04 November 2011

Love Crazy

When asked about the existence of a higher power, renowned astrophysicist and cynosure talk show guest, Neil deGrasse Tyson, penetratingly responded:  "Every account of a higher power that I've seen described, of all religions that I've seen include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence."  Scaling down to earthly matters, Drake Doremus' film, Like Crazy, suggests the universe cruelly conspires against lasting romance, too.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play Jacob and Anna, two attractive but unassuming college students who fall in love their senior year.  Their courtship is sweetly innocent yet admiringly mature; against the backdrop of Los Angeles sprawl, they create a small intimate and idyllic world for themselves.  Complications arise when Anna, a British national, can't bear to leave Jacob and overstays her student visa.  A seemingly harmless indiscretion that nevertheless sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to their ending up eight time zones apart. 

The story is fairly simple and familiar.  As anyone who has attempted a long-distance relationship knows all too well, a labour of love rapidly devolves into awkward phone calls, histrionic text messages, crossed schedules, and, inevitably, new paramours.  Doremus, who co-wrote and directed the film, based the story on his own experiences battling immigration officials to reunite with his Austrian girlfriend, never allows the script to interfere with the business of storytelling.  He relies on his actors to express the characters' emotions via non-verbal cues.  To round off the experience of the personal, Doremus injects smartly placed expressionistic cinematography to convey the abstractions of anticipation, loneliness, and nostalgia.  The result is a crafted and memorable little film that resists Hollywood convention and strongly speaks to the stubborn perseverance of love, while reminding us how tenuous romance can be.

12 October 2011

The Plot Against Americans

In 2004, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, a harrowing alternate historical novel describing a family's downfall as America is overrun by Nazi-aligned fascism.  In light of Hitler's phoenix-like ascension, a noticeable contingent of public figures feared inevitable conflict a mere two decades after the devastation of The Great War.  In Europe, this was highlighted by appeasement.  In America, isolationism suddenly became the cause du jour, led by none other than by a bona fide American hero, Charles Lindbergh.  Roth imagined a nightmare:  what if in 1940prior to Pearl Harbor, prior to American military engagementLindbergh ran for President on an anti-war, isolationist platform and roundly defeated Roosevelt?

Within days of his inauguration, Lindbergh signs an "understanding" with Hitler essentially guaranteeing America's non-involvement in the "European War."  Japan, in turn, is given free reign in the Pacific theater as long it doesn't attack US interests.  Slowly but most assuredly, mirroring its newfound Third Reich cousin, the Lindbergh administration begins to implement anti-Semitic policies which incrementally undermine and marginalize America's Jewish community.  Those brave enough to protest against President Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic policies are mocked as paranoid, and if they persist, shamed by epithets like, "Loudmouth Jew!"  America is hijacked by fascism.

Roth's conceit is a nightmare, a far-fetched one for sure, but its core elements are grounded in feasible reality.  It is precisely these apparatuses of a coup d'état which Roth capitalizes on to craft his frightening tale, and against which the participants of the Occupy Movement are now protesting.  I heard an interview last week where one protestor was asked, "Are you here because you believe the American Dream is dead?"  The 20-something ingénue with a 20-dollar bill taped over his mouth answered affirmatively.  The American Dream is not dead, it has just been hijacked by avarice.  If I had to put a name to it, I'd call it financialism. 

One of the more fascinating aspects of Plot is that since his first novel Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Roth has cultivated an illustrious career out of ridiculing old-world Jewish paranoia, openly ridiculing mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and grandfathers who are convinced pogrom-minded goyyim are around every corner.  America is the land of opportunity and liberty, of secular egalitarianism.  In Plot, however, he proffers a horrifying reality where all those fears are not just hinted upon, but fully realized.  

