Friday, September 28, 2007

New York Film Festival - Still a Jewel

Like a true movie junkie, Richard Pena (photo, r.) can tick off the great double features he saw as a child as if the movies were still showing downtown. In New York of the 1960s, a time when arthouse and repertory cinemas thrived, Pena's 75¢ bought him afternoons with Renoir and weighty pairings like Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" and "The Seventh Seal."
Pena, now in his 20th year as selection committee chairman of the New York Film Festival, remembers those times fondly. Back then, he says, audiences went to the movies to explore and to be challenged, and Americans' taste for foreign films hit a high-water mark.

"We like to think that things only change for the better, but ... that openness that existed in the '60s disappeared," says Pena. "We not only lost it, we became hostile to it."
Since coming to Lincoln Center, Pena has made it his job to, if not resist the narrowing of the audience's collective mind, then at least to ignore it. For two decades as czar of the New York Film Festival and program director for Lincoln Center's Film Society, the professorial Pena has doggedly culled through tens of thousands of new films, searching for that elusive new masterpiece from France, Iran or any other country from which an aspiring auteur can mail a DVD screener to the Upper West Side.
With its small size -- about 25 films over 17 days starting in late September -- the Lincoln Center festival has been likened to a boutique shop amid a field of department stores. But as new festivals have spread out like a spilled tub of popcorn, it's hard to deny that Lincoln Center's event has lost some luster. When Richard Roud and Amos Vogel founded the New York festival in 1963, it was the only game in town. Now, by Pena's count, there are more than 60 festivals in Gotham alone. Most films that play at Lincoln Center already have shown at venues like Cannes or Toronto, and many arrive with distribution.
But the 54-year-old Pena says the festival's mission isn't to be the first, but rather to spotlight the highest-caliber films being made. He aims to show how cinema, at its best, is the equal of opera, ballet and the other arts.
"I feel strongly that is why the New York Film Festival has continued to exist," he explains.
In good years, the festival can serve as a kind of cinematic Ellis Island. It has helped introduce New York to daring works by directors like Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-wai and Jane Campion. On Pena's watch, the festival also has raised the profile of Americans such as Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz and Michael Moore.
"It's a real affirmation of quality because it's so selective," says Daniel Battsek of Miramax, which has two films, the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" in this year's festival. "It puts the film on a pedestal."
Pena sees his job as "overseeing of the best of every kind if cinema there is," says David Sterritt, who has served on the selection committee and was the long-time film critic for the Christian Science Monitor.
"What's nice about (the NYFF) is that it's more curated in a way," says New York-based writer-director Noah Baumbach, who grew up attending the festival. "Each movie gets its own time and night. It feels like a special night. You feel like when your movie's screening it's the only one; it's not like it's conflicting with something across town."
With "Margot at the Wedding," Baumbach will be making his third appearance at the fest after "Kicking and Screaming" received its world premiere there in 1995 and "The Squid and the Whale" screened in 2005 after its launch at Sundance. He says "Kicking" was at risk of not getting a release and that it was the NYFF "acceptance of it that really saved it."
Pena has wanted to head the event since the age of 12, when he attended his first festival. He hasn't missed one since, except when he was living out of the country.
Pena, the child of Spanish and Puerto Rican parents who were avid moviegoers, grew up with an affinity for foreign cultures and a love for film. He read all six of the books on cinema at the local library. Mainly, though, he went to the city's many theaters.
"New York was the education -- you could study film by living there," says Pena, who, in addition to his work at Lincoln Center, also teaches film theory and international cinema at Columbia U.
In 1980, Pena, who attended Harvard and earned a masters in film studies at MIT, took a job at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, eventually becoming the center's director. Then, in 1988, he got his break -- he was hired to replace Roud at Lincoln Center.
Roud left behind a distinguished record, including having introduced New York audiences to Godard, Fassbinder and the young Scorsese. To this day, Pena says he hopes to live up to Roud's and Vogel's festivals.
According to Sterritt, while Roud also was too "Euro-centric," with his picks tilting heavily toward established French filmmakers, Pena "was much younger and much more well-versed in new global cinema."
Pena quickly worked to "expand the palette" at Lincoln Center. For his first festival in 1988, he gave the high-prestige closing spot to "Red Sorghum" by Zhang Yimou, a newcomer who Pena's committee has since invited back six times. And for the opening night -- an evening critics and Roud supporters would watch closely -- Pena tapped Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
At the time, Pena says, Almodovar was regarded in America mainly as a cult-film director. By spotlighting "Women," says Pena, the festival helped the Spanish director make the transition to "arthouse darling." Almodovar also became an enduring festival favorite, returning five times, most recently with "Volver."
Pena has likened the selection process to playing the stock market: Some picks pan out, others don't. When Pena first invited Abbas Kiarostami to the festical in 1992, the Iranian filmmaker's "And Life Goes On" filled perhaps half the auditorium. But Kiarostami, who also directed "The Taste of Cherry," kept coming back to Lincoln Center, as did other Iranian directors, and soon the seats began to fill up.
"I like to think that we made it OK to like Iranian cinema," Pena laughs.
Some directors championed by Pena have never found a commercial audience, including Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose work has been shown a half-dozen times at the festival over the past 20 years. "These things sometimes take time," says Pena.
Some years produce better festivals than others. Pena is particularly proud of what he described as the festival's "interventions." He notes that Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" got "burned" at Cannes, earning no prizes and a tepid reception. "But we loved it," says Pena, who picked the film for New York's opening night. Pena, who has a picture of Eastwood above his desk next to his children's drawings, feels the buzz generated at Lincoln Center helped revive the film's fortunes and launch its Oscar campaign (it eventually earned six nominations and won to acting statuettes).
Although known for its rarefied air, the festival has seen occasional protests over films' content. Most of the drama usually plays out behind the scenes, with angry phone calls about passed-over films. People "curse me, curse my children, curse my children's children," Pena says.
While the committee's decision can be colored by their opinions of certain directors, Pena says nothing is pre-ordained. Wong Kar-wai, a festival favorite, did not get an invitation this year for "My Blueberry Nights." But Brian De Palma won his first spot with "Redacted," which takes a tough look at the war in Iraq. "If you had told me we would never show a De Palma film, I would have said 'that's probably true.' "
Some critics argue that the festival is too staid. Others fault the festival's recent inclusion of obvious crowd-pleasers like "The Queen" -- films that didn't need an extra boost. Last year, the New York Times went as far as to wonder if perhaps the perennially elitist festival was losing its edge.
In an age of "atomized" audiences, Pena says the festival offers "something for everyone" -- serious films and giddy if thoughtful entertainments. The 1994 edition is a case in point: That year, "Satantango," a seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, shared the slate with "Pulp Fiction."
"I am in the film history business," he says. "I look at this vast, worldwide gurgling mass of films produced in the past 110 years ... and try to help people find a way into it."
1963: The New York Film Festival, co-founded by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, opens with Luis Bunuel's "Exterminating Angel."
1965: Pena attends his first NYFF.
1969: Amos Vogel resigns from the fest.
1972: Audiences members walk out during a screening of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris."
1973: Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" makes a splash; Scorsese later credits the festival with helping jumpstart his career.
1976: Pena graduates from Harvard with a major in Latin American history and literature.
1978: Pena receives his master's in film studies from MIT.
1980: Pena begins working at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
1985: A NYFF showing of Godard's "Hail Mary" attracts picketing nuns.
1987: Roud is ousted from the festival.
1988: Pena's first festival as program topper opens with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
1994: Tarantino's Palme d'Or-winning "Pulp Fiction" opens the festival.
1996: With such works as Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies," Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and Lars von Triers' "Breaking the Waves," this edition shapes up as one of Pena's favorites.
1999: Fest's showing of Kevin Smith's "Dogma," a provocative film about the director's Catholic faith, meets with protests and a rebuke from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
2006: "The Queen" opens the fest as an unofficial launch into its awards-season run that results in almost across-the-board statuettes for Helen Mirren.
2007: Pena celebrates 20 years at the helm.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is Keith Olbermann the Next Edward R. Murrow ?

The News Is Dead! Long Live The News!
As a professed news junkie, I scour cable TV in search of what I regard as real news, or information, on the political dial, cultural wheel, and often in vain, for content that actually illuminates a subject or idea. The science channels often satisfy this penchant. Check out the Discovery, Science, History Channel, and their imitators, and the permutations that are sometimes dubious faux reenactment pieces (however amusing, can be irritating due to their desire to satisfy modern audiences with Disney-like automatons, and hegemonic interpretations). I love the space journey programs, with Hubble peering brilliance, and learning that in fifty quadrillion light years from this very day, a gamma-blast will toast all life on earth. Forewarned is forearmed, eh? But for relevant news of a more immediate basis, the chattering class found on cable can't be beat, with a wild and wide range, of what may be as Steven Colbert declares, "truthiness". C-Span is the purist, and even repeats of confabs from the 90's are routinely scheduled to fill slow news feed days (as if...). But for real visceral and vibrant news-casting, Keith Olbermann, or K.O., as he's called in-house, quite apropos, dishes up the best, and most needed window to the world, is fearless in taking on the standard easy targets, i.e., "Faux News", and the right-wing bloviators across the spectrum, but also is willing and hyper-articulate in eviscerating the current powers-that-be in the Government and Corporate offices alike. Comparisons and contrasts are offered here by Marvin Kitman of The Nation, to Edward R. Murrow, revered and regarded as the paragon of journalistic virtue, from a time "long, long, ago..." Murrow essentially created the prototype of the TV documentary as we know it. Here, Olbermann is heralded and respected for presenting a long-overdue Murrow-honored analysis of the news, and perhaps as a clarion call for media integrity that is at stake. - MS
By Marvin Kitman, The Nation
The launch of Katie Couric a year ago as the anchor of the CBS Evening News was hailed by CBS as the biggest thing in news since, well, the invention of denture fixative commercials. It was also the biggest flop. The CBS Evening News Without Dan Rather or Bob Schieffer had its lowest ratings since Nielsen began tracking evening news shows in 1987. This turn of events stunned CBS executives -- who had given her the famous "Kiss Me Kate" contract, which paid Couric $15 million a year -- and the news consultants who thought she was the answer to CBS being mired in third place in the network news race for the past ten years. The news doctors who have been paid millions trying to fix the show for the past year have only made it worse. It didn't matter how many times the consultants got it wrong. Remember what they did to poor Dan Rather? Smile, don't smile. Wear a sweater, don't wear a sweater. Stand up to deliver the news, sit down. It is a law of the news consultancy/network relationship: If we are paying so much money, it must be right. Otherwise, why are we paying so much money?
So, as a TV critic who has logged millions of hours of viewing to help save one of my three favorite commercial networks, I decided to volunteer my services to the Save CBS Campaign. Here's what I would do: First, I would dump the Walter Cronkite school of reporting, of which Katie Couric is the latest practitioner. The objective that's-the-way-it-is style they use at all the network evening news shows is so old, so over. No wonder all the network news programs are falling in the ratings. Katie Couric is just the hardest hit.

