. I was surprised to find so many errors — I thought I had edited pretty well. It was good to hear it out-loud for the first time (although I had to read quite a bit of it myself to fill in for missing actors.) In the end, I changed 45 of the 88 pages. (And I figured out to clean the RF5-2490-000CN Feed Roller [on pages 8-52 and 8-53 of the service manual for those reading at home] with a homemade vinegar-citrus cleaner despite the advice to only use water.)

April 20 was the official reading at the Flying Squirrel. I didn't realize when I scheduled it (I actually didn't have much choice to fit everyone's schedule) but it overlapped the closing night of the High Falls Film Festival which may have prevented a few people from coming. Anyway, I had no idea how many people would show up so I made a lot of food. In the end it was only five people: just a few friends of mine. We were even short on actors and I had to read and my friend Ali read as well. Once again, it was good to hear it out loud and the feedback I got was very valuable even if it was kind of all over the board.

So now I need to go back and edit again. This time, more substantial changes to the structure of the story. One suggestion about gender roles led to a realization to let go of my love for the characters and to make sure their actions are for the interest of each one of them and not due to my love of the outcome. I also want to make some changes to get them on the road quicker (eliminating unnecessary exposition), and I'll move a local party to a destination along the way.

And here I thought it was pretty good already. Well, I still think it's pretty good. I just need to make it excellent.

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Salt of the Earth at the Flying Squirrel

I was kind of suspicious of how the "general strike" from the Occupy Wall Street folks happened. While I support organized labor, this was something different — more of a protest than a strike, and certainly not something the 99% got to vote on first.

But speaking of strikes, I definitely wanted to see Salt of the Earth at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St. Just recently, I read somewhere that it was banned in the U.S., fueling more curiosity. It's based on the real Empire Zinc Mine strike in New Mexico, and employs many people involved in the strike as actors. The reason it was banned is it was made during the time when Joseph McCarthy was performing what can only be described as witch-trials, and made by blacklisted people in Hollywood.

It's a powerful and moving account of the desperate need for unions. But the thing I found more intriguing was that it was realistic about what it takes to actually start a strike. Most fictionalized accounts focus on the outward conflict and its resolution. But this spent almost all its time with the people who, by striking, lost their livelihood and had to rely on handouts. To me, it's quite unfathomable: to decide that spending whatever savings I had, and then being at the mercy of the kindness of strangers is preferable to my working conditions is not a situation I've experienced. This is the decision Ramon must make when facing a wife and two children (with a third on the way) who rely on him as the sole breadwinner. They have nothing without him — literally, as the company also owns their home.

Their demand?: that Mexican-Americans be treated equally to Anglo-Americans.

1950. In America. And there are some who regard that decade as the most wonderful. Amazing.

Of course, it's not like today is necessarily any better: there are still millions of people who are working but either don't earn enough to survive, or their working conditions are dangerous or otherwise inhumane. Unions — and the legal protections for unions — are critical to the survival of the American people.

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Watching END: CIV Resist or Die at the Flying Squirrel

I figured it would be interesting, so I headed over to The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) to see the essay film END: CIV Resist or Die. Filmmaker Franklin Lopez introduced the film by talking about how he was deeply moved when he heard Derrick Jensen speak and how he built his film around much of Jensen's work. Lopez said he was impressed by the impeccable logic laid out in Jensen's books Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, and Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance, which outline the environmental apocalypse in our midst as simply being caused by what we call "civilization". I'll narrow things a bit and discuss corporations and industry.

First, note that corporations, organizations, machines, and tools, if anthropomorphized, are psychopathic. In other words, these things behave without consciousness, hence without inherent morality. I know that corporations and organizations include people which do have morality, but the nature of the group does not reflect that individuality. In fact, because corporations and organizations have rules in place that prevent any one person from having any decision-making power, the effect of their individual morality is nullified.

Second, all corporations we create have as their highest priority (or if not, a high priority) to make money. The secondary priority of a corporation is to operate in its industry sector. There is no primary consideration to the value of human life, or of life in general, or of the resources life needs to survive. As such, if life-giving resources, life, and human life are an obstacle to those goals, the corporation will attempt to spend as little money as necessary to get past those "obstacles."

Third, corporations generally do not have an expiration condition. As such, they will continue to operate in the primary industry sector until there is no economically viable way to continue.

Finally, the economic and social system we have in place is generally taken as given. That is, what we call "civilization" cannot be changed directly.

The film looks closely at two industries: oil production and logging.

In the case of the logging industry, the cheapest path to financial success is greenwashing — giving the illusion of sustainability — as that is cheaper than actual responsible forestry. In one instance, a tribe of Native Americans attempted to stop a logging company from cutting down the forest on their sacred lands, but Greenpeace intervened and came to an agreement to permit logging of their lands. (Yes, you read that correctly: Greenpeace voluntarily did not stop the logging.)

More damning, though, is the case of oil production. The industry likes to claim there are nearly limitless reserves available. What they fail to mention is that unlike when oil was discovered bubbling out of the ground, the extraction of newly discovered oil is nearly a losing battle. In fact, if they were charged for the water destruction and the pollution from leaks and accidents, it would likely not be profitable. But the industry subsidizes itself by coercing agreements to use and pollute water without added cost — destroying the resources necessary for life in its driving need for further profitability.

