Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Matter of Perspective (With a Foray into the Realm of Film Criticism)

In the world of documentary film-making one has the opportunity to take a subject--any subject really--and draw out its intrinsically fascinating qualities.  I certainly would never claim to be a "film-maker," but there is something about the process of documenting a compelling subject on film and unveiling that subject's essence (for lack of a better word) that intrigues me as a student of the human condition. 

In recent years, I had the opportunity to do several short documentaries--on the vegetarian alternative, on the first year experience in college, on trekking through the Himalayas in Nepal, and most recently, on college-aged protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Capturing these disparate voices on film and giving them life provided me with immense creative satisfaction, even if the finished products were hardly worthy of a premiere at Cannes.  All these films were shot with no budget, using a $100 Flip camcorder, and free movie editing software.  The results at times were amateurish, but the inherent nobility of the subjects I was examining always shone though, despite my limitations as a film-maker and my lack of decent equipment.

Last year, on a whim, I decided to do a short documentary on the artist and film-maker, George Kayaian.  We were going to Sands Point Preserve with my nephews and I asked George if he would be willing to have me interview him about his theories on art and his own perspective on himself as an artist.  The film was shot in about 1 hour with minimal retakes and George basically had to talk about any of the issues I threw at him without any preparation at all (and did an amazing job, I might add).  Once I shot the film, I put it together fairly quickly and without many embellishments.

Artist at the Crossroads (2010)

Not long ago, George and I discussed how interesting it would be if he took the footage that I shot and tried to make his own version of the same film.  Two different perspectives on the same subject, essentially using the same raw material. 

He recently finished this project and his version is just about as different from the original as you can possibly get:

Artist at the Crossroads (2012)

On the positive side, George was able to take the original footage and cut it in a way that is definitely a more engaging experience for the audience.  The incorporation of his original works of art and scenes from his films also helps to give a better sense of the evolution of his work as an artist.

But I think essentially the two versions of Artist at the Crossroads reflect two fundamentally different views of the function of film-making.  I'm a philosopher by profession; George is at heart a true movie-maker.  And I think that film plays very different roles in our two worlds.

I think of myself as a "gadfly," provoking and antagonizing my audience (i.e., students) to think about issues in a new light.  I don't have to worry about boring my audience and I don't really care if they are put off or confused by what I create.  When it comes to my little films, I'm happy to give the viewer long stretches of exposition without breaking them up the way a real film-maker would, because I want them to be exposed to extended arguments--even if they are difficult--and to struggle with them. 

I also like the idea of following the rallying cry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud to shock people out of their conformist, middle-class, sensibilities  (├ępater le bourgeois).  But it is impossible to shock people any longer in the traditional sense of the term.  So shock has to take a different form.  Today people are uncomfortable with silence and need to be provided with endless stimulation all the time.  This is the curse of our modern existence.  So I think we need to force the audience to confront its own bread and circuses mentality, even if they don't want to.  The last thing I want to do is make the audience feel good after watching anything that I create. 

George, on the other hand, is at heart someone who really wants to entertain.  He's right out of the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille and Stephen Spielberg.  No real movie-maker--and I use this term in the best sense of the word--wants to bore or antagonize his audience.  That's why the late 60s and early 70s were a period of "films," not "movies."  And many of the films made during this period were an anomaly in the history of cinema, because the film-makers really didn't give a crap if you were entertained or not.  Try watching Trauffat's Jules and Jim, Coppola's The Conversation, or Antonioni's Blowup today and you will probably go out of your mind.  These are definitely not the kind of films to watch if you are looking to be entertained or amused.

But many of the greatest directors in the history of cinema--John Ford, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, the Cohen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, to name but a few--were entertainers in the best sense of the word.  Even when dealing with serious or philosophical themes, these directors know how keep things moving and to stir the emotions of their audiences.  This, I think, is the tradition that George is clearly a part of.  Check out, for example, what I believe to be his two most interesting films--Fragments and Man in the Hallway.  These films are seriously existential, but they are made in a way that, even if you weren't interested in the philosophical themes at all, you would probably still enjoy them. 

