Friday, August 31, 2018

The Process of Art, and the Art of Process

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 92
David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

From an early age, most people make art. Children love to draw, sing, tell stories, and stage theatrical sketches. Yet at some point, nearly all of us stop. We all have unique reasons for this surrender: lack of mentorship, bad experiences with critics, the need to focus on “useful” skills. But every expressed reason boils down to one deterrent: fear.

Ted Orland and David Bayles teach photography at the University of California. As such, they’ve encountered every excuse aspiring artists use to justify not making art. Harsh criticism, especially from parents and teachers, often breeds a fear of making mistakes or being wrong. Lack of moral support after graduation leaves even accomplished artists feeling listless and alone. Hunger narrows the artists’ horizons. You name it, they've heard it.

The difference between successful career artists, and disappointed ex-artists, our authors insist, is how they approach this fear. Working artists have this fear, even learn from it, but don’t let it determine them. “When you act out of fear,” our authors write, “your fears come true.” Instead, they approach fear as an opportunity to continue improving, to grow as artists, and to create work that makes important conceptual leaps between pieces.

Yes, this sounds like a bromide. We all heard something similar in high school, and we’ve seen comparable fine-sounding axioms on motivational posters in workplaces worldwide. Bayles and Orland distinguish themselves from the mass of self-help books and creativity boosters (they pointedly eschew the word “creativity”) by focusing on how they, and artists they know and work with, translate these bromides into actions and outcomes.

David Bayles (left) and Ted Orland

The authors approach multiple aspects of artmaking with an eye toward keeping us engaged, even when the process seems overwhelming. Lack of goals, for instance, often impedes artistry: without an exhibition, pending sale, or letter grade, it’s difficult to create intrinsic motivations. That’s perhaps why so many artists stop creating after finishing school. They discuss the creation of meaningful goals to maintain momentum through down periods.

They also discuss education’s discouraging impacts. Though schooling is necessary for most people, its effects can often, inarguably, be discouraging for actual art. This includes both students, whose artistic expression gets subordinated to “skillz drillz,” and teachers, whose energy often goes into teaching rather than creating new art. The process of striking a balance isn’t easy or obvious, but our authors show ways it happens, and why.

Worst of all, of course, is fear of making mistakes. They write, “You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes,” and I feel pangs of recognition. In childhood, our parents enthused wildly about us making something, anything; somewhere, though, adults around us became focused on identifying our mistakes. And not screwing up became more important than the act of creation.

No wonder so many of us stop creating… or bury our creations in a closet somewhere. Yet the importance of human imperfection remains a thread throughout this book. Without flaws, we have nowhere to go to make the next conceptual leap into further art. Just as important, without flaws, our audiences have no dissonance to resolve internally, and therefore little relationship with the art. Imprefection isn’t just inevitable, it’s desirable.

Even the simple recognition that we don’t have to face these fears alone provides motivation to keep creating. Many artists (including me) stop creating new art because we feel we’re alone, or because the rejection slips seemingly isolate us from others. The process of art is truly contradictory: we’re engaged in forms of self-expression, but cannot create strictly for ourselves. Our authors’ anecdotes reconnect us to our audiences, and to our peers.

As photographers, the authors draw the most references from photography. They probably cite Ansel Adams more than any other artist, talking about ways he bucked critics, maintained his vision, and stood fast against discouragement. However, our authors draw generously from other genres, citing Frank Lloyd Wright, Ezra Pound, and countless other artists from across the spectrum. This process really applies to all artists, not just one category.

I admit, this fear plagues me too. The fear that everyone will recognize me as a hack, or that the business aspect of art will overwhelm the creation aspect, or that I’ll drown in rejection slips and vanish, unnoticed. Therefore I read this book again every few years, to remind myself I needn’t face these fears alone. Art can be a discouraging calling. We must remind ourselves that this discouragement isn’t a barrier, it’s part of the art.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

To Die and Kill in the American West

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 27
Terrence Malick (writer/director), Badlands


Kit Carruthers wants more from life than small-town South Dakota can provide. He’s cultivated a deliberate James Dean image and rebellious swagger, but his town will only provide him work collecting garbage in the late Eisenhower years. One afternoon, he happens upon the much younger Holly Sargis, who shares his big dreams. But Holly’s puritanical white-bread father disapproves of their relationship, so naturally, Kit buys a gun.

