Film #4: Upstream Color

In Upstream Color, a man and woman whose lives have been destroyed by some blue stuff attempt to regain control of their lives by defeating the foley artist who keeps pigs.

Overall rating: 1 out of 4

Here’s the catalog copy for this film:

Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being – a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

What’s supported by the film itself: the woman’s name is Kris. She meets a guy whose name we never know. The rest of the catalog synopsis came from the director’s mind and went onto the catalog page without ever touching the film itself. The catalog also says “With its muscular cinematic language rooted in the powerful yearnings felt before words can be formed, Upstream Color is entirely original, mythic, romantic…” well, there’s more, but it’s equally bullshit.

The director did get up before the film, but all he said was that he would be back up at the end of the film to apologize for it. The audience laughed, but the joke was entirely on us. I left before the Q&A after the film, so I didn’t get to hear any of his justification for a film that had both the Pirate and I asking “What just happened?” as we walked out of the theater.

It made me think about a couple of lectures I attended at the last grad school residency where we talked about the rules of writing that we have all heard, and when it’s right to break them. The thing I kept thinking is that this film was 100% show with 0% tell, which meant that there were a whole lot of places where something was happening, but the audience couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. If the filmmaker (who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited and did cinematography and music) had deigned to just TELL us what he was thinking, the way he did in the catalog blurb, it would have been a much better film.

Film #3: 99%–The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

99% took footage shot by four directors and five co-directors all over the country, interspersed with commentary that highlighted the footage.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

Before the main feature, we watched a great short – 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone). In about 10 minutes, it highlighted three women in Sierra Leone who, despite threats and the resistance of the current power structure, are fighting to get the percentage of women in government. The thing that stood out to me was the woman who talked about the need to educate women about how to organize, raise funds, prepare their families for the character assassination common in politics, create actionable agendas, etc. I wanted her to go to Egypt and to Wall Street and talk to the organizers of those movements, since she had a much more clear understanding than they did of how one is effective in politics.

As for the feature – before seeing the film, I had read a blurb in Variety that called it shapeless, but I didn’t feel that in the film. Given that there were four directors and five co-directors, the film showed more narrative cohesion than yesterday’s offering “The Square.”

The film started with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and talked about how the protesters organized themselves, but early in the film it still wasn’t clear what the protesters wanted. Several times, people talked about their individual circumstances, but “remedy my plight” does not necessarily translate to actionable policies. There was one woman whose house was being foreclosed, but nobody talked about amending foreclosure laws.

The separate pieces filmed all over the country, stitched together by thoughtful, coherent commentary by Naomi Wolf, Matt Taibbi,  and Richard Wilkinson, who talked about the organization of the movement, its aims and its victories and defeats. At the end, as a sort of ray of hope, the film offered statistics citing the number of political entities that have enacted legislation to repeal the Citizens United decision, the main cause of the current political atmosphere.

But the film didn’t change my mind about the Occupy movement as a whole, which was nicely summed up about halfway through the film by Naomi Wolf who pointed out that movements without a central leader have never succeeded.

It also brought to mind for me the number of people who, after 9/11, thought that passing the Patriot Act was the right thing to do. They were too happy to give away their civil rights in exchange for protection from terrorists. Except now that same Patriot Act is being used to justify the police actions that put down many of the Occupy demonstrations. And people are all too happy to shop at Target, Walmart, etc., but don’t understand why their jobs have dried up and their local economies have gone under. I’m hoping that more attention to the sickness of whole economic ecosystem will get people to change the behaviors that feed the corporations.

Film #2: American Promise

American Promise follows two African-American boys from first grade through high school.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

My mind was staggered at the though that parents/filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson decided to follow their son and his friend from the day they entered Dalton, one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

There’s no way a film of an acceptable length could possibly include every milestone, drama, etc., that happens in a child’s life throughout the whole of grade school and high school, but this film did a great job of bringing us into the two families. The film catalog talked specifically about the fact that one of the boys leaves Dalton and goes to another school, and the filmmakers paced the stories so well that the audience didn’t know until the decision was made who was leaving. Given that the Joe and Michéle were filming their own lives and their own parenting, it was refreshing to see how unsparing they were of themselves and their own foibles.

I also appreciated the focus on race. There was a lot of blunt talk in the film about how the two boys (and their families as well) had a hard time dealing with race. They sometimes felt that they and their children were being dealt with differently because of race, on the other hand they also said straight out that they felt more comfortable around people of their own race. It really highlighted for me some of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about race in America – if white people start the discussion they can be seen as patronizing, if black people start it they can be seen as defensive. It’s easy to sit down and have a talk with a single person, but harder to have a talk with a large group, all of whom have very different experiences.

According to Michéle, the film will be appearing on PBS later on this year, and I hope that it receives a wide audience. It deserves one.

