Saturday, November 14, 2020

“Donald J. Trump’s Cult of Personality Did This”: A Nation Unprepared for the Present Public-Health Calamity | The Atlantic


This week offers an excellent opportunity to examine the premise of the political Cult of Personality and its effects and consequences even in a relatively liberal democratic society such as our own. Let's begin with the general definitions of the term and its application throughout modern history, beginning with The New Yoker's “The Field Guide to Tyranny”. Then moving on to a more contemporary correlative with their, “The Strongman Problem, from Modi to Trump”, in which Steve Coll draws the parallels; "In the cases of Modi and Trump, two recently empowered strongmen presiding over relatively robust democratic systems, the question is whether their populism and authoritarian instincts will allow them to alter the laws of democratic accountability. Trump is already altering certain norms - about the access of the press, conflicts of interest, and nepotism - with the acquiescence of the Republican Party. After his Inauguration, on Friday, he will preside over the largest economy and the most powerful military in the world. It is tempting to assume that accountability will eventually take hold, as in the past, whether through prosecutors and courts, if the President or his aides act illegally, or at the next election, if they govern poorly or betray the hopes of their voters. Yet the history and machinery of populist rule worldwide offers no easy comfort. Sometimes strongmen break the constitutions they inherit, or bend the functioning of those charters until they become, gradually, unrecognizable." With more troubling correspondence in cycles of performance and audience reception and to be found in between the 45th president of the United States and Benito Mussolini, as mapped by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian history at New York University's, “A Scholar of Fascism Sees a Lot That’s Familiar with Trump”. As a cursory assessment, she writes; “There’s this whole political theatre that they stage,” Ben-Ghiat said of both leaders. She called up a photo from a folder of images on her laptop, material from a PowerPoint she delivered at a recent seminar on the election. In the picture, Trump is walking through a rolling mist, from darkness to light, to accept the nomination at the Republican National Convention. “They have this hunger for approval. But their personas are created by the symbiosis with the crowd. They need the crowd to consolidate their personalities.”

Both figures clearly establishing an adversarial relationship with any demographic or sphere of thought opposing, or even deviating from the given narrative, the demarcation of a clear line can be seen in The New Yorker's “Trump and the Enemies of the People”. From which its author David Remnick is quoted; "It should serve as a warning to Americans in the era of Donald Trump about the fragility of principles and institutions, particularly when those principles and institutions are under attack by a leader who was ostensibly elected to protect them. This week, dozens of American publications are publishing editorials in ardent opposition to President Trump’s assault on the press and his use of that poisonous phrase “enemies of the people.” The refusal to bend to that assault, and the protection of practices and institutions that are more fragile than we usually care to acknowledge, is essential to the future of American democracy. Because Trump knows little about policy or history, it is tempting to imagine that he knows nothing at all. This is a mistake. He knows well that the American press is hardly popular and, in many ways, is on the defensive. He knows that the ecosystem of information and its distribution has changed radically, and he has figured out how to exploit that change. He has seized on the capacities of right-wing radio, cable television, and social media to form an alternative, fact-free, Trumpian universe. For decades, Trump took little interest in matters of state, but he has studied the media for years. Even as a real estate mogul, he was not a master builder; he was a master manipulator. He spent decades honing his self-aggrandizement in the pages of the New York tabloids and on local television. He came to believe that he could fool enough of the people enough of the time to suit his purposes. He learned how to render himself as a distinctive and “colorful” character. He sensed the weaknesses in lesser reporters: their laziness; their willingness to cut a deal or make a trade; their desire to please an editor with cheap sensation, a “story.” He even made “catch and kill” deals with tabloids such as the National Enquirer, which protected him from carnal and financial scandal."

