'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Film Notes: 25th Hour 

With my wife and son away to visit relatives, I decided to spend the evening watching a movie. After wandering around the local video store (yes, we still have them in Sacramento), I finally selected Spike Lee's 25th Hour from 2002. Based upon the novel of the same name by David Benioff, the film relates the story of a young Irish Catholic man, Monty Brogan, spending his last day in New York City before serving a seven year prison term for possession of heroin for sale. While otherwise purportedly faithful to the original, Lee placed the events of the narrative within the context of the city's post-9/11 malaise. Critics made much of this in their contemporaneous reviews, but, viewed nine years later, it comes across as an unnecessary extravagance, an overwrought emotional symbolism that distracts from the compelling performances of an excellent ensemble cast.

Indeed, a conversation between two of Brogan's friends in a high rise apartment overlooking Ground Zero is one of the worst compositional choices made by Lee and his cinematographer in the entire film. Apparently, they decided that judiciously distributed visual background markers of the aftermath of the attacks weren't enough, something more akin to the melodramatic intensity of Eisenstein was required. The fact that it comes across more like the campy voluptuousness of DeMille is indicative of the immensity of the error. But this is what you get with Lee, moments of daring and insight mixed with apparent amateurish gaffes. In this, Lee deserves a perverse respect for his refusal to conform to the expectations of a more disciplined formalism that accompanied his early successes, and perhaps, one discerns an aesthetic here, one centered around a conscious recognition that there is a powerful synergy that results from this erratic technique, a belief that life is, by turns, angry, passionate, comical and uncontrollable and any sincere film about it must be as well.

If so, Lee succeeds or fails based upon whether there is a transcendental quality to his films beyond the sum of their parts. In 25th Hour, there is, but it doesn't become apparent until the last thirty minutes. Before then, the actors, typical of a Lee film, provide great performances that keep the audience engaged in what would otherwise be a pedestrian story. All the way down the line, from Edward Norton as Brogan, to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper as his friends Jacob Elinsky and Frank Slaugherty, to Rosario Dawson as his girlfriend Naturelle Rivera to Brian Cox as his father, James, they provide uniformly nuanced, carefully developed characterizations that give the story a naturalistic feel. Lee may be a controversial director, but no one can dispute his ability to select actors for his films who invariably provide strong performances.

In these last thirty minutes, submerged threads of the narrative come to the fore: the difficulty of preserving trust in a passionate relationship, the ability of a father to pass his knowledge and experiences on to his son and the near impossibility of living anything other than an amoral life in a city as corrupted as New York City. Two sequences highlight this last theme, Brogan's internalized angry, bigoted diatribe about the city's inhabitants and a surprising ending that serves as a more profound, emotionally true repudiation of it. From the vantage point of 2012, 25th Hour is actually a powerful premonition of the social withdrawal and survivalism associated with the aftermath of the 2008 global recession, evocative of a more recent film about precisely this subject, The Girlfriend Experience. In such a world, as profiled by Lee in this film, there is no place for anyone other than those who accept the primacy of money, power and violence, and those who cannot do so are left with trying to imagine a refuge beyond their reach.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012


UPDATE 2 (9:07PM Central Standard Time): For an easily accessible link to numerous livestreams and ustreams, go here.

UPDATE 1 (8:50PM Central Standard Time): Arrests, police clubbing protesters, chaotic scenes on both ustreams.

INITIAL POST: Occupy is making the connection between austerity at home and perpetual war abroad. This is the fourth day of marches in Chicago, marches conducted in the face of a suffocating police presence. At this time, 8:25 p.m. Central Standard Time, about 2000 to 3000 people are moving through the downtown, with protesters closing off the sidewalks so that the bike police cannot assist in their encirclement:

Live video by Ustream

Here is another ustream:

Live video by Ustream

There are reports that the march is within a block or two of the NATO state dinner where delegates are present. Obama, Obama, we've got some shit to talk about.

