A friend suggested recently that I revive my blog, though I seem to notice that my last 20 posts all say something to the effect of reviving my blog… which sort of begs the question of whether this endless revival contradicts the idea that it was ever dead.
Regardless, I used to have a feature called “Movie of the Week” where I would write some sentences about some film that I found particularly impressive. I still watch an inordinate amount of movies, so much so, that the streaming services are almost dead to me; there’s not much left to watch that I haven’t seen that at least *looks* interesting. Open to suggestions though!
MUBI, however, is an endless trove of cinematic gems, adding and taking away films from its catalogue almost daily. Michigan Theater members got three months free during the Covid-19 lockdown, which has been a real life saver right now. So far, I have caught up on some recent Japanese productions that I missed (that I won’t even mention since it just isn’t polite to speak ill of the dead), got to see the Ryuichi Sakamoto doc “Coda” from 2017 (which was superb) and a number of oddball Russian productions that I would have missed otherwise (Beanpole from 2019 is highly recommended).
A standout, however, was “Tehran Taboo,” a German-Austrian production by Iranian born German director Ali Soozandeh. Tehran Taboo is the story of three women and one man, navigating the complex dissonance between strict rules on sex and economic, human and social realities.
Shot in Germany and Austria using Persian speaking actors, the film is rotoscoped. That is, the visuals are traced over live actors, in the same vein as Bakshi’s 1978 production of Lord of the Rings. Rotoscoping for Tehran Taboo availed the director of having to film sensitive material in Iran. He could shoot in Germany and then simply draw over the action to create settings that at least “look” like Iran without fear of having the religious police (who are central to the film) arrest everyone involved. Aside from the practical issues the film just looks great and the animated approach brings out the immediacy of the subject matter.
Alrighty, then, there’s my blog post. I win.
I was just watching Russel Crowe’s version of the Noah story at some friends’ house. Setting all of the other absurdities of the story aside, like the impossibility of successfully saving all the animals on the earth from only a pair of each (the lions alone would decimate any chances for herbivore reproduction in days, let alone the massive problems of an extremely limited gene pool), I remembered the crux of the story.
Noah discovers grapes, learns to make wine and then proceeds to become a raging alcoholic. The movie implies that he’s drowning his sorrows over failing to kill his two female grandchildren, thus preventing God’s plan to eliminate humanity from coming to fruition.
His son Ham finds Noah drunk and sees Noah’s genitals. The 950 year old Noah then curses Ham. Noah’s three sons then move out to establish the three races of humanity, the Europeans, the Asiatics and the Africans.
Ham moves to the African continent. All Africans, then, are descended from Ham.
To racists, this would provide a great explanation for Africa’s developmental problems. Africans are suffering under an ancient curse, because a guy saw his drunk Dad’s penis.
People in the United States believe this shit. What’s scarier is that they vote.
These days, I’m pretty sensitive to the idea of Islamic militants, given that Al-Shabab seems to be successfully killing people not a stones throw from where I live and work. Honestly, as much as it pains me to say, I’d be more than happy to see some American humvees rolling into Kenya’s coast right now since the Kenyan government seems pretty useless when it comes to issues of security.
ISIS’s crusade, however, lies far from here, though ISIS’s successes could embolden Islamist groups elsewhere, though it’s difficult for me to gauge how deep the connections are between Islamist groups.
The video, however, was quite interesting. The first thing that strikes me is that the presenter is Chilean, speaking American English, representing the international nature of ISIS itself. It is not a home grown ethnic Islamist movement, struggling for historical territory and self-determination. Like it’s arch enemy Israel, it is an international movement of foreigners seeking to establish and ideological state in a foreign, based upon a self-created narrative of religious entitlement.
There are various scenes which show the host talking with other members of the group, who are clearly a hodge-podge of ethnicities and nationalities. The common language appears to be, in many cases, English, though at times it’s hard to tell.
The production values, outside of the sound, are excellent. Most striking is the use of symbols. Throughout the video, the host walks through a number of symbolic points, starting at the border of Iraq and Syria itself, to symbols of border checkpoints, military patches and signs. The message is that ISIS is exposing these symbols as empty illusions, positioning itself as the harbingers of Islam in a corrupt and empty landscape.
What’s interesting is that a young Chilean, likely raised in the US or Canada, is seen mocking much older and obviously local prisoners. He calls the Kurds Satan worshipers and mocks the Iraqi soldiers as cowards and fools.
So, how is ISIS, as an international terror group with roots in the West, any different from the corrupting Westerners they so hate? The video repeatedly appeals to Western sentiments that Sykes-Picot was the great destabilizing factor in the middle east, but it’s unclear as to how ISIS provides an avenue of self-determination to the ethnic groups who were broken up or forced to tolerate one another. Does taking the borders away liberate Sunnis and Shiites? Does ISIS respect the right of self-determination for Kurds? Clearly not.
Check out the video. It’s pretty surreal.