Yet the New Republic speculates what it will take for these supporters and willing members of this political worldview, or "Trumpian universe" if you will, to reconsider the quantifiable evidence before them. To what extent must their own well-being and the given "American way of life" for which they purport to be defending be compromised and endangered for individuals to be self-motivated to, “Escape from the Trump Cult”? As Alexander Hurst paints it, there may be no returning from such an impasse; "Trump sold his believers an engrossing tale of “American carnage” that he alone could fix, then isolated them in a media universe where reality exists only through Trump-tinted glasses, attacking all other sources of information as “fake news.” In the most polarized media landscape in the wealthy world, Republicans place their trust almost solely in Fox News, seeing nearly all other outlets as biased. In that context, the effect of a president who lies an average of ten times a day is the total blurring of fact and fiction, reality and myth, trust and cynicism. It is a world where, in the words of Rudy Giuliani, truth is no longer truth. “Who could really know?” Trump said of claims that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “It is what it is.” Amidst the frenetic pace of disgrace and outrage, Trump’s support remains stable among too large a chunk of the American public to just ignore. Trump, who insisted on the presence of voter fraud by the millions in an election he ultimately won, and a coterie of prominent Republicans spent the week after the 2018 midterms delegitimizing the very notion of counting all the votes in key races in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona. Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still retain the loyalty of his followers is jokingly referred to as the truest thing he’s ever said, but it’s less funny that 52 percent of them would hypothetically support postponing the 2020 election if he proposed it. What happens when a man who has already promoted political violence, and whose most hardcore supporters have shown their willingness for such violence, finds on election night two years from now that he has just narrowly lost? Do any of us truly believe that Donald J. Trump and his followers will simply slink away quietly into the night?"

With foresight, Hurst continues; "The debate over how to deal with Trump’s anti-democratic following has largely avoided the question of engaging it directly. These days there is no shortage of articles and books dealing with radical-right populism, despots, democratic backsliding, and the tactics that authoritarian leaders deploy. Dozens of experts have pointed out that liberal democratic institutions need constant attention and reinforcement in order to be effective bulwarks. But most of the solutions on offer are institutional in nature: maintaining the independence of the judiciary, thwarting a would-be autocrat’s attempts to grab hold of the levers of justice, maintaining a legislative check on executive authority, enshrining political norms more clearly into constitutions. Democracy, especially liberal democracy, has always been dependent on the trust and belief of the self-governed. It is one thing to implement tangible measures to prevent the decay of bedrock institutions, and when it comes to voting rights, elections, the courts, and restraints on executive power, we know what these measures should look like. It’s another, far tougher thing to figure out how to maintain the legitimacy of these same institutions - and how to restore it once lost." With that question, we now find ourselves in this political moment, faced with the mis-management of America's share of the global health crisis. The Wall Street Journal's view on the lack of federal initiative is on the conservative side of the assessment. All the while, bipartisan statements of solidarity like The New York Times appeal to the wider public in April, “Don’t Let Trump’s Cult of Personality Make Covid-19 Worse” have been met with not only silence, but outright resistance from almost half of the electorate. While reductive, it is not inaccurate to say that, “Donald Trump’s Cult of Personality Did This” as we enter into a third wave of the pandemic, with little or no guidance, resource management, and messaging from those who were elected to safeguard the country and the well-being of its populace. We have seen a man, his administration, and 'audience' unequal to the task of this historic moment, and the scientific community has responded decisively with their political endorsement of the opposing candidate. Whether we voted red, blue, or third party this past week, we will all be bearing the consequence of this cult of personality and the support it has found both within the electorate, as well as government officials and institutions. All the while we move toward a deeply consequential future just around the next bend, in which “The Surging Coronavirus Finds a Federal Leadership Vacuum". Map graphic courtesy of: The New York Times Covid in the US: Latest Case Count
 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Criterion Channel Presents 29 Film 1970s Horror Showcase: Oct 4 | Genre Streaming for Cinephiles


This year's seasonal genre film offerings will be quite a different beast. Where in past decades we've consistently seen horror, sci-fi, cult, psychotronic, fantasy and B-movie showcases from our local independent cinemas, the conditions of the pandemic make none of the complexity of that programming practical for a virtual theatrical setting. Nor is there significant scientific rationale yet to be returning to cinemas. In years past there seemingly couldn't be enough in the way of All Hallows' Eve theme programming and repertory series in the local independent movie houses. The months of October and November could be filled to the point of overflowing with the season's disorienting frights, crepuscular surrealism, and discomfiting atmospheres, and I'd be left wanting for more. Thankfully a set of both real-world and virtual alternatives are available this year. Recently reopened to the public, Scarecrow Video steps up with their curated Halloween section of domestic and expansive horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and psychotronic selections. This year continuing their tradition of the Psychotronic Challenge now in its fifth installment, challenging viewers to select a new theme category for every day in October from the deep trivia of the cues on offer. While we're here, let's talk the incomparable one-of-a-kind resource that is Scarecrow, and how if you live in the Northwest and are a fan of cinema (regardless of genre, era or style), it's essentially your personal obligation to ensure their doors stay open for business. For horror and genre aficionados, there is no other resource in North America like that of their abundant catalog of obscure, foreign releases, out of print, and ultra-rare editions in the depths of their archive. With nearly 130,000 films on offer, there is no singular online streaming resource that can compare.
 