It’s hard to find a director more esoteric than Terrence Malick. In the 1970s, he produced two critically acclaimed movies, both considered classics, then simply vanished for twenty years. Though he has re-emerged, and become prolific, his Garbo-like silence has become his trademark; he remains hermetically sealed, communicating with humanity only through his films, which remain acclaimed, though often difficult to watch.

This film, shot independently on a shoestring budget, features two future Hollywood stars. In classic fashion, both play roles much younger than themselves: Martin Sheen, at 33, played Kit Carruthers as 25, while 24-year-old Sissy Spacek playes 15-year-old Holly. Though both actors convincingly play their characters’ ages, both characters have the kind of disappointment and premature aging that often characterizes small-town life. They look simultaneously young, and older than dirt.

Holly watches with remarkable dispassion when Kit shoots her father and torches her house. She neither commits enthusiastically, nor particularly resists; we’re left wondering whether she cares much either way. This becomes their respective characterizations: Kit cares deeply, but mostly about himself, and lashes out at insignificant provocations. Holly cares little, and despite her tender years, already drifts through life resigned to constant disappointment.

Martin Sheen (left) and Sissy Spacek in Badlands

The lovers begin a road trip across the American West, constantly accompanied by Kit’s gun. Everything else changes. They steal food, clothing, and cars almost randomly, but the lovers and their gun remain together, an unholy trinity for their own religion. Like traveling evangelists, they visit homes and towns across the Upper Midwest, but they don’t celebrate anything or bring hope. They just kill, because it’s all they have.

Malick subverts many tropes of movies set in the American West. Rather than glofifying the landscape, he trivializes it; despite the iconic vistas of the Black Hills and the Prairie, he holds focus on the foreground characters, keeping the background fuzzy. To the characters living in it, the landscape isn’t uplifting and honorable, it’s just the world around them, so constant that they can’t see it anymore. It’s bedroom, kitchen, and toilet to them.

Likewise, though American mythology celebrates the renewal created in wide-open spaces, Kit and Holly don’t somehow become, cowboy-like, the real people they’re meant to be. Without civilization to provide form, they become increasingly shapeless, unsure of themselves. They have nobody to talk to but each other, so they increasingly double down on their existing personalities. Kit becomes angrier, more passionate, while Holly becomes taciturn and fatalistic.

These tendencies are amplified because Malick doesn’t use much soundtrack music. Not that there’s none; one of Malick’s trademarks is the use of compositions by Carl Orff, and he samples from Orff’s percussion classic, “Gassenhauer,” so generously that recent recordings sometimes give that piece the parenthetical title “Theme from Badlands”. Yet in moments that cowboy directors would lavish with orchestral score, Malick backs with footfalls, the wind, the car idling.

This creates a stark, austere screen picture that forces viewers to pay close attention to the characters. Without familiar cues to guide our reactions, we simply stare, dumbfounded. Many audiences find this movie difficult to watch; I generally go years between viewings, because Malick’s lack of emotional signposts makes the experience very raw. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, this movie forces honest, spontaneous reactions, like pulling teeth without anaesthesia.

Malick’s supporting characters make much of young Martin Sheen’s resemblance to James Dean. Sheen himself cultivated this impression, and Malick permitted Sheen remarkable latitude in designing his character mannerisms. Kit genuinely excels at receiving attention; on those few occasions when he and Holly aren’t talking past one another, he becomes likeable and human. But his usual isolation makes his angry side recur; inevitably, he returns to being the killer.