The film refers again to Jensen's works to note that peaceful protests were coincident with violent ones. In other words, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not act in isolation — rather, they were the peaceful resisters in a sea of varying degrees of civil disobedience, property destruction, and bloodshed. As such, the power structures in place were able to engage them and make some advantageous changes, but only so much as to defuse their more violent contemporaries.

It's clear that peaceful protest alone accomplishes nothing. I have watched as wars were started with 250,000 people in the streets of Washington, D.C. in opposition. And I now see how natural gas companies are running roughshod over the peaceful protest of citizens only wishing to protect their water supplies from contamination. Without the teeth of violence, no change occurs, even if it is not those acting in violence who sit at the negotiating table in the end.

Derrick Jensen has an interesting quote about all this from Endgame, Volume 1. He opens by asking if the reader would have joined the resistance in Nazi Germany then says:

Now, would you resist if the fascists irradiated the countryside, poisoned food supplies, made rivers unfit for swimming (and so filthy you wouldn't even dream of drinking from them anymore)? What if they did this because … Hell, I can't finish that sentence because no matter how I try I can't come up with a motivation good enough even for fascists to irradiate and toxify the landscape and water supplies. If fascists systematically deforested the continent would you join an underground army of resistance, head to the forests, and from there to boardrooms and to the halls of the Reichstag to pick off the occupying deforesters and most especially those who give them their marching orders?

When, exactly, is enough?

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Discussing Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

For the past three weeks or so, people have been meeting at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) to discuss anarchism. Having not attended the earlier meetings, I can't really tell what constitutes anarchism (e.g. self-rule? using the self-organizing facet of humanity? not having a government?) but I couldn't help but attend the seemingly unusual topic of "Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia".

I'd say there were about 15 people there, and most of them had attended the other meetings and read the associated articles — it's something of a free-school model. I think everyone expected a more lively discussion because the topics were so emotionally-charged, but the ground we covered between was fruitful and interesting.

In short, Capitalism depends on exploiting value to gain more than is spent. Through that, it seems to demand an underclass: a group of people who are considered lesser and therefore are free to be exploited. (In fact, the only way great wealth and power is achieved is by exploiting others.) And the way to identify the underclass is to tie the "underclass-ness" to a defining characteristic: woman, gay, black, Irish.

Anarchism, by eliminating the presumption of authority, denies the creation of an underclass. In other words, anarchism (when considered "self-defined rule") does not permit the creation of people having authority: it is up to each individual to grant that authority. So there is no way for an authority to declare that you are X and therefore shall be exploited; rather, you as an individual would have to grant an authority that power, and permit yourself to be exploited. Presumably you would never volunteer for that.

The trouble is that the system I live with (that is, in America) will always find a new underclass to exploit. Lately it seems Hispanic people and followers of Islam are the newest targets (not that they were ever considered equals). Although we have also exploited the Chinese in their own land to that end, and I suspect the next source of cheap labor will be on the African continent. I find it a distasteful cycle that I'd like to see end sooner than later.

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Seeing Dutchman at the Flying Squirrel

I was intrigued that the performances of the racially-charged play Dutchman at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) would be followed by a moderated discussion on racism so I headed over.The play  was written by Amiri Baraka and first performed in 1964; it was later made into the film Dutchman. Although the dialog and situations were a little dated, the core story of a black man seduced-then-ridiculed by a white woman is still haunting and strong.

Rakiyah Tapp acted as facilitator for the discussion and did an excellent job keeping people communicating. She noted that there are three kinds of racism that tend to stratify into levels: [if I remember correctly] individual, institutional, and systemic. Systemic racism provides the discriminatory rationalizations for institutional racism (at the organization-level) and individual racism (one-on-one between people).

I started out by saying that I felt that "racism is taking culture too far". (Of course, I always seem to start with something that makes no sense and ends up alienating everyone, some of them for the entire night.) My point was that we're all biased by our stereotypes based on our first impression of someone, but racism is when those stereotypes obliterate the individual before us. I suggested that we should train ourselves to treat every new person as an individual and ignore cultural cues — at least at the outset.

In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that white-on-black racism is unique among the ways individuals discriminate against one another because the systemic component is so deeply ingrained. (In fact, the play's climax brings this idea to the forefront.) As such, no suitably complex analogy is available for whites. For women, gender bias is deeply ingrained, but it is not nearly as tenaciously sinister as racism, and for white men, there is no systemic discrimination of any appreciable magnitude. So the mechanisms I used to bond with another person — commiseration and analogous stories — not only fail, but backfire tremendously as I'm reinforcing my own lack of understanding.

So I step back from my original argument and simply say that what I do (declare all cultural and ancestral markers irrelevant when I meet a new person) is an attempt to break the back of systemic racism. Like any "good progressive" I discourage racial stereotypes and other divisiveness. But I'm also aware of how I appear to other people — particularly children. I was raised in a country where systemic racism has continued to thrive, but I choose to buck that and adapt my behavior to treat people as equally as I can. As time goes by, it becomes more and more natural to do although I can still hear the echoes of prejudice quite well.

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