Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Log 398 Dec 31 2013: Excellent Coen Brothers’ film on undisciplined folksinger betrays their lack of commitment beyond merely making a film

Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk
Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ramblin' Jack Elliott in London
Ramblin' Jack Elliott in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Coen Brothers at Cannes in 2001.
English: Coen Brothers at Cannes in 2001. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always believed that film should be a weapon in the class war, that thing that is so unfashionable in the Western industrialized countries these days, because we have fallen so totally into the control of the corporate state. Class war presupposes strong unions, militant protesters, movements at every level of society to get back control of events into the hands of the people.
Defined like that, of course most modern films, especially feature films,  fall short. The feature film industry is dominated by the immense amounts of money required to even get a feature film underway, and to be frank, one can count on the fingers of one hand the number of feature films of the last ten years that could be viewed as fulfilling my objective of being a weapon used for the education of their audiences.
These reflections arise from my viewing yesterday of the newest film from the Coen Brothers, who are masters of film-making, but have always appeared to me to have no other agenda except just to get the films made, regardless of their ultimate social meaning.
Though they deal with socially significant subjects, I usually am left with a slightly empty feeling in that they seem to have no attitude towards the subjects they spend so much money and so much attention, in delineating.
Their newest offering is called Inside Llewyn Davis, a brilliantly made portrait of a folk-singer, who, although talented, keeps  fucking up, if I may be permitted such a colloquial expression. The film is said to be based on the real life of a folk-singer called Dave Van Ronk, with a nod to other folk-singers of the early sixties, including one called Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I have never heard of Van Ronk (the film’s title seems to have been borrowed from an  album called Inside Dave Van Ronk) and the producer brothers seem to have strained to capture the authentic sound of folksong, by casting Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan-Cuban-American actor with a folk-singing background, who certainly does a great job.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, however, has swum into my ken recently because in the early 1960s he turned up in London, and became a regular performer at the Troubadour café, about whose early years I have recenty written a small book. Elliott was an immediate success with his easy-going, cowboy style. After spending some years in England he apparently returned to the U.S. to find his reputation considerably enhanced by his success in Britain.
The problem I have with this film is that the character portrayed kept making mistakes, simple mistakes, such as locking himself out of his apartment, finding himself lumbered with the cat of friends which he was supposed to be looking after but that he  foolishly allowed to run free, constantly trying to borrow money to deal with the pregnancy of the wife of one of his best friends whom he himself appears to have possibly had some influence in making pregnant, and going off without money enough to support himself on a trip to Chicago to consult with a producer whom he fruitlessly hoped might have liked his last album.  Just errors of judgment at every turn. All of this could have been avoided with the exercise of a modicum of common sense which one would have supposed the character to have, in normal circumstances.
But leaving that aside, the film coud be said to be an accurate representation of the problems of a talented but undisciplined artist caught in a money-obsessed society to whose obsession he felt inimical. Even so, the film-makers’ distance from their character and his peripatetic life seemed to weaken the impact that the film might have had, given a warmer approach.
This reminded me of one other Coen brothers film that I really heartily disliked, the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men. This was a portrait of a psychopathic killer who went through life casually killing people, without a single modicum of explanation offered the audience as to what he thought he was doing, why he was like that or any coherent explanation for his unacceptable behaviour. What offended me more than the shortcomings of this film, hOwever, was that Hollywood saw fit to award its highest honour to the film, although it had available the masterpiece There Shall Be Blood, the superb film based on the early chapters of an Upton Sinclair novel about the oil industry. The film was literally a history of early predatory capitalism, and the sort of psychopathic behaviour that went into creating that heartless, killing industry. Graced as it was by yet another marvellous performance by actor Daniel Day-Lewis, this was so obviously a superior product as to make my argument outlined in the first paragraph of this piece. This was a film designed to educate, as well as move and entertain, an audience, and it could not have stood in harsher contrast to the modus operandi of the Coen brothers. That it was the brothers’ offering that was given the accolades was as clear a statement as we will ever have of the underlying social assumptions of the Hollywood industry, even in these relatively enlightened days.