Critics have assumed Malick meant some indictment of white, small-town America’s tendency to beige conformity. But Malick never says anything explicitly. Audiences have to decide what this movie really means, drawing from a palpable lack of clues. Like real life, we have to create meaning ourselves, meaning isn’t handed to us by the creator. That, ultimately, might be Malick’s message: in our most human moments, we’re totally alone.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Woke Fantasy and the Misplaced Epic

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside

Sancia Grado, the best thief in Tevanne, has used her unique talents and magical trinkets to nab the biggest score of her career. Now she waits to get paid. But while her fence dithers, she starts handling the gewgaw she nicked… and it talks back to her. The story it tells, of imbued magic so powerful that it could cause civil war, gives Sancia second thoughts. So she hesitates just long enough for all four noble families to start chasing her.

Somewhere around page 50, I started to notice: this novel doesn't have many human characters. Not that author Bennett doesn't have people and dialog and action, but rather, that his people mostly obey the plot. Only the most important characters have internal motivations or thoughts or, mainly, names. Bennett mostly identifies them by physical traits, especially missing appendages or teeth. And they don't do anything; they mainly either oppose the protagonists, or dump information in their laps.

While Sancia worries what to do with Clef, the sentient key that might upend Tevanne civilization, Gregor Dandolo, Captain of the waterfront patrol, hunts her doggedly. Seems Sancia stole Clef from under Gregor’s protection, and if he can't recover it, his career, and the reforms he’s enacted, are finished. So he goes all John McClane on Tevanne’s underworld, wrathful to recover the missing artifact.

The John McClane reference isn't throwaway. While Sancia’s superhuman thieving skills resemble a Dungeons & Dragons character, Gregor resembles an American action-movie hero. He investigates the crime, solo and rogue, with a combination of pithy banter, detective skill, and well-placed violence. In his first meaningful scene, he single-handedly smashes five toughs and humiliates a crime boss in his own tavern-slash-brothel for information.

Robert Jackson Bennett
I suspect Bennett intended some insightful statement on contemporary society. Tevanne has become wildly rich with “scriving,” a magical technique that lets those who can afford it, automate the production of saleable handicrafts. But this booming economy mainly benefits the already rich. While the four noble houses live in gleaming palaces, most city residents sink further into squalor. Importantly, they blame themselves for their poverty.

So yeah, the symbolism is unsubtle. I like Bennett's message.

But having a good message doesn’t matter if the story doesn't keep readers engaged long enough to follow the thoughts to their conclusion. Instead, I got focused on Bennett’s writing choices. Like having only three characters—Sancia, Gregor, and Clef—who show even the slightest traces of introspection. When Sancia walks into rooms, and characters pour her some wine and start explaining the world to her, I can’t see the narrative through the authorial fingerprints.

Similarly, I keep trying to identify Bennett's sources. Between Sancia’s Ocean’s Eleven-ish thievery, Gregor’s hard-boiled Raymond Chandler investigative techniques, and Clef talking like Han Solo, Bennett's story resembles a massive Hollywood goulash. The voice doesn't match Bennett's pre-Renaissance setting. At first, Tevanne resembles early Venice. But then I realized where I’ve read this before: Camorr, the setting of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards novels.

Bennett can't even keep details consistent. Sancia explains to Clef the elaborate, humiliating tortures Tevannian lawkeepers use on criminals. Then not five pages later, she explains how Tevanne doesn't actually have laws lest rules tread on noble house toes. Okay, minor issue. But after spending several chapters on Tevannian lawlessness (Gregor’s Water Watch notwithstanding), Gregor expresses outrage when city toughs use a “strictly outlawed” weapon.

The difference might reflect the gap between Sancia, born poor and streetside, and Gregor, scion of a noble house. But that explanation struck me only later. While reading, it felt merely sloppy, another sprawling inconsistency which neither the author nor the editor corrected. I slapped the book down, frustrated that Bennett couldn't keep something so basic straight.

Between the inconsistency, the transparent borrowing, and the characters busily explaining the world to one another, this novel reminded me of a first-semester undergraduate writing workshop. The author has an idea, but not the skills necessary to execute them. I understand that, of course. Everyone has to pay their dues. I was there once too.

