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US Bombing of Laos: 1965 -1973: I was there first

Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.

Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.

However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

Elysium: South Africa Light

Elysium-imax-poster-matt-damonLast night, I watched Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction opus Elysium, which was about as underwhelming as his previous work, “District 9.”

Though most American viewers will miss it, it’s impossible to watch Elysium without thinking of South Africa. Elysium is the name of a giant gated community in the sky that we mostly don’t get to see. The residents of Elysium live in huge mansions, complete with swimming pools and trimmed lawns. Most salient to the story is their access to medical care which allows them to live forever.

Elysium is propped up by a single corporation, which manufactures robots for use on Elysium as servants, and as security on Earth below. Our hero Max is a shanty town dweller and former criminal who works on an assembly ling of one of the factories. He gets hit with a lethal dose of radioactivity, and must get to Elysium to get medical care or die in five days.

Fine. What’s striking is all of the references to South Africa’s apartheid government, which propped up state protected private monopolies to keep and consolidate power for the white minority, while insuring a steady flow of cheap and disposable labor.

Max’s nemesis is the hulking Kruger, the only obvious South African of the film. We see him enjoying African BBQ and drinking Castle Lager, an obvious allusion to the South African 32 Battalion, sent to fight the communists in Angola and along the Namibian border during the 70′s and 80′s. In fact, his spaceship (?) has a (current) South African flag emblazoned on it.

The most despicable character of the film is dressed up to emulate IMF chairman Christine LaGarde. Oddly, Ms. LaGarde has deviated from her more mundane duties of monetary policy and gone militaristic, happily shooting down ships filled with crippled children looking for medical care.

In the end, the computer controlled hegemony of Elysium is toppled, though, not through the collective uprising and political struggle of the poor majority, but through the nameless efforts of a smuggler. Blomkamp, for all his detailed references to South Africa’s history, delivers it a cheap shot by excluding this important detail.

Of interest, though, is the final move from a designed state protected private economy, to a presumably socialist economy, where health care is available for all. While I like the move to freely available and quality health care for all, it’s odd that the film doesn’t do much to address how the economy is to move forward.

But the economic questions are the most perplexing of the movie, but then the economy of the South African apartheid government and even the present government are perhaps equally bizarre. Why would even the most wealthy concentrate all their wealth into a single, non-competitive space? We can assume that the wealthy in Elysium are obtaining socialist kick backs from their oppressive form of government, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that someone on Elysium wouldn’t go it alone and seek other opportunities. In this sense, the people are Elysium are at least as oppressed as those on Earth. You’d wonder how they’d put up with it. Wouldn’t someone get bored?

Also, with so many humans on Earth, you’d assume that someone might think of this as a major opportunity for investment. It’s pretty clear that the people on Elysium don’t have to use cash, but on Earth, the potential for grass roots markets seems limitless. One of the main characters of the film has tapped into the market of smuggling people up to Elysium for medical care. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive on Earth. Wouldn’t someone on Elysium try to tap into this, reacting to market demand and helping people at the same time? This was certainly the story in expanding access to HIV antiretrovirals in Africa (in a really, really simple sense, don’t flame me, man!). There’s no reason to assume the same wouldn’t play out here.

But that’s asking too much, and I digress.

Elysium’s two dimensionality is really what hobbles the film. Like District 9, what could have been a really clever allegory for unequal societies and the structural problems which produce and support them, Elysium fades off into a bland world of polarized, Hollywood science fiction. It fails to explore how humans push back against inequality and fails to educate its audience as to what it all means. Blomkamp clearly understands the issues. Hopefully, he’ll deliver the goods next time.

Movie of the Week: 三里塚 第二砦の人々 (Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress) (Dir: 小川紳介 Ogawa Sinsuke) 1971

kikujiro2_04The University of Michigan is hosting a series of films from Japanese documentary film production group, Ogawa Productions. Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress” for the first time.

Narita airport was built on agricultural land claimed through eminent domain. Some of the residents, who were nearly all peasant families, sold early on and left. A number of families, however, feeling slighted by the Japanese government’s unwillingness to engage them in dialogue, stayed and fought.