What the evening news shows need is less "objectivity" and more analysis. The problem with objective journalism is that it doesn't exist and never did. Molly Ivins (photo, in 2006, and who died January 31, this year) disposed of the objectivity question for all time when she observed in 1993, "The fact is that I am a 49-year-old white female, a college-educated Texan. All of that affects the way I see the world. There's no way in hell that I'm going to see anything the same way that a 15-year-old black high school dropout does. We all see the world from where we stand. Anybody who's ever interviewed five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident knows there's no such thing as objectivity."

What I'm proposing is nothing new. Before Walter Cronkite became the model "objective" newsman, there was Edward R. Murrow. In the late 1930s Murrow started the tradition of reporting the news and analyzing it, giving his opinion of what it all meant. The Murrow legend was built on his opinionated analyses on the CBS Evening News.
For those who never saw Murrow's news show, here's how it would go: After running through the headlines, he would call on reporters at home and abroad to give reports on the scene. These so-called Murrow's Boys were real TV journalists, not actors who played them on TV. CBS News in the Murrow years had people we respected because of their expertise, not because they were famous TV names. The foreign correspondents weren't empty trench coats but real experts like William Shirer, who reported from Berlin on the menace of Hitler in the 1930s. It didn't matter that Murrow's Boys were bald like David Schoenbrun, who reported from Paris in the glory days, or older than the 18-49 demographic like Dan Schorr. They were specialists in specific areas.
Then Murrow would do his closing essay, in which he would comment on some hot issue, continually treading dangerous waters: McCarthyism at home, apartheid abroad, J. Edgar Hoover, the atomic bomb, stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction -- all of which he opposed. He was pro-union and anti-business. He was a dissident on US foreign policy post-World War II. He spoke out against the Truman Doctrine, which had America supporting fascist dictatorships in Greece and elsewhere because they were anti-Communist. He was against funding Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army, which John Foster Dulles told us would retake the mainland someday, if they didn't die of old age first. He was hard on Douglas MacArthur when he took his troops across the 38th Parallel in the Korean War. He criticized the Pentagon snafus that were getting our troops killed. He was critical of US support for the French in Indochina (pre-Vietnam) and of the Eisenhower Administration's embrace of the French puppet government in Saigon led by a Riviera playboy, Bao Dai (r.). He was against Red Channels and blacklisting and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which identified a Communist under every bed. He even attacked television itself, warning that it had the capacity to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate us."
"No one can eliminate prejudices -- just recognize them," Murrow said. His approach was so successful that all the other network news hours copied him.
Finally, CBS president William Paley (photo, l.) made Ed Murrow shut up -- by canceling his shows. In the dark ages after Murrow, the most powerful commentary on network news was the raised eyebrow of David Brinkley after reading a piece of news on NBC. A generation of telegenic and totally uninvolved journalists followed.
In short, what CBS (and all the others) need is a new Ed Murrow. Good news! There's already one out there on the launchpad who has demonstrated his qualifications. I'm talking about Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. He has the journalistic chops and the mind, heart, instincts and courage.
Olbermann, who anchors a one-hour nightly news show on MSNBC called Countdown With Keith Olbermann, closes his show every night by saying "1,547th [for instance] day since Mission Accomplished in Iraq," an hommage to Ted Koppel's "Iran Hostage" coverage, which evolved into Koppel's late-night ABC news show Nightline (the MSNBC show was originally Countdown: Iraq). Then Olbermann throws his crumpled script at the camera, which shatters, a simulated digital effect (something Koppel never did).
"Our charge for the immediate future is to stay out of the way of the news," he explained when the show debuted on March 31, 2003. "News is news. We will not be screwing around with it," a reference to Bill O'Reilly, his rival over at Fox News in the 8 pm time slot. "It will not be a show in which opinion and facts are juxtaposed so as to appear to be the same."
Olbermann, who looks more like a high school teacher than a glitzy TV anchor, is the one who cuts and dices the news of the day into five segments, what he and his staff consider the day's top stories, illustrated with news reports from NBC News correspondents, interviews with newsmakers, whom he treats courteously, interspersed with signature witty interjections (calling 9/11 Rudolph "Giuliani's red badge of courage"), further interrupted by new ways to look at the news.
Olbermann does news quizzes and a puppet theater. Beginning with the Michael Jackson trial, he created comedic puppet "re-enactments" of news stories, using printed photographs glued to popsicle sticks, hand-held in front of a blue screen. Olbermann did the voiceovers himself. My favorites were the "Karl Rove Puppet Theatre" and the "Anna Nicole Smith Supreme Court Puppet Theatre," although the Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton puppets were not too shabby.
A segment called "Oddball" regularly assays the day's collection of weird videos, goofy stories with goofy clips of people behaving like idiots, announced with the clarion "Let's play Oddball!"
Each night he picks the Worst Person in the World, awarding a bronze medal (worse), a silver (worser) and a gold (worst). Bill O'Reilly has the distinction of winning all three top spots on a single broadcast (the night of November 30, 2005); as of June he had gone gold fifty-seven times. (note...BillO has since been crowned several more times as the "Worse Person In the World!")
What I like about Olbermann as a newscaster is that he makes the evening news look like life itself, very absurd but serious, very angry, very stupid, very silly, very snarky, very much about pop culture. He gives the news in a language that can be understood by news audiences today. It is refreshing to hear a straight newsman making cultural references. If the voting goes heavily Democratic, he told the co-anchor of MSNBC's election night 2006 coverage, Chris Matthews (photo, r.), "you might see some sort of shift toward getting out of that war faster than Britney Spears just got out of her marriage." His was the only show where I could stand to hear about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Brangelina, Britney and estranged husband Kevin Federline, American Idol results or other stories he always told us his producers were forcing him to cover.
This is Olbermann's second stint at MSNBC. In 1997-98 he hosted a talk show called The Big Show, but he left the network after clashes with management over an edict from the suits to focus on the unfolding Monica Lewinsky scandal, which especially sickened him.
This time around, MSNBC execs gave him the freedom to do the news his way, since they had nothing to lose. Nineteen other shows had already failed opposite The O'Reilly Factor since 1996. Countdown is now the highest-rated show on MSNBC, which doesn't say much, as MSNBC is ratings-challenged. Still, his ratings in July were up 88 percent over last year.
What I like most about K.O., as he is called offscreen, is his passion. He goes after the dragon -- which, as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly (photo, with Murrow, left), used to say, is the real function of news.

Olbermann's Special Comments, as they are labeled, make up the core of my pitch as his volunteer advocate. They were off the radar scopes until September 2006, when Rumsfeld said anyone who was critical of the "war on terror" or the war in Iraq or of Administration policies was the equivalent of the people who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. "I'm not a big fan of being called a Nazi appeaser or even a parallel Nazi," K.O. said. "I took that personally." And he began eviscerating Rumsfeld.
He has done twenty-two of the "specials" (as of July 19), all of which earn a place for him on the Mount Olympus of commercial TV anchors. The July 4 special on his reaction to Scooter Libby's pardon, explaining the historical imperatives for Bush and Cheney to resign, was the Gettysburg Address of K.O.'s commentaries:

"I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into war. I accuse you of fabricating in the minds of your own people a false implied link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. I accuse you of firing the generals who told you that the plans for Iraq were disastrously insufficient.... I accuse you of subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but to stifle dissent. I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought. I accuse you of exploiting that unreasoning fear, the natural fear of your own people who just want to live their lives in peace, as a political tool to slander your critics and libel your opponents. I accuse you of handing part of this Republic over to a Vice President who is without conscience and letting him run roughshod over it ...
For ten minutes, Olbermann spoke with fierce clarity and surgical precision, drawing a comparison to President Nixon's resignation. He had obviously done his homework. His recitation of Bush's crimes concluded with his observation that the President had been "an accessory to the obstruction of justice" in the Libby case. "From Iraq to Scooter Libby," Olbermann said at the time, "Bush and Cheney have lost Americans' trust and stabbed this nation in the back. It's time for them to go." The highest praise I can give is to say I can imagine Ed Murrow speaking those words.
I'm not saying Olbermann is Ed Murrow. He is, however, what Ed Murrow might sound like today, changing with the times as a good newsman should.
I also realize the format of Countdown, with its mix of serious and lite news, might seem a little schizophrenic to older folks who haven't kept up with the crazy way the culture is evolving. But it's what has to be done to get the literally tens of people who watch MSNBC to pay attention.
My final recommendation is that what would make The O Factor -- or whatever they would call the Olbermann-anchored evening news -- work is for CBS News to bite the bullet and be the first to go to an hourlong format, something the network began debating in Walter Cronkite's day. The network under Bill Paley wrestled with its conscience and always lost, preferring a half-hour of lucrative syndicated trash following the news.
Would it work? There would be gnashing of teeth, rending of garments at Black Rock. There would be outrage from the on-the-air zombies now doing the news from the Land of the Living Dead. If the new concept caught on, they too would need to find something to say about the news they are mindlessly reporting. It would change the face of network TV news.
TV is an art form that suffers from kleptomania. They would rather steal something that works than try anything original. So much attention will be paid to The O Factor that the other networks will be looking for their own Olbermanns, newsmen with differing values and opinions. After all, in Ed Murrow's day, right-wingers Fulton Lewis Jr. and Walter Winchell (photo, r.) were also on the air.
A whole new audience will emerge for the network evening news when it stops being, as Arianna Huffington put it, "the referee, pretending there are two sides to every issue." As Murrow suggested, there actually could be three, or even one.
Naturally, CBS won't buy the Kitman Plan, because I'm giving it to them free of charge. In TV news, they don't believe anything is good unless they spend millions to ruin the likes of Couric and Rather. And that's the way it is.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Can't the U.S. Have the Debate about Naomi Klein's Book That Europe Has?

By Jan Frel, AlterNet

Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, tells the history of how the American version of "free market" capitalism has spread in moments of crisis and catastrophe, when societies are too traumatized and disoriented to challenge the introduction of radical economic policies that go against their own interests.
The Shock Doctrine has already been published and translated in several countries. Excerpts from Klein's book were published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, and discussion about the book has raged onThe Guardian's online site, Comment Is Free as well as in the German, French and Canadian press. I attended Klein's U.S. book launch event at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on September 17 where she described her work and her experiences dealing with a foreign press frequently hostile to her arguments.
At least the foreign press is willing to tangle with writers who offer critiques (to) the capitalist system. There is plenty of economic coverage in the U.S., but fundamental questions on issues such as whether privatization of public assets benefits the public and if the focus on short-term economic growth is harmful in the long run are simply not discussed. I wondered how Klein's book, which has hit the best-seller lists all over Europe, would fare in the U.S. and what Klein's expectations were for the U.S. audience. I spoke with her on the phone about this and the issues she raises in The Shock Doctrine on September 19.