In recent times, the onus of public derision falls upon the government.  Condemning the government has become the trendy political move by candidates in a bid to garner support.  For many, the government is the enemy of the people.  It's true, government acquiescence to big business plays a major role in this crisis.  But it's not government using your grandmother's retirement fund to bet against toxic derivatives, it's the greedheads, the captains of the financial industry, characterized by the umbrella term, Wall Street.  Wall Street, to borrow one of my favorite Dylan lines, philosophizes disgrace and criticizes our fears.  They tell us that without them the whole world economy will fall apart; they tell us they shouldn't be punished for their own success (or their failures either, apparently); they tell us what they do is too complicated and convoluted for us to understand; they tell us to stop whining and get a job; they tell us to trust them.  

What Wall Street has done, in actuality, is wage an all-out war on the middle class, directly attacking the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this country was founded upon.  Instead of sacrificing, they've doubled-down.  Instead of compromise, they've inculcated themselves even deeper.  Wall Street's utter intransigence to any view but their own belies their antisocial agenda.  This generation will be the first generation in American history who will be less affluent than their parents. There is something insidiously repugnant about that: collective financial filicide.  For most, the concepts of empathy, acceptance, community, compassion, are virtues to be celebrated, for Wall Street, they are contemptible objects of scorn meant to be ridiculed.

Opponents of the Occupy Movement deride it as a rabble of stoners, losers, lazies, and wannabe hippies nostalgic for a bygone protest era, who have nothing better to do with their time.  They criticize the movement for having no stated goals or demands.  What those critics fail to understand is the lack of definitive goals is the entire point of the whole thing.  This isn't a protest for racial or gender equality, this is a general protest against a corrupt system; financial repression doesn't discriminate.  This is a protest against the denigration of American morality, of the subversion of American culture.  If this were Shakespeare, the protestors would be Hamlet and Wall Street would be Claudius, the villainous uncle muscling in on the throne.  The protesters are protesting not because they are envious of those who are successful, like Herman Cain would have you believe, but because they earned an education (incurring massive debt in the process), they went through all the motions, the believed in the inherent rectitude of the system, and now they're being cruelly shut out from their American Dream.  Wall Street has taken the ultimate meritocracy, usurped it, and created the ultimate plutocracy.  You can fool some people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

The titans of the financial industry think we're all just as selfish as they are.  They think eventually the natural inertia of apathy and complacency will take hold and the Occupy Movement will recede into faded memory.  They think we're all extremely stupid.  What they don't realize is that they've left us with nothing, and when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

22 September 2011

For All Debts - Public and Private

The Debt
is a movie about choices.  According to elementary economics, every choice has an associated opportunity cost - or the consequence of choosing one action over another.  I can choose to lie on my résumé to get a job, but I'll risk being exposed as a fraud if I'm tasked to perform a duty in which I claimed to be an expert. In The Debt, based on an Israeli movie from 2007 of the same name, each character makes a choice, for varying reasons, and eventually they each have to confront those choices much later in life.

Inhabiting the same secretive and morally charged world of 2005's Munich, The Debt begins in 1997 Israel as an author, being lauded for her new book, describes the heroic actions of a group of Mossad agents thirty years prior.  It just so happens that the author's parents, played adeptly by Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, were part of the three person team that captured and killed notorious Nazi doctor, "The Surgeon of Birkenau," (clearly based on Josef Mengele) in early 1960s East Berlin.  However, Mirren's scowl whilst her daughter regales her heroic story belies a profound conflict.  The film seamlessly takes us back to the tense-filled weeks and months as the team prepares and carries out the dangerous operation.

The Surgeon of Birkenau, or Dieter Vogel, is terrifyingly portrayed by Danish actor, Jesper Christensen, whose scrofulous eyes are surrounded by a malevolent face.  A villain in the truest sense, he proves to be a formidable opponent, even after his capture, as he mocks and manipulates the individual members of the team who are desperate to jettison him back to Israel to face trial for his crimes.  At one point, the leader of the operation, Stefan (played powerfully by Marton Csokas) reminds his team, "Don't talk to him.  Don't listen to him.  He's not human."