Meanwhile, there was also a sympathy march in New York City:

As usual, the kids are taking the lead. Of course, Twitter is the best source of current information, including active ustreams and livestreams, use the hashtags #NoNATO and #OccupyChicago, among others.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Farewell Donna Summer 

I posted my thoughts about her and this song, I'm a Rainbow, here on October 23, 2010.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Marching with the Black Bloc in Sacramento (VIDEO) 

I'm the guy in the blue shirt and charcoal pants, holding my tea from the family operated Fluid on N Street. The introduction states that the liberals and the passives drifted away from the march after awhile, which is sort of true, but in my experience, the number of people involved in most marches tends to dwindle unless there is pre-determined destination for a rally, which was not the case in this instance. Furthermore, I'm not sure whether many of the participants would have called themselves liberals, and I doubt whether the term explains very much anymore. For example, in addition to the apparent union activists I observed, I spoke to one woman who was canvassing for the Peace and Freedom Party, while another one was trying to generate interest in a new, fledgingly International Socialist Organization chapter in Sacramento. So, it may have been the result of march fatigue as much as it was displeasure with the confrontational behavior of the Bloc.

Hat tip to Pham Binh at The North Star.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Marching with the Black Bloc in Sacramento 

Yesterday, I resisted my temptation to engage in activist tourism, and decided to stay in Sacramento for May Day, instead of traveling to Oakland. Oakland is a fine place, no doubt, one that fuses memories of my childhood in Georgia and my junior high and high school years in midtown Sacramento, but I thought it best to participate in a public May Day protest at home. I tend to believe that my presence means more politically at a small scale event than a large one.

Over the weekend, I had checked the indybay calendar for a Sacramento May Day activity, and discovered this one: Anti-Capitalist Contingent for Sacramento May Day . . . This a call out for all in the central valley who are: Anarchists, Socialists, Communists& Anti-Capitalists, radical Queers, Dikes, feminists etc to converge on Sacramento this May Day and take to the streets in a anti-Capitalist Bloc during the May day Rally and March . . . Now, that got my attention. There must have been previous Sacramento May Day actions of this kind, but I don't recall them. In any event, I was pleased that something was happening to the left of the local trade unions, something that centered May Day around an express condemnation of capitalism.

Crocker Park, across from the Crocker Museum, near the I Street Bridge, was the gathering place for people interested in going on the march. I arrived at about 11:30am, about 30 minutes before the scheduled beginning of the march. As I approached one corner of the park at 4th and O Street, I saw a masked Black Bloc contingent of about 8 or 9 people. I became apprehensive as I could not initially see anyone else around, and pondered the surrealism of a 51 year old, unmasked man, marching down the Capitol Mall with them. On the one hand, I wondered whether they would consider me an undercover police officer, while, on the other, I considered the probability of arrest by the uniformed ones across the street on their bikes. I remembered a 2003 protest against the Iraq War along L Street nearby, just south of the K Street Mall, where officers immediately seized a young man wearing a bandanna when he stepped off the sidewalk and chalked the universal anarchy symbol in the street. But, as I got closer to the intersection, I could see another 30 or 40 people in the small park itself, and my apprehension dissipated. Upon entering the park, I noticed that some apparent union activists were there, with one woman wearing a Justice for Janitors T-shirt, another one wearing a Union Summer/AFL-CIO T-shirt and a third one wearing the distinctive purple of the Service Employees International Union. I proceeded to talk to some people for awhile until the Bloc on the corner gathered their signs and flags, including one with a CNT epigram on it, and called for the march to begin.

Interestingly, as I broke off my conversation with a couple of people, a couple of women, and started walking towards the corner to leave, I noticed that they had stayed behind. I asked if they were going on the march, and they said "no". Only about half of the people in the park had come forward to go on the march. A couple of people in the Bloc noticed, and went over to induce the others to come along. They succeeded. Perhaps, it was necessary for someone in the Bloc to speak to them to make them comfortable enough to participate by establishing a human connection severed by the masks. Our first destination were the banks and white collar office buildings along the Capital Mall a block away.