When it came to making his own version of Artist at the Crossroads, George couldn't resist the opportunity to edit the long-winded dialogue of the first film in order to keep his version moving at a brisker pace.  The result again is a film that even those who don't give a damn at all about art would probably enjoy watching.  It is, in short, a fine piece of moving-making.

As to which is the better film, I'll leave that for you to decide.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tell them to Go Frack Themselves

During the next few months New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will be making a decision about allowing hydraulic fracking in the state.  After mountaintop removal, this is perhaps one of the most destructive and dangerous practices currently being allowed in our country.
I feel so strongly about this issue that I’ve written a piece about it in Ecoblog.   If you care about the ecological integrity of New York State and the security of our water supply, please read the piece and get involved in this issue. 

Or, if you are already up on the issue, just skip the article and fill out the Working Families Party petition to Governor Cuomo, urging him to ban fracking in New York State.  It will only take a minute of your time, but it could mean of world of difference for the health of New York State.

Monday, March 26, 2012

and/or: word, image, provocation

The second volume of and/or is now out and I'm fairly happy with the results.  This journal was born out of a conversation I had with my colleague, Damian Hey.  We were lazing around my office one summer about two years ago, looking at a recent issue of Vulcan Magazine.  I've always been a fan of this quirky journal and greatly admire the funky sensibilities of those who put it together.

"We should do our own journal of experimental writing and art," Damian said wistfully to me as he flipped through the pages of Vulcan

"Ok," I said. "Let's do it."

Less than three months later we had a website up, a rigorous editorial process for reviewing submissions, and a few months after that our first issue was available on-line and in public and university libraries. 

Now our second volume is out and I think that it is even more interesting than the first volume. My criterion for really good art is simple: does it provoke me, excite me, shock me, challenge my perspective on life, or at least give me a good chuckle? If art does any of these things, then it's "good art." Based upon this standard, V2 is damned masterpiece!

Last week I was at the Poet's House in Manhattan, which is rapidly becoming my favorite hangout spot in the City.  I was rummaging through the bookcase filled with all recent poetry journals, and there under "A" was and/or.  Being an obsessively competitive person, I couldn't stop myself comparing the recent edition of our journal to the others on the shelves.  I'm delighted to say that and/or ranked right up there in terms of content and design with some of the most prestigious poetry journals in the country.  Credit for that has to go to Damian Hey, the Editor-in-Chief, and our four amazing literary and art editors (Orchid Tierney, Aimee Herman, Don Hazlitt, and George Kayaian) who spent an enormous amount of time going through the stacks of submissions that we received from contributors.  Great work, folks!

Update on Volumes 2 and 3 of and/or:

V2 has just received a very nice review from Camille Martin on her blog Rogue Embryo.   Many thanks for the kind words, Camille!

We are now beginning the process of going through the plethora of submissions that we've received for V3, and, once our editorial staff has selected the strongest pieces to include, I'll begin the process of laying out the journal.  Since the submissions that we've received for this issue are extremely good, I am going to make it my mission to design a layout for this edition that is as visually dynamic as it can possibly be.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Americas

The following interviews were taped in Mississippi by Alexandra Pelosi for the HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher."  When you watch it, you begin to understand quite clearly that there is not one America, but two.  The first America is the one that I live in.  It's located on the coasts and along the Great Lakes and has citizens who are fairly well educated, somewhat secular, relatively tolerant of differences, and who for the most part believe that government has at least some role to play in ensuring a minimal degree of equality and fairness among its inhabitants. 

Then there's the other America that Pelosi captures in her video.  This is the America of the heartlands and the Bible Belt and is filled with some of the poorest, least educated folks in the country.  It also the place where people--let's not call them citizens, because to be a citizen implies some appreciation for the concept of the common good--have been persuaded to blame government (and liberal New Yorkers) for all their material woes and who are waiting with tremendous longing for the rapture to lift them out of this "veil of tears" that we call earthly existence. 