This question has been bothering me for a while. While it’s obvious that Godzilla would only visit Japan and the US given that the US and Japan are the only countries which make Godzilla movies, I’ve long been puzzled as to why Godzilla would visit those two exclusively. Specifically, why doesn’t Godzilla visit poor countries? (Note: I realize that Godzilla is a good guy, but ask readers to remember that he didn’t start out that way)
Certainly, the environmental devastation in poor countries is as extensive as in wealthy countries (and perhaps moreso, given the lack of financial and political resources to measure it, let alone do anything about it), making Tanzania, for example, just as much a candidate for kaiju destruction as any other.
But what would happen? First, were Godzilla appear on the shores of the coast of Kenya, he’d (is it male?) have to plow through the port of Mombasa. Godzilla may be destructive, but he’s known to follow standard immigration procedures. He’d meet little resistance, given Kenya’s lax border protection. At the worst, he’d be asked to pay $50 to stay for three months.
Mombasa isn’t a big town, so he’d be over the island and into the country in a matter a seconds, though he might consider a pleasant break on the beach. After finally eradicating Kenya’s terror problem and quashing any ideas of Mombasan separatism, he’d stroll to the Mombasa highway and lumber up to Nairobi, where the real action could start.
In contrast to Japan and the US, Godzilla would find the response by the local military to be tepid at best. A few planes might buzz around aimlessly and a couple of tanks might lob some rounds at his legs, but the military, lacking any incentive to loot cell phones or liquor would probably simply slink away in short order. Response from the African Union or the UN would be slow coming, as they’d have to wait to see if the media reacted with sufficient outrage to warrant action. The US would most certainly refuse to be involved in anything other than a support role.
Godzilla would plod through Nairobi and lay waste to the City Centre in a matter of seconds. It would be like a child stepping through a grandmothers flower garden. He’d probably quickly become bored, lacking much to topple over outside of a few unfinished apartment buildings and maybe a mall here and there. If he were after human destruction, he might take a few steps through Kibera, where he’d certainly kill a half a million people in the space of a single Godzilla breath.
After an anti-climactic fight in Nairobi, he’d have to take a break in Karen to consider what to do next. Maybe he’d move on to Kampala? Or regret his decision and move back to India? It’s hard to say.
The human costs would be incredible. A couple of million people would likely die immediately, the majority of which would be poor given the incredible density in slums like Kibera and their inability to properly evacuate from the city. The sleep inducing traffic jams are unavoidable even under normal circumstances. A manic run for the countryside by all of Nairobi would only make things worse but squatter settlements and slums would reappear within days.
In the long term, however, Godzilla’s destruction of Kenya might pay off. Massive amounts of funding would appear from a number of international sources to rebuild Nairobi’s devastated infrastructure. The Chinese would appear and immediately start rebuilding the highway system from scratch using cheap imported labor. The Americans would set about reconstructing Kenya’s likely devastated military and ports. The British would dump money into overhauling Nairobi’s failing sanitation system, long due for replacement. Kenya would get an infrastructural reboot.
On the other hand, real estate speculators would flow in like flies on roadkill, hoping for a payoff once Kenya’s economy got back on track. Where real estate prices would have crashed immediately following the destruction of Nairobi, leading to a cheap scramble for land, the current real estate boom soon again be underway. Domestic investors would now have even less incentive to develop Kenya’s manufacturing sector and the economy would hobble along as it did before.
Given the political chaos following Godzilla’s destruction of the central government, Chinese investors would grab as much agricultural land as possible, citing “gifts” of highways and football stadiums further entrenching China’s increasingly overbearing presence in the country.
In essence, Kenya, as independent state, would cease to exist.
It might be the case, however, that the destruction of Kenya’s cities might finally sway the Kenyan citizenry away from tribal politics and toward a truly democratic state. People can, and do, often surprise us, but this would be a hard, hard road given that most of the reconstruction would not be democratically determined, but rather orchestrated by World Bank and UN technocrats and Chinese land grabs. It’s clear that Kenya’s self interested leaders would do nothing to stop it.
So, conclusion? Kenya would win big in improved infrastructure, but lose big given the resultant political weakness. In the long term, Kenya might regain some of it’s political footing given improvements in the domestic economy, but it would take decades and a lot of political will to make this happen.
I finally watched this on the plane. For those who don’t know, 永遠のゼロ is a right wing film production, which tells the story of a contemporary family seeking information on their grandfather, who signed up to be a part of the Kamikaze program at the end of WWII.
I learned a couple of things by watching this movie. First, the Japanese incursion into Asia never really happened. In fact, it’s never mentioned at all. No wonder kids don’t know anything about the war. The right wing is selectively erasing it from the history books.
Second, I learned that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war with the US wasn’t a bad idea. It was a great idea, but just need to be fought smarter. If only more people had been like the heroic main character of the, the Japanese would have won. The main character isn’t worried about fighting a senseless war and that millions are dying all around him, He’s really only worried that it’s being fought badly.
The right wing in Japan and in the State have a lot in common. They selectively pick snippets of history which they like, regardless if they actually ever happened, and ignore the parts they don’t like to create a new historical narrative. This movie, aside from the generally annoying dialogue and subpar acting, works as a great propaganda piece, but not for much of anything else.
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.
And here’s mine:
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
The 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.
When 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:
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:
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: