When will the Democratic Party wake up?

This is an open letter to the DNC (Democratic National Committee) about their failure to confront Trump effectively. I haven’t sent it yet and welcome feedback.

Putin makes his mark

Dear Democratic National Committee and Surrogates:

They say any publicity is good publicity and by that standard the DNC is doing a world of good for Donald Trump. Every fund request I get tells of another blunder or outrage, acts that do little to upset his base.

What I don’t hear is what the Democratic Party offers as an alternative. That means zero publicity for what really matters: a radically different vision for an America we can once again recognize as our own.

You lost the election, on multiple levels. Put your house in order and invite us in.

Address, at the very least:

Will you revitalize and pursue the Democratic platform devised at last year’s convention and use it as a building block to the future?

What will you do to return us to a Post-Enlightenment (17th century on) world that understands how science freed us from myth, superstition and folly? The Republicans have opted for a medieval system of belief that denies scientific evidence in favor of blind faith and willful ignorance. How will you make clear the difference, especially among those susceptible to a system the nurtures unverified claims and demagogic appeals?

When will you stop pretending the working class does not exist, or is populated with undesirables? Factory workers are not members of the middle class as President Obama seemed to believe. They earn wages not salaries and have much less security, just for a start. Saving the middle class, the sub-title of Elizabeth Warren’s new book, ignores those whose future stands in yet starker jeopardy. When will you speak to and for a core constituency you have overlooked and sometimes disdained?

How will you stop corporations and rich individuals for shirking their responsibility to pay taxes? We may have a high corporate tax rate but it is a fiction, obviously so when companies like Apple can shelter vast amounts of profit in foreign nations, untaxed.

When can Medicare be gradually extended downward to become a universal health care system?  How will you handle the vested, private interests that turn health into a profit center?

How can we acknowledge the difficult status quo of semi-legal and illegal immigrants and offer a path to citizenship as well as a well-coordinated plan to limit illegal entry in the future?

What tangible steps and new legislation will secure equal rights for all genders and sexual orientations as well as all ethnic and religious groups?

How will you acknowledge the fear, resentment and even hatred expressed by some whites who can no longer take their historical racial or gender privileges for granted? How can the sense of an all-inclusive American People can be restored?

What concrete steps do you propose to counter terrorism by building democratic institutions, especially in countries that lack democratic traditions?  What texts should be read in schools, what role can local and regional governments play, how can citizens make their voices heard and respected, when can tribal leaders and warlords have their power reduced?  Isn’t it time to step back from endorsing monarchs, oligarchs, patriarchs and illiberal ultra-nationalists who refuse to find a way to accommodate and respect minority groups of all kinds?  We say we want to bring democracy to others but more other bring little more than death and destruction. What will you do to change this?

Why do I not hear about action, real action, in these directions?

I can vote against someone, but I also want to ACT FOR something.

This are hard questions but without answers the Democratic Party will remain a party of the past.

 

Scenes from Budapest

i’m back in Budapest, teaching in the DocNomad program, a grad program where students spend the year going from Lisbon to Budapest to Brussels making docs along the way. It’s a great program.  And here are some impressions from the city where Orban’s rubber stampers just voted to close the Central European University, a great university too liberal, it seems, for Orban and his far right policies.

outside the Parliament Bldg where the right wing prevails

parliament with the protest.

The Grand Stairway, and Red carpet but it’s not the Reds who rule but the modern day Arrow Crossers

A mural inspired by Chagall outside a cafe named after him. There is still the charm to hide the lessons in darkness

And the oddities: Albanian Liver? I didn’t get to try it.

A provocative show of anti-totalitarian art from the Eastern bloc in the Soviet era.

Marina Abramowic doing her thing: all wrapped up and ready to go

Another part of the show

 

More protest. The large statue references Hungary’s occupation by Germany near the end of WW2 but the foreground items all denounce the soft pedaling of government collusion with the Nazis throughout the war, including, near the end, the Final Solution

3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

Monet’s Early Years, as seen in San Francisco

What Monet did to get rolling isn’t all that different from what he did later on. But it is already powerful and raw in a way his later, more contemplative images aren’t always.

The streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

the streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

He did this image from memory obviously; otherwise he’d have no doubt drowned. And it’s powerful; you worry about the sailors and wonder about their fate.
He surely loved water and the artistic challenge it presented. Social status and labor were of far less interest than nature, but this was so for most of the Impressionist work.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of "bathers." This is just part of the painting.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of “bathers.” This is just part of the painting.

Compare the “finished” work above with the sketch quality of the one below. He manages to depict a crowd of folk in the water with almost no delineation at all; and the water ripples have an amazing power.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Copies don’t go justice but Monet’s painting, Boats at the Port of Honfleur, can give you chills. Just dabs of paint tossed onto the canvas, these reflections of boats and trees are only that; but their weight, coloration, proportion and placement render the rightside up world of what floats perfectly in its upside down world of reflection. It’s an amazing work and possesses, and exudes, a vitality that the great later works of waterlilies and the like do not (despite their rhapsodic beauty). it has to be seen in person. It is a perfect painting.
Then there’s dad. Dad didn’t approve of son becoming a painter. The placard says this is a calm, respectful portrait of dad in the park, with no hint of the familial tension. Nope. Look, if the reproduction allows, at dad’s posture. Stiff as a rifle, jaw jutting forward, left leg almost levitating as he “reads.” Monet captures a tight, strict figure of black and white that contrasts sharply with the painting of his wife that follows.

