Saturday, July 22, 2006

The neighbor of indifference

I was going through some of my photos from last year that I had half forgotten. It was Thanksgiving week and I was visiting family. In most ways, it is a very bad place, but on the positive side I can work on two of my ongoing photo projects while I’m there -- power plants and ancient Indian sites. There are hardly any patches of land back there where a power plant is not visible in the distance and major pre-columbian sites are all over the place. I’ve seen artifacts from within miles of my family’s properties in museums from Seattle to Brooklyn. The Smithsonian Indian museum currently has a two pots from there on display. Of course very few people back there other than relic hunters (that’s the polite term for grave robbers) know anything about it. Nothing is taught in the schools and there are no historical markers.

From a few spots I can frame Indian mounds in the foreground and a power plant in the background. But that kind of shot, unfortunately, is only interesting to me, and then only intellectually. Aesthetically I have yet to capture what I know about the scene with the camera. That’s not always the case at the ancient sites. Sometimes there is a palpable aura that remains manifest in the photograph even though there’s no outward clue, but not there, at least not on that day.

Anyway, this is not about power plants or ancient Indian sites. That morning I came across several isolated patches of forest that had been severely damaged by tornados that had passed through several nights before. So I snapped a few tourist-ish pictures of the damaged trees like the one above. About ten miles from there, one tornado had touched down in the obligatory trailer park and killed over twenty people.

At dinner that night my brother-in-law wanted to show us a movie he had helped make for his church. Bill is one of those salt of the earth types. He is a man of few words, a high school graduate who works low skilled blue collar jobs. He is currently driving a fork truck. Unlike most people of his class back there, he doesn’t drink, smoke, or shoot meth, He is hardworking and trustworthy and I’ve no doubt he’ll eventually manage a warehouse or small factory. He is a volunteer fireman, the type of guy you can count on him to help a stranger fix a flat or a friend or family member move or paint the house. He is a very active member of a fundamentalist Baptist church. It’s not quite a mega-church, but is moving in that direction.

So, being a movie buff as well as a student of human nature, I was interested to see this DVD. It was a record of the devastation in the trailer park. It started with scenes taken from a circling helicopter and then focused on the twisted metal and scattered debris and the people doing their best to salvage what they could. It also included interviews with government workers, Christian groups and other volunteers who were there to help. The soundtrack was an upbeat Christian pop song with a message of hope. The point seemed to be that God was good and merciful because people were helping the survivors.

I was very surprised by the quality of the work. It was professional. Not Hollywood professional or even the late local news, but it was technically in the realm of corporate videos. It was clear that the people working the cameras and doing the editing had some training.

And they did have some training. I learned that there is a movement within the fundamentalist churches to train their members in the video arts in order to take advantage of events such as the tornado to entertain the flock and bring in new members. His church had a little studio with lighting, several cameras and a couple editing stations and offered classes to members.

I found the video to be disgusting and ultimately scary. I think a lot about photojournalistic ethics and can argue many situations either way, but this was outright exploitation. Over twenty people were killed and over a hundred homes were destroyed or severely damaged. I can see filming that from a photojournalistic perspective. I can see filming it from an artistic motivation. Hell, I can even understand people snapping tourist pictures of the devastation. But to use it for a propaganda film, and one that extols God’s mercy at that, is just sickening. The fact that these people are acquiring sophisticated tools and techniques to create more effective propaganda is very disturbing.

A distant and surrounded place

I'm going on vacation in a couple of weeks. Every year I spend a week in early August in the Catskills. Taking the week off was one of the conditions of accepting the offer for the new job. That's how much it means to me. Not that I wouldn't have canceled the vacation and took the job, but I was willing to bluff.

Since my days in Arizona, I find it necessary to spend at least a week every year lolling under cold waterfalls on sweltering hot days. Back then, i.e. in the good old days, I only had to drive a couple miles to find waterfall paradise. Here it takes a couple hours and is complicted by the fact that I don't have a car. Still, I insist on once a year, minimum.

People who have never been to New York would likely be shocked by the incredible natural beauty that is so close to the city. A two hour drive to the Catskills will take you to scenery that is the equal to jut about anything out west.

I started exploring the Catskills because I became interested in the painters of what came to be known as the Hudson River School. These include Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, among others.