All I can say is thank God I live in the first America.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Roots of Our Consumerism

 "Homo Consumens is the man whose main goal is not primarily to own things, but to consume more and more, and thus to compensate for his inner vacuity, passivity, loneliness and anxiety….He mistakes thrill and excitement for joy and happiness and material comfort for aliveness; satisfied greed becomes the meaning of life, striving for it a new religion. The freedom to consume becomes the essence of human freedom."

Erich Fromm. “The Application of Humanist Psychoanalysis to Marx's Theory" in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

I like to think that I’m totally immune to the lure of consumerism.  After all, I’ve spent the past 15 years lecturing students on the importance of voluntary simplicity both as a means to prevent further environmental degradation to our planet, but also as a way to find greater happiness in life.
That latter benefit of reducing consumption is often lost on 20-something-year-olds who have grown up fervently believing that meaning and happiness in life are connected to the ability to buy whatever one wants, whenever one wants, whether one has the funds to do so or not.  I’ve found that, even when I show these students hard data from the field of human psychology clearly demonstrating that the “need to always have more” is linked to  personal unhappiness and that the happiest people on the planet are actually those who are the most immune to the lure of consumption, they simply don’t buy it (no pun intended). 

But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am setting a positive example for my students, right?  After all, I’m living in a house that is much smaller than I could afford, I drive a 17 year old car (by choice), rarely eat out in restaurants, and generally wear clothes till they fall apart (literally!).  On the surface of things, I am the poster boy for the voluntary simplicity movement.

And yet, deep in the marrow of my being, I am as easily seduced by the lure of American consumerism as the most fashion-conscious student in my environmental ethics class.    Just recently, for example, I found myself wanting to replace the perfectly adequate cell-phone that I had been using for about four years with a smart new Iphone.  The new phone cost hundreds of dollars more than the old phone did and that new plan that I had to take out to get it was also more expensive, but at least I could now say that I had the smartest, most sophisticated, most stylish cell phone on the market.  And I was ever so happy—that is, until I saw a colleague of mine with the new Iphone 4s with even cooler features than the model I had.  And then I found myself becoming envious and thinking that my own Iphone just didn’t seem quite as special any more.

Then there’s the issue of my car.  I am adamant about the fact that I will not buy a new car until the one I have—a 1995 Toyota Corolla—starts to become unreliable or cost more to maintain than it is worth.  17 years later, I still have the same car, and it is still chugging along perfectly fine.  There are absolutely no mechanical issues with the car, but it certainly doesn’t provide as smooth and quiet a ride as a new car would, and lately, the paint on the roof of the car has begun to wear off, making the car look rather shabby.  In fact, I’ve been told that I have the ugliest car on campus, and that’s probably true:  I doubt that even the most cash-strapped freshman would ever be caught dead driving a car as aesthetically challenged as mine. 

Now, when someone asks me about my car, I tell them proudly that I’ll be damned if I ever get suckered into buying a new car before I absolutely need one.  But, in fact, I’m starting to feel just a little self-conscious about being seen driving a car like mine or parking it at the Mall amidst all the shiny new SUVs that people on Long Island tend to own.  And this year, I’ve even begun fantasizing about getting a new car—not anything excessive mind you, but something small, cute, and fun like a Honda Fit.  Every time I see someone driving one of these cars, I almost automatically think to myself:  “Why should they get to drive a nice new car, while I am forced to drive this piece of crap!  “After all,” I reason to myself, “I am a college professor and do have a reputation to maintain.”
The Ugliest Car on Campus
So you see, although I would like to believe that I am impervious to the insatiable desire for more than I need, this really isn’t the case.  I am as much a part of the species homo consumens as anyone.  The only difference is that I’ve read enough to have some ideas about what the root causes of the consumeristic desires that drive our society might be.   I think that these causes are threefold:

1)      Contemporary Americans have come to identify who they are as human beings with what they own.  The more trendy things I own, then, the more worthy I am as a human being.  Conversely, if I live in a modest house, don’t wear the latest clothes, and don’t drive a nice car, then something is wrong with ME as a human being.   In 21st century America we are judged, not by the “content of our characters,” but by the stuff we possess.

