Previous month:
October 2011
Next month:
December 2011

welcome to the promised land

Garance Franke-Ruta compiles a series of photos and videos from the Occupy movement:

Too Much Violence and Pepper Spray at the OWS Protests: The Videos and Pictures

The list feels endless. UC Davis, Portland, Seattle, Berkeley, New York, Denver, and Oakland, and Oakland, and Oakland, and Oakland, and and Oakland.

It is hard to look at this kind of attack and think this is how we do things in America.

And yet it is all too American. America has a very long history of protests that meet with excessive or violent response, most vividly recorded in the second half of the 20th century.

#31: the night of the hunter (charles laughton, 1955)

(This is the 20th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

The Night of the Hunter is a collaborative work; all films are, but I feel like in this case, people tend to focus on the fact that it’s the only film Charles Laughton ever directed, and thus assume the film’s idiosyncrasies are his alone. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel, James Agee, who wrote the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I won’t pretend to know exactly who did what. But I can describe the results. Visually, the movie is a cross of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionists. These influences come from silent film, and add to the feeling that Night of the Hunter is somehow timeless. (The presence of Lillian Gish doesn’t hurt, either). It has elements of the horror film; at times, Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is shot so that he resembles the monster in the Karloff versions of Frankenstein. It’s noirish, but noir as told through the eyes of children. It is, at times, pretty funny, which is unexpected. And Robert Mitchum’s performance is one of cinema’s greatest.

The movie also features several set pieces that are remarkable, and in many cases, unique. The children’s long trip down the river is the most obvious example, full of interesting choices by Laughton/Agee/Cortez/whoever. The image of Shelley Winters sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair flowing like it had belonged underwater all along, is unforgettable, and you’d like to congratulate Laughton (or whoever), except the novel’s author, Davis Grubb, submitted some early drawings to Laughton that include one which looks almost exactly like what we see on the screen, so send your congrats to Grubb for that one.

If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat, but the best time to see it for your first time is when you are young. You’ll be scared shitless, but you’ll never forget it. I suppose some parents would think this film to be exactly the kind of thing their kids should be protected from, but those parents are wrong. The Night of the Hunter works at the same elemental level as a good fairy tale. It is certainly better and more memorable than whatever tripe Disney is selling this year.

The Night of the Hunter was a notorious flop; no one went to see it, critical response was tepid, and it was soon forgotten as an inexpensive stylized piece by Laughton, who never directed again. But its status has increased over the years. It regularly appears on best-of lists, and is one of the films honored in the National Film Registry.


In the comments, several people chimed in with their own very positive thoughts about this great movie. Dave MacIntosh had the last word, saying “Laughton's direction is unique. No wonder it bombed.”

music friday: muddy waters, “mannish boy”

At the age of 63, Muddy Waters sang “Mannish Boy” at The Last Waltz, backed by Paul Butterfield and The Band. He stole the show from all those damn hippies (this video has the best combination of picture and sound, so just ignore those names that pop up occasionally):

Authorship is complicated when it comes to the blues. We all know the stories of white musicians who recorded their favorite blues songs, taking the copyright for themselves. The black blues masters didn’t mind borrowing a line or two, either, although they weren’t trying to fool anybody.

Early in 1954, Waters went into the studio and cut a Willie Dixon track, “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Muddy had a great band with him that day: Dixon on bass, along with Little Walter, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, and Fred Below, all legendary figures in their own right.

“Hoochie Coochie Man” became a blues standard. I saw Chuck Berry sing it at the Fillmore in 1967 … everyone covered it, from Hendrix and Etta James to the New York Dolls and even Big Steve Seagal.

In 1955, Bo Diddley recorded his own composition, “I’m a Man.” Otis Spann and Willie Dixon were on this one, too.

This was something of an “answer record” to “Hoochie Coochie Man”. “I’m a Man” was another song that was covered by many artists, most notably The Yardbirds. When Eric Clapton was their guitarist, they released a live version of the song. When Jeff Beck became the guitarist, they re-recorded it and put it out as a single that was quite popular.

Hell, they were still playing it at the end, when Jimmy Page was the guitarist (violin bow included):

Returning to Muddy Waters, he decided to answer Bo back, so later in 1955, he cut “Mannish Boy”.