Jan Frel: Your book has 70 pages of footnotes and has citations from over 1,000 sources. At the book launch in New York, you referred to this as your "body armor." The thinking seems to be that if you can back up what you're saying, then it has to be accepted. Is this what will give it legitimacy in the mainstream media?
Naomi Klein: It's more for the debate about my work. In the attempts to dismiss my work as conspiracies theories, the footnotes help.
Frel: It's often times the case that books that make powerful and damning claims with complete accuracy still don't break into public debate or hit the audience that ought to confront them. Isn't there something else that prevents radical interpretations of society and economics and buried history from reaching public debate?
Klein: I think that's true -- it's certainly true in this country. I wasn't talking about the problem my book would have getting into the mainstream, it's more about the debates around it. My books do get into the mainstream -- outside the US. That doesn't mean they aren't contested, but in Canada for example, The Shock Doctrine is already at #3 on Amazon. [Currently at #43 in the U.S.]
Another book I did, No Logo was a mainstream book, in most of the countries where it was published, except for the US. In the U.S. it never was. The context I talked about the need for support for my arguments is in cases where my book is being debated and argued. So in the U.S., I totally agree that having solid footnotes are no guarantee that you can start a mainstream debate. I don't have any confidence that this book will be in the mainstream debate in the United States.
Frel: A lot of what you're taking on in The Shock Doctrine, is a concept that is fused in deep into a big part of the American psyche -- that "the free market" and "free enterprise," which we don't typically debate or condemn in the mainstream but are to blame for a lot of the things the public does discern as problems, like our health care system. But how do you get people to see that they are being screwed by their own dominant economic beliefs?
Klein: It's actually not that hard. The hard part is getting past the media wall.
Frel: At your U.S. book launch on Monday you talked about getting past the "intellectual police lines" that prevent discussion.
Klein: That's a different kind of situation. In Britain, it's a mainstream book, being debated on the BBC, the Times of London, the Guardian and so on. It's being dismissed in part -- part of the discussion is an attempt to dismiss it. When I was talking about "intellectual police lines" it was in reference to the kinds of questions I was getting from mainstream journalists in Europe and in Canada. But in the U.S., I would say that's not this is not really the issue -- it's whether you get access at all.
Frel: Do you think that it's because in the States, there isn't really any debate about alternatives to our economic system in any form? In Europe, where your book has already been released, there is at least the residue of a public debate that is willing to debate fundamental questions on economic systems and the social contract.
Klein: In most parts of the world, it's easier to even identify the radical policies of capitalism as contested territory, as something to debate. Whereas in the United States, these policies are the air we breathe; they are invisible almost because they are so hegemonic. For example, when I talk about privatization in Canada, people understand what that means -- it's about the drive to privatize our health care system and our education system, and there is a very clear grasp in the public mind about what the public sphere actually is. People understand there that this is something to defend against -- that there is something to privatize, while in the U.S., the agenda to privatize has succeeded so fully that these ideas seem more abstract because the idea of the public sphere is almost abstract.
When I'm talking about these ideas in France or the U.K., people know what "public" is. There are large parts of their life that exist within a non-market space.
Frel: So do you think it's an issue here in America where people don't want to consider these questions or are unable to?
Klein: I think it's the issue of the media line, and there are a lot of issues around it. It's very hard to have discussion anything outside the parameters of partisan politics in this country.
Frel: It's been my experience that it's not always the issue that the media is preventing discussion, but rather that the media working on behalf of the public's general desire not wanting to get into an issue. For example, this Monday, AlterNet ran article about the recent report that 1.2 million civilians have died violent deaths since the U.S. invasion. It was our top story, and the number of people who read it (24,000) was far lower than we expected.
Klein: Really? And that's a progressive audience.
Frel: It seems to me that it's this kind of a phenomenon that has media, including the corporate media, acting on behalf the audience's "intellectual police lines."
Klein: I think it's a vicious cycle. The media acts as an amplifier.
Frel: It's also responsive to the interests of the audience.
Klein: It is, but look at Lou Dobbs. Here you have a CNN news anchor who makes a concerted decision that he is going to put the disappearing American middle class and the effects of outsourcing on TV every night, and he's going to use his pulpit to drum up outrage, except that he decides that he's going to direct that outrage to the weakest people in society; to immigrants. But what's interesting about that, talking about outsourcing, talking about free trade, talking about the middle class -- any media outlet in the past 20 years could have done a story on that, giving the audience permission to have outrage instead of ignoring it or normalizing it and saying this is just the way the world works. Lou Dobbs made the conscious decision to make his show a platform for outrage, and people were attracted to it because they really are upset and they had it validated back to them.
I think the same thing could happen with Iraqi casualties if you had the media saying night after night that this is a scandal, and really put a human face on those deaths.
Frel: Your book may encounter resistance at the mainstream level here in the States, but there is an audience of progressives and people who consume alternative media who are certain to embrace it. How does your book speak to their sensibilities, and how do you think they will receive it?
Klein: The book is an attempt to front burner the economic project and the economic ideology that I think is so much at the root of the front page stories of our time; climate change, preemptive war, the resurgence of torture. I believe we need an analytic framework and I think the book provides one -- not the only one, but anything that draws connections -- I think that progressives and readers of alternative media aren't going to be shocked by the information in the book. The hope is that the analysis is empowering. I know as a reader what's valuable is having connections made -- you're often bombarded with information in an analytic vacuum you can feel terribly hopeless, but when you make those connections, even when the connections are grim, you're more oriented.
As a writer, I'm very pleased with the reception to the book. Already we've got people writing into the website citing examples of disaster capitalism: "Look at what's going on in Greece, they're handing over land after the forest fires. Look at what's going on in Peru." All you can hope for as an analyst is that people read the newspaper better.
Frel: And you have a daringly simple solution for events of disaster capitalism that you identify, which I summarize as: Society should be informed and aware of what governments are trying to do them after a catastrophe and apply this lens of analysis to their living context.
Klein: Shock only works if you don't know it's happening to you. Shock is a state of disorientation, which happens when we can't match events with analysis. For me, just understanding how shock affects our brains and that there is a philosophy of how to exploit that opportunity and push through economic policies people wouldn't normally accept in that window of time -- just realizing that makes you more resistant. But this is not my solution. I provide examples in my book of societies that have learned from their history when they were exploited in moments of shock, and delegated authority to figures of security that promised to take care of them. Because they have learned those simple lessons, they've become more shock resistant. But it does require looking at history without the blinders of denial.
In the sense that the book is an alternative history, I do hope that it helps people become more oriented, both in terms of more connected to our recent past, our pre-9/11 past, and more aware of what is happening in a moment of crisis or disaster.
The timing of The Shock Doctrine's release in Canada is very relevant here because it just hosted a summit with George Bush and Mexican President Calderon to meet with Prime Minister Steven Harper to talk about the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) which is basically like NAFTA-plus; NAFTA plus security issues. The SPP is an example of the shock doctrine I outline, in the sense that this was an agenda that would have been unspeakable in terms of integration with the United States before 9/11, and in the panic after -- in that shock -- the SPP agenda moved forward in technocratic circles, and it was presented as a done deal.
Once Canadians began learning about the SPP they started rejecting it, and then they had this summit, where it was announced that, "don't worry, nothing's going to happen here." But they said in the final press conference at the summit in Montebello, Quebec at the end of August that the one exception that they would push for the SPP to be pushed through is if there's a disaster -- if there's an avian flu outbreak or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster -- then they would implement tightened integration between security forces in all these countries.
In Canada this was front-page news -- in the US it wasn't reported on. When my book came out a week later people saw the connections immediately. They realized that what the Canadian government was saying was, the next time there's a disaster, we will use it as a moment of opportunity to push through these policies that you're rejecting where there isn't a disaster going on. It's incredibly naked.
Frel: There's an issue that I've seen a lot of critics and journalists already getting into about your book, and I've seen that you have a good term already to explain it. You don't argue that economic elites try to cause disasters they reap the benefits from, rather that they have "acute intellectual disaster preparedness" -- they are only cynical enough to take advantage of catastrophe.
Klein: I think that's right. The think tank infrastructure in this country is organized to leap into the chasm right away after disaster has struck. The Heritage foundation and the American Enterprise Institute stockpile free market ideas in the way that people stockpile canned goods. I don't say that anyone is causing these disasters for their benefit, but in the book I do say that if there's anything the market delivers on is a stream of increasingly intense disasters. I think the current economic model in America is a slow motion disaster.
Now we're at the intersection of a weak public infrastructure that has been starved for two-and-a-half decades and increasingly heavy weather thanks to climate change, which I believe has a lot to do with this pursuit of short-term growth that is at the heart of the economic model, and we're going to have more and more of these disasters. If we aren't careful, each of these disasters offers the opening and a rationale for more disaster capitalism.
Frel: An economic feedback cycle, like the one scientists are warning about the compounding power of the effects of climate change.
Klein: If there's one thing we don't need on this planet it's disasters, because disaster capitalism will keep coming.
Frel: Since capital is not monolithic and has competing interests among economic elites, it seems as though the disaster capitalism model would have taught some of its adherents by now that it doesn't work in the long term, or at least have some elites who would fight against it. You write extensively on the free market laboratory implemented in Chile when Pinochet took over, which of course was a failure. Isn't there resistance to disaster capitalism at the levels of economic power and government that institute them?
Klein: Yes. In the Chile chapter I talk about how the country's manufacturing sector was furious that cheap products were flooding into the country, that people who were making the money in this case were the people involved in speculative finance. There are absolutely these competing interests. If you look at the Bush Administration, this is an administration that is particularly tied to the disaster capitalism complex: the arms dealing, homeland security, pharmaceuticals that treat pandemics and the oil industry, which benefits handsomely from each and every disaster.
Frel: There's also the phenomenon that the way the capital markets work is to search out weak points and opportunities in any circumstance in which they arise.
Klein: You can depend on capital to arrive at any vacuum and exploit any weakness. It is not the case that politicians need to facilitate this and fund it lavishly with taxpayer money. What is disturbing is the seamless alliance between government and capitalism.
Frel: You end the book with a quote from a declassified letter from Kissinger to Nixon where he says that the real threat of Allende wasn't what he was telling the public -- that Allende wanted this totalitarian system. Kissinger wrote that the real threat was the problem of social democracy spreading. What was so scary about this idea to him?
Klein: I think it's always been the scary idea, because it's so popular. People like to have consumer choice and they also like to have basic necessities protected and to have a life with dignity; housing, water, electricity, health care. And with democratic socialism you can actually have both: a mixed economy that has an essentially controlled economic model but that has room for diversity within it and has these social guarantees. And that's always been the bigger threat to a radical vision of capitalism than totalitarian communism, because people don't actually like living in communist countries, but they really do like living in democratic socialist countries.
Jan Frel is AlterNet's senior editor.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bush and Blair's Big Mistake

Historian Michael Howard says the human condition makes us want to belong - not to be free.

President Bush and his neo-con supporters are in the habit of saying that since the desire for freedom burns brightly in every human breast, it is the duty of the United States to spread democratic freedom throughout the world. He sent his army (along with what he perversely called the "Coalition of the Willing") into Iraq in order to do this; with the results we see today. Two centuries ago the leaders of the French Revolution did very much the same thing, and unleashed a quarter of a century of war on Europe.
In fact, what is hard-wired into every human being is the need, not to be 'free', but to belong: belong to a group, whether it be a family, a juvenile gang, a football crowd, a tribe, or a fully-fledged nation.
This is the instinct that has inspired humanity throughout its history and been the cause of most of its wars. Very few of us have either the inclination or the courage to separate ourselves, from our own judgments and battle against the crowd. Those who do so are regarded at best as odd-balls, at worst as traitors - not least in the United States.
What is hard-wired into every human being is the need, not to be free, but to belong.