Despite my bellyaching, I find plenty promising in Bennett's story. I like his politics, appreciate his protagonists, and see seeds worth nurturing. The book before me simply reads like an early draft of something that, with time, should’ve been much better. Time and feedback could've turned this into something with a fully developed ensemble, stronger sense of historicity, and fewer visible seams. This isn't a bad book; it just shipped when it still needed time to bake.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How Flint, Michigan, Got Its Water Crisis

Mona Hanna-Attisha, What the Eyes Don't See: a Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City

Flint, Michigan’s water crisis began as a rumor—and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of pediatric residents at Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital in Flint, pooh-poohed those rumors. The water’s fine, she reassured her patients. Don’t hesitate to mix it with baby formula, and certainly drink more water than soda. Until an old friend brought evidence, she refused to believe city water had more lead than a contaminated smelting plant.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s memoir of the Flint water crisis hit shelves just as the city made the decision to stop distributing potable water to residents whose tap water still flows brown. She makes a persuasive case that the water crisis resulted from human actions, and has human solutions. What’s more, she demonstrates the official intransigence that made this national disgrace possible. Too many powerful people keep turning blind eyes.

There is no scientifically safe level for lead in water or food. None. Even the slightest amount has lifelong health consequences once it gets inside the human body. But a leaked EPA report, which political appointees strove to bury, revealed Flint’s municipal tap water had lead contamination running sixty times the EPA’s official “action level” where regulations consider panic acceptable. Rather than fixing the lead, appointees tried to discredit the source.

When Dr. Hanna-Attisha brought these findings to Flint’s public health administrators, they offered a stunning response: water isn’t a public health concern. Take it to municipal utility people. Thus begins a bureaucratic runaround in which, even when appointed leaders acknowledge the problem exists, actual actions are somebody else’s responsibility. Apparatchiks would rather defend their shrinking administrative patches than serve public good.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Dr. Hanna-Attisha mixes personal memoir, political exposé, and history of public health concern. She didn’t come into her advocacy position accidentally. Her personal history positioned her perfectly to speak when public adversity came her way. Daughter of Iraqi Christian refugees who fled Saddam’s arbitrary purges, she inherited a passion for solving looming social problems. Her parents taught her the importance of education, and commitment to causes bigger than herself.

Public health, as a discipline, arises because human communities have become too large, interconnected, and complex for individuals to take responsibility for their private health. Hanna-Attisha describes John Snow, the Victorian Englishman who first connected London’s frequent cholera outbreaks with improper sewage disposal. There, as with the Flint water crisis, officials refused to believe their continuing policies created disastrous health consequences downstream.

For Dr. Hanna-Attisha, public policy, private health, the managed health system, and information distribution are linked issues. She describes how efforts to control access to information kept people, including herself, ignorant of the water crisis long after accumulations of lead had measurable health impact. And the lack of coordination within the health system prevented alarms from sounding, even after science began gathering evidence. No problem happens in isolation.

The Flint water crisis didn’t just happen. Flint elected an idealistic young mayor and an activist council to offset the continuing economic drains caused when General Motors abandoned the city. Yet the state, utilizing emergency management law, stepped in, overruled the city council, and began a program of cutting financial costs, without regard for human consequences. One of the first changes, was shifting Flint onto a dirt-cheap, but untested, municipal water source.

This isn’t coincidental. Flint, a majority Black city in a majority White state, had its elected city government overruled unilaterally. Dr. Hanna-Attisha points out that nearly every emergency manager in Michigan oversees a majority Black community. She compares the outcome to the Tuskegee experiments. Black Michiganders don’t know where their water, civil defense, sanitation, and other basic services come from, which Michigan is okay with, because they’re poor.