As the light at the intersection turned from green to red, there was an immediate clash of protest cultures. The Bloc at the front of the march continued to move forward after crossing the street, while the rest of us, with that Swiss sort of conformity that so characterizes many of us in Sacramento, stopped for the red light. A minute or two later, when the march had come back together on the other side of the street, some of the Bloc gently chastised us, insisting that we stay together. Of course, they were right, as separation increases the prospects of arrest, with disregard for the commands of the state, even if communicated by a traffic light, being an essential, non-negotiable feature of Bloc protest.

We then proceeded down the Mall, protesting at one bank after another, Wells Fargo, Bank of the West, US Bank, Bank of America. As we approached each bank, we chanted No Borders, No Nations, No Private Corporations! Oddly, I had not heard this one before, and it strikes me as the most concise crystalization of what Occupy, or, for that matter, any social movement should express as an ideological vision. And, indeed, May Day events, especially those in New York City, Oakland and Los Angeles, emphasized the interrelationship between immigration, trade union struggle and our economic distress. The chant identifies the global coalition of the precarious, whether documented or not, that is emerging to challenge capital and placed our small protest squarely within this effort. I am, as most readers of this blog are aware, insistent that any left movement in the US embrace an internationalist, as opposed to a nationalist, perspective.

At each bank, we chanted the slogans that have become the signatures of Occupy, such as Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out. We also chanted Strike! Strike! Strike! at every place where people were working. It is easy to ridicule this, about 40 to 50 people trying to encourage hundreds of people in buildings and along the streets to strike as they go about their business. But, I thought, people have to get the idea to resist somewhere, even if it appears implausible at the time. I recalled Clarence Thomas of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union saying before the November 2nd general strike in Oakland that it was a practice effort. In Sacramento, we are not even at the level of practice, but people did appear to be surprised, and maybe a few thought about what we did.

One of the most striking features of the march was the pragmatism displayed by the Bloc. We walked through red lights, and took over part of the street at times, but, when challenged by the police, we complied with their orders. My impression was that the Bloc had decided prior to the march that confrontation with the police was counterproductive. Bloc members would push boundaries, but not risk having anyone arrested. The cops were most insistent that we stay out of streets with light rail lines. It was evident that the police had been instructed to allow the march to proceed unimpeded if possible. There was little tension in the air. The Bloc contented itself with some hostile chants directed towards the cops, like the one that is now iconic, Fuck the Police, From Oakland to Greece! There were also a few encounters with private security, but here as well, the hostile comments towards them from some of the Bloc lacked the edge that one experiences in the Bay Area.

Surprisingly, we were even allowed to march through the open air shopping mall at the west end of the K Street Mall, Downtown Plaza. The police kept their distance as we shouted that the employees should strike. A private security guard gently ushered us along, with perfunctory exhortations that we needed to keep moving and not touch anything. There was little urgency to his effort because, as he kept telling us, the mall was half empty. Rumor has it that the owner, the Westfield Group, is desperately trying to sell it. Downtown Plaza has become a symbol of the malaise that has affected Sacramento since 2007. Shortly afterwards, the march, after a stop in front of the jail, concluded at the small daytime Occupy encampment by City Hall between 9th and 10th and I Streets. There are two or three tents there, and one of the members of the Bloc, now unmasked, said that he had been staying there since the occupation began. While others may be fairweather friends, the Sacramento manifestation of the Bloc is committed to the preservation of Occupy.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day 2012 

For updates, Twitter is the most current source of information, with links to livestreams and photographs. Go to hashtags #M1GS and #BayM1GS. The Guardian is also providing live updates as well. For a livestream and updates as to events in New York City, go here.

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