The concepts of 'liberty' and 'democracy', as the West understands them, are the result of a long process of social, economic and political development in our own part of the world. Even here they can flourish only within a framework of security provided by a historic community that commands our instinctive loyalty. If they are brought by foreign troops, wrapped in a foreign flag, they will be seen as the ideology of an alien tribe and resisted accordingly.
In their well-meaning effort to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, President Bush and Tony Blair may have let us in for an even longer war than that which was unleashed by the French Revolution, two centuries ago.

Liberation or Catastrophe? by Michael Howard (Hambledon Continuum) is out on September 28

Thursday, September 13, 2007

TheNeverEndingWar:Westmoreland & Vietnam, Petraeus & Iraq/More of the same.

History repeating itself would be an easy analysis. The Bush/Cheney empire begs for such an easy description,and is so tempting to compare Vietnam and Iraq. In fact, it's a far worse situation in Iraq. Johnson's good soldier, Gen. Westmoreland, attempts to "spin" Vietnam. Bush's own top dog, attempts the same script. Will the outcome be similar?

read more | digg story

Different general, different war, same words: Westmoreland on Vietnam, Petraeus on Iraq

The full transcript of Gen. William Westmoreland's Nov. 19, 1967, appearance on "Meet the Press" to discuss progress in Vietnam.
Sep. 13, 2007 Editor's note: This week all eyes were on Washington, where Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, appeared before Congress to tout the alleged success of President Bush's "surge." The pair also delivered their message on Fox News during an exclusive hour-long interview.
The duo's public relations blitz recalled another campaign 40 years earlier, in which a matched pair of ambassador and general argued the case for a different unpopular war. In 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland, then leading the U.S. military effort in Vietnam, and Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to that country, told Congress and the media that progress was being made in Vietnam.
Notably, Bunker and Westmoreland appeared together on NBC's "Meet the Press" on November 19, 1967, to deliver the Johnson administration's talking points on the Vietnam war. An employee at NBC News' Washington bureau was able to locate an old transcript, which he provided to Salon. The full transcript is reproduced on the pages that follow.
Westmoreland and Bunker and Petraeus and Crocker may have been discussing two wars separated by four decades and 4,000 miles, but the lines they delivered often sound eerily similar, from the insistence on progress against the enemy to alleged interference by foreign powers to questions about whether local allies were ready to take over the fighting.
In the "Meet the Press" transcript, for example, Westmoreland discusses a drawdown of U.S. troops from Vietnam. "I can foresee within two years or less," he says, "that we will be able to phase-down the level of our military effort, which means that we could reduce the number of people involved." That sounds much like something Petraeus said during his appearance on Fox News, as he explained some of what he had told Congress earlier that day. He mentions "transitioning responsibilities to Iraqi security forces as quickly as they can take on those responsibilities."
"I then talked about the reduction in forces that I have recommended as well. And that includes a Marine expeditionary unit, 1,000 or so Marines, leaving in fact Anbar province later this month. And then ... five Army brigade combat teams starting in mid-December."
Two months after Westmoreland and Bunker appeared on "Meet the Press," the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Toronto Film Festival

The joyous, inventive "I'm Not There" explores the many faces of Bob Dylan -- By Stephanie Zacharek
Sept. 12, 2007 TORONTO -- The idea of Bob Dylan has become so outsize that the only way to deal with its big-as-the-sky analog sprawl is to break it into convenient digital modules. We do that, usually, by locating Dylan in a specific place and time, by speaking of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" Dylan, or the "Blonde on Blonde" Dylan, or the "Nashville Skyline" Dylan, moving him around like a little pushpin on our map of the past.
Top row, l-r: Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw and Heath Ledger. Bottom, l-r: Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett

Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" does something different: In this ambitious and extraordinary dream-world meditation on the idea of Dylan, Haynes shows us Dylan's many faces by literally giving him many faces. We see him as an 11-year-old black kid who goes by the name Woody Guthrie, toting his battered guitar through the countryside; a sensitive, beloved troubadour with the power to motivate clean-cut young men and women in penny loafers and bobbed haircuts to change the world; an outlaw drifting through a semisurreal Western town; a blunt, boorish superstar who makes halfhearted attempts to be a family man; a skinny would-be savior in shades who has been anointed with holy oil and is repulsed by the way it feels on his skin.
This is a biopic of an idea, not of a man -- a title card at the beginning reads "Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" -- and I'm still not sure how Haynes pulled it off. I only know that I can't wait to see it again. In fact, I'm afraid I'm going to be one of those freaks who see it half a dozen times before it drifts out of the theaters, not necessarily to parse its many allusions and inside jokes (although that's fun) but simply to bask in its crazy, warm glow.
There are infinitesimal ways to come at the myth we know as Dylan: We analyze him, draw and quarter him, reverently polish him like a Virgin Mary statue -- we'll do anything to fool ourselves into believing we own him. But part of what Haynes is doing here is celebrating Dylan's elusiveness (the movie's title says it all), his refusal to fit neatly into our unimaginative little boxes. Instead of genuflecting at the altar of Dylan, Haynes fills his movie with joy and pleasure. He takes delight in the way Dylan has always loved to tweak us, to make wicked little jokes, to turn familiar phrases inside out and show us how poetry is really just the underside of common speech. The movie, shot in both black-and-white and color, has so many different visual moods that it's hard to pin down its look; working once again with the great cinematographer Edward Lachman (who gave "Far From Heaven" such jaw-dropping, faux-Technicolor beauty), Haynes uses the landscape of the screen in imaginative ways: One minute he's showing the Beatles and Dylan cavorting in a London park like hepped-up Teletubbies; the next, he's cheekily quoting Godard. Half the fun of watching "I'm Not There" is keeping up with it, following its seductive twists and turns.
Haynes' multiple Dylans are played by actors including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and a wonderful young actor named Marcus Carl Franklin. But Cate Blanchett, as the Royal Albert Hall-era Dylan (there we go again with the pushpins), is the most hypnotic, capturing the spirit of Dylan -- or, more accurately, one of his many spirits -- in her willowy frame. This could be the performance of the year, in one of the most inventive and joyous movies of the year.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mass Deceivers: Malice Aforethought in the Iraq War Crime

The NeverEndingWar reaches yet another fraudulent "benchmark" with the pending "Patraeus Report", falsely being touted as an endorsement of the White House's "surge" strategy in Iraq, in the service of a truly criminal regime that may take years and years to be held accountable, let alone prosecuted. It has been my contention since the outset of the Bush/Cheney take over of the government in the quite clearly fraudulent 2000 Election by the Supreme Court, they have been intent on assuming power at any cost - the Constitution being the only obstacle, and with the court-packing by the neo-cons in full flower, it would simply be an irritant at best. Witness the death of habeus corpus, the Justice Department's evisceration of civil liberties and the demise of oversight by a emasculated Congress, and blatant disregard for the will of Congress with Bush's "signing statements" where he thoroughly dismisses laws he "reinterprets" to his liking. In this piece from London, Floyd republishes his article from 2004, weeks before the American election, and provides for the reader to erase any doubts that the "lies" from Bush and company are anything to be disputed, that with the passage of three years, nothing except more deaths and chaos has ensued. The "lies" are in fact, the truth about the criminal acts from Bush and his cronies. How can anyone except his enablers and power-craving comrades be fooled any longer? - MS

Chris Floyd , Empire Burlesque
September 7, 2007
Sidney Blumenthal's article on ("Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction") -- and Jon Schwarz's critique of it ("Salon WMD Story Seemingly Overstated") -- return us once again to the matter of the origins of the Iraq War. Jon of course has done sterling service in bringing to light the "Downing Street Memo" and related documents on the trumped-up case for war knowingly promulgated by Bush and Blair. This seems an apt time for a second look at a piece I wrote three years ago, in September 2004, about these murky origins. This article, written in the final weeks of the surreal charade that gave George W. Bush four more years to commit mass murder, came out before the Downing Street memos were uncovered; but as the article notes, the evidence of deliberate deception by the oh-so-Christian leaders of the "Coalition" was already copious, and undeniable.

Original version first published Sept. 24, 2004:

The Deceivers
How many times must the truth be told before it conquers the lies? Again and again, the brutal realities behind the rape of Iraq - that it was planned years ago, that the aggressors knew full well that their justifications for war were false and that their invasion would lead to chaos, ruin and unbridled terror - have been exposed by the very words and documents of the invaders themselves. Yet the reign of the lie goes on, rolling toward its final entrenchment in November. Mid-month, as hundreds of Iraqi civilians were being slaughtered by insurgents and invaders, as more pipelines exploded, more hostages were seized, more families sank into poverty and filth, the cynical machinations of the oh-so-Christian Coalition of Bush and Blair were revealed yet again. This time it was a tranche of leaked documents from March 2002, a full year before the war: reports to Tony Blair from his top advisers plainly stating that the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was unsubstantiated, that there was no connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, that there was no legal justification for invading the country, and that any such invasion would lead to years of chaotic occupation, The Daily Telegraph (an arch-conservative, pro-war paper) reports. [The Observer, which also backed the war, had more on the leak here.]Even more remarkably, Blair was told that the likely end result of the invasion would be the rise of yet another Saddam-like tyrant, who would then try to acquire the very weapons of mass destruction that the Coalition attack was ostensibly designed to destroy. In fact, Blair was told, with Iraq hedged in by a powerful Iran to the east and a nuclear-armed Israel to the west, any Iraqi leader, even a democratic one, will eventually seek WMD to defend the country. All of this echoed similar warnings given to George W. Bush by the State Department, the CIA, top military brass - even his own father. Most of these alarms were reported - obscurely at times - in the press before the invasion. The Coalition's maniacal drive to war without evidence or provocation was later confirmed - again, often obliquely - by Congressional probes, the 9/11 commission, the Hutton report, the Butler report, Bush's official WMD investigators and a raft of revelations by top insiders on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Robin Cook, Richard Clarke, Bob Graham, John O'Neill and others. The public record, available to anyone who wants the truth, is undeniable: The war was waged on false pretenses - and the war leaders knew it. They knew it would bring unimaginable death and suffering to multitudes of innocent people in Iraq - and to thousands of their own soldiers and civilians as well. They knew it would lead to more terrorism, more chaos, more insecurity in the world. Yet they plunged ahead anyway, deliberately deceiving their own people with a poison cloud of lies, exaggeration and bluster. Why? Because for the warmongers, the game was worth the candle: The loot, the power, the "dominance" to be won was an irresistible temptation. The Telegraph expose centered on papers prepared for Blair's March 2002 summit with the true ruler of the United States: Dick Cheney. As often noted here, Cheney was a key figure in the corporate/militarist faction Project for the New American Century, along with Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and other bloodthirsty elites. In September 2000 - before Bush was installed as the faction's White House frontman - PNAC issued the final version of a plan, years in the making, to ensure American geopolitical and economic "dominance" through military control of key oil regions and strategic pipeline routes, either directly or via client states. This would be accompanied by a "revolutionary" transformation of American society into a more warlike state: a transformation that PNAC said could only be accomplished if the American people were "galvanized" by "a catalyzing event - like a new Pearl Harbor." The conquest of Iraq was a vital cog in this long-range plan, and the depredations of the Baath Regime - the worst of which occurred with the full support of PNAC's top players during the Reagan-Bush years - had nothing to do with it. The Cheney-Rumsfeld group put it plainly in 2000: The need to establish a military presence in Iraq "transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." Likewise, 9/11 and "the new threats in a changed world" - evoked so often as a justification by the warmongers - were equally irrelevant to an invasion planned years before the CIA's ex-ally, Osama bin Laden, obligingly provided that longed-for "new Pearl Harbor." What's more, the warmakers knew that Saddam's WMD arsenal and weapons development programs had been dismantled at his order in 1991. This was confirmed in 1995 by crateloads of documentary evidence supplied by top defector Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law and WMD chieftain - as Newsweek magazine reported before the war. It was confirmed again by UN inspectors, who independently verified the elimination of 95 percent of Iraq's WMD arsenal - before they were summarily pulled out of the country ahead of a U.S.-British punitive strike in 1998. Bush, Blair, Cheney and the rest knew all of this when they made the decision to launch what the Nuremberg Tribunal called "the supreme international crime" - aggressive war. Now they are openly planning a new blitzkrieg to crush all resistance to their profit-seeking conquest: an assault - conveniently set after Bush's re-installation as frontman - which they know will churn through countless innocent bodies like a meat grinder. When they stand before the world to justify the coming outrage, remember this, and hold to it: everything they say about their war is a lie. And it has been from the beginning.