And that is my same reservation about this film. I am maybe hoping for too much, looking for a revolutionary in every director.  
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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Link of the day; Dec 26 2013: Nader calls corporate capitalism “an omnicidal momentum” ….and explains why Americans haven’t got the message

Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader
Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader (Photo credit: neatnessdotcom)

(“even the '60s. Number one, it was the Cultural Revolution, so they couldn't really say ism. You know, they might say wastrelism or, you know, anarchism, but, you know, it wasn't some foreign ideology. The other part was concrete reforms, civil rights, women's rights, the beginning of gay-lesbian rights, the rights of students on campus, and then consumer rights, and then environment. You see how programmatic it was. Everybody avoided linking it together and basically saying, you know, big-time corporate capitalism is an omnicidal momentum. I mean, it just has one thing in mind, and it will destroy or weaken or co-opt anything in its way that is civic, that is democratic.”)

(“The other part is corporations have been very clever in distracting people, especially young generation, with entertainment, with professional sports, turning them into spectators. Now you've got, you know, 24/7 entertainment. There's no end to it. And they've also been very good in making people internalize a sense of powerlessness. And the moment people think they can't fight Exxon or City Hall or whatever, they become powerless by definition. They create their own powerlessness.”)
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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

My Log 397: I make the long journey to Costa Rica to attend my daughter’s wedding: one down, and three to go