Once Hanna-Attisha becomes aware of the evidence for measurable health problems from contaminated water, she pushes public officials to do something. She initially maintains her faith in the system—after all, she’s employed by the Michigan State University system, she’s a public servant too. Only when they prove deaf to public entreaty, immune to scientific evidence, and more beholden to bureaucracy than common good, does she shift focus to strategic media appeals.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha isn’t what you’d normally consider a public revolutionary. She’s a teacher and doctor, someone who does her job for the love. But in her telling, her love of children and medicine made public resistance necessary. Reality backed her into a corner, and she responded with action. Like the best movie heroes, Hanna-Attisha was prepared to do the right thing, and she acted. That makes her a hero.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Moment Dogs Made Us Human

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his wolf (Chuck, a Czechoslovakian Vicak) in Alpha

The movie Alpha begins with its principal character Keda’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) funeral. After a mishandled moment in a bison hunt, Keda gets flung from a cliff and trapped on a ledge overlooking a ravine, dazed and senseless; his tribe mistakes him for dead, and his father builds him a ritual cairn. He passes through the ceremonies of death, which probably makes this the first of the remarkably literal moments of heroic journey in this movie.

Director Albert Hughes sets this story in “Europe, 20,000 years ago,” a convenient time for historical dramas, since there’s remarkably little history available. We know humans existed, because we’ve recovered bones and rudimentary tool heads, but no known documents, textiles, or complete settlements exist. This lets Hughes liberally combine influences of Tibetan, Inuit, Siberian, and other cultures, to create a hybrid that exists somewhere in the mists of human subconscious, unburdened by boring old facts.

The Hero’s Journey has existed, as a philosophical concept, since at least the 19th Century, but is probably best known from Joseph Campbell. It postulates the idea that mythological experiences share a similar structure, which reflects the human experience across cultures. The hero, who both represents everybody and mentors humankind, passes outside civilization, wanders the wilderness, and returns home transformed, ready to teach us. Think the temptations of Christ, or Buddha’s long journey to enlightenment.

For Keda, this journey is unusually literal. Abandoned by his people, ritually dead and buried, he goes outside civilization because civilization has walked away from him. In a world with only the most rudimentary technologies, Keda cannot survive alone. But early on, he proves himself soft-hearted, unable to kill an already subdued boar, even for food. So when he wounds a wolf that tries to kill him, Keda still cannot leave this predator to die.

Hughes utilizes this preconscious environment well. His Ice Age hunters have elaborate systems of ritual, but no particular religion. Other than occasional references to ancestor worship, the people’s rituals are remarkably utilitarian. Keda and the other youth undergoing manhood rites have tattoos placed on their hands and arms, but these aren’t totems of glyphs; they’re maps to navigate the steppes by the stars. The people’s cairns aren’t holy sites, they’re signposts back to the village.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda in Alpha

Keda nurses his wolf to health, thinking they’ll achieve some ill-defined truce, until it returns to its pack. The idea of humans and wolves working together apparently never crosses his mind. Keda lives in a world where humans use animals for their parts: flesh for meat, skin for textile, bone for tools. But apparently no human has ever decided to cooperate with another species. In Keda’s world, human tribes collaborate peacefully, but not other species.

This movie rejects Thomas Hobbes’ interpretation of human motivations. Life among the people is not “nasty, brutish, and short,” nor is it a “war of all against all.” The movie’s opening scene depicts a bison hunt performed with military precision… until Keda’s accident. In Keda’s world, humans work together. So when he, abandoned by his people, meets a wolf abandoned by its pack, the transition to cooperation requires little leap. Humans are primed to collaborate.

This is a remarkably optimistic interpretation of humanity. We’ve become accustomed to the Ayn Randian interpretation of humanity as essentially competitive, of life as an essentially savage zero-sum game. We construe war, distrust, and advantage-seeking as innately human; think Arnold Schwarzenegger in T-2, intoning dolefully how it’s in human nature to destroy ourselves. Albert Hughes dares reject this, instead believing, as an increasing cohort of sociologists do, that early human survival necessarily required open-hearted cooperation.

From this environment, Keda ventures forth. He’s learned to trust other people; but part of his adulthood rituals also involve surviving a good pummeling, since life outside the village is frightening and painful. Humans we trust, nature we fear. We depend upon animals, but we don’t share with them; that belongs only to humans. But Keda, scorned for soft-heartedness, sees in animals the qualities we trust in humans. Keda sees animals as souls like his.