And that takes you back to the top of this post.

(Yes, I really did shake Muddy Waters’ hand, once.)

kindle fire, first thoughts

The Kindle Fire is a piece of ideological machinery.

I suppose I should explain what a Kindle Fire is, for those who don’t know. The Kindle is an e-reader from Amazon that is very popular. There are now many models of the Kindle for you to read your books and newspapers on. The Kindle Fire is something like a tablet: it reads books and newspapers, and magazines, and plays music, and shows movies, and plays games, and … well, you get the idea.

I said “something like a tablet” because it’s nonsense to compare it to “real” tablets like the iPad. It doesn’t have a camera, or a microphone, or GPS. This, among other things, is why the Kindle Fire only costs $199, while the iPad 2 goes for $499.

That is the magic number, 199. If it was $299, I wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t really need a tablet, even a crippled one like the Kindle Fire. But $199 makes it an impulse buy.

And so I pre-ordered one, and it arrived Tuesday, which was pretty quick considering Tuesday was originally the release date. I turned it on straight out of the box … it knew my name, it knew what books I had bought for previous Kindles, it knew what songs I’d bought through Amazon along with all the songs I uploaded into the Amazon cloud, it knew what apps I had gotten for my smartphone via the Amazon Market. There is something cool about turning on a machine straight out of the box, and it already knows who you are.

I signed up for a three-month free trial subscription to Wired. When I opened it, there was an animation of curtains opening, and then the cover gradually “drew itself” until it was complete.

I listened to a song, “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley.

I read a chapter from a book, A Woman of Heart by my friend Marcy Alancraig.

I downloaded the Amazon free app of the day, Bejeweled 2, and played it for a bit.

I checked my email, played around a bit on Facebook, looked at my blog.

I watched a movie, Vengeance with Johnny Hallyday. The movie was free as part of my one-month free trial of Amazon Prime.

I probably did some other stuff. Then I went to bed.

So, why is the Kindle Fire an ideological machine? Because, while it allows you to do all of the above, it exists for only one purpose: to get you to spend money at Amazon. The magazine came from the Amazon newsstand. The song was uploaded by me to my Amazon cloud storage, but if I wanted more Brad Paisley, I could buy it from Amazon. The book was from Amazon. The game was from Amazon. The movie was from Amazon.

It took less than a day for hackers to start breaking down the Kindle Fire so it could be used for extra functions, but I’m not much for that (too lazy). Without those hacks, you have a machine that resembles a tablet, except you can’t play outside of the yard Amazon has created for you. It’s like a prison with invisible walls. You think you are free, but you are only free to buy from Amazon.

This isn’t a bad thing for a person like me, who already buys stuff from Amazon. I don’t need most of the things a real tablet offers. I use my computer for most things (I am on it a lot), and I use my smartphone when I’m out of the house. To say that the Kindle Fire is like a crippled iPad misses the point … you know the old line, “you say that as if it was a bad thing.” The Kindle Fire is simple, it does what I want it to do, and does it easily. There are things it doesn’t do, and if I cared about them, I wouldn’t have a Kindle Fire. If you decide to stick a Kindle Fire in a loved one’s xmas stocking because they want a tablet, that loved one will be disappointed.

It’s not a tablet. The Kindle Fire is a media machine that locks you largely into the Amazon world. The ideology of the Kindle Fire is that Amazon will give you what they think you want/need, and you won’t ask for anything Amazon doesn’t give you. (Unless you’re a hacker, or you know how to get the fruits of the hacker’s labor.)

In case it’s not clear, BTW, after two days, I love my Kindle Fire. I could complain … the glare on the screen is bothersome, the screen itself is only 7” (although I’ve gotten used to reading and watching movies on my little smartphone, so the Kindle Fire seems huge to me), and, of course, it is nowhere near being a functional computer on the level of a real tablet like the iPad. But, like real tablet owners, I now have this little machine that lets me read books, listen to music, watch movies, play games, check my email, hang out on Facebook, read magazines and newspapers … you know, the stuff you do on a real tablet … and it cost $199.

One last note: it took me less than 24 hours to start treating the Kindle Fire like just another tool lying around the house. The thrill wore off by the time I woke up Wednesday morning. It’s fun to have around, though.

