Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

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The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: or why can’t Mira get that Bollywood Music out of her Hair?

Changez (Riz Ahmed, a handsome actor with limited range and modest charisma) is at home in Pakistan for a family celebration. Music plays, men sing, and we begin cross cutting to a kidnapping and the ransacking of an office.  The men sing more, the kidnapping goes on. The men sing louder and it goes on some more.  Louder and louder, to the same beat, without subtitles, although the close ups make it seem important and probably portentous.

And there’s the rub.  Mira Nair, a director of some achievement, just can’t stop the music.  it intrudes over and over in this tale of a Pakistani over-achiever who goes to Princeton, lands at a super charged investment firm, acts instinctively with a ruthless passion for the bottom  line, meets an almost unrecognizable Kate Hudson (it was shot in the aftermath of her second pregnancy) as a playful, formally inclined artist who’s of course the daughter of the firm’s top man, and then inevitably gets caught up in the racist hysteria of post 9/11 that targets him repeatedly as a national security threat based not on his custom made suits but his skin color. If this weren’t dramatic enough (though riddled with plot holes of every size), Nair tacks on the droning but hyperbolic music of Bollywood at its most stereotypical. It makes a decent film close to unbearable.

There is not only Erica’s (Hudson) sudden discovery of politics and the inflammatory 9/11 inspired installation work she comes up with, never mentioning it to her Pakistani boyfriend who had had harrassment aplenty by this point, and Liev Schreiber’s burnt out CIA/reporter character whose multiple identities and motives revolve like a crazy top around his loss of direction, except for finding his kidnapped buddy, an CIA case officer posing as an avuncular academic.  There is also the lame demonstration of Changez’s skill as a ruthless cost cutter with examples so obvioius, and implausible, that one imagines the other newcomers didn’t make them because they knew just how obvious or exaggerated they actually were.  And to top it all, the flashback structure, by which Changez tells his life story while we await, 24 style, the ticking time bomb of an imminent “extraction” of Changez from his university in Lahore where Liev tries to learn the whereabouts of his kidnapped buddy, creates completely fabricated suspense.  Without the flim flam of flashback, were it told chronologically, the implausibility would crush the film, if the music didn’t do it first.  Changez doesn’t know about the kidnapping but to reveal that would rob the film of its overwrought suspense.

Nair has definite talent but like Sidney Pollack she undercuts her material with sentimentality, something Katherine Bigelow learned to avoid in her quest to be even tougher and more right wing than the rest of the boys.