This openness allows him to do something no human before him has ever accomplished: work equally with animals. His alliance with his wolf comes because he takes natural human cooperation and extends it to all species. And when they return from his journey in the wilderness, becoming, in the people’s eyes, alive again, he’s prepared to lead humanity to its next stage. Keda isn’t exactly a prophet, but he’s truly a teacher of his people.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Claire North, 84K

“The man called Theo Miller” has fallen afoul of his employers. He works in the Criminal Audit Office, and his job is assessing fines for crimes—£30,000 for rape, £84,000 for murder, £400,000 for “acting against corporate interests.” He lives a quiet life and avoids making waves, for one simple reason, he isn’t Theo Miller. He killed Theo Miller and assumed his identity. But someone from his old life has just resurfaced.

The title of British author Claire North’s latest novel deliberately channels George Orwell. But the world she creates more resembles Terry Gilliam’s 1985 comic dystopia Brazil, without the comedy. A massive mega-corporation has overtaken society, and government has become an extension of corporate interests. Everything has been reduced to pound signs and price tags, including human life. It’s Theo Miller’s job to assign the price.

Into his carefully controlled life comes Dani Cumali, whom Theo knew before he became Theo. They had a teenage fling, before corporate interests drew them into different worlds. Something happened since then, something that changed Dani’s life forever, and she wants Theo, with his government connections, to look into it. She never says she’s blackmailing him, but the threat of exposure looms over everything she says.

This story unfolds on two parallel tracks. In one, the past, Theo tries to juggle Dani’s demands with his steady bureaucratic job, while denying to himself how he’s culpable for the disadvantaged situation Dani has fallen into. In the present, a secretive woman, Neila, finds Theo beaten and bloody in the street, and nurses him back to health on her houseboat. Part of the story’s driving mystery is, how do these two strands ultimately join together?

Claire North
North’s prose style takes some getting used to. She writes in a vernacular, conversational style reminiscent of David Mamet or Harold Pinter, that probably sounds more realistic if read aloud. She enjambs paragraph breaks mid-sentence, uses looping non-standard syntax, and wanders on cow paths. This creates a certain intimacy, but also requires more than usual concentration to read. I’m a theatre guy, and even I found following her sentences taxing.

Her voice certainly doesn’t help North’s low-key storytelling. Theo Miller has build a safety net comprised entirely of going unnoticed and not rocking the boat, and North embodies that in her prose: it takes chapter upon chapter to convince Theo to do anything. When he finally does, the results are horrifying—but then, sure enough, Theo finds some way to stumble back into his habitual inactivity.

Dani wants poor, hapless Theo to find the daughter the state stole from her. The story implies the government passed moral judgement on Dani for getting pregnant out of wedlock. We wait with bated breath for Theo to realize the possibility the child could be his, a wait that becomes frustratingly long, because he only knows exactly as much as the story requires him to know. He isn’t so much thick as gormless.

That, sadly, becomes this novel’s persistent description. North creates an interesting universe in which libertarian attitudes have led to a for-profit government, a reading that is, in British terms, half Tory, half UKIP. But she anchors our ability to see that universe on a character so shapeless and inert, so completely passive, that the whole story quickly becomes a cipher. We’re hostage to a viewpoint character with no viewpoint.

North’s chapters featuring Neila sadly underline this. While Theo lies recovering on her houseboat, delusional when he isn’t asleep, she wanders London’s parks, taking in the natural world that’s becoming increasingly rare because it isn’t profitable. These chapters serve North’s theme, but to a disproportionate degree, little or nothing happens during these chapters. I started skimming, waiting for the story to resume in earnest.

Which, sadly, it too infrequently does. I fear sounding like some semi-literate Philistine saying this, wishing life was more like the movies, but in a society where people are often pressed for time, and reading is a luxury not everyone can equally afford, authors can’t negligently waste readers’ time by filling chapters with talky exposition and inert thematic content. Not for nothing do most bestsellers have chapters under ten pages long.

Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about this novel is: at some point, I realized I’d set the book down, and hadn’t picked it up for nearly a month. In fairness, I feel bad about that. North has created an interesting setting that I wanted to like. But she’s given little pressing reason to keep reading.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Gleaming Towers of L.A.