This was no sit in protest, but a violent confrontation of peasants against government and private forces. The peasants built elaborate fortresses to prevent construction on the land, deep tunnels to hide in , and used spears, molotov cocktails and hurled projectiles to protect themselves. The Zengakuren (an anarchist group similar to America’s SDS) maintained the front lines armed with spears and throwing stones at riot police.

The entire scene is filmed like a grand Kurosawa epic. Armed forces besiege a well defended fortress on a hill top, while troops on the ground go toe to toe in battle. The riot police were clearly unprepared for the level of violent resistance they encountered and retreat more than once. In desperation, the Japanese government hires non-locals (at a rate of 20,000 yen a day, presumably to minimize liabilities and accountability) to charge in on their behalf.

A few questions came to mind. First, where did the non-locals come from? I’m wondering if they were hired from the day laborer slums of Kamagasaki and Sanya, again illustrating the complex relationship between anti-social dropouts and the State. Day laborers are simultaneously marginalized by the State and completely necessary to its survival. Even as recently as 2011, despite decades of exclusions and abuse, the Japanese government called upon day laborers in Kamagasaki to clean up Fukushima (again for 20,000 yen a day), presumably since few would care about the threats to their health.

Second, the Zengakuren play a major role in defending the fortress. It is mentioned during the film that the Socialist Party of Japan (社会党) initially involved itself, acting on the behalf of the farmers, but at some point during the five year struggle, became disinterested. It was mentioned by others that the Communist Party of Japan (共産党)was also involved. As I was watching the film, I was wondering how the situation could have become as extreme as it did, and though that these political actors might have agitated the farmers to move to more and more extreme methods. If that was the case, then the farmers might have been mere political pawns for an anti-establishment agenda. Though the Zengakuren obviously stuck it out to the bitter end, I’m wondering if they too might have self-servingly exacerbated the situation.

While Ogawa takes time and care to film and interview the farmers, both individually and as a group, not a single member of the Zengakuren speak for the entirely of the film. In fact, Ogawa never even shows them in close-up. Not only do we not know what they think, we don’t even know what they look like. Even more mysterious are the large crowds of bystanders, which are shown only through holes in the barricades the farmers have constructed or on the tops of hills in the distance. We actually know more about the riot police than any of the Zengakuren.

Third, and a minor point, the farmers had set up a tower with which to broadcast inspirational leftist music and speeches to the riot police and bystanders. It’s not clear why the riot police didn’t knock the largely unguarded tower out immediately. Also, though the film is incredibly violent, one has to wonder how much of the violence is performance. All sides had ample opportunity to kill and injure people, but, miraculously, only a handful of people were killed.

kikujiro2_04When farmer ladies are chaining themselves to trees to prevent airport crews from entering, they make a big production out of wrapping the chains around their neck, but have arranged them in such a way that one would merely have to bend down a bit to break free. One has to question how serious the farmers were, and how much of the fighting they preferred to leave to the Zengakuren, and whether they wanted the anarchists there at all. Though some of the farmers suggest directly engaging the riot police at one point, it is clear that there isn’t much consensus on how violent they were willing to become.

The relationship of the farmers, who prior to the planned building of the airport had likely lived in relative isolation from the rest of Japan, to the outside political upheaval of Japan is perhaps the most interesting part of the film. Though the farmers are very serious about protecting their land and continuing their lifestyles, they seem rather ambivalent to Japan’s political problems, but are regardless resigned to become a part of them.

As with many documentaries from Japan, it’s unclear how sympathetic the film’s producers are to the subjects they have chosen. On the one hand, Ogawa seems to want to advocate on behalf of the farmers, but on the other, he spends much time showing them as isolated and slightly naive. He makes no attempt to deny the futility of their cause.

“People of the Second Fortress” is a fantastic film. The producers risked their lives to make the film. Miraculously, the camera wasn’t smashed during filming.

Here are some great pictures from that time.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of “People of the Second Fortress,” but here is an extended clip of one of the films from the same series:

Iimura Takahiko, Media Artist

We went out and saw a set of movies last night by experimental filmmaker, Iimura Takahiko, part of a series of film events sponsored by the Studies and Observation Group in Ann Arbor.