Film #1: The Square

The Square (Al Midan) tracked five Egyptian revolutionaries from immediately before the fall of Hosni Mubarek until December of 2012.

Overall rating: 2 out of 4

Early in the film, we are introduced to five different people – real Egyptians, really involved in the struggle for a truly democratic government. One was a woman whose occupation and/or qualifications weren’t clear (we were only ever given her name, and only once). One was an actor whose father appeared to also be involved in Egyptian media (although not 100% certain it was his father, although there was a strong resemblance). One was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. One appeared to be a student, although again, his occupation wasn’t given. One was a soldier who did nothing but toe the party line.

The film followed these people from the day that Mubarek stepped down and many Egyptians thought their revolution was over, to the realization that, although Mubarek was gone, they had not achieved their aims of democracy and freedom. The military took over and began issuing orders to the civilian population, restricting their freedoms and occasionally clashing with them, then, when elections were finally held, many people felt that the results of those elections weren’t indicative of the actual wishes of the people.

The filmmakers literally risked their lives, as much of the footage was taken from sites where the military was attacking civilians. Several of the subjects of the film were wounded in the 2 years of filming during various encounters with the military. The action was certainly dramatic.

The film really fell down because there was no cohesive narrative to tie it all together. We began at a very high point – the deposition of Mubarek, when all the subjects celebrated their first victory and felt that the country had come together to achieve something great. Over the next two hours, though, we went from the emotionally high point of Mubarek’s defeat to the realization that the military leaders were lying to the people and curtailing their freedoms, then to the realization that the revolution had lost its coherent center, then to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the political chaos created by the revolution to step in and seize power. By the end of the film, the people we were following seemed confused and defeated.

I feel that, even in a documentary where you’re filming things that are actually happening and where you may need to film a great deal before you can get a sense of what the “what” really is, you have to have some kind of narrative. Humans, as my own research keep saying, love a pattern. Sadly, war is precisely a breakdown of established patterns, so filming and making sense of warlike events is a special talent. One that, I’m afraid, this director is still perfecting.

Great for understanding what’s going on in Egypt. Certainly thought-provoking for me personally as I equate a lot of what Egyptians are fighting for with a lot of what the Occupy movement is fighting for. We’ll see how it stands up to tomorrow’s offering about Occupy Wall Street.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.

Harder Than It Looks

I’ve done it. I’ve come out to the world. I’ve said it in public and can’t take it back now.

I can fly.

I’ve been able to do it for ages. It’s hard to describe how it works, really. You just sort of jump and then keep going. Steering is all about using your core. You have to have a strong core if you want to fly gracefully. Pilates helps. Fear of falling a very long way helps even more.

When I first told everyone, we’d been hiking all day and had made it to a spot on South Mountain from which you could see the southernmost reaches of Phoenix on the opposite side from downtown. You could actually see where the line of the city ends and the reservation begins. A stark line with slightly down-at-heel suburban stucco housing developments on one side and bare earth on the other.

We were taking turns taking each other’s picture on top of a rock overlooking the view and I said “Hey, guys! I can fly!”  Of course everyone laughed, but Trudy did the stupidest thing. She pushed me.

It took me by surprise, and I fell a good 50 feet before I turned over and surged upward, describing a graceful arc back to where everyone else stood transfixed.

When I landed, everyone was stunned, but I was fuming.

“Trudy, what was that? If I had just been joking, you would have killed me. I would have gone tumbling off the cliff and died. Why did you push me?”

“Lighten up!” Dave said. “You weren’t hurt! You can fly! She didn’t do anything to you!”

“Hey, take me up! I’ll just climb on your back,” Perdy said, and came scrambling up the rock. I hopped down.

“I can’t carry anyone. You’re too heavy,” I said.

“I’m too heavy?” Perdy said, looking hurt. “Look who’s calling me too heavy! You’d think that if you can pull that carcass through the air, you could take little me.”

The rest of the hike back down was really uncomfortable. Trudy acted all hurt because I’d yelled at her, and everyone petted and coddled her as though she were the one who’d been wronged. They immediately treated me as though, by flying, I had done something mean and distasteful, like pulling a crude practical joke.

Lesson #1: People won’t be glad for you.

Flying feels wonderful. Having the wind rushing through my hair, being able to see for miles. That’s really nice. Then again, the higher I go, the colder it is. And when I’m really zipping along, the wind cuts right through my clothes. It’s also tough to find good flying clothes. If they’re too baggy, they flap uncomfortably against my skin. If they’re too tight, they restrict my movement. If they’re too heavy, flying becomes more chore than joy. I’ve settled on that high-tech long underwear that’s made out of plasticky miracle fabrics, and I only put it on when I want to fly.