#32: cabaret (bob fosse, 1972)

(This is the 19th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Jeff listed Cabaret at #43 and he does a great job of placing the movie amongst the other highlights of that excellent period of American films. It is possible Cabaret could never have been made the way it was at any other period. He notes that while the film takes place in 1931, it is a 70s movie, a point I agree with. He adds that it “comes …figuratively out of David Bowie and Los Angeles,” which is a point I’d contest. Bob Fosse was Broadway, not Hollywood. He was an innovative choreographer who worked in that line for fifteen years before directing his first film (Sweet Charity, which he had directed and choreographed on the stage). I’m not arguing that there is no connection between glam rock and the film version of Cabaret, but I’d say Fosse influenced glam more than glam influenced Fosse.

The key theme underlying Cabaret is decadence: its definition, its social role, its connection to the larger society. I don’t think the film equates decadence with fascism; it isn’t drawing a direct line between, say, bisexuality and the rise of Nazis. What Cabaret does show is how the appeal of decadence in all its guises distracts us from the real world of politics, and in the Weimar period, given our knowledge of how things turn out, “politics” is “the rise of fascism.” While Weimar is a perfect setting for decadence, the film isn’t specific to that period. Instead, it suggests that we always want to escape via the decadence of the cabaret, that we always want distraction, which allows the powerful to have their way. And my definition of “decadence” has nothing to do with any specific acts, but rather is related to our need to be in the cabaret. Life is a cabaret, after all, old chum, and if you can watch Cabaret and not find that statement simultaneously exciting and depressing, you haven’t been watching at all.

Liza Minnelli is sensational; in every way but one, she is perfectly cast. She brilliantly pulls off the combination of bravado and insecurity that is the off-stage Sally Bowles, and when she performs on the stage, she lights up and becomes so sexy she embodies the decadence far more than she does when she applies colored nail polish when off stage. It’s perfect casting, except … her Sally Bowles is so talented, it strains credulity to believe she’d be stuck in a third-rate joint like the Kit Kat Klub.

Joel Grey, on the other hand, is equally brilliant, but his abilities fit the club. You can’t believe his Master of Ceremonies would ever be anywhere but the Kit Kat Klub.


I got more comments than usual for this selection, but most of them were about musicians who were also actors.

and it only costs $199

Is it irony, self-loathing, or just an admission of complicity, that I sit here today waiting for my Kindle Fire to arrive, a toy designed to encourage me to spend money at, and decide I should post this, from Matt Taibbi, about the Occupy movement?

It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it. …

People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values. …

It's not that the cops outside the protests are doing wrong, per se, by patrolling the parks and sidewalks. It's that they should be somewhere else. They should be heading up into those skyscrapers and going through the file cabinets to figure out who stole what, and from whom. They should be helping people get their money back. Instead, they're out on the street, helping the Blankfeins of the world avoid having to answer to the people they ripped off.

what i watched last week

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011). What a terrific movie! io9 called it The Wire with aliens, and if that sounds silly, I can only add that my wife and I said the same thing in the middle of watching the damn thing. It’s a cheap English movie full of unknown actors speaking a London slang that is practically unintelligible to an American ear, which somehow just makes it funnier. Yes, funnier … while Attack the Block delivers big time on action, still finding time within its brief 88-minute running time for character development, it is also hilarious. The setup is silly: a group of gangbangers find their mugging attempt interrupted by an alien invasion. What is sillier is that the bangers are all about 15 years old … when they are on the lam from the aliens, they hop on their bicycles like the suburban kids in E.T. But they are also full of pride, so when the aliens disturb their mugging, the thugs get pissed and decide to kick alien ass because the aliens picked the wrong neighborhood to land in. (There are even a couple of little tykes, nine years old at most, who want to join the gang … they fight the aliens with toy guns and super-soaking water pistols.) Yes, it is stupid, but it’s not just stupid, and if it’s not quite as good at social analysis as it pretends, well, there’s always another alien to kill. I can imagine seeing this in a year, wondering what I saw in it, and giving it a 6/10. I can also imagine seeing it in a year, liking it even more than I already do, and giving it 10/10. So I’ll give it a tentative 8/10.