Iimura, now in his late 70′s, was an influential media artist who had worked with Yoko Ono, long before she became famous for breaking up the Beatles and Fluxus artist, Takehisa Kosugi. iimura has written a number of books on media arts and produced countless films.

It had been a really long time since I’d sat and watched films run through a projector. It’s a pleasant experience listening to sound of the projector whirring through it. Having to wait while the projectionist fixes the feed makes it even better.

Mostly, being at the event is like entering some weird counterfactual to my present life. I had originally intended to go to graduate school to pursue cinema studies, with a particular interest in Japanese film. That didn’t happen and as a result I have a rough time keeping up with discussions on the humanities. I will simply have to work harder.

Unfortunately, my favorite of the films shown last night isn’t on YouTube. Maybe Iimura isn’t so keen on making this works known on the internet? That would seem rather odd. Here are some others:

Donald Richie, RIP

Donald Richie

Donald Richie

Sometime in 1993, I became interested in Japanese cinema. To date, I’m still not sure why, but it happened nonetheless. I picked up a large tome, “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,” for a discount while I was working at a local bookstore. That book was written in 1959 by a Mr. Donald Richie, who, it turns out, was teaching a class at the University of Michigan, where I was enrolled. It was too late to add the course to my schedule, but I went anyway, listened to the first lecture and was immediately hooked.

I approached Mr. Richie after class and asked him if it would be alright if I sat in on the class. He looked a bit distressed and asked if I would be doing the course work. I said that didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to come to the course every week and listen to his lectures.

Richie loved the Japanese cinema. His lecture style was so un-alienating that one couldn’t help but love it, too. He would present the films in a manner that made them entirely foreign and unique products of the particular culture that produced, but simultaneously fit them squarely in a worldwide tradition of movies. He would present his lecture on the movie of the week, then we would watch the film in a theater, where he would deliver an abridged version of his Tuesday lecture for people who didn’t have the pleasure of attending his class. I think I learned more about art, cinema, media, culture, social science, the humanities and politics in that one 7 week course that I did in the entire remainder of my undergraduate education.

The time for the first mid term came, and I sat for it. Richie came up to me again with a distressed look on his face and stuttered, “A-a-are you taking this c-course for c-c-credit?” I said no, but asked him if I could take the exam anyway. He looked stressed but said yes, no problem. The following week, when he passed back the exams, he had thoughtfully commented on my work, writing more than a page of notes, ending with “If I were grading this, I would give you an A+. Good work.” When the time for the final exam came, the entire incident was repeated. To this day, I’m not sure why my not officially signing up for the course stressed him so. Perhaps he had too many students. I would like to think that he was trying to be meticulous and follow the rules to the letter, which was rather uncharacteristic of a man who flouted so many rules in his lifetime. Perhaps Japan had rubbed off on him more than he cared to consider (though there was no sucking of air through teeth).

I would see him on the street and he would always say hello. I regret not engaging him more while he was there, but it’s hard to just approach someone when you’re a starstruck kid. I later learned that he had a terrible time in Michigan, mainly because the stodgy faculty in the Japanese studies department would take him out on the town in neighboring Ypsilanti. I wish I would have known.

Shortly after that, I became more and more immersed in Japanese cinema studies and decided that I wanted to go to Japan and eventually pursue a graduate degree in the field (I didn’t do the latter). I arranged for a job teaching English conversation in Osaka (with the help of a friend), and left for Japan in November of 1996. It was there that I started speaking Japanese on a daily basis, and met my wife, who still puts up with my abhorrent command of the language.

If I had not taken Richie’s course, I don’t think I would have gone to Japan. It can’t be said that life would have been better or worse had I not gone, but it certainly would have been very different, and probably a little less interesting and certainly minus a life partner. For this, I am entirely grateful for Donald Richie’s existence and wholly sad for a great man’s passing.

Richie made experimental films in the 1960′s. This is one of them:

Kenya Submits Film to Oscars

half-life1Kenya has made its first entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 85th Academy Awards. “Nairobi Half Life,” directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, is the story of the criminal underworld of Nairobi.

Nairobi is famous for suffering from a deep seated problem of petty and organized crime. Carjackings, pickpockets and cel-phone grabs are common. Gitonga set out to make a film about these criminals, who often come from the villages, seeking opportunities in the city.