In one of those “victim of a series of accident” sequences, I became interested in the Catskills because of avant-guarde accordion music. One night I was trolling the radio channels and came across this incredible music on the classical station. I thought it was some kind of bizarre quartet, possibly playing music from the middle ages or something, never in a million years would I have guessed that it was one guy playing an accordion. But it was Guy Klucevsek and, coincidentally, he was playing at The Kitchen the following night.

So I went to the show. It was great, but that’s neither here nor there. The important part is that one of the segments featured the painting “The Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Church, which is a very interesting painting on several levels.

Anyway, even though “Andes” wasn’t set in the Catskills, I looked into Church and found that he was part of the Hudson River School, which led me to Cole and the other Painters and ultimately to the Catskills, where I have camped, hiked, and spent many good hours under cold waterfalls on hot days for the last three years.

I have yet to do any serious photography there, but perhaps this year. Since the kids are abroad and my wife would rather have her toenails ripped out than camp for a week, I will be alone, so I will be able to get up before dawn and hike up a mountain to get the early morning light.

But I have taken a few tourist pictures over the years. I don’t have the time or motivation to make a "best of" presentation right now, but if you are interested, here is last summer’s little slide show I put together for the family.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Parrots drunk on impalpable words...

I'm sick of reading and writing about insanity and murder tonight; the new job is just plain bizarre, the 16 part philosophical treatise on Studio Ghibli is stalled, I still can't bring myself to finsih the Mermaid Day video, so I revisited an ongoing project that had kind of slipped off my radar.

For several years I've been photographing power plants and oil refineries. Given my propensity to spout about politics and history of writing for environmentalist publications, you'd think I'm trying to make a stupifyingly obvious political statement with these photos, but strangely enough, that's not the case. I genuinely find these things beautiful. Perhaps there's something deeply buried in the human psyche, part of our collective unconscious, that finds billowing clouds of smoke beautiful.

Anyway, I've had a few adventures during this project. Security has tightened quite a bit since 9/11. Sometimes, considerably after it's too late, I realize that I am trespassing. It takes awhile for the meaning of those ubiquitous no trespassing signs to sink in, and by that time I have my photos. I am slow to comprehend. What can I do?

And it's not unusual to be confronted by rednecks asking why I am taking picture of power plants. It doesn't help that I usually have New York plates. Most of these places are so deep in Redstateistan that regular people consider it a toss up between who is worse -- Al Quaeda or New York. But even when I borrow a local car, I'm usually confronted by some suspicious types, especially when I'm parked outside of their houses taking pictures of the power plant that dwarfs them, or standing in their yards.

But I am honest and honesty is usually disarming. These things are beautiful, I tell them. and it's beauty that I'm looking for. The typical answer is that I wouldn't find it so beautiful if the fucking power plant was sitting in my back yard, smothering my house with pollution. And I've heard a few stories about eminent domain abuses that would make you shake your head, but still, I separate the beauty from it's consequences and am pretty sure that if I lived there I would spend the evenings of my shortened life rocking back and forth on the porch swing, awestruck at the giant clouds billowing majestically into the sky while I contentedly sucked in carcinigens that would kill me before my time. Honestly, if I lived in such a place I'd probably have a joint in one hand, a whiskey in the other, and a cigarette or two burning in the ashtray. It would be a mad race among the poisons and carcinigens to take my life.

Anyway, if you want to see a larger image if this particular example, you can find it here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

It is a reeling world indeed...

I saw Hilary Clinton on the late local news last night and she was truly a sad sight. The Senator had the resolute leader resolutely calling for other people’s death and destruction act totally mastered. She reminded me of Mr. Pitt giving that speech with the Hitler mustache on Seinfeld. Had she started stomping and chanting “Israel über alles” it would have been totally within the spirit of the moment.

What a hollow soulless woman she appears to have become. This is understandable on a number of levels. Probably the best reference I have read on the subject is Mario Vargas Llosa’s book A Fish in the Water, his memoir of running for the president of Peru. In it he talks about how politicians may actually have lofty ideals when they begin, but once the campaign is underway everything is unrelenting and often insane day-to-day strategy.

Hilary has been involved in that unrelenting and insane day-to-day, often hour-to-hour strategy for how long now? At least since 1990 and she’s bore far more of the worst aspects of the spectacle than probably anyone else in American politics. No one, not Al Gore, not John Kerry, not Michael Moore, none of the whining pansies on the right like George W. Bush, not even Bill “fucking” Clinton has been hit by half the shit that’s been thrown at Hilary.

Yes, she has grown some serious armor, no question about it, but it seems to have cost her whatever used to be inside. After seeing that performance, I realized that she could very well be our next president. The combination of naked ambition and demented hatred she projects should be very appealing to the right wing nutzoids. Note that she is spending a lot of time lately with Rupert Murdoch. The road is being paved. If only she could get rid of Bill, she’d be a shoe in. Don’t be surprised if he has some weird mishap where he slips in the bathtub while playing with an ice pick, or something like that. Al Gore might want to watch his back as well.

And that’s too bad. I used to genuinely like Hilary. Although she failed, she genuinely did care about health care and tried harder than just about anyone else to do something about it. And “It takes a village, to raise a child” is a blueprint for a better society as well as a nice sentiment. But unfortunately, the wacko I saw on television last night would more likely write something more along the lines of “It takes a lot of missiles to kill a lot of children, let’s make more missiles.”

The idea of her as president is genuinely scary.

Monday, July 17, 2006

150,785 over par, but who's keeping score?

I find it odd that three days into Israel’s insane rampage of death and destruction, no one seems to have noted that it represents another catastrophic failure on George Bush’s resume. Whether it proves to be as colossal as 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, the economy, the rule-of-law, etc., remains to be seen, but in comparison to any normal president, or sentient being for that matter, his performance is miserable.

Of course we can excuse the mainstream media since they cannot be expected to seriously analyze things they don’t see staring at them in the mirror; and we know the (so-called) Democrats will be unable to get themselves up off the porch to say anything beyond “step on me(again)"; but I am a bit surprised the liberal blogosphere is so slow to comment on the obvious. Have we just become so accustomed to Bush’s catastrophic failures that they no longer merit comment?

And I don’t read every word, so maybe I missed it, but as far as I can tell a very important question has gone unasked: What, if anything, did the Israelis tell us before going on their insane murder spree? Do they no longer respect Bush enough to brief him before invading other countries? Did Bush o.k. it? Did the information even get to Bush or was the okay given further down the chain of command? Does anyone in our government have an ounce of sense?

If we were not a one party state, I would seriously ask if it Is it possible to impeach someone for sheer incompetence, or bettery yet, the entire execuive branch, but why bother? Give them another Mulligan and tell them how great they are. That’s the ticket.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

E pluribus cruor

Of all the possible issues to write about in the world, current Israeli politics is the last subject about which I would ever want to comment. Seriously, the very last. I’d rather comment on anything else. American Idol, Paris Hilton, you name it.

And it’s not that I necessarily shy away from Israel-related subjects. I’d be happy to comment on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish history circa the first century, Old Testament studies, or the beauty of the B’nai B’rith architecture in Haifa until dawn spreads her rosy fingers, but contemporary stuff – who needs the aggravation?

But the current Israeli government, and by extension our own, has gone so completely fucking insane, I just can’t stop myself. Consider this:

A Lebanese civilian convoy was hit near the coastal town of Tyre after fleeing the border village of Marwaheen, resulting in 16 deaths. The Israeli military said the area was a target because Hezbollah had used it to launch missiles, and regretted any civilian casualties. It was the deadliest single attack in the past four days of fighting.

The villagers left after the Israeli military told them to evacuate over a loudspeaker, Reuters reported.

Seriously, is there anybody on the planet that is stupid enough to believe that this sort of wanton murder will result in a lasting peace and prosperity? Of course not. This is not about peace. This is not about democracy. And it is certainly not about justice. It is murder. And let’s face the harshest fact of all: It’s not even about revenge. It is murder. Mass murder. That’s all the right wing nut-cases in Israel and the United states have left. After so much killing has resulted only in so much more animosity and armed opposition – so much more murder, so much more mass murder – the only logical explanation for their actions is that they like committing murder. Murder is what they want. Murder is what they do. And murder is what we get in return. It will only get worse.