In previous years, the annual citywide cinematic offerings for the months of October and November have seen a great set of films exploring desolate worlds, classic Japanese horror, a vampiric romaticism double feature and a night of music from a maestro of Italian horror. Also in the way of recent Halloween seasons of note, we saw an abundance on the theme of the haunted house in 2015, and 2013 presented no small number of invaders from beyond. 2017 was heavy on 1970s psychedelic and psychological horror from Europe, particularly from the subgenres of French Fantastique and Italian Giallo. 2018's regional programming took a cue from Nick Pinkerton's feature for Sight & Sound, and their "The Other Side of 80s America" focus on the decade of independent and genre cinema issuing from the United States. Concurrent with the pop culture revelry of Reaganite family-oriented dramas, action, teen movies, and sci-fi blockbusters, a more rebellious and independent strain of US movie making explored the darkness on the edge of mainstream society. These manic explorations of class conflict, Cold War dread, ecological disaster and suburban paranoia also featured in Northwest Film Forum's monthlong assembly of, Shock & Awe: Horror During the Reagan Years. One of the longest running, and most consistently satisfying of the local Halloween series has been The Grand Illusion Cinema's monthlong All Monsters Attack calendar of horror, creature features, classic thrillers, sci-fi, and cult cinema. Last year's offerings were bolstered by the recently opened The Beacon Cinema, and it's mapping a deep cartography of genre film in two concurrent series, The October Country, and Folklore Phantasmagoria. Titled after a Ray Bradbury collection of macabre short stories, the lowering gloam of the season's shift from late summer into fall evidently inspired The Beacon's programmer, Tommy Swenson. Their Folklore Phantasmagoria series also delivered on the promise of its title with a set of stylistically vibrant works from across the globe that put to test the parameters of the psychotronic.
 
But with both The Beacon and The Grand Illusion Cinema remaining closed, we can be thankful of options available both inside and outside of the dominant commercial streaming platforms. Shudder remains the home for horror online. Their offerings alone could fill any avid viewer's calendar month, and while its more than a bit hyperbolic, Screenrant isn't too far off base proposing "How Shudder Is Single-Handedly Keeping 2020 Horror Movies Alive". The excellent Arrow Films, and their genre imprint, Arrow Video, have also entered the game this year, inviting us to "Join the Cult: The Arrow Video Channel", and don't overlook Shout Factory TV's  "31 Nights of Horror 2020". Annually the online cinema that is Mubi offer up a selection of arthouse and deep cult cinema cuts on their platform spanning October. This year the Trick or Flick: Halloween Horror series found in their Library section, is complimented with a ongoing mini-retrospective from the Japanese auteur of the unnerving, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Nestled in the bounty of The Criterion Channel's October lineup, you'll find the motherload of a 29 film deep dive into the decade that began it all for the now-burgeoning genre. Their 1970s Horror showcase highlights the explosive decade of cult film issuing from an era that was itself transgressive, politically voracious, and boundary-pushing. From the Criterion Channel; "In the 1970s, everything was wilder, weirder, and more far-out - and horror movies were no exception. In North America, a new generation of maverick directors like Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Bill Gunn, and David Cronenberg (offered here in a triple dose) responded to the decade’s heightened political anxieties and Vietnam War-era sense of disillusionment by pushing the genre’s psychological intensity and visceral violence to shocking new heights. Across the Atlantic, Britain’s legendary Hammer Films continued to serve up old-school gothic spine-tinglers, while auteurs like Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg wedded spellbinding terror to art-house experimentation. Bringing together some of the decade’s most iconic slashers, chillers, and killer thrillers alongside low-budget cult rarities and camp-tastic oddities this tour through the 1970s nightmare realm is a veritable blood feast of perverse pleasures from a time when gore, grime, and sleaze found a permanent home in horror."