The suspense is two-fold.  First, the cinematography and editing, convey the paranoid claustrophobia of a group of young agents who, driven by tremendous personal loss, steel themselves to carry out the operation against almost impossible odds.  Second, and more engaging, is the tension built up by the reality of the future.  The operation was by all accounts a great success, and yet none of the "adult" versions act like it was - Mirren's Sarah and Ciarán Hinds' David are particularly perturbed.  As we watch the team carry out the capture and abduction, we keep searching for clues as to what went wrong, what event or detail could possibly continue to haunt these characters?  It is a deftly played technique by director John Madden which results in a film whose tautness and sudden fits and jolts keeps the audience on edge throughout.  It isn't until the final denouement that the debt to which the film refers is fully revealed.

A film about choices invariably veers into a film about dealing with those choices.  And like Bob Marley soothingly warned, "you're running away, but you can't run away from yourself."

26 July 2011

The Blurry Face of Terrorism

It was a pristine Indian summer day in October 2002 when I cheerfully entered my apartment, home for the day from classes.  A junior English major at the University of Maryland, I had secured part-time employment at a small publishing house in suburban DC the year before.  The early Fall day held such promise that I decided to skip work in favour sophomoric adventure.  It turned out my boss wasn't even expecting me.  To my horror, on that very day, in the very neighborhood - indeed on the very same crossroad - a crazed sniper had mercilessly executed five completely innocent and unsuspecting victims.  

For the next three weeks, DC and its surrounding suburbs were gripped in paranoiac panic.  Despite the most zealous of law enforcement efforts, the sniper continued picking off people, targeting those performing the most common daily tasks -- motorists refueling, shoppers walking back to their parked cars, kids waiting for the school bus.  Suddenly we were all terrifyingly vulnerable.  In the immediate aftermath, FBI profilers were called in.  There was a consensus:  this had to be a white guy, possibly ex-military.  It made perfect sense.  Hell, even his van was white! 

Three weeks and fifteen shootings later, we finally realized how wrong we all were, and how gravely our misconceptions had misdirected us.  It wasn't a crazed white guy at all, but a splenetic Black man and his easily influenced Black teenage step-son.  Purposefully targeting all races and backgrounds to obscure their true aim, to eventually murder an ex-wife who had denied visitation rights without being suspected. They had turned their blue Chevy Caprice into a perfect killing machine.  They used GPS to elude roadblocks.  Not they needed to, of course, the focus was squarely obsessed with white box vans.

I rehash this unfortunate period in history in light of the recent attacks in Norway.  I found striking that each mention of the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, included a physical description, "blonde-haired, blue-eyed."  Although unspoken, the implication bore that the horror of those campers on Utoya Island was compounded by the fact that their killer looked like a "normal" guy.  As if being blonde-haired and blue-eyed automatically precluded a person from being a murderous psychopath.

Of course, this notion is absurd.  After all, the Nazis would uphold Breivik's physical features as the prototype for an Aryan über race, and serial killer Ted Bundy was renowned for his charming airs.  We have this conception of a killer, of a terrorist, of a mass-murderer, and yet these conceptions are proven to be misguided and false time and again.  You think extremist Muslims were the first suicide bombers?  How about Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II?  Everyone expected al-Qaeda or their ilk to be behind the Norway attacks; bizarrely enough, it turned out to be one of their own, a born and bred Norwegian killing his fellow Norwegians.

No one group holds the rights to murderous maniacal psychopaths.  In this unfortunate way, we are all equal. The surprise is we continue to be surprised.

15 June 2011

Where Are We Going?

Woody Allen strives to make us laugh.  Yes, he's made a handful of morose films (particularly his Ingmar Bergman phase), but in his soul, he's a comedian.  Allen's success rate in evoking risibility is about the same as Dirk Nowitzki's free-throw percentage.  Typically, his vehicles are subversive word-play, exposure of personal and institutional hypocrisy, and portrayal of sexual congress whose intimacy is akin to a handshake.