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Much like Attack the Block, They Live is a genre piece that also works in “something to say.” Carpenter’s attack on consumerism is interesting, but it doesn’t go much beyond interesting. Piper is fine, the fight between him and Keith David is great, and there are some good action scenes. It’s a very good Saturday afternoon popcorn movie, very enjoyable, but I don’t think it comes close to reaching the heights it strives for. 7/10.

Page Eight (David Hare, 2011). British film, possibly made for television (I can’t tell for sure, but it turned up in the States on PBS), with a mind-boggling cast (Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Alice Krige, Marthe Keller), about an MI-5 officer discovering shenanigans that emanate from important places. There’s nothing new here, but it’s well-done in that good British TV way, and Bill Nighy is always worth seeing when he escapes from those pirate movies. It is reminiscent in some ways of Rubicon, the American TV series that never found an audience. But Page Eight only takes up two hours of your time, which makes it preferable for most folks. You'll know in advance if you’ll like it: if you’re a fan of low-key British spy thrillers with excellent casts, you’ll like this. 7/10.

occupy cal

It’s silly to take these things personally; the victims of police brutality are important, whether or not I know them myself. Still, it has been especially disturbing to me knowing that one of the people treated violently by UC cops was a former colleague of mine from the Berkeley English department, Celeste Langan. I’m not surprised she was in the front lines. While I didn’t work with her during my time in the department, she went out of her way on more than one occasion to help me; she was one of the most generous people I knew at Cal. The Daily Cal wrote of her situation:

Langan … said in an email that she knew that what she was doing by participating in the human chain was a form of nonviolent resistance, knew that she was disobeying the police order to disperse and knew that her participation made her subject to arrest. But, she said, she expected the police would arrest the protesters “in a similarly non-violent manner.”

“Rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed,” Langan said in the email. “They could have taken the time to arrest us for refusal to disperse without violence, but instead seem to have been instructed to get to the tents as quickly as possible. Since the tents posed no immediate threat to public safety, their haste and level of force were unwarranted.”

Here is an excerpt from the open letter (see petition link above) sent to the Chancellor, the administration, and the Regents:

We are appalled by the Chancellor’s account, in his November 10 “Message to the Campus Community,” that the police were “forced to use their batons.” We strenuously object to the charge that protesters—by linking arms and refusing to disperse—engaged in a form of “violence” directed at law enforcement. The protests did not justify the overwhelming use of force and severe bodily assault by heavily armed officers and deputies. Widely-circulated documentation from videos, photographs, and TV news outlets make plainly evident the squad tactics and individual actions of members of the UCPD and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. This sends a message to the world that UC Berkeley faculty, staff, and student protesters are regarded on their own campus with suspicion and hostility rather than treated as participants in civil society. …

We call for greater attention to the substantive issues raised at the protests on November 9 regarding the privatization of education. With massive cuts in state funding and rising tuition costs across the community college system, the Cal State network, K-12, and the University of California, public education is undergoing a severe divestment. Student debt has reached unprecedented levels as bank profits swell. We decry the growing privatization and tuition increases that are currently heavily promoted by the corporate UC Board of Regents.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the Regents, who have failed in their responsibility to fight for state funding for public education, and have placed the burden of the budget crisis on the backs of students.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the willingness of the Chancellor, and other leaders of the UC Berkeley administration, to respond appropriately to student protests, to secure student welfare, and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.


Today we opened checking and savings accounts with Mechanics Bank. They are local; we found them via the Move Your Money web site.

I visit the inside of the local branch of my bank about once every decade. If I go there at all, it’s to use the ATM. If I have banking to take care of, I do it online. So I can’t really speak to the quality of the people who work for Bank of America or Wells Fargo, except to note that I’m sure they’re good people.

To open our new accounts, though, we had to actually enter the bank and sit down with a representative. In our case, it was a woman named Stephanie Rogers. It was a very good experience. She was so nice, and so helpful, that I finally decided she and her co-workers were aliens, who plotted to take over the world by convincing regular folks like us that they were nice, only to turn back into aliens the second we left the building. People would come in, and she would invariably greet them by name, even as she continued working on our accounts. Folks brought their dogs in while they did their banking. It was remarkable.

I can’t promise I’ll be back at the branch anytime soon … I’m still a person who does most of his banking online. But it was a pleasure to spend time with Stephanie at Mechanics Bank. We already feel like we’ve made a good choice.