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Draw of the Gothic & "No Rest for the Eerie: A Paean to the Haunted House" | The New York Times


The month of October has arrived and with it All Hallows' Eve nods to the Olde World traditions of seasonal harvest rights and festivities, like the Gaelic Samhain and Celtic Hop-tu-Naa, which themselves bear some relationship to the Ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria. Part and parcel with the changes of Autumn, come abundant celebrations of the gloomily crepuscular and gloaming eerie in literature, film, and popular culture. In recognition of this season of ominous portent, The New York Times annually whip up sinister concoctions like "A House of Horror Films" their interactive history, trivia, and guessing game on Haunted Houses by Tommi Musturi. Rather than the difficulty of hunting down regional options due to the global pandemic, Halloween this year has become more a question of whether any of its traditions can be observed at all. Erik Vance wonders if there will be opportunities even while observing pandemic social protocol, "Please Let Me Terrify Some Kids on Halloween", all the while the New York Times offering yard decorating tips, while musing on, "Will the Coronovirus Cancel Halloween?". Turning back the clock, last year's features for the season included a set of writers, directors and various artistic creators detailing their own personal recipes for making the night a memorable one in, "Hoping for a Spooky Halloween? We Have Some Suggestions". Which is followed up by a horror litmus test of sorts in which self proclaimed horror aficionado Fahima Haque takes a sampling of three very different Manhattan and Brooklyn haunted house offerings, and comes away with some insight inter her own threshold for the fearsome season, "‘Not Much Scares Me.’ Then She Entered the Haunted House.". Other annual highlights have included Steven Kurutz' gorgeous little, "No Rest for the Eerie: A Paean to the Haunted House". In which he did more than an admirable job, going as far as to cite John Tibbetts' anthology of essays and interviews “The Gothic Imagination”, which is essential reading for anyone who wants to plumb the depths of "uncertainty, anxiety, and fear" that is the art of the Gothic literary tradition.

The undeniable, and very real, fears surrounding the choices that were left to us in 2016's election cycle and its fallout have been fertile ground for Halloween, "Spooked by Real Life? Bring On the Halloween Frights". No one has quite exploited those fears to the extent of Pedro Reyes' "Doomocracy" wherein, "Brooklyn Put the Politics of Fear on Display". Steven Kurutz has also delivered a brilliant Home & Garden feature, "House Haunters" on seasonal real-world Haunted Houses like Kopelman's 30-year running institution near Phoenix which also acts as ground zero to America's Best Haunts. A directory that includes Ben Armstrong's Netherworld, Kohout's long-running Hauntworld house near St. Louis, Phil Anselmo's New Orleans House of Shock, Los Angeles and New York's Blackout, and the immense, preposterous undertaking that is Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare. Sadly none of our local Northwest haunts make that list, but there's a good number of them to be found throughout the state. The Haunted House and it's offspring have long been a staple of western literature and folklore, movies and pulp storytelling. Their origins in the 18th Century speak to an era equally fascinated by science as the supernatural, with mesmerism and the phantasmagoric in vogue, it's little wonder, "Ghost Stories: Why the Victorians were so Spookily Good at Them". Some memorable manifestations of the Gothic tradition in cinema come to mind, from Ti West's contemporary "House of the Devil", to the campier mid-century side seen in William Castle's B-movie “House on Haunted Hill”. There remain a set of classics in the genre, few of which can rival the adaptation of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" that is Robert Wise' "The Haunting".

A select number of silent era representations also stand out like Jean Epstein's 1928 surreal, claustrophobic adaptation of the Poe classic, "The Fall of the House of Usher", and the early 1930's horror-comedy talkie of James Whale's "Old Dark House". Later decades produced Roger Corman's B-movie Vincent Price vehicles like "The Haunted Palace", and 1970s Italian Giallo works in the genre represented by Lucio Fulci's H.P. Lovecraft-inspired "The House by the Cemetery". The 1980s saw the Pacific Northwest set "The Changeling" by Peter Medak, and by the 1990s, examples like the unhinged "Sweet Home" by a young Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The late 1970's and early 80s hit their stride with the Japanese insanity of "Hausu" co-conceived by Nobuhiko Obayashi and his 11 year old daughter, Stuart Rosenberg's “Amityville Horror”, and of course no one who's seen it can forget Stanley Kubrick's singular, unnerving horror entry, "The Shining". Digging deeper there were 60's and 70's genre variations like Dan Curtis' “Burnt Offerings", the erotic horror of Elio Petri's "A Quiet Place in the Country", and Carlos Enrique Taboada's haunted schoolhouse-set "Even the Wind is Afraid". But of course the Haunted House owes it's origins to much, much older traditions in literature, as purviewed in The Guardian's, "Halloween Spirits: Literature's Haunted Houses". Traceable back to the 18th century bit of disquieting paranoia and creeping melancholy that is Horace Walpole's “Castle of Otranto”. Predating Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Daphne du Maurier, M.R. James, Ann Radcliffe, H.P. Lovecraft, and as The Paris Review notes, "The Draw of the Gothic", in all who would follow in their footsteps over the centuries since. Photo credit: Simon Marsden