The addition of a Kenyan film to the Oscar rolls is momentous. To date, few countries have ever submitted. Most of the submissions come either from northern Africa or South Africa, though there have been submissions from Cameroon and Senegal.

Nigeria’s film industry is massive, but the low quality and disposable nature of production doesn’t produce Oscar material. Kenya has struggled to carve out a cinematic space for itself. Notable is the Kenyan International Film Festival, which has been bringing films to Kenya and showcasing Kenyan made films since 2006.

From the trailer, “Nairobi Half Life” looks great. I can’t wait to see the whole thing. Josephy Warimu, the star, has already won the award for best actor at the 33rd Durban International Film Festival.

James Bond and Economics: Shaken and Stirred

James Bond, closet Keynsian

Over my nearly 40 years of watching James Bond movies, it wasn’t until recently that I picked up on what it all meant.

James Bond, a talented 00 agent in MI6, gets sent the world over to thwart the nefarious plans of mad geniuses hell bent on world domination, all the while bagging beautiful women and downing martini after martini. That much is clear.

What was not clear to me, was the deep economic and political significance of the series. The Economist recently ran a blog post on 2006′s Casino Royale as an allegory for the financial meltdown, despite the fact that it appeared two years before.

Le Chiffre, a opportunistic genius who finances international terrorism for profit comes up with an infallible plan to short sell rapidly rising stocks in a airline company, destroy a highly anticipated prototype, then profit off the subsequent crash in stock prices. He does this by investing money that is not his own. The plan, of course, fails, and the “genius” plans to win it all back through a poker game.

This could have been pulled from the playbook of every alcoholic and gambling addict out there. Genius, indeed, but little different from the irresponsible and desperate behavior of market players as the American economic bubble was crashing.

Interestingly, Bond himself, through a couple of poorly planned strategies loses everything and appeals to the Treasury of the United Kingdom (taxpayers) to bail him out. The Treasury rightly refuses, unlike the Government of the United States. Instead of saying no, the US bailed out some of the worst offenders in the banking crisis, effectively rewarding them for gambling stupidly.

Of course, Bond has little to fear. The $50 million dollars that Bond needs is secretly offered up by the Americans as long as they are able to take the credit for the win. This exchange underlines the complex relationship between the UK and the US. Britain, once the largest power in the world, now relies on bailouts from the former colony when it makes stupid mistakes. Amazing.

The villains of the bond world distinguish themselves by not being power-hungry-insecure-would-be-despots (such as the Asgardian Loki in the recent movie the Avengers), but rather as shrewd financial schemers, who wish to manipulate the market to securely enrich themselves.

In this manner, they are no different than food speculators on Wall Street (the gold manipulation scheme in Goldfinger), and not out of step with the ever more obvious trend of the mass privatization of that which should be a public good (see the water scheme in Quantum of Solace).

Of course, not all of these villains are supply siders like the plan to control the worlds solar energy in The Man with the Golden Gun (of course, this ignores the possibility someone else might redevelop the technology and enter the market). Dr. Kananga in Live and Let Die sought to create market demand for his product by getting restaurant patrons hooked on heroin.

The economic depth of 007 was certainly lost of me until I started digging. Truthfully, I really didn’t know what a stock short sale was, but now I do. Perhaps instead of reading wordy economic tomes, we might just make students rewatch Bond movies? It would certainly be more entertaining.

The Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories

Today, I’m sitting in on the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories symposium, a research dissemination event bringing film scholars working in the field of East Asian cinema.

While I don’t speak the same academic language as many of the presenters, it’s enjoyable to be here and see so many people working diligently on a subject as obscure as East Asian cinematic history. It is fascinating to sit and listen to discussions of Japanese colonial cinema, the philosophy of Maeda Ai, and Chinese literary giant Lu Xun’s “amateur” analysis of an obscure Japanese writer’s 1941 work on Democracy and cinema. Wow.