Max Roach - The Constitution of a Jazzman - Freedom NOW

I probably have 30 or so albums or CD's of Max Roach, performing, on the drums. And in the hundreds of other jazz CD's I have he's on literally scores of so many I couldn't count them. It would be quite mistaken to say however he was just a drummer, a musician. He was the personification of the brilliance music brings to our understanding of being human. He played with a fierceness and intensity one would almost expect from a percussionist, the keeper of the rhythm, the monitor of motion, but he had the capacity - the will - to launch into orbit, and generate a field of gravity, you had to be stone deaf to not get out of your seat and MOVE! He was also committed to social justice and through his music created a greater gift, not what we call "jazz", either. Like many artists, he deplored the limits of labels, and said his work was in reality "black classical music", born of their collective experience. His life lives on through the gift of these recordings. Stop whatever you are doing and search these out, and you will understand. (photo, above, playing in Countances, France, 1999). Below is the great Nat Hentoff writing in the Village Voice, giving tribute to Roach.

by Nat Hentoff, Village Voice

Early one morning years ago, I was at the Blues Alley jazz club in Washington, D.C., to do a television interview with Max Roach. As always, I was early. There was no one in the club except Max, alone at the drums, practicing for the night's gig. He played with as much intensity—and as many surprises—as if he were before hundreds of listeners.
Like Roy Eldridge and Phil Woods, Max always played as if it were his last gig on earth. With Charlie Parker (photo, l.) , Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and another drummer—Kenny "Klook" Clarke—Max changed the direction of jazz as Louis Armstrong had decades before.
Washington Post jazz critic Matt Schudel distills how Max liberated jazz drumming: "By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the 'ride' cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, [he] developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely, [and] by matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument."
Off the stand, however, Max was one of the few musicians to publicly speak out, with no subtlety, about Jim Crow in and out of the music business: "We invented, we created the music. . . . Hell, man, this is black classical music. [Compared to the money we get], so much of that European classical stuff is on relief, subsidized by foundations."
Max once instructed me on the correlation between jazz as free expression and the Constitution: "Ours are individual voices," he said, "listening intently to all the other voices, and creating a whole from all of these personal voices.
Since then, when I hear a debate on whether ours is a "living Constitution," Max comes to mind.
Also a composer, the drummer created a work titled We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite in 1960, as the civil-rights movement was gathering momentum and controversy. It helped spur other jazz musicians to bring those national polyphonic protest rhythms into their music.
I was privileged, to say the least, to produce the incandescent Freedom Now Suite performances for the Candid label. By "produce," I mean only that I wrote down the length of each section and made sure Max was present to decide on the final cut. It was his byline, not mine.
Everyone on the session, including the engineer, was swept up in the cascade of emotions that Max and lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. propelled into motion. The magisterial tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—with a sound that never needed a microphone—actually seemed to fill the building. And that very afternoon, Abbey Lincoln (photo, r.) was being transformed, because of Max, from a supper-club singer into the utterly singular and penetrating storyteller who has since resounded around the world.
From slavery (the bitterly sardonic "Driva Man") to "Freedom Day" and "Tears for Johannesburg," to the beatings of black students going on at Southern lunch counters, the Freedom Now Suite created such a surge of rebellion that it was soon banned in South Africa, to the pleasure of everyone who had been in the studio that day.
As he continued to lead influential groups—nurturing such hard-swinging and also lyrically searching younger musicians as the late, great trumpet player Clifford Brown (photo, below) - Max himself was so deepening his mastery that, as Michael Bourne of jazz radio station WGBO said to the Daily News's David Hinckley the day after Max died: "He could play a whole concert on just the drums."
That's what I was hearing on that afternoon long ago at the Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
In his extraordinarily illuminating memoir Jazz Odyssey (Continuum), the prodigious pianist Oscar Peterson speaks of Max not only as a drummer who could rivet an audience all by himself, but also as a virtuoso accompanist:
"Max . . . has a flair for 'floating'—playing patterns between the soloist's phrases without interfering or disrupting them. This kind of 'sensitive intrusion' is a very special gift. Only a handful of percussionists can separate themselves bodily from the time in order to add another separate linear, yet rhythmic string of improvisational phrases—without altogether shredding the musical fiber of the performance."
Max didn't like the term "jazz," regarding it as too limiting because he could not be limited. With his music certain to endure as long as there is civilization (itself not an entirely safe bet), Max exemplifies what Duke Ellington told me long ago about not heeding transient definitions like "modern," "postmodern," or "cutting edge."

During a break in the recording of the Freedom Now Suite, Coleman Hawkins (photo, r) — himself an imposing individualist—was marveling at Max's strong, bold, often towering melodies. He kept asking Max, "Did you really write this, Max?" Max just smiled. "My, my," was all Hawkins could say.
And in the erupting protest section, Abbey Lincoln startled us with fierce yet musical roars and screams of rage that, in Max's composition, told of the centuries-old black roots that led to what A. Phillip Randolph, architect of the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, called "America's unfinished revolution."
"I've learned a lot from Max Roach in recent months," Abbey told me that afternoon, "about being me when I sing."
Max had what Oscar Peterson (photo, l.) calls the "will to perfection" in continuing to find out through his music who he was. Oscar says that will is a prevailing force among jazz musicians, explaining that "it requires you to collect all your senses, emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them entirely onto the performance, with utter dedication, every time you play.
"And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting . . . you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to, for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything."
But Max also knew, as did Coleman Hawkins, that it's essentially the striving that keeps musicians and the rest of us going. During one of Hawkins's best solos in the Freedom Now Suite, there was a squeak. "Don't splice that!" Hawkins told me. "When it's all perfect in a piece like this, there's something very wrong."
What Max had created was in real, raw time—for all time. (photo, Max Roach in San Francisco, 1979)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Ang Lee Film Wins Golden Lion at Venice Festival

Venice Festival Crowns Lee
Ang Lee's ''Lust, Caution,'' an erotic thriller set in 1940s Shanghai, won the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice Film Festival, closing the 64th competition.
"I'm Not There," a U.S. movie directed by Todd Haynes and inspired by Bob Dylan, and ''La Graine et le Mulet,'' a French film by Abdellatif Kechiche, shared the Special Jury Prize.
Accepting the award, Lee paid homage to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who died on July 30. ``When I was in preproduction, I visited Ingmar Bergman on his island,'' Lee said. ``He touched my face liked a mother touches a child. He hugged me. Tonight, I pass that hug to you.''

Brian De Palma was voted best director for ''Redacted,'' which is about the conflict in Iraq. ``Prizes are always great because it helps your film to be seen,'' De Palma said. ``But critics and prizes just tell you what the fashion of the day is. We don't make movies to win prizes.''
The award for best actor went to Brad Pitt for his performance in ``The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,'' directed by Andrew Dominik.

Cate Blanchett won the best actress prize for her role in ``I'm Not There.'' "Cate turned what could have been a stunt into a compelling performance,'' director Haynes said.

Paul Laverty won the award for best script for "It's a Free World'' by Ken Loach, and Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci was presented with a special Golden Lion for his career. The seven- member jury was headed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

In this year's festival, 23 films vied for the Golden Lion, which last year went to "Still Life'' by the Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke. Veteran French filmmaker Alain Resnais won the Silver Lion for best director in 2006 for "Private Fears in Private Places.''
The first Venice Film Festival was held in 1932. Among the earliest prize winners were directors Rene Clair and Rouben Mamoulian and actors Frederic March and Helen Hayes.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL infused with 70s spirit

Sex, war, politics dominate festival
VENICE -- The spirit of the 70s is firing up the Venice Film Festival, where — just past the midpoint — sex, war, politics, corporate evils and spiritual quests, depicted in star-driven Yank passion pics, are the talk of the Lido, alongside similarly themed global offerings.
After the steamy sexual acrobatics in Ang Lee's erotic espionage pic "Lust, Caution" conjured comparisons with Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," the repercussions of U.S. military action in Iraq took center stage with Brian De Palma's "Redacted" and Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah."
"Redacted," a gritty docu-like depiction of U.S. troops deployed in Samara, divided critics despite making a big splash for its hot-potato theme and drawing comparisons with the U.S. media's Vietnam war coverage.

"Unlike Vietnam, where we saw images of destruction and soldiers brought back in body bags, the media hasn't shown this with Iraq," said De Palma.
"Our main attempt is to bring the reality of what happened in Iraq to the U.S. people."

Concurrently, Haggis' hard-hitting drama about the violence that erupts during the Iraq vets' "Coming Home" phase, was more solidly received, driven by strong perfs by Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron.
Theron said about the vets: "I'd like to see them come home to be looked after and nurtured — I just want to see them back."

George Clooney, on the Lido with first-time helmer Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," about a Manhattan lawyer who takes on a nefarious multinational called U/North, compared their thriller to "Three Days of the Condor," the CIA conspiracy classic by Sydney Pollack, who is both a producer and a thesp in "Clayton."
"The studios used to make 'Harold and Maude' and 'Network' and 'All the President's Men,' " lamented Clooney.
"We want to try and use the things we learned from foreign films and from independent films in the 90s, and try and infuse that back into the studio system — which is how it used to be," he added.
Brad Pitt called "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in which he plays the legendary bandit, "a very complex and complicated film that is not part of the current zeitgeist of filmmaking."
"It's more of a throwback to some of the greater films of the 70s," Pitt said, by way of an explanation.
Many critics found "The Assassination," by sophomore New Zealand-born helmer Andrew Dominik, striking — though some thought it too long — the same beef also being cited with Lee's Mandarin-language "Lust," which has an NC-17 rating Stateside. The sex scenes will be snipped for Chinese auds.

Another Asian title generating steam is Taiwanese helmer Lee Kang Shang's "Help Me Eros," about a suicidal fellow who becomes entangled with a help-line operator. Italo helmer Paolo Franchi's "Nessuna qualita agli eroi," a cerebral drama spiced up with oral sex and masturbation, instead left audiences limp.