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The New York Film Festival 2020 Edition: Sept 17 - Oct 11 | Virtual Festival Exhibitions



This year, due to the multitudinous factors of the global pandemic, major festivals have created a non-competitive alliance that has allowed them to collaborate and share their programming slates. That means that films like the romantic drama "Ammonite", which was originally scheduled for a Cannes premiere, will now have its first screening at Toronto. This alliance was initially born of Cannes, the world's most prestigious and influential festival, finding that they were not able to host a physical edition. Cannes instead opted to organize events in other festivals in the coming year, what they termed “Cannes hors les murs”. They were also joined by Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York and other major film festivals to present the free live streaming fundraiser, We Are One: A Global Film Festival in a show of global solidarity. On the other hand, The Venice Film Festival was held in person with certain safety restrictions, their reduced scale model was improbable a success this year. Italy has largely brought coronavirus infections under control with a rigid lockdown and continued vigilance, measures which the festival organizer embraced and enhanced. Opening with both a forceful cultural and political salvo, the Cate Blanchett-led jury consisting of Nicola Lagioia, Joanna Hogg, Veronika Franz, Matt Dillon, Ludivine Sagnier and Christian Petzold, "Venice Became the First Major Film Festival to Return After the Coronavirus Lockdown". At a safe, relaxed festival where big Hollywood films were absent, Jonathan Romney reports for The Guardian, in his "Venice Film Festival 2020 Roundup - Against All the Odds, a Triumph". In which he writes; "The idea of a major film festival happening live seemed almost unimaginable in the time of coronavirus pandemic, but while many festivals went strictly online, and Cannes was cancelled altogether, the Venice team managed to attract an audience to the Lido with a varied and impressive slate of films." These include the year's award winners, many of which will be heading on to the North American festivals to follow.
 
Navigating this complexity, The Toronto International Film Festival has generated ways to sustain similar enthusiasm in the virtual world and in this year's hybrid model. Between a select number of online Q&A sessions with directors, and both drive-in showings and significantly reduced in-person theater screenings in Toronto, the event will showcase 50 films instead of the 333 it programmed in 2019. As also affirmed by the typically lavish reporting to be found in The Guardian, "‘Nomadland’ and ‘Ammonite’ are Standouts at the first Toronto Film Festival of the Pandemic Era". In a similar mode The New York Film Festival’s unorthodox 58th edition launches next week. This major cultural event based out of Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had hoped to preserve some in-theater aspects of the festival. But with New York state officials holding firm on their theater restrictions, that option expired. Subsequently, New York will be joining a chain of North American cultural institutions through which, "Digital and Drive-In, Film Festivals Try to Salvage a Season". Screenings and talks will instead be held either online or at drive-ins in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, with a majority of access offered through Film Society at Lincoln Center's Virtual Cinema. Beyond just the 25 films that make up the Main Slate, which represent 19 countries and feature a number of US documentaries, the Spotlight on directors and works of note, and the Currents sections are also quite strong. Of particular note is the excellence on offer from such 20th century luminaries as Wong Kar-wai, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Terence Dixon, Jia Zhang-ke, Jean Vigo, Wojciech Has, and Mohammad Reza Aslani, among others to be found in this year's Revivals section. These films join previously announced titles "Nomadland" from Chloe Zhao, the director of 2017's "The Rider", in another study of contemporary America. Starring Frances McDormand as a woman who loses her Nevada home and joins the multitudes of nomadic people across the continent. Zhoa's film was in stiff competition for the Golden Lion at Venice with Pedro Almodóvar’s free adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play, "The Human Voice". A film revolving around solo Tilda Swinton, in a Brechtian conceptual twist as a woman pacing a typically lavish Almodóvar set within a deserted sound stage. These are programmed alongside Azazel Jacobs' "French Exit" which serves as the closing night film, and Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock". The McQueen is joined by two other films from his "Small Axe" anthology in the main slate, "Mangrove" and "Red, White and Blue", with the anthology series itself to premier on BBC later in the fall.
 