A couple of weeks before Christmas I took the long journey down to the Central American country of Costa Rica, where my daughter  Belle lives, the purpose of the journey being to attend her wedding. During the six years or so she has been there she has discovered a lovely fellow from Colombia, rejoicing in the name of Richard Quintero de Rivera (I hope I have that right). It is my third visit to Costa Rica, and I had previously met Richard, so that when she told me they were getting hitched I was able to approve wholeheartedly of her choice and her decision, and determined that I could not let the occasion pass without being present.
Belle was born in Montreal, the daughter of  Barbadian and Ghanian students, and we adopted her when she was a bouncy, smiling, happy little girl of six months, having been fortunate enough to have been extremely well cared for by her foster parents before she came to live with us. Although this was her home, she has seldom visited it during the two or more decades she has passed in the south, her objection to the place being solely --- as far as I can gather --- that it has a long winter. She so dislikes the cold weather that she seems never to want to set foot again in her home country. 
I can hardly blame her: I remember when I was 31 years of age passing a winter holiday of six weeks in the Caribbean, travelling north from Trinidad, island to island, the result of which was that, on stepping back into Montreal, I said to myself, “This is berserk; why am I living here in this frigging cold?”  and determining to leave at the first opportunity.
That particular resolution was fulfilled providentally when my boss asked me to go to England to represent the newspaper (The Montreal Star). At the end of my eight years in London, equipped with a new family of three small boys, I seemed to have become so irrevocably attached to Canada that later in life I only once left it again with the intention of residing elsewhere, and all that resulted from that determination was a hurried trip back to the cold country, where I have lived for the 37 years since.
Well, I can’t blame her, even though I do think it is a rather shallow reason for deciding on one’s place of residence. Still, to each his own, as the poet might have said, and the advantage from my point of view is that visiting her has taken me three times to Samara, a delightful village on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where I have been able to work on my tan until the time came that I realized how fruitless was that pursuit, since on my return no one ever noticed it.
Since my last visit, this coast has suffered a rather severe earthquake, which caused the bed of the harbour to rise by more than a metre, meaning that when the tide goes out, a reef has been thrown up across the face of the beach that, if there had been any inward  traffic from the sea, would have put a stop to it. An acquaintance I met down there told me she did swim out to the reef, where she found herself surrounded by a school of rather large fish, and something else (she didn’t specify) that began to nibble on her, and caused her to beat a strategic retreat.
On my last visit  I had stayed in an excellent seaside hotel, kept by a German hotelier with a large, black, and rather dangerous dog. That hotel appears to have been closed down at least temporarily, reputedly because of taxation problems. So this time I stayed in a beautiful place glorying in the name of the Barracuda Apartments, on a hill just above the village. My daughter had chosen this place as the venue for her wedding, and I found that in the room next to mine were staying two of Belle’s childhood friends from Ottawa, who were already performing prodigies of work in preparaion for the big day. I guess this is what is meant by friendship, lifelong friendship, because although these two women were invited as guests, they were pitching in on almost a 24-hour-a-day work schedule without which I rather doubt if the event would ever have taken place.
When I was invited to say a few words at the reception following the actual wedding I recalled that when we arrived in Ottawa in 1977, we were still moving our furniture into our new house on Broadway avenue when Belle --- eight years old at the time --- disappeared for a couple of hours, only to return with the news that she had made friends all along the street, an event I now put forward as proof of her outgoing, cheerful, gregarious personality.  One of the houses in which she made those friends was the home of the two women who were now helping her with the wedding arrangements, and astonishing me with the detail and multiplicity of tasks they were undertaking. Similarly, I added, I had been present when Belle first visited Samara a few years before, when once again she disappeared, only to return after an hour or so with the news that she had found this wonderful place on a hilll overlooking the village that would be ideal for her to open a restaurant, another proof of her irrepressible curiosity and friendly spirit. The establishment was still in the hands of he slightly eccentric Czech lady who was its owner, but now she  had the place up and running. And it was a lovely place to stay.
I was doubly fortunate because the proximity of Belle’s two old friends meant that, without asking for it, I was fed every day between dips into the warm waters of the hotel’s pool.
Okay, I don’t have too much to add: it is only the second wedding I have ever been to in my life, and it seemed to go on well enough, although the official (named locally as the Officiator), did seem to keep on talking for quite a while and delivering unnecessary homilies to set the young couple on their way (but I seemed to be the only one of that opinion, everyone else thinking it was all lovely). I declined the opportunity to give the bride away, since I don’t consider her mine to give: she is my daughter, and will always be my daughter, and I considered this particular ritual to be rather old-fashioned and dare I say it, outmoded. But again I was in a minority of one with that view.
It was a good event however, successfully achieved, proving to me the efficacy and importance of friendships, and proving to the married couple that the very event, facing them with the formalities of the occasion, subtly changed their attitude to each other and to life in significant ways.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Log 396: A week in Cuba reveals a nation in good heart, functioning well