Allen's cinematic greatness, however, lies in his uncanny ability to tap into a subtext whose lessons can be universally applied.  They're very basic lessons:  just because the grass looks greener on the other side...it isn't, appreciate what you have, read books, take walks after dinner, God doesn't care and/or probably doesn't exist, don't hurt people.  Sometimes though, his conceits are better merely as a concept than as a financed film.  Case in point, his latest European world-city venture, Midnight In Paris.

In theory, it seems like the perfect Woody Allen film.  Place a typical Allen hero into the eternal city of love, and let the city's magic unfurl upon him.  After New York, Barcelona, and London, surely the most romantic city in the world, a capital of high culture and art, would inspire Allen to majestic heights.  Instead, he delivered a ho-hum Woody Allen version of Back To The Future.  In place of Bobby socks, Studebakers, and Rock N Roll, we get Cloche hats, Isotta-Fraschinis, and The Lost Generation.

Having Owen Wilson (as Woody Allen's cinematic avatar) cavort around 1920s Paris with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and the rest is fun, but where is it going?  The joke of Wilson's character inspiring a young Luis Buñuel's absurdism was funny...when it was done to perfection in Back To The Future and Chuck Berry and Rock N Roll.

Feature films by legendary directors surely must be more than exercises in whimsical wish fulfillment.  In Radio Days (1987), Allen similarly looked back to the halcyon days of his youth in 1940s Brooklyn and the vitality of radio culture.  It was a whimsical picture, but it was sweet and nostalgic and had heart.  Midnight In Paris, I'm afraid, is sweet, but it openly mocks nostalgia and rushes way too quickly past the heart, or the point for that matter.  

Yes, Woody Allen wants to make us laugh, unfortunately with Midnight In Paris, he spent all his energies on the elaborate set-up, but left out the most important part of the joke:  the punchline.  

06 May 2011

For You From Me



world aint right-angled

nor neat tidy dichotomous--
witticisms bulged by
obvious lessons dont solve world
world is colour hue & shade
& nothing, beyond its realness

you must Listen:

either/or: immediately forget
black/white too
right/wrong especially!

remember forever

only you exists &
you are holy

dont be afraid

© Valentin Katz, 2008

11 April 2011

Lady Day (1933)

1. Hammond

Music, music, music!
Everything is beautiful

Blown up and distorted
Beneath my Melody Maker

pen. Few have heard
or seen what I have

in that microphone
and spotlight. Oh!

and she is so
beautiful and buxom.

Over 200 lbs.
Glittering as if she

was covered by millions
of refulgent stalactites.

Finally I am Cuvier,
on the brink of exposing

this brown-bosomed
vocal goddess to our

unsuspecting rectangular world.
I’ll take her to Monette’s

where she’ll wow
them with Sarah Baartman

presence. She is the new canary
singing towards heaven,

and I’ll be the toast of the town.
Big things in this world are mine.


There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the crowds that
most days I see upon this stage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive white light, singing
the blues so the audience
can stare at my naked sex.

I am called “Lady Day.”
I left Baltimore with a promise
of revenue: quarter the profits
and freedom for us working girls;
because I wasn’t gonna be nobody’s
goddamn maid no more. Mr. Hammond
says I’m going to be the biggest hit since Josephine
and he is writing an article on me right now.

I am the family entrepreneur!
Putting on my shining dress
I take the smoky stage, and
you should see how they
stare at me. Like Susanna,
I am a strange fruit they
dare not embrace, but will
never turn away from.

In the coming years, my strange fruit
will ripen into a public animal of excess
and sex. So I like men, a lot, and
women too. I’m an artist, damnit!
And I like to smoke, drink, and feel
good. What do these people know of feeling
good? Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.

I refuse to forget Eleanora Fagan
and the misery she was born into.
I refuse to apologize for not wanting
to remain there, in Baltimore, turning
tricks. My flexible tongue and
healthy mouth bewilder these
people with their rotting teeth.

If they would just listen to
my song without being forced
to undress me with their eyes, maybe,
I could convince them to come up
on stage and have the light expose
their dullness and fetidness, so
the whole world audience could see
them as shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, and unnatural.