As the Lido heads into its final stretch, consensus is that, despite a few clunkers, Marco Mueller's lineup is living up to its strong expectations.
Fest opener "Atonement" by Blighty sophomore helmer Joe Wright spearheaded the strong Brit contingent and is still a frontrunner for a top nod, while "It's a Free World," Ken Loach's blasting of British economic inequity toward immigrant workers, also went down well.
"There is an alternative. It's important that we not let them get away with the idea that other people can get exploited," beseeched Loach.

Kenneth Branagh's "Sleuth" remake was less well-received.
Hot Gallic helmer Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain," about the travails of a 60-year-old immigrant contending with hardships of work and family in France also delivered, despite its 151 minute running time. Revered compatriot auteur Eric Rohmer's pastoral "Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon" instead failed to impress most critics.

Reaction to Woody Allen's black comedy "Cassandra's Dream" — out-of-competition — was ho-hum, while "The NannyDiaries," sans star Scarlett Johansson in tow, went by making barely a blip.
But the star most missed on the Lido was probably Owen Wilson, who plays the oldest of three grieving brothers on a satirical journey in India in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited," which many found pleasant but slight.
"Obviously he's been through quite a lot this week," Anderson said at the start of the pic's presser Monday, pre-empting questions about Wilson's reported suicide attempt.
"But I'm here to tell you that he's doing very well, and making us laugh — and when he's ready, he's going to speak for himself much better than any of us could."
Also unspooling on Monday out-of-competish was Richard Shepard's well-received "The Hunting Party" in which Richard Gere plays a U.S. journo hunting down a Bosnian war criminal.
"The fact that there are so many films playing here at this festival that are engaging in social issues — the third-world situation, the Iraq War and other conflicts — attests to the fact that my friends in the creative community are still very active," said Gere.
Derek Elley contributed to this report.
Read the full article at:

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

My Hero: Jonas Mekas

“Me, I Just Film My Life”: An Interview with Jonas Mekas

Mekas is a cinema hero to me. He defines what film is really all about. Subversive and seductive. What follows is a terrific interview with him, now 85 years old, from Senses of Cinema, the distinctive and unmatched film journal. He regards himself as a "filmer", not a "filmmaker" as his focus is non-narrative, a stream of consciousness. His unfaltering "eye" has captured the American experience unlike any other, and in his long career, also had the vision to establish the Anthology Film Archives in New York, which opened in 1970. I have attended many films and visited often at Anthology, and each time presents an unrivaled glimpse into the power of cinema to touch and change our understanding of our world. Mekas is a tour guide who is still serving as a beacon across the generations. - MS
Jonas Mekas is the godfather of the American avant-garde cinema. As a filmmaker, film critic, poet, curator and impresario, he introduced America to avant-garde film, and American avant-garde cinema to the world. In the process, he challenged censorship and helped transform the movies into a fine art. More than fifty years later, Mekas is still making films, and still experimenting with new ideas and technologies.
Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas immigrated to the United States in 1949. He discovered avant-garde cinema shortly after he arrived, and began showing films himself in 1953. In 1954, Mekas started publishing Film Culture, which eventually became the mouthpiece of American avant-garde cinema. In 1958, he began writing a film column for the Village Voice, featuring the newest and most radical filmmakers in New York City. Four years later, he helped found the Film-makers’ Cooperative, the world’s largest distributor of avant-garde films. And, in 1964, he founded the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which eventually became Anthology Film Archives, one of the world’s largest collections of avant-garde film.
Mekas is a notable filmmaker, best known for his diary films, including Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969), Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-2) and Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (1992). He is also one of the most important Lithuanian poets.

by Brian L. Frye
Brian L. Frye is a filmmaker, journalist and lawyer living in Fairbanks, Alaska and interviewed Mekas at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
You have remained remarkably prolific, making several films and videos a year. What are you currently working on?

For the past year and a half, I have been working mostly as a cameraman for a young French filmmaker and Butoh dancer, Virginie Marchand (photo, l.) who lives between Paris and Brooklyn. She’s twenty-eight and has danced for quite a number of years in France.
When I first saw her, she danced by herself, only by herself, usually in a closed house. She’s epileptic and there is a special intensity to her dance; she goes into trance as she moves through her dance variations. I began to film her and, when she looked at the footage, she became interested in what could be done with it. We kept watching the footage together and she began seeing what could be done on film with her dance.
Virginie shot a film in Brooklyn three years ago, which she’s edited now, a feature-length narrative film. She began thinking about this footage as the centre of a new feature-length narrative film. She is interested mostly in narrative. The title of this new film is Epileptic Opera Butoh.
She did not realize that her dance was very related to Butoh. I said, “But this is Butoh. I have seen the Japanese Kazuo Ohno dance.” She had spent the first six years of her life in Japan and so she decided to reconnect with her childhood. At the same time, she said, “Let’s visit Kazuo Ohno. I’m going to dance with Kazuo Ohno.” So, we went to Japan for two months. We had done a lot of filming in Greenpoint – maybe like 100 hours of dance. And then we filmed in Japan, and we of course visited Kazuo Ohno.

Kazuo Ohno is 99 years old now and doesn’t move much. At first, he was very sceptical. People visit him, but he does not dance with them. But she wanted to dance with him. So, he was watching and thinking, “What does this woman want from me?” And then they connected. It went for like three hours. And then she wanted another evening with him. There were like three evenings of dance.
Later on, the Buenos Aires Film Festival invited me to show A Letter from Greenpoint. I thought, “Why don’t we do an installation with some of that Japan footage?” When he was 19, Kazuo Ohno went to see a dancer, an Argentinean dancer, whose stage name was La Argentina. He was so taken by her that he decided to be a dancer. She was his main inspiration. In 1959, when he came out with his Butoh style, he called the first evening “Admiring La Argentina”.
So, for three evenings we projected the footage as an installation on three screens, while Virginie danced live in the area surrounding those images. And I was there with my camera filming her at the same time. It was quite spectacular and a very intense live installation, live performance.
There will be a feature film, but it is Virginie Marchand’s film. I’m only helping her, because I really believe in her. There will also be a feature documentary, like three dances with Kazuo, which is my film. And then there is this installation from Buenos Aires. Next it will be Tokyo and then New York. It will change each time.

What’s the title of the installation?
Love on the Beat”, which is the title of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s songs. So, that’s one thing. We are still working together on that. At the same time, I have become involved in something completely different. I will be making 365 two- or three-minute films. Maybe some will go up to five minutes, but that’s the limit. They will be for an iPod project, but later can be transferred to film and projected.

Do you have a title for this project yet?
Maybe “iPod Poems” or something like that. I will also be including some two- or three-minute films by other friends, like Robert Breer or Marie Menken.
What’s the subject matter that you’re focusing on?
It’s completely open. There will be a great, great, great variety of material. I’m working with some new material and I’m using some old material that I have not released, material still on the shelf.
During this summer, I want to make at least 100 of them. If I want 365, it will take longer, but I’ve practically only just begun to work on it because, until now, we’ve been finishing the filming on Epileptic Opera Butoh. The editing will be done only by Virginie. She’s coming here for a month. My part, practically, is done, and now I can concentrate on the new project. But I devoted a year and a half to Epileptic Opera Butoh because the dance is a very incredible reality. Butoh is not based on choreography; it’s a very direct contact with reality.

In recent years, you’ve finished quite a few films based on material you’ve taken over the years.
Many of them were conceived as installations. In 1987, I practically abandoned the Bolex [camera] and went into video technology. I abandoned the Bolex primarily because I was repeating myself. And everybody, wherever I went, was like, “Okay, we have a Bolex. We want you to show us how you do it”. And I got fed up with it. I felt I’d reached the end of that period, with the way I approach reality with a Bolex, with what I could do technically and style-wise. So, I got my video and that’s where I am now. It’s different. I have thousands of hours of video and I will be using some of it for my iPod poems.
By the way, have you seen A Letter from Greenpoint (2004)? I consider that’s my first real video work, where I finally mastered video. I used to say that it took me 10 years to master the Bolex. But I thought with video, you know, it’s right there. But that’s not true. It took me 10 years to master, to discover how I can use video to do what I really want, not just take a video camera and turn it on and record.

Recently, I have done a series of individual works, like the three parts of Notes on Utopia (2003). That was commissioned for the Biennale Utopia Project, though not exactly commissioned. And there are other individual pieces like Ein Maerchen (2001). I used some of the new footage and some old, which is used now also for installations. One was “Farewell to SOHO”, where there are 5 different parts, using footage of me abandoning my loft after 30 years in Soho and moving to Greenpoint. One part shows the empty loft, the moving out. Another part is images of Soho around 1990, the new Soho, the commercial Soho. The third monitor screens Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas, because there are a lot of images of Soho with Maciunas in that film, and he is the father of Soho anyway. Then there is another part, a farewell party to Soho. It’s an installation that was also shown at Podea mUseat in Stockholm.

At Lyon, I had my own installation dedicated to Fernand Leger. It is a 12-monitor piece. Leger wanted to film a family for 24 hours non-stop. In 1930, he wrote that was his dream. So, I made this film dedicated to Fernand Leger. But I did not film or tape for 24 hours. I just took footage covering my family life for 6 or 7 years. That went on 12 monitors.
The Venice installation consisted of 8 monitors, also using old footage. At the same time, the same space, other images were around. I am interested now in using some of the films that are there. I am very interested in reusing and doing something else with the same images.
It is the same with the series I began making, “Prints”, which are frozen film frames. That’s extracting 2 or 3 or 4 frames and blowing them up, making silkscreen prints or just photographic prints. My filming technique of using lots of single frames - that’s when I was using the Bolex - produces a series of images. Some combinations of frames create interesting clashes. It’s not like when you take a narrative Hollywood movie and you can find no difference between three frames.
Your single-framing technique that you used on the Bolex produced a very distinctive staccato style. I’m wondering how you adapted to shooting primarily video.
At the beginning, I noticed that I was trying to adopt the same technique to video, with short shots or takes. But then I abandoned it and went into non-stop long takes. Video editing technology, like Final Cut, permits you to cut all that material to single frames. I work with Final Cut but I don’t like it. Final Cut video editing is non-linear and I still somehow prefer linear editing. But when I make the 365 iPod poems, I may go a little bit more into non-linear editing.

(Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue inthe East Village, New York)
You’ve often referred to yourself as a ‘filmer’, rather than a filmmaker. Can you explain that?
What is the difference between a ‘filmer’ and a filmmaker? Me, I just film my life. I have no plan, no script. I have no idea what I will do with the footage. But filmmakers usually have a script, have an idea, want to make a film. They know, more or less, what that film will be and what they want it to be. They collect material to make that film. I consider they are filmmakers; they make films. They have a program, they have a plan, an idea. I don’t have. I just film.
Let’s take A Letter from Greenpoint. I was just collecting footage, just filming because I’m always with a camera in my pocket. And then my friends began asking, “So, how is your life in Greenpoint? How do you feel there?” After hearing those questions and trying to explain, I said, “Okay, I will select some material and put it together and then you can see for yourselves.” That’s how it originated. That’s how many of my other films originated.
In 1967, Gerald O’Grady or someone like that said, “Hey, we’ve got some money here in Buffalo and we know you have been filming. Do you want to show something?” They said they would give me – oh, I don’t know; it was very big in those days – like 5000 dollars. I said, “Okay, I need that money.” That’s how Walden [filmed in 1964-65, edited 1968-69] originated.