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 26
John Badham (director), Nick of Time

Soft-spoken accountant Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) steps off an Amtrak in Los Angeles with his daughter, on just another day. Newly widowed, Watson is still adjusting to single fatherhood, running his business while raising a daughter. But when he trips an aggressively rude skateboarder, we realize Watson has massive amounts of compressed rage beneath his veneer. The same thought hits Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken), who approaches Watson with a badge.

Back before tax levies and an acrimonious divorce turned Johnny Depp into the ego that ate Hollywood, he famously sought only roles that provided some intellectual or artistic challenge. This meant he worked classics like Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, but also losers like Private Resort and L.A. Without a Map. This was probably his biggest bomb, returning under a quarter its production budget. Yet in the years since, it has also become a half-acknowledged classic.

Once segregated from the crowds, Smith and his associate reveal their true intentions: this has become a hostage situation. We now have your daughter, Smith tells Watson, while handing him a revolver and a box of ammunition. We demand that you assassinate the governor of California, who’s only a short cab ride away. If, in one hour, the governor isn’t dead, your daughter will be.

This movie’s signal tone is claustrophobia. After the initial scene in the Amtrak station, the entire movie takes place inside Los Angeles’ iconic Westin Bonaventure hotel, a landmark of gleaming glass-and-steel architecture. This means the movie has almost no outdoor shots, and therefore no long-angle shots. Everything happens very close to the camera; even crowds are circumscribed by space, their echoing cacophony emphasizing how we’re stuck indoors.

Nor does space make the only claustrophobic limit. This movie is also pinioned by time: the ninety minutes we spend watching this movie is how long the events require to actually take place. Other than a few brief moments,we follow Gene moment-for-moment through the worst afternoon of his life. The camera becomes a mirror of Gene’s private hostage drama; if he’s trapped, so are we.


Johnny Depp (left) and Christopher Walken in Nick of Time

Trapped inside the Bonaventure, Watson discovers a gold-plated world where people display their wealth, but nobody talks to one another. The governor, played by four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, is surrounded by fans, donors, and hangers-on. Everybody wants something from her, so when Watson tries to warn her about the assassination attempt, his becomes just another voice in a crowd. Violence gets drowned out by the tedium of political life.

Worse, Smith is bird-dogging Watson’s every step. Whenever Watson tries to speak up, Smith shushes him, with an implicit threat to Watson’s daughter. If Watson deviates from Smith’s script, he finds himself in for a pummeling (gut punches are the order of the day). One starts to wonder, if Smith has a script so perfectly prepared, why doesn’t he do the shooting himself? Turns out there’s a reason, and that reason is appropriately dark.

But Watson finds one reassuring ally. Huey, a disabled veteran working as the hotel’s shoe shiner (Charles S. Dutton), has a sense of honor exceeding his lowly employment status. (Try to ignore the inherent Magic Negro stereotypes.) Huey plays dumb to get bigger tips from his customers; but he proves well-connected within the Bonaventure’s staff. If you ever needed proof why organized labor is beneficial, Huey’s ability to make things happen quickly provides it.

Johnny Depp quietly underplays Gene Watson, a downright timid man whose clean-pressed demeanor conceals grief and savagery boiling within him. Watson resents Smith’s attempts at control, which simply exaggerate the ways 1990s California, with its gleaming architecture and stark inequality, controls workers. Watson’s clean, white-collar demeanor apparently goes only clothing-deep. His increasingly disheveled appearance mirrors the passions he can no longer contain.

Themes of confinement drive this film. Stuck inside the building, events unfolding in real time, Watson can’t escape, not even through the cinematic mercy of camera cuts. He can only resist by turning the system’s confines against those who threaten his family. But he quickly identifies the system’s limitations and exploits them to save himself. Watson doesn’t break the system, he simply finds the system’s weaknesses and uses them.