© Valentin Katz, 2005

10 March 2011

A Life Unexamined

Don't let the pedestrian title of Richard J. Lewis' film adaptation of Mordecai Richler's irascible novel of the same name fool you.  Barney's Version is a haggis of angst, romance, betrayal, comedy, and tragedy.  Paul Giamatti inhabits the eponymous role with usual dejected brilliance.  Playing an overweight, balding yet hirsute drunk with few redeeming qualities, Giamatti still makes himself likable enough to root for. No wonder he won a Golden Globe for best actor. I mean, it'd be hard to like Barney Panofsky even if he was played by a butterfly.

The throbbing question I had upon exiting the theater is "what the hell did everyone see in this guy?"  Not only do gorgeous and brilliant (to be fair, one is certifiably insane too) women want to sleep with him, they want to marry him too.  We meet him as he lives a bohemian lifestyle with writers, painters, and musicians in 1970s Rome.  Doesn't get much cooler than that.  And yet, by all accounts, Barney has no discernible talents, rarely works, lacks a sense of humour, and his sole skill may be the inherent ability to aggravate and enrage all those around him, a skill which his Jewishness betrothed upon him.

The real charmer in this tale is Dustin Hoffman as Giamatti's blue-collar widower father, Izzy.  Hoffman brings a warm Jewish patriarchy to the proceedings but elides cliché by being the kind of father who comes over and sleeps with the maid whenever his son and daughter-in-law leave the house, or, when Barney comes to him with his plans to leave his heiress wife for another woman, he reminds him of a few facts to maintain perspective, like her infinite riches and that his son is "married to a woman (Minnie Driver) who has a fantastic rack!"

The problem with Barney, though, is he's vindictive, petty, rude, careless, and he has absolutely no reason to be!  Women love him, and in the case of his third wife, played with subtle angelic sexiness by former Bond girl Rosamund Pike, is a downright saint whose patience and adoration of this Falstaffian figure is inexplicable.  He's also got wonderfully interesting friends, and tons of money, even though based on the glimpses of him working leads one to believe all a TV producer does is sit in the director's chair with his forehead in one hand and a whiskey neat in the other. 

Oscar Wilde famously said, "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."  Barney Parnofsky's tragedy is that he didn't know what he wanted, and only realized he had everything any man could ever wish for -- and threw it all away -- by which time it was all too late to make good.  Throughout his life, he disavowed any introspection, he never learned from his mistakes, and in the end, he lost perhaps the most precious possession of all, the magical ability to remember.  It may as well have been as if he had not lived at all.

14 February 2011

Arbouretum / Secret Mountains @ Ottobar 02/13/11

On a night when a pneumatic music industry celebrated itself, to the sole delight of the disengaged pre-adolescent genus, it was with more than just a bit of irony that I found myself as the aggressively self-assured Arbouretum decided to eschew the Grammys and celebrate the release of their new record, "The Gathering," by dominating the stage at the Ottobar.  For here is a band that matters; a band that makes you care.

With a foundation of David Heumann, Corey Allender, and Buck Carey, the group lays the classic power-trio bedrock, constructing heavy dark space jams with strong manic 60s psychedelia undertones.  They depart, however, from those ancestral giants, with the inclusion of Matthew Pierce on keys and percussion, who provides a swirling apocalyptic undercurrent to the proceedings.

Be not deceived by the darkness and the gloom, Arbouretum doesn't forsake you wallowing in misery -- at a precise moment they unveil pulsing positivity, and the virtuosity of lead guitarist David Heumann jettisons the hirsute foursome to moments of genuine catharsis.  It is quite appropriate, then, that "doom/ecstatic" is listed next to genre on their facebook page.

Here is a low-fi clip from the show:

Preceeding Arbouretum, Secret Mountains took the stage with a simple greeting, "Hi. We're a band."  Said with David Byrne-like unironic innocence, the six-member band unfurled exquisitely formed dream-pop that has become a unique feature of Baltimore's music scene.  Chanteuse Kelly Laughlin shows her amazing range in the band's most affecting tune, "Rejoice."