The ball is in our court. We are the ones with the power. It is we who have to stop the cycle of murder. When people commit murder, no matter where they are from, they need to be caught, tried, and imprisoned. Our current policy of murdering those other murderers' wives, their children, their neighbors and total strangers who live in the same geographical area as the murderers is not only doomed to catastrophic failure, it is horribly immoral. Ours is the preferred policy of the worst regimes since the beginning of human history. And if we do not renounce our murderous ways before it is too late, we will suffer the same fate. As some wag noted a few years ago, that's the future, babe, it is murder.

A meticulous tableau wracked with internal and external pressures

Last night I watched The Twilight Samurai, a Japanese film that was nominated for an academy award in 2004. I was genuinely shocked by the quality of this movie. The story is superbly-crafted. Not a single element, and there are many, is clichéd and almost nothing happens as you would expect, yet the plot and the actions of the characters ring emotionally true in every scene. The use of foreshadowing is genuinely marvelous. A few of the major plot elements you can see coming. Others fit so naturally into the action that their eventual revelation is incredibly satisfying.

Visually, it is well-done but not overwhelming in its beauty. Most shots are framed conventionally, but that serves to showcase the several instances of incredibly dramatic cinematography.

The acting is excellent. Hiroyuki Sanada plays the title character and is in almost every frame. His performance is nuanced and multi-dimentional as it has to be to pull off the story. His interactions, and lack of interactions, with his daughters demonstrate rare acting skills that place him, for this performance at least, among the top practitioners of the craft.

But it all comes backs to the story. These days it is practically impossible to tell a story that is entirely original, particularly if it is an historical drama. The story of The Twilight Samurai has plot elements that are found in other movies. What sets the story so far apart from the cinematic norm is its nearly flawless construction (I’d like to drop the “nearly” but am sure I could find something to criticize if I watched it again).

I don’t like to describe much, if anything about a movie’s plot details and generally don’t like even giving the 40,000 foot view. A simple recitation of Twilight's plot elements that you will read in any mainstream review will make the movie sound boring. Yet the story has depth far beyond its superficial description and its cinematic execution by the director, cinematographer and actors makes it great art.

Yet I know, audiences demand it, so I will say this (*If you don’t want any information about the plot, stop reading now*). The film shares many conventions with the classic American western. A lone man struggles to survive in a society that is far more concerned with codes-of-honor than rule-of-law. The man is a Samurai, a fighter, who does not want to fight. He may or may not eventually fight. Until the actual denouement, the question remains. The action takes place at the end of an era, depicting the last gasps of a way-of-life that will soon be wiped out by advanced in military technology. Although it shares some of the characteristics of the western genre, The Twilight Samurai is not a victim of them. It is simply a great story well-told.

The title of this post, which comes from a review by Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, is an excellent description of the film. If there is any chance you will see the movie, I recommend you do not read Mitchell’s review (for the reasons stated above), but if you must, you can find it here.

I scream helps the hurt

I was saddened to read an embarrassingly bad article by Colson Whitehead in the New York Times Sunday Magazine today. Although his recent novel Apex Hides the Hurt received some lukewarm reviews, I never suspected someone with his talent could fall so far so fast.

Mine is the story of a man who hates ice cream and of the world that made him.

I was once like you, always quick with a “Two scoops, please” and a “Whipped cream, damn it, whipped cream!” I loved a Breyers vanilla-chocolate-strawberry rectangle straight from the freezer. Never mind if it was a bit long in the tooth, nestled in there next to a half-empty bag of carrots-and-peas medley — scrape off the icy fur and it was good to go. Orange sherbet? Cool. In Baskin-Robbins, I used pure will power to persuade the red digital lights of the Now Serving machine to announce my number, which was a sweat-smudged blob on the pink paper strip in my quivering hand.

That reads like something a high school girl would write for the school newspaper.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical? It’s not easy to make a living as a serious writer, especially in New York. If the New York Times Sunday Magazine wanted me to write a cutesy article about ice cream, teddy bears, bobby sox, or whatever, I’d ask “how cutesy do you want it, ma’am?” as I bowed and scraped. But unlike chuckling, Whitehead has a position to defend. He is a novelist who everyone agrees has a lot of promise. He should do better.