In the case of Beaubourg [the Centre Georges Pompidou] in Paris, they had a big show on Andy Warhol. They said, “Do you have any footage of Warhol?” So I picked, extracted, collected all my footage. That’s how Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1990) came about.
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty [2000] covered about 25 years of my life. It came to about 5 hours. There was still so much footage I could have used, but I limited myself to 4 hours and 50 minutes. I have all that other footage and I was thinking, “What am I going to do with it?” Then this project came up regarding 365 iPod poems. It was my idea to do 365 films, but the request came from somebody involved in bringing out this new iPod technology. They tried some of my films on iPod and said, “Yeah, this is the size. On the small screen, the activity you have, single frame, works perfectly, better than the works of some other filmmakers. We would like you to participate, to make more short films like that for this new technology. They fit perfectly this new technology.” Then I looked at the footage that I still had sitting on my shelves. I felt this was one way I could use that footage – but not to put together some long film. There is no one theme; these are like leftovers, outtakes, that did not get into As I was Moving Ahead or Scenes from the life of Andy Warhol.
So, I decided that this is for me a perfect form to use that material, like haikus, like a short form. In a way, I have been doing that all the time, because they are always little titles, and it goes for one minute or whatever, another title, another haiku, another poem. This offer came at the right time and I decided to accept the provocation. It is very exciting and challenging.

When do you expect to start releasing them?
In the Fall.

Several years back, you showed a film about the Living Theater with accompaniment by Phillip Glass.
It was part of the Living Theater’s theatre evening called “Mysteries”. It had different parts, so I filmed one part. I wasn’t sure whether to release it or not, so I put it on the shelf. That was in 1966 in Cassis, France. I only looked at it again in maybe 2001, some 45 years later. It’s not only history, but looks interesting because of what they were doing. It was a silent piece, just with noise of the floor, of feet. So I asked Phil Glass to do some music and now it exists as a film. It has not been shown again here [the US], but it was shown in France and was very well received. People were quite amazed at what the Living Theater did in ’66 compared to what is being done in theatre today. So, it works as a film and a document, But what is a document, what is a film? All my films are documents of some kind, of what’s happening around me.

I was wondering if you could describe the story behind Time and Fortune Vietnam Newsreel (1968).
It’s a little film made in the Vietnam period. I guess I wanted to make a little contribution for those who wanted to stop the war. I got Shirley Clarke and my brother involved. It’s a little three-minute film. I’m not really happy with it. It’s a collage of some kind of nonsense fantasy narrative. My brother plays an ambassador who represents some place like Alaska and needs slaves from Vietnam or something. I think it’s a little bit stupid. At the time, I was filming slaughterhouses in Cincinnati, so I included that footage, and also some images from cartoons, I think. It’s a little bit bloody. But some people liked it. Jean-Luc Godard liked it very much. He wrote about it. And Ken Jacobs hated it so much that he said, “How can you make this? This is stupid.”

It’s not very well known, not very much shown. I have not seen it myself for many, many years. It may be quite topical now. I’m not a political sort of person – certainly not in the way politics are understood today. My idea of politics is very different. The ‘politicians’ I like are John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and maybe George Maciunas and those of the Beat Generation, those who changed humanity in a more subtle way. They change the style of life and everything is positive; nothing is negative. All those who support the political systems and movements and politicians end up very negative and the results are negative. Gandhi was maybe one who was a chance for the positive. But the main political movements end up in horror, as we well know. That’s why I am critical of Godard. He sided himself with the wrong political movements, the wrong politicians. And that’s why I keep inserting in my films, especially in As I Was Moving Ahead, that it is a political film. I consider that what I am proposing, what I am showing, is a different way, a different option, and that is beauty and being positive.

You’ve said that for a long time, as early as Walden.
When I put that in, I always keep in mind that this is my answer to Godard.

Do you think people respond to that differently today to how they did when you said the same thing in Walden, or is it pretty much the same?
Respond to what?

Respond to your characterization of your films as political films in the sense that you’ve just described.
I don’t know. As I Was Moving Ahead was shown two years ago at the Anthology Film Archives, in the last program of the year, because that’s my birthday. A couple of months later, I meet a couple in the street, a woman and a man. They said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! We saw the film and we decided to get married and have children.” There’s a lot about children in the film.
Then, some time later, I meet two men and they said, “Thank you, thank you. We saw the film and we decided to get married.” Two gay men. There is no gay sensibility in the film, but still they identified. To me, that was very interesting.
There is also this Italian photographer who was at the same screening. When I went to a restaurant with the photographer Daudain, she came with the photographer from Italy. She said, “We have to tell you this strange story about him going to see your film at Anthology. The film ends, he cannot get up. The manager had to call ambulance. He was taken to hospital. And the doctor says, ‘We have never had a case like this.’” What happened was that this guy got so involved in the images that all this energy, everything, the rest of the body became like dead. He could not move. He was so concentrated, so involved in the images. It took them a couple hours to bring him back to normal.

Speaking of Anthology, how did Anthology Film Archive get its name?
I was debating with P. Adams Sitney what to call it – the Film Museum of New York, things like that. And then P. Adams Sitney and Peter Kubelka were about to visit Stan Brakhage and, before they left, I said, “Why don’t you ask Brakhage what should we call ourselves?” They come back and said, “We’ve got the name”. And we called it the Anthology. Since it’s film, it’s Anthology Film and, since we are a museum, Anthology Archives.
It was a reference, I guess, to poetry, to anthologies. It’s a collection, something carefully selected. At first, some people felt it was a strange name. But it described what we did at the time correctly. It’s not an Anthology now, but that is how it began.

Over the years, you were involved in the creation of many avant-garde cinema institutions, in New York City especially. You also saw and participated, in one way or another, in many others. From your position today, which ones do you think were most successful in doing what they were meant to do?
I will approach that from two different angles. I just came from the International Independent Film Festival in Buenos Aires. They decided to have a public interview with me, with Jim Hoberman from the Village Voice as the interviewer. It was a friendly conversation with the public. Hoberman, to introduce me, began enumerating what I had done: started Film Culture in ’54, then in ’58 Village Voice column, then the Filmmakers Cinematheque, then the Anthology Film Archives ... I said, “Stop it! This is history, did I really do it, because I’m completely somewhere else?”

(l. Cover of a 1957 issue of Film Culture)
I think each project – and some of them I started with my brother - were successful. But when something begins to work by itself, I pull myself out. I only do something that nobody else does. And the Village Voice column, of course, was a success, because I put Andrew Sarris in it and Amy Taubin, etc. Film Culture magazine also did what it had to do and, when Hoberman said it was the most important film magazine ever in the United States, I said, “Maybe it was, but now it’s different, and the demand’s different, and reality ...”
Anthology I consider successful, so now I can phase myself out. It’s running by itself and I’m not needed there anymore. I can go into more of my own work.
In, say, 1953, when I started my own film screenings of the avant-garde film in New York, if you wanted to see the avant-garde you went to Cinema 16. If you wanted to see unseen, unavailable films, Hollywood or whatever films, you went to the Theodor Huff Film Society. If you wanted to see a leftist kind of film, you went to what was more or less a club on 6th Ave and 9th St. And if you wanted to meet some of the independent avant-garde filmmakers, then you could sneak in, like I did, into New York University. George Amberg was very unique person. He began as a ballet critic and writer, and had a course at the University on avant-garde film, which is where I met for the first time Gregory Markopoulos and a good number of people.

And that’s different today?
People think that today there is so much and that back then there was nothing. It’s not true. There were a lot of different showcases for different kinds of films in 1953, ’54, ’56, whatever. Of course there are many more today. But in 1960 or ’65, in New York, there were only 20 avant-garde filmmakers and they knew each other. The energy was more concentrated. That never happens anymore. The energy has dissipated. There was something I read a long time ago which said that on Earth there is always the same amount of spirit, and if humanity expands into billions and billions, each person gets much less.
Of course, it’s the same with the film-screening scene. At Anthology, we have 52 features at the independent film series, every Wednesday. Most of them are made on video. I used to go and see them all, but I gave up, because nothing happens, just a waste of time. So, you trust friends that somebody saw something that had something. You have to trust someone else. You cannot see everything.
In 1960 or ’57, I knew every filmmaker. I had seen every film. That became an impossibility in the 1970s with the explosion of every different group, ethnic group, sexual group. You know, the gay cinema, the Asian-American cinema, the American black cinema, the American Indian cinema and so on down the line. But in each of those areas there is always somebody who knows. You have to trust.

I believe you coined the term New American Cinema.
I based it on Donald Allan’s poetry anthology, The New American Poetry. I felt there was a new American poetry, but there was also a new American cinema. I was inspired by that.

Do you think that what you were describing as the New American Cinema still exists today?
When I said the New American Cinema, I included the narrative and non-narrative, the whole wide spectrum of what was then a new sensibility. There really was a visible break between what was done in Hollywood and the new-generation work. People were interested in narrative or the avant-garde. Nothing like that is happening now. It has been like an open field with no great explosions. You cannot see any break. It has been just flowing for the past 20 years. There is nobody breaking away from anything. I don’t see it. They could say, “Oh, you are too old. You don’t see there is something happening.” But where is it? Usually it’s noticeable; you cannot hide it. I don’t see that in painting, I don’t see it in cinema. Maybe in music there is something more interesting. I don’t know.
I don’t mean that there is nothing good being done, of course. But it’s just like a boring classical period. Something has to happen. They say, “Yes, maybe it’s on digital, on computers. Have you been watching what’s been happening there?” There, I have to admit, I don’t know. I use video technology too, but maybe in a conventional, old-fashioned way.
There are millions and millions around the world who are watching what other developments are out there and it is very different from what is on the movie screens or on the television screens. Maybe that’s where the revolution is, if there is one. But I’m totally unfamiliar with it.

You mentioned sneaking into film classes on avant-garde film at NYU and at the New School.

I began sneaking in when I was a child into the movies. The main movie house where I went to school in my little town in Lithuania was next to a firehouse. I befriended the firehouse people because you could get through a door right behind the projection room. I used to get in for free! So, I used similar methods when I came to New York to get into the NYU film class and the New School film classes.

My understanding is that university classes on avant-garde film were pretty unusual back then. Is that correct?
Yes. George Amberg was amazing. He could analyse or talk about film, with Markopoulos or whoever. The filmmakers were present. It was something special.

Jonas Mekas (centre) in front of Anthology Film Archives

It seems a lot of colleges today have developed an academic interest in avant-garde film that didn’t exist then. Do you think that’s changed the nature of people’s approach to filmmaking, or how people discover the avant-garde?
It must have changed. We get students coming from Italy, from the University of Bologna, to Anthology sometimes. Bologna University is maybe the largest in the world – I don’t know about Beijing. A student told me, “We have 6,000 students in media.” “So, you must be seeing a lot of films?” “No,” she says, “they only talk. It’s only theory and history. We want to see. We’ve heard so much about Harry Smith. We want to see a Harry Smith film.” Here it’s very often the same, mostly Hollywood. But since we have about maybe 2,000 universities and colleges with film departments, and each department has 3, 4 or 5 different classes and courses, they can touch on the subject of the avant-garde and students do see some. They still rent some films from the Film-maker’s Cooperative.
I don’t know how people get interested in the avant-garde. All I know is that when we moved Anthology – we opened on 2nd Ave and 2nd St – we said, “The NYU is here and not very far away is the New School. There will be students coming.” But we discovered that they didn’t come. We are getting more students from NYU now, but it did not make a difference 10 years ago. Maybe those students who enlist in NYU film classes only want to be another [Martin] Scorsese. You see, Scorsese went there! They are only interested in narrative cinema.