British-American director John Badham has done diverse work, from entertainments like Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, to punchy topical dramas like WarGames and Criminal Minds episodes. This movie draws together several themes from throughout Badham’s career. Though the film failed upon initial release, fan reception has given it second life. It definitely bears repeat watching.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Alex Jones and the New Techno-Government

Alex Jones
Facebook and Google have given me massive ethical twitches recently. As Earth’s two among biggest websites, they draw massive amounts of business into their webs every day. It’s virtually impossible to communicate with a mass English-speaking audience without going through these two companies. But as privately held companies, they have the ability to enforce personal, often arbitrary “community standards” on content produced by ordinary citizens. They have become the ultimate privitization of the public sphere.

This most readily manifests in “adult” content. YouTube (a Google subsidiary) and Facebook both assiduously screen images of boobs, sexual content, vulgar or violent memes, and anything else that might curl Aunt Mabel’s hair. I have no problem with that, theoretically. Except I do, because both Google and Facebook are so vast, and functionally screen so much undifferentiated content ordinary people receive, that making these concepts disappear from their sites makes them basically disappear forever.

So I’m conflicted about Facebook and YouTube’s decision Monday to scrub notorious troll Alex Jones. This moon-faced whack-a-mole, notorious for preaching everything from “Pizzagate” to Sandy Hook “crisis actors” to saying Democrats plan to launch a “Second Civil War,” finally pushed even Facebook and Google’s studiously neutral content critics too far. They’ve decided to starve him of oxygen. Part of me wants to shout: “Thank God! Maybe we can get serious, grown-up discussion going again!”

Except…

Between them, Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns Instagram) control over half of planet Earth’s Internet advertising revenue. They aren’t just content gatekeepers; they profit handsomely from deciding what you and I see. Though neither company has official state standing, both have power and reach autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping must drool over. Making somebody disappear from these sites has consequences so far-reaching, the word “censorship” isn’t out of line.

How do we process entities like this, which have greater reach than William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch ever dreamed of? Google and Facebook have state-like power, but no state-like democratic oversight. Most shareholders have no idea what contributes to “community standards” on these sites. Even many people enforcing standards make snap decisions. Try this experiment: report a friend’s perfectly innocuous statement for violations. Betcha it’ll disappear, because monitors can’t actually read every reported violation.

Mark Zuckerberg
This isn’t even an issue of whether certain speech is acceptable. Like most First Amendment absolutists, I draw the line at incitements to violence. Saying something like “Person X is stupid and shouldn’t breed” is offensive, and deserves scolding. Saying “Get your rifles, Person X is gonna die” crosses a line between speech and action. And when somebody with a platform reaching millions of listeners, simply saying anything requires a diligent conscience and constant scrutiny.

Yet as we saw in 2016, during the first great “fake news” wave, propagandists can produce meaningless, fact-free gibberish that nevertheless motivates a base already primed for anger. We’ve seen what angry people do: they carry guns into pizza joints to verify conspiracy theories. They shoot a roomful of journalists. They hector parents of a murdered child so badly they have to go into hiding. This isn’t free speech fallout, it’s the consequences of actions.

Google, Facebook, and their subsidiaries thus find themselves in a precarious situation: they are private companies with the reach and influence once exclusive to governments. In order to survive, in order to do business and remain viable, they must exercise the discretion of the state. Their so-called community standards, like “no boobies where children can see them,” now have semi-governmental weight behind them. Companies no longer just live by community standards, they now set them.

This is simultaneously comforting and horrifying. It means companies now step up and take responsibility for ways people use their products, even when they use their products recklessly. Corporations have too often sworn off culpability for their products: think gun and cigarette manufacturers. If Facebook and Google can own their products’ behavior, and enforce some bottom minimum for accountability, then maybe so can Philip Morris or Smith & Wesson. I mean, probably not, but maybe. Someday.

Yet when governments silence unacceptable speech, we understand who they answer to. When states say flag burning and incitement aren’t protected speech acts, we (hopefully) realize the government answers to its people. (Pipe down, North Korea.) Corporations don’t. Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are accountable to, I assume, somebody, but who? And what ensures they use their unelected, state-like authority reasonably? These questions should scare even we who are happy to see Alex Jones silenced.