(en) World Map (pt) Mapa Mundo (de) Weltkarte ...
Little Cuba, major threat to U.S. power? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Camaguey rooftops 2
Camaguey rooftops 2(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Ignacio Agramonte Square in Camaguey,...
English: Ignacio Agramonte Square in Camaguey, Cuba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just been to Cuba for a week.
That sounds so innocent and straightforward, yet if it were stated in the United States, which conceives itself to be the leader of the democratic world,          heaven alone knows to what excesses of surveillance it might lead.
We went for only a week, with my son, who because he is usually short of money, always looks for the cheapest place. Together we chose a resort called Gran Club Santa Lucia, on the north coast of the island some 600 kilometres along from Havana. Everything went swimmingly: although, unlike on my first visit a year or two ago no one met us as we got off the plane I was able to find the bus that was taking all of us to the hotel, about an hour’s drive along a rather bumpy road, from the airport at Camaguey, the third largest city in Cuba, situated in almost the exact centre of the island.
The resort we were disgorged into was a well-appointed hotel, out in the countryside, with many buildings scattered around  handsome garden-style grounds, interspersed with  large, public buildings that contained several restaurants, a games room, a theatre, and the hotel administration.
Everyone we met among the hotel staff turned out to be extremely pleasant and helpful, and the morning after our arrival they held an orientation session at which they described tours that were available and various other nuts and bolts items designed to make our stay as cheerful as possible. For no extra charge one could get a key to a safe in one’s room --- always a useful addition to any hotel room in my view --- and large beach towels. The hotel stood just off a long beach with excellent swimming, and they had negotiated with neighbouring hotels that we could get free drinks from them as well as from our own hotel. We could exchange Canadian cash for the Cuban currency made especially available to tourists, which exchanged at roughly the same face value as our money, and the hotel gave a rate only slightly worse than a bank 100 yards or so along the beach.
Readers may wonder why I have even bothered to describe all this: the reason is that the very word Cuba arouses such images among the people of North America as to lead many of us to expect something rather outlandish. My conclusion, after driving around the country a little bit in two areas during my two visits, is that much of what has passed as calm description of the face of Cuba is in fact wildly exaggerated, mostly by the U.S. controlled information services to which we are exposed.
For example, one would have the impression from American propaganda that Cuba is literally falling apart, its vehicles all dating back half a century, patched and re-patched, its buildings fading and falling apart from lack of rehabilitation, its services creaking under the impact of the unremitting American embargo.
Certainly Cuba exists under pressure from the United States, but any reasonable person must wonder what the rationale for this pressure is, why the giant of the Western hemisphere continues to act as if this tiny island-nation were a deadly missile aimed at the heart of democracy, and all that.
For my part, I am impressed by the fact that Cuba today does not seem to be as run-down as the Americans would have us believe. I made an overnight visit to Camaguey, a city of some 250,000 people, whose centre appears to be a collection of extremely narrow, crowded little streets, full of buildings of real splendour, many of which have been restored to their former glory.
As for the vehicles, it is true that many cars are of an older vintage, but the many buses that serve the tourist trade are almost all of recent vintage, and there are a similar number of new or almost new mini-vans, so that the overall effect is not one of decrepitude.
In the area of the country in which we found ourselves, the land is unrelievedly flat, and much of it reminded me of Eastern Ontario, in that  large areas that had been cleared for use in former times have fallen into disuse. This, apparently, is land that once was occupied by sugar-cane, an industry that has shrunk to about half of what it was when the revolution occurred.
A more notable sight for me was the squads of neatly-dressed schoolchildren coming and going to and from their schools. Cuba has free education at every level, a remarkable achievement in comparison with most other countries of Latin America. I  also kept in mind while there Cuba’s remarkable generosity to nations outside its own borders. For example, its provison of thousands of doctors to Venezuela; and its pivotal use of the Cuban army in defeating a South African force, which turned out to be one of the key events in the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.
As for the feature most often criticised by foreign tourists,  the food, I have to say that (to my relief) the food served under the all-inclusive package deals to customers was of considerably higher quality, of much greater variety than was the case on my first visit.
In Camaguey, too, we were able to visit areas that had been fixed up wonderfully, for use by artists and others, according to standards that reflect well on the capacity of city planners and renovation experts.
The holiday, all in all, was extremely enjoyable, and cheap: everything was included, including unlimited drinks, food, accommodation, and entertainment. The hotel had a house band made up of five beautiful young women who, classically trained musicians all of them, formed a hot band, excellent by any standards, and in Camaguey we were invited to a show that involved a troupe of beautiful girls and handsome men, who appeared to be ballet-dancers in training, but who, in addition, appeared to have skills which could see them emerge as members of the national team for synchronized swimming at the next Olympics.
A curious feature at the hotel was a tame flamingo that always turned up to strut back and forth along the front of the stage before and during the evening entertainments. Sometimes irritated customers would grab the bird by the neck and try to hustle it away, but it always returned, usually with an indignant squawk, as if to announce that it had rights that superceded those of the mere customers.
And, finally, the rum produced by Cuba is of the highest quality; and some Cuban coffee we bought to take home has proved also to be excellent.
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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My Log 396: Quiet, please:: superb actress at work as Judy Dench plays the role of an elderly woman in search of the son she was forced by the Irish Church to abandon as a teenager