Are there younger avant-garde filmmakers you’ve seen recently whom you’ve found promising, other than Virginie Marchand?
I have not seen enough to make an infored answer to that question. I see only fragments.
The interesting thing is that there have been changes and reassessments, evaluations of some of the previous generation, like Markopoulos and Robert Beavers. They were forgotten or they disappeared and did not want to be known and suddenly they came back, re-emerged from the past and become classics, even though they are dead. That I find interesting.
I found the revival of the 8mm that took place what 7 to 10 years ago very exciting. It produced a very lyrical group of films and filmmakers, using a little bit of a diaristic kind of style, but not like ’40s and ’50s avant-garde, where they were thematic things going on throughout films. Here there was, and there still is in France and here, a very open, very free flow of images that has some kind of lyrical sensibility.

Recently, I have noticed a lot of academics, and critics especially, discussing experimental film in regional terms: the Canadian film genre, or David James’ recent book on film in Los Angeles. In your experience, is this paradigm useful?
I think that discussion of regional cinemas arose parallel to the same kind of development in other arts, like painting. In the ’60s, nobody noticed that there was some other art happening on the West Coast and in other areas. It was totally eliminated by blockbusters and promotion of pop art. Now, the new generation of curators want to do justice to that and bring it back. That’s why Bruce Conner is already being noticed more; he was just a filmmaker before.
I think parallel to that is that more research is being done on American avant-garde. Before, knowledge of Canadian cinema did not exist. Now research is being done, and scholars and curators are doing the same in England and in France. There is much attention.
The Americans took over various art movements in the ’60s and ’70s. New York was art central. Even movements as big as Lettrisme and the Situationists were eclipsed, were not noticed. Only now do scholars go back. It begins to have influence years, decades, later.
There are now books on Los Angeles, on Pittsburgh, on Canadians, on different areas that were neglected. None of those filmmakers is of the stature of Brakhage or Michael Snow, but some very good filmmakers were neglected. Marie Menken was totally reduced to a second-rate lyrical poetess. Now, with the perspective of 3 or 4 decades, she is as important as any of the major figures. She influenced them all, too.

You’ve talked a little bit about technological change. And you’re also involved in this new iPod project. Do you expect these new digital technologies and so on to impact on avant-garde film strongly and how?
I don’t know if we should always now refer to it as avant-garde film, because what we are dealing with is more like the moving image arts, some of which originates and ends on video, some on computers.
A lot is being produced on video and it cannot be ignored. Film is still there, but not so much here. In Europe, filmmakers have created their own labs to develop their 8 and 16mm films. They are trying to hold on to it, but it’s just a question of time before that will go, too. The moving image arts will remain, but with new technologies.

You have been showing films and doing installations pretty frequently in Europe and France, especially in recent years. How is the avant-garde cinema scene in Europe and France different to the United States? Are people interested in different filmmakers or different aspects of avant-garde cinema?
It’s shifting from film-society screenings, university screenings and other avant-garde film-screening situations to the gallery and museum scene. Many more museums and galleries are open to film and video. It began just with video, but now they include also film. And it changes the audience. It is more the art scene than the film scene.
When one goes to the P.S.1 museum or the Whitney Museum, the Biennale as well, you see video pieces presented. If you showed them in a theatrical situation, in a little place with a screen or a monitor, they wouldn’t work the same way. They are having a conversation more with what is happening in art and painting than what is happening in cinema.
* * *
Can you describe the controversy surrounding the seizure of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963)? (below, Flaming Creatures)
The first controversial screening of Flaming Creatures took place in Belgium at the Experimental Film Festival in Knokke-le-Zoute in December ’63. I was there on the jury. I went there with Barbara Rubin and we took some other films. Before the public screening, the Festival saw the film and decided that they should not screen it to the public. So, Barbara Rubin, P. Adams Sitney and I had a press conference where we denounced the Festival. Then we decided on some guerrilla activity. I went into the projection room and took out the first reel of Brakhage’s Dog Star Man [1961] – Brakhage did not like this when I told him - and put in Flaming Creatures instead.
Later, another film was being screened in a different theatre. We managed to get into the projection room and told the projectionist that he should just stay away and that we were going to handle the situation. He said, “I cannot do this because they will fire me. Can’t you do something, like tie me up?” So we tied him with some rope around the chair. (I met the projectionist years later and he thought it was really funny.)
On stage, there was an official presentation of the awards. The Minister of Justice was talking and there we projected Flaming Creatures on his face. We could not lock the doors against all the officials who tried to stop us. We tried to hold the door but were not powerful enough. They managed to push in and stop the screening.
Then we decided to screen the film for those who were interested in our hotel room. The screening was very well attended. Agn├Ęs Varda was there, Godard was there, Roman Polanski was there. We had a very special audience. Then we came back to New York and decided to screen at the Filmmakers Showcase run by the Film-makers’ Cooperative on 28th Street. We had one show and then we announced another screening. Somebody called the owner of the theatre and before the second screening the owner cancelled the contract for the theatre. That was the end of the Filmmakers Showcase. So I made arrangements to screen it on 8th at the St Mark’s Theater. To get in, I also put on the program a little film by Andy Warhol – just one roll of film – about Jack Smith making Normal Love [1963] and also something by the Kuchars.
Ken Jacobs was the manager, Florence the ticket-taker and Jerry Sims was helping out. We were all arrested and the film seized. We spent one or two days in gaol. We were bailed thanks to Jerome Hill, who put up the money and paid all the expenses for the lawyers. The Lenny Bruce case was a month or two before us and it had destroyed him completely. We were told we needed a very good lawyer otherwise we might end up in gaol for a year or two. So Jerome got us a lawyer, Emile Zola Berman. He was known as a criminal lawyer who had not lost a case. Then without telling anybody Jerome decided to complicate the case and let us get arrested one more time. That’s when I said I would screen Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour [1950] and Flaming Creatures again. This was at the Writers’ Stage on 4th St. In the audience was a policeman and I knew we would be arrested. But I was prepared: I had a chicken sandwich in my pocket.
We were arrested and the films seized. Again we were bailed by Jerome Hill. The court procedures took place and we had witnesses in our support – Susan Sontag, Allan Ginsberg – and we lost. We were sentenced to six months of suspended sentence. Emile Zola did his job in that at least we got only a suspended sentence.
But we did not accept that and went to the Court of Appeals. We lost. Then we went to the Supreme Court in Washington, and that’s where a judge named Abe Fortas came out in support of Flaming Creatures. He made copies and distributed them to the other judges and some senators, and that caused his downfall. He was being promoted [by President Johnson] as the new Chief Justice. But they said he was a peddler of pornography and he was not appointed. The case created a big stir and was reported in all the newspapers. As a result, a year later, censorship in New York was practically abandoned. So, it was not for nothing.

So, the original case was going through New York State courts?
It was first New York City, then Albany, then Washington. We went through all the stages. And we lost it at the Supreme Court. It was not reversed.

What was the original charge?

Do you know who was pressing the prosecution?
He was the Attorney General in New York. He had become known for destroying Lenny Bruce. I forget his name now.

Was there any sense it was unusual they were bringing charges?
No, it was very normal in those days. Every film had to be approved by the license board and every screening had to be licensed if it was a public screening. And we refused to submit our films to be licensed. If you submitted them, they would say, “Cut out this, cut out that.” In the case of Flaming Creatures, half of the film would have been cut out. They were very strict. There was even a little brochure listing what should not be shown, what parts of the human body.

Of course, some people were showing pornography.
Yes, but nobody advertised it, nobody knew about it. We advertised.

Was the prosecution as much about the fact that you were advertising it as showing it?
Yes. We said, “But this is for a very limited audience, a very specific limited audience, not very general.” We did not say there would be orgies and things like that. But it was against the moral – they used the term – and prurient public interest.

Were you or your lawyers ever contacted by people showing what we would normally think of as pornography?
No. Emile Zola Berman’s office did everything not to mention anything to do with pornography. This was an art film.

Obviously you continued showing films in New York, just not those particular films.
But that was not the first problem. When the theatre was closed, when the contract was cancelled, the 8th Street Filmmakers Showcase started screening at midnight at the Bleeker Street Cinema. After the first two screenings, we were thrown out by the manager. It was not just the police. They thought we would give their theatre a bad name.

Did the police continue to monitor what you were screening?
They keep watching for a year or two until censorship started disappearing and there was some official decision that licensing of films should be abandoned in New York City. Within the next two years there was drastic change. There was a lot of discussion in the press and the public about police policies.

Was a lot of that coming from the art world or was it a more general political shift?
It was a general political shift, but also influenced by the artistic community.

The reason I ask is I find it very interesting that you lost in the Supreme Court and with a film that is clearly not pornographic in the traditional sense.
Yeah, but the official attitudes to what is pornographic have changed drastically in the past 40 years. That little brochure said very specifically that you could not show a woman’s breasts, could not show genitals. That’s where the official public moral, ethical, sexual, whatever, attitudes were in 1964. Flaming Creatures included those elements. The court decision followed the rules described officially in the laws of New York City about what could not be shown publicly.
(Un Chant d’Amour)
During the second screening, not only was Flaming Creatures seized, but Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. Genet was very well known at that time, and I thought we would have a lot of support because two of his plays were playing then in New York City, The Balcony and The Maids. He was a very respectable playwright, etc. That’s why I included Genet’s film. I was smart. But the district attorney was smart, too. He said, “Okay, we have a case of two films. They are both pornographic. But let’s say we dismiss one and don’t deal with it.” So, they dismissed Genet’s film and concentrated on Flaming Creatures, because Jack Smith was unknown. If they had kept in the Genet, we may have had a chance of winning.
I got the print of Genet’s film from Niko Patatakis, who was a filmmaker in Paris and a dear friend of Nico, the singer. Genet directed the film, but Niko sponsored it. The film was in 35mm and it was bulky. I was afraid that if I went from Paris to New York the film would be confiscated. Customs was very strict. Twice when I went came to New York from Paris I had some Olympia publications in my pocket and they were seized. So I said, “If I go to New York with this, I have no chance. I have to go first to London.” And that’s what I did. I cut the film into three pieces and put them in my raincoat pockets, and went to London. When you come from Paris, [US] Customs says, “Oh, Paris, hum, Paris.” If you come from London, well that’s more conservative and you have a chance to pass through.
I was on the plane to New York from London and I was talking with my neighbour, who happened to be the playwright [Harold] Pinter. When I told him what I had in my pockets, he said, “Maybe you should let me go first. You come after me.” So I followed him and we got to Customs and they opened Pinter’s suitcase. It was full of plays, copies of the same play. They said, “What’s this?” “Oh, it’s my play”, he said. “It’s opening on Broadway.” “Play! On Broadway!” The Customs man got so gaga, so excited, that he motioned his neighbours [fellow officers]. They all converged and were so yapping with excitement that I just passed through. And that’s how the film got in the country. If I had been by myself, I don’t know what would have happened. So, thanks Pinter!