I look ridiculous. I mean, there’s no disguising my big butt. And there’s especially no disguising it in something that looks like a Superman costume (minus the cape – what the hell was the cape for?). I already knew I looked like an idiot, but Trudy, Dave, Perdy and Karen were all happy to remind me.

I’d pretty much stopped hanging around them. They acted like I’d started flying just to have one up on them, and stopped inviting me out to do regular stuff. I was out flying around because I didn’t have anyone to go to the movies with when they spotted me. I was cruising close to the ground and I heard the familiar sound of their raucous laughter. I landed near where they were picnicking at El Dorado Park, and they immediately started making fun of my outfit.

“You look like 10 pounds of sausage stuffed into a 5 pound casing,” Perdy said.

“You’d think flying would be more aerobic, you know? I would think it would make you lose some weight,” Trudy said, taking a huge bite of sandwich.

I hadn’t said a word, and before the tears could spring to my eyes, I flew off as Dave was saying something I didn’t hear.

Lesson #2: Real people should not dress like superheroes.

It started with getting kittens out of trees. I did it for a while, too, until it was the same kitten for about the sixth time, and I was on my way to a hair appointment and the woman got really nasty.

“But she’s been up there for hours,” she whined.

“Then another hour and a half won’t hurt.”

“It won’t take you five minutes!”

“You’re ten minutes in the opposite direction from my hair appointment. Look, I can’t do it. And you know what? If you just leave her alone, she’ll get out of the tree all by herself.”

“Well, you’re the shittiest superhero I ever heard of,” the woman said before hanging up on me.

I stopped answering my phone after that. Who said I was a superhero? I certainly didn’t. I can’t carry anything heavy when I fly, so it’s not like I can fly up into the mountains and rescue stranded hikers or save airplanes from falling out of the sky. I’m not impervious to injury, as I find out practically every time I’m in the kitchen. And yet, because I can fly, people assume that I have a whole host of other unusual powers.

The chief of police asked me to infiltrate a drug ring. He wanted me to fly around the desert until I found where their big distribution point was, then tell the cops. I told him that I was scared of being seen as I flew around, and that the drug dealers would shoot me, if not right then, after I got home, since there’s nobody else I could be mistaken for. He told me I should turn invisible. When I asked him how I should do that, he acted like I was just being difficult.

The authorities have stopped trying to make use of my particular strength and have taken to just harassing me. I got in trouble for flying without filing a flight plan, but I beat that because I pointed out that the FAA regulates aircraft, and I don’t possess any kind of aircraft. Now they just hang around me when I’m doing normal stuff and ticket me all the time for things like parking too far away from the curb and going 36 in a 35 zone.

Lesson #3: If people can’t use you, they have no use for you.

I’m waiting for that part of my movie where the other people with superpowers show up and take me into the fold. I need someone to tell me how this works. How do I make friends with normal people again? How do I live a normal life? How can I make it through another day without feeling so lonely I just want to fly off the Earth entirely and die? Super my ass.

Neither Love Nor Money

I went to the drug store this evening looking for those plastic scouring-pad things you use on your face. I normally get them in boxes of six, and I use each one until it’s smashed flat and has no fight to it – about two months or so. This particular pharmacy was the most rinky-dink, low-rent, sad-ass operation I’ve ever seen. Their “skin care” aisle was, to be fair, an entire aisle. But there was only one, perhaps two, but no more than four, of each product on the shelf. And they were spaced a hand’s breadth apart. They had one single sad little teardrop-shaped facial cleansing pad in a box for $4.79. I stood there and stared at it for a minute. Because what I’m used to getting is much, much less expensive.

There was not a single instance of another brand of the same product, no similar products. But you know what I did find? Facial cleansing wipes. I won’t even link to them, mostly because if you Google that particular phrase you get over two million results. Which is about how many brands of the things that store had.

Living in northern California, I feel that I’m constantly being bombarded with the message that human beings are killing the planet with their unending appetite for more consumer goods. I’m inundated with the message that I need to consume less, recycle more, be creative about what I use. And yet, the second I step into any consumer good emporium, the message is not just that I must consume more, but that each purchase I make must be made out of the most material it can possibly use. I can’t buy an aseptic quart box of milk (one that can sit on a shelf without refrigeration before it’s opened), but I can buy four tiny aseptic boxes that are then wrapped in more plastic to keep them all together for more than it would cost to buy a regular plastic gallon jug of milk. People still buy disposable diapers, and then they buy those monstrous contraptions that wraps each plastic diaper in more plastic. Now it’s washing our face. I like just buying some face soap and either using my ancient plastic scrubber thingie or a regular wash cloth and washing my face with it, but obviously, I’m not doing it right if, at the end of every process, I don’t have something to throw away.

Some day soon, we’re going to look back on all the shit we threw away, and wonder “what the hell were we thinking?” It’ll be a day when you won’t be able to get any of this stuff for love nor money, and that day is not far off.