Judi Dench at the BAFTAs at the Royal Opera Ho...
Judi Dench at the BAFTAs at the Royal Opera House in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 78, Dame Judi Dench has become a supreme actor, as is evidenced by her wonderful playing in the new Stephen Frears movie Philomena.
Of course, she has always been wonderful; she was wonderful when I first saw her on the London stage playing the ingenue Shakepearean roles, Juliet, and the others. But when I saw the marvellous warmth and passion she brought to the role of the elderly woman who had been forced by some Irish nuns to give up the child she bore as a teenager, and who embarked on a search for that boy, of whom she had never heard anything in 50 years, I was made to think of those old Japanese actors who are considered too young to play the greatest roles until they are virtually in their dotage. She brought a lifetime of experience --- and her experience of life as well as of the stage, has been broad and varied, as a search of Wikipedia makes clear --- to this old woman, and she was so obviously a complete person, confident under her air of modesty and lack of assertion, that she brought a lump into my throat, tears into my eyes very early in the film, and they remained there until the final shot.
Dench is co-starred in this movie by Steve Coogan, a good-looking youngish man, formerly a stand-up comedian, whose work I had never previously seen. He was excellent in the role of a journalist whose paper was ready to finance Philomena’s search for her lost son, but more than that, he along with another writer whose work was unknown to me, Jeff Pope, wrote the excellent screenplay that turned this true story into such a gripping drama. Philomena, as presented, was both a naif, a practising and believing Catholic woman, and a woman of the world, having spent most of her life as a practising nurse, in which capacity she had seen and experienced much of what might be called the seamier side of life. But the character played by Coogan, Martin Sexsmith,  was her perfect foil, a man who had worked his way through religious belief, and had taken on much of the cynicism that comes from the journalistic life and atititude to life.  As they set out on the search they were an odd couple, warily respectful of each other, with Philomena liable at any time to change her mind about the whole search unless her companion played his cards with special care.
She wanted to know one thing: had her son ever thought about her during his life.
Sexsmith quickly tracked the boy down, discovered that he had been taken by his adoptive parents to the United States, and had become an adviser to President Reagan and to later Republican presidents. Philomena had already been told by the nuns that they did not know anything about what had happened to the child, but when she heard he was in the United s/tates, and especially since Sexsmith’s sponsoring journal was ready to pay the costs, she agreed to go across the Atlantic in search of the answer to her question.
Their mission had many ups and downs, came close to being broken or called off, two or three times, and it had a sensational ending the details of which I had better not reveal here. Sufficient to say that the non-religious reporter and the faithful elderly woman combined at the end, and, very satisfactorily from my point of view, were able to maintain their basic atitudes until the bitter end.
Speaking of which, there is another remarkable few moments from another actress I remember seeing as a young girl in the 1950s, Barbara Jefford, playing a cameo role as an elderly nun pouring out the bitterness that had accumulated in her during the many years of deprivation in the cause of her faith. What an amazing cameo, what a powerful demonstration of the acting art!
Excellent though Coogan was in his role, I am sure even he would acknowledge that the film was made by the peerless playing of Judi Dench, who managed in one close-up after another, to indicate the waves of emotion, the surges of rage and disappointment that overcame her, just by what passed on her mobile, beautiful old face.
What a supreme actress she has become, this lovely young girl I remember seeing as Juliet so many, many years ago. No wonder she has been heaped with honours by her native country.
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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Link of the Day: Dec 1 2013: Harper supports practices in Israel that have long been banned in Canada

Yves Engler, author of a book on Stephen Harper entitled The Ugly Canadian, has written an extremely important and pointed article for the electronic intafada.net, detailing how our noble Prime Minister endorses practices in Israel that have been banned in Canada for decades. This article reminds us of the battles that had to be fought to bring Canada up to the standards of civilized behaviour that were so grossly lacking after the Second World War. And the fact that Harper is now in the process of violating these struggles and past human rights successes can be chalked up as yet another reason why no person who cares about the country should vote for him in the next election. Read Engler’s article here