As always, I am struck as the paucity of discussions of modern cinematic and artistic history. I remember when I was an undergrad, studying German literature and cinema, being frustrated by the seeming reluctance of academics to work with current literatures and cinemas. While it is certainly safe to work in spaces where philosophies and criticisms are recorded, accepted and preciously interpreted, academic thought cannot progress by resting forever on the laurels of Foucault, Derrida and what academic libraries are willing to provide shelf space for. Admittedly, this impression is entirely based on the limited number of presentations I have seen to this point and likely not fair to those whose work I am not so familiar with, but this impression is what sticks.

Orignally, I had intended to go to graduate school in the humanities, specifically in Japanese film studies. Life, of course, got in the way and things turned out differently. I am most satisfied with the ways things turned out, but I am happy to have a background in the humanities. I often question to utility of segregating academics into the disciplines, the borders between which are often artificial and created for reasons other than academics. I find that we have much to offer one another, though little opportunity to interact. For someone as intellectually schizophrenic (if that can be considered a positive) as myself, I think that’s a shame.

Tonight, Ozu’s Tokyo no Yado, a Japanese silent, will be shown to live musical accompaniment and dialogue performed by a practicing benshi. Before talkies, silent films in Japan were narrated live. Often the narrators (benshi) were more popular than the movies themselves. Kataoka Ichirou is one of 15 practicing benshi in Japan and is visiting Ann Arbor for the next six months. I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly last night. Hopefully I will be able to interview him before he leaves.

Movie of the Week: “Viva Riva” (Democratic Rep. of Congo, 2010)

In “Viva Riva” Congolese director Djo Munga presents a gritty tale of stolen gasoline, African international organized crime and a society in chaos. Riva is a petty criminal who has appropriated a truckload of gasoline from an Angolan crime group. The DRC, like most African countries, is in the midst of a fuel crisis, not having enough foreign exchange with which to buy fuel, poor transportation infrastructure with which to ship it, and a corrupt political system which fails to address the underlying problems which contribute to both. Consequently, gasoline brought in on the black market can fetch more than $10 a liter and fuels (no pun intended) a deep culture of criminal activity.

Munga follows Riva as he gavalants through Kinshasa, visiting the deepest slums, crumbling mansions occupied by Congolese crime lords, families ravaged by the male pursuit of money and status, corrupt but well meaning government officers straddling a knife’s blade of professional and family obligations, desperate women who sell their bodies for survival, the shifting priorities of morality and money and the ubiquitous violence which plagues this vast country.

Viva Riva is an honest though stylistic portrait of a troubled country, shot, unfortunately, not with cell phones (as in his previous “Congo in Four Acts“) but with expensive digicam equipment. The big budget (by African standards) production values unfortunately work against this film’s gritty message, giving it a look that is more appropriate for straight to DVD exploitation features. Despite this, it is clear that Munga seeks to make a political statement while creating a piece that will satisfy viewers looking for gobs of sex and violent action. The most effectively shot scenes of the movie are the candid documentary style depictions of long lines of cars waiting for fuel and shots from cars while driving through Kinshasa at night. The actors in the foreground, unfortunately, take away from this reality.

Movie of the Week: “Touki Bouki” (1973)

I’m short on time recently, so, rather than not post at all, I’ll revive my long neglected “Movie of the Week” feature (that died due to being widely ignored) and present one of my now favorite movies. “Touki Bouki” is a avant garde production from Senegalese director and writer Djibril Diop Mambéty. Made for less than $30,000 in 1973, Mambety tells the story of Mory and Anta, a pair of lovers seeking to escape Senegal for a romanticised France.

The film is less of a story, and more of a surreal patchwork of pictures of life in Senegal and insight into the complicated hopes and dreams of a colonized people. France represents a mythical place of prosperity and freedom, though life in Senegal is portrayed as frighteningly real. Mory is a petty criminal who rides around his hometown on a motorcycle decorated with the horns of a bull, and it universally hated and respected by everyone around him. He attempts to get the money to leave Senegal by robbing a gay politician, buys some clothes, steals his car and wins the admiration of the community by throwing money around.

Despite having little experience with film, Mambety’s cinematography is strikingly vivid, a collection of seemingly disconnected scenes shot in full vibrant color, possibly representing the confused and disjointed nature of Senegalese identity post colonialism.

I’m a great fan of African cinema, and this has to be among the best.

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