2)      We have been convinced by modern advertising that we should have as much as our neighbors do.   In the past, however, our neighbors could only afford to buy things if they saved for them.  But the advent of the credit industry means that ordinary people can buy things they don’t have the actually money for.  We don’t know, for example, that our neighbors really can’t afford to live in the McMansion that they recently built or drive their new Lexus, but we think they can, and that makes us feel inferior.  So we too are compelled to take out loans and live well beyond our means, just to “keep up with the Jonses.”  

3)      In the absence of authentic religious belief, Americans have made a religion out of consumption.  If we really believed in God and were convinced that this life is not all that there is, having so much stuff wouldn’t mean quite as much to us.  After all, how could owning even the most sophisticated things in the world—fancy jewelry, designer clothes, etc.—ever compare with what we have to look forward to in the next life?  Objectively, then, if Americans really believe in anything, it is that salvation comes from buying power—the ability to satisfy our insatiable desires with more and more stuff.  God is dead, but at least we have Walmart—or Neiman Marcus, if you prefer—to  provide us with ultimate meaning in life.

These are just a few thoughts that came to me as I reflected on the roots of our consumerism in the United States.  I’d love to hear what you think about this.  Is the problem of consumerism really as bad as I think it is (do you personally fall victim to it?)?  And what do you think that the ultimate root of this need to always acquire more and more is?   

This article originally appeared on EcoBlog

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Latest Front in the Culture Wars

There’s a war going on as I write this post—a war that will determine precisely what kind of country we will become in the 21st century.  And Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown law school, has emerged as the hero of the hour in this war.   
Ms. Fluke, former president of the Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice and an editor on the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, had been engaged in a struggle with Georgetown University over the university’s refusal to provide insurance coverage for contraception.  Prevented last week from testifying at the overtly misogynistic hearing Republicans held in the House of Representatives, she was given a forum to speak at a Democratic event, where she reported that students at her university often pay as much as $1000 a year for contraceptives.
That simple statement of fact prompted right-wing blow-hard and Oxycontin pill popper, Rush Limbaugh, to slander her in the most appalling manner possible.  “What does that make her?” he asked.  “It makes her a slut, right?  It makes her a prostitute.”  These comments provoked a slew of denunciations from Democrats, and even Republicans like John Boehner and Mitt Romney attempted to distance themselves from Limbaugh, knowing full well the violent reaction that these words would provoke, particularly among women.  

But Limbaugh himself was unrepentant.  On Wednesday, he went on to throw even more fuel into the fire he had started by offering this piece of advice to Ms. Fluke:  “If we’re going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it.  We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” 

It would seem that, according to Limbaugh and the conservatives who support him, any woman who uses birth control is not only a slut and a prostitute, but an aspiring porn star as well. 

Despite the equivocation of some conservatives on this issue, there’s no doubt in my mind that the right-wing agenda in this country is fixated on turning back the clock on women’s reproductive rights.   The problem for conservatives is that the war for control over reproductive rights was fought and won by women over 40 years ago, and there is no conceivable way that any reasonable woman is going to allow pasty old white men and clerics to strip them of the freedom that they now take for granted.   Indeed, when over 90% of all Catholic women use some form of birth control—despite their Church’s attempts over the years to demonize the practice—you know that contraception is not an issue any longer in most Americans’ minds.  It’s about as controversial as the question of what fabric softener to use. 

When reactionaries like Limbaugh or Rick Santorum start to challenge the validity of these rights, all they will really succeed in doing is completely alienating reasonable women around the country.  Furthermore, by continually harping on these sorts of issues, conservatives will ultimately drive women out of the Republican Party, just as they have driven out minorities, gays, and those who care about issues like environmental protection, civil liberties, and the separation of church and state.  The only people who will be left in the Party will be the most extreme reactionaries and fanatics, whose sole agenda will be to return the country to a time when women knew their place (i.e., in the kitchen and in the bedroom) and the good ole boys could run the country without interference from those with wombs or excessive pigmentation in their skins. 

So much thanks is owed to Sandra Fluke for providing progressives with a new weapon with which to fight the new fronts that are opening up in the culture wars.   Sometimes, it takes a woman of courage to remind the rest of us how easily freedom can be undermined without extreme vigilance.