He's not only tense but totally alone, Monet's Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

He’s not only tense but totally alone, Monet’s Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

This “shot” of his wife on a cold day outside the house, passing the glass panelled door, imbues her with a melancholy look that may relate to the enforced poverty his not yet successful painting career and his lack of paternal support imposed. A look of sadness, fleeting, perhaps, and yet the room is large, the glass clear, the day bright and Monet pays homage to the woman who endures what must be endured with and because of the very work that honors her.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Some paintings capture another maturing style in the early work: smoother, softer, with less obvious traces of brush strokes and paint dabs. This painting, done, I believe, in the Netherlands, is representative and feels “nice” to me in a more familiar and comfortable way. Yet the reflections–those perfect gestural reflections–are there to remind us of the degree to which Monet’s early work possessed a rawness and perfection, a magic and defiance that slowly gained recognition and acclaim, enough to erase the poverty of these early years.

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

13th and I Am Not Your Negro

Along with three fiction films–The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight and Hidden Figures–these two docs explore the African-American experience, past and present. All but Birth of a Nation are up for Oscars and Birth would be, too, if Nate Parker hadn’t been pilloried for his response to questions about his involvement in a rape while an undergraduate (he was acquitted of all criminal charges). That is another story, one that deserves more discussion, but the two docs are my focus here.
Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, a compilation of reflections on race by James Baldwin, gives us an extraordinary film. Peck has a remarkably international background and his earlier film on Patrice Lumumba makes clear, his focus on social injustice is wide spectrum, such as the role of the United States in not just propping up but installing business friendly dictators like Joseph Mobutu around the world.
James Baldwin is a perfect vehicle for exploring race in America. As he himself says, he does not speak for any one position, be it Martin Luther King’s, the Black Panther’s, or Malcolm X’s, although he recognizes the value of all those who stand up for racial equality and social justice. Baldwin’s comments are sharp, incisive and more thought-provoking than sloganeering. He reminds us, for example, Patrick Henry’s rousing call to “Give me liberty or give me death” has become a centerpiece of the story of the American colonies in their struggle to throw off the yoke of British domination. And yet, the equivalent words, spoken by Black Panthers, are seen as a dire threat to national security. Baldwin saw the big picture. When a Yale philosophy professor tries to get him to agree that he has more in common with white intellectuals than working class blacks, Baldwin does not take the “let’s all get along; beneath skin color are common qualities,” bait. He rips into the professor, on the Dick Cavett show, with a litany of racist practices that underscore how institutions, like liberals, may not profess to be racist, and yet act in ways that perpetuate racist practices.
Weaknesses: Samuel Jackson reads text by Baldwin in a flat, ponderous tone. He lacks the lightness and sharpness of Baldwin’s own comments. And Peck sidesteps Baldwin’s gay identity despite the ways in which it factored into his place in the civil rights and Black Power movements.
But as a time bomb of precise, memorable insights into what it means to be black in America, I Am Not Your Negro is definitely the film of the year.
13th comes in second. It feels like a film distrustful of its own medium since it is one of the most talk heavy documentaries this year, with voice after voice telling us about the bitter irony of how emancipation led to incarceration. None have the eloquence of Baldwin although all are valuable. 13th gives short shrift to its most original insight: the arrest and sentencing of blacks in the Reconstructionist South to create a work force for the plantations and industries that no longer to rely on slaves. Prisons gave them a new form of legal slavery. But the film, determined to hold to a chain link historical progression, does not return to this point when it touches on the commercialization of the prison industry today, in which many prisoners perform virtual slave labor that profits not only well-known corporations but the private businesses that now run so many of our prisons.
The film compensates for its wordiness with hip hop “breaks” that seem to come from a different sensibility. Powerful, and thematically apt, they seem less like a primary way to make experience embodied and impassioned than like a pit stop before the litany of experts resumes their commentary. Placing most of the speakers in settings that evoke a carceral environment has the feel of a forced metaphor.
Skipped over is the key question of how Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and others (might I add Leader Trump?) used the code of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” to serve as a war on African-Americans. They did, successfully. It was a racist move in every way but accepted. What made it work? The film seems to assume that there was an equivalence between crime, drugs and race but doesn’t show how this idea was itself racist. Why sweep through black communities especially, using brutal, often murderous tactics, to root out criminals and drug dealers? Were crime rates and drug use higher there than anywhere else? Or were white collar drug use and white collar crime seen as less a threat, even though crimes in the ghetto seldom spilled beyond the ghetto? (See O.J.: Made in America for a vivid refresher course: residents in South Central L.A., destroyed their own community in the wake of the Rodney King trial and didn’t set foot in Brentwood and the other white enclaves where folk like O.J. lived.)
13th is a more flawed analysis of racial issues but it brings to light, in a focussed and compelling way, how the American prison system has perpetuated the racial biases that the 13th Amendment set out to eliminate. Jails are the new plantations. Prisoners are the new slaves, and the overwhelming preponderance of those slaves belong to minorities, most vividly African-Americans. in saying this, it sharpens the insights of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and gives racism is proper place in understanding the role of prisons today.
It is hard to envision greater progress in race relations and civil rights without a ruthless dismantling of a prison system that reinforces the underlying fears and hatreds that have nourished racist ideologies for centuries. As powerful works of social justice both films fully deserve their Oscar nominations as well a long and useful life after that particular showbiz distraction comes and goes.

Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.

Women in Abstract Painting

 

The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.