In the way of documentaries, the famously indefatigable Frederick Wiseman gives us the literally-titled, "City Hall", and Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI" also delivers precisely on what the title suggests. Other more obscure gems are on offer in the form of one drunken and erudite night with Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper, "Hopper/Welles", and mainland Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke's ruminative mapping of his hometown, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue”. Increasingly further and few in-between, Sophia Coppola returns with a new vantage into her world populated by mid-life New York bohemia "On the Rocks". Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang expands his daydream world of "Days" depicted through the wanderings of two men in Bangkok, and South Korea's prolific master of modern malaise, Hong Sang-soo is back with "The Woman Who Ran". Christian Petzold's "Undine" is unlikely to disappoint as he has been on a continuous roll following his Berlin trilogy and last year's "Transit". A pair of unclassifiable documentary works are to be seen in Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy's "Her Name Was Europa", which screens alongside Sergei Loznitsa's ironic mini-portrait of the galas of Paris’s Palais Garnier in the 1950s and 60s. The literati, aristocracy, and ideas of class and social upheaval from the top down, collide in the course of a turn-of-the-20th-century Christmas Eve gathering at an elegant Transylvanian estate in "Malmkrog" from Cristi Puiu. No longer satisfied with essay film, Heinz Emigholz moves ever further away from his documentary origins and into the realms of the uncanny with "The Last City". Which watches as a spiraling series of conversational tête-a-têtes transpiring in five locations around the world. Both Matías Piñeiro Shakespeare-inspired, “Isabella" and Philippe Garrel's "The Salt of Tears" look to be the modus operandi from their respective directors, and new entries in the form of Philippe Lacôte's Ivory Coast-set "Night of the Kings", and Song Fang's "The Calming", look to compel. Another posthumous film from the late, great Raúl Ruiz, completed by his life partner Valeria Sarmiento, "The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror" is rescued from obscurity, and the subject, setting and duration of C.W. Winter and Anders Edström's "The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)", suggest it will be equally, yet differently enigmatic.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

New York Asian Film Festival 2020 Edition: Aug 28 - Sept 12 | Asian Cinema Virtual Theatrical Exhibitions



Born of necessity, film festival programmers have responded to the global pandemic in a variety of ways in the past six months. Generally by cancelling 2020 editions altogether, optimistically postponing, or going online with virtual theatrical exhibitions. Even Cannes, the world's most prestigious and influential festival did not host a physical edition. But have instead opted to organize events in other festivals in the coming year, what they termed “Cannes hors les murs”. Cannes also joined Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York and other major film festivals to present the free live streaming fundraiser, We Are One: A Global Film Festival spanning late May to June. This past summer there are also a number of significant Asian and Japanese-specific festivals that have found themselves unable to host a physical edition this year and have transitioned into the virtual. The Japan Times have assembled an overview, "Asia-themed Film Festivals Migrate Online Amid Coronavirus Pandemic" of the highlights to be seen namely from Hamburg's Nippon Connection, and this year's Japan Cuts, New York. Beyond these Japanese-centric festivals, there are the larger Asia-inclusive festivals both domestically and abroad. Of them, the Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno" in growing numbers and diversity.

Of particular note, a quartet of masterful films emerge from Chinese mainland directors in the last few years. Representing for China's sixth generation was the director at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decades now, Jia Zhang-ke. The eerily futurist sheen of his "Ash Is Purest White" lent a distinct glow to the social realist grit of the director's recent turn into crime drama. The second would be the dream of a movie that is Bi Gan's sophomore effort, "Long Day's Journey Into Night". The first hour centers around the noirish pursuit of a love from years past, setting the tone for film's extended set piece in its second half. All of which culminating in a highly stylized and oneiric cinematic voyage, wherein "Long Day’s Journey Into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic". In a similar tone, and borrowing the brilliant cinematography of Jingsong Dong, Diao Yinan's "The Wild Goose Lake", goes some way beyond its suggestively neorealist underworld settings, into a strange and labyrinthine maze of crime, duplicity, and pursuit. This "Noir Thriller in Wuhan", probes the cracks and fissures of contemporary Chinese society through the story of a fugitive gangster and the call girl who accompanies him, on his journey toward retribution and eventual self-sacrifice. Most elusive of this quartet of films was the single directorial work by novelist Hu Bo before his untimely suicide in late 2017 at the age of 29. Based on the story from his novel "Huge Crack" of that same year, Hu's extended duration film swept critical attention and gained great notice at this past year's Berlin International Film Festival. Unrelenting as its tone and duration may be, “An Elephant Sitting Still” proves a delicately layered, subtly shot work that distinguishes itself.