04 February 2011

Vive La Meritocracy!

We've all seen them, growing up, in college, around town.  They've been blessed with everything:  personality, physique, and most vital to the equation, rich wealthy parents.  They win all the races, they get all the girls.  The hottest girl of them all, Lady Luck, is always on their side.  Individually, they are the embodiment of Shakespeare's Man of All Hues. And then comes along an unassuming computer nerd, a son of a Jewish dentist, from Dobbs Ferry, New York.  A scrawny kid with kinky hair, he's a bit of an asshole.  He also happens to be a once-in-a-century super-genius.  The nerd invents Facebook.  And for the first time in his life, Hue, or in the case of David Fincher's The Social Network, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, comes in second, a very very distant second.  This is not the way it's supposed to happen.

The Social Network is not -- as so many will have you believe -- about the lawsuits, the partying, the girls, the envy, the backstabbing, the money, all of which are indeed part of the Facebook foundation myth.  No, those are just the MacGuffins, the narrative tools employed by highly-skilled writer Aaron Sorkin to hook his audience.  This is about our wonderful, all-equalizing, supreme meritocracy.  This is about how a computer-geek with slight anti-social tendencies revolutionized interpersonal relationships in the 21st century.  The underdog not only won, he pulverized those standing in his way with such ferocity that their only recourse was to litigate, and as Mark Zuckerberg (played with menacing authority by Jesse Eisenberg) sneers to his attorney, "They aren't suing me for intellectual property theft. They're suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them."  Even Daddy's millions can't get their pleas to not fall on deaf ears when they go whining to the Harvard President.

It's a credit to Fincher, director of other such explorations of masculinity as Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, for keeping the tension maddeningly taut throughout the film even though almost everyone already knows the story.  There was a massive piece on Zuckberberg in the New Yorker which outlines the entire story, and with greater detail.  We all know how this tale ends, or rather, where it stands today, and yet we're still kept on the edge of our seats.  Frequent Fincher collaborator, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, along with seasoned English music producer Atticus Ross, ratchet up the immediacy of the action with a score that can only be described as militantly ambient.  The aggression in the music and direction mirror the intellectual and creative aggression onscreen.  Zuckerberg is a wunderkind tour-de-force.  He's not just the smartest kid in the room, he's the smartest guy in any room, even all the elite rooms in Harvard.  

The reviews and commentary surrounding The Social Network focus on how unflattering and unseemly Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is depicted.  This is simply a ruse to stir up controversy.  The portrayal is honest and unrelenting.  People are rarely kind and loving and fair and nurturing, especially when those same people are inventing billion dollar enterprises.  Is he insecure? Sure, but since when is insecurity a character flaw?  If anything, insecurity is pitiable. Did he box out possible early cohorts?  Of course, but since when is an abstract formative idea patentable?  

Come to think of it, with the exception of Zuckerberg's condescension to his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene, and the marginalization of his best friend, and initial financier (Andrew Garfield), when Facebook begins to legitimately explode, there is little that points to Zuckerberg being anything other than the guy who is 100 times smarter and talented than everyone else around him, with an uncanny ability to continually innovate and drive his creative vision to new heights.

Success stories like Mark Zuckerberg, and many others, show that in the face of true genius, the entitled class will cling to their last, and only, vestige of retribution, they'll sue.

21 January 2011

The Frostly Pen

once more, for the right
climb up and reach that penned
soon it will be night
---youve a dagger to send
into the heart of
                       my master's mistress

she requires yr phallic kiss
to diffuse her beastly sex
carve her skin into sonnets lest---
be destroyed by that vile hex

I struck a match to help yr way
but it faltered in its blueness
---my mistress has sent me away
I am without home and spoonless

the carving word has
                         betrayed us both

my guilt arose in curdly white froth
at the deed which I fatigued
I took my match with scorning scoff
and came straight to yr mistress' bed

When I came to her she sat 
                                   in cower
so I graced her with my 
                                   golden shower