Which brings us to the offerings from this year's New York Asian Film Festival. Beginning with a set of films from both established and rising Japanese directors, blockbuster director Keishi Otomo reveals a contemplative side with his first arthouse film, “Beneath the Shadow”, and the always interesting Sabu gives us another supernatural thriller with, “Dancing Mary”. Mariko Tetsuya's "Miyamoto" amps up the melodrama and histrionics inspired by the manga of the same name, and star actor, Joe Odagiri is joined by a stellar cast and crew on, “They Say Nothing Stays the Same". Which includes legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle alongside a cast comprising Akira Emoto, Masatoshi Nagase, Tadanobu Asano and Yu Aoi, plus a rare appearance from YMO's Haruomi Hosono. Hong Kong cinema is represented by one of its longest consistent voices with “Chasing Dream" from Johnnie To, alongside Yuen Kim Wai's crime thriller, “Legally Declared Dead". In a new twist for South Korean cinema, Yoon Dan-bi's breakout at the Rotterdam film festival, “Moving On", owes much to Japanese auteurs of quiet familial melodrama the likes of Yoji Yamada and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and rightly shouldn't be missed. The various directors behind the anthology series, “SF8", have assembled eight stand-alone 52-minute science fiction films which have drawn comparisons with "Black Mirror", and Korea continues to shine in the intersection of pop, arthouse genre, and animation with Cho Kyung-hun's "Beauty Water". Also on offer is a feminine sendup of the Hong Sang-soo genre of filmmaking jubilantly on display in Kim Cho-hee's "Lucky Chan-sil". In a similar vein, Kim Do-young explores the complexities of its protagonist's navigating of the world of men in "Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982", and indie film star Lee Joo-young gives a tour-de-force performance traversing another male-dominated cultural setting in Choi Yoon-tae's "Baseball Girl". Taiwanese cinema is rightly on offer in Shih Li's bitter and poetic, "Wild Sparrow”, and no Asian film festival would be complete without a serving of contemporary psychodrama and horror, found in Emir Ezwan's "Roh", and Layla Zhuqing Ji's “Victim(s)”.  

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hands Up. It's Showtime. “Federal Agents Push into American Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority” | The New York Times


Now is the political moment to revisit Kurt Andersen's 2017 Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, “Hands Up. It’s Showtime.”. In it Anderson provides an analysis of the events around Ferguson Missouri, the associated paramilitary response, institutional rhetoric offered as it's rationale, and the ensuing representation seen in the media. “I’ve been studying Americans’ accelerating penchant for blending the fantastical into the real world", writes Anderson, "from Disneyland to reality TV, from themed restaurants to war reenactments to ubiquitous porn to Burning Man. So I started seeing evidence of the phenomenon in some very unlikely places - such as the excessive police response to the protests in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., where officers with AR-15s in Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Trucks struck me as law enforcement doing war-fighting role play, cops playing soldiers on TV. After Ferguson showed Americans just how militarized our police have become, the Obama administration put restrictions on the federal program that had given police departments billions of dollars worth of military equipment. And I thought of the Ferguson spectacle again last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that President Trump would be removing all those new limits on the handouts of military hardware. Mr. Trump, of course, is a stupendous embodiment of my theory of the merger of fantasy and reality. As a business hustler and entertainer, then as candidate and president, he peddles over-the-top make-believe from his branded cologne and “university” and Ceausescu-esque residences to his WWE appearances and “The Apprentice” to the tales about millions of illegal 2016 voters and his predecessor’s birthplace. And he has depicted American cities as centers of “carnage,” turned monstrous cops like Joe Arpaio into celebrities, told the very opposite of the truth - “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years” - and encouraged the police to rough up suspects. Mr. Trump’s view of policing clearly derives from “Dirty Harry” fantasies, with he himself playing the beloved strongman commandant."

We now find ourselves at a social and political crossroads, wherein this "American carnage" has been reenvisioned as our fellow citizens, and can be seen acted out in a number of US cities, such is the case with, “Federal Agents Push into Portland Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority”. This has been executed in at least three separate dispatches to cities across the United States, and "From the Start, Federal Agents Demanded a Role in Suppressing Anti-Racist Protests". All of which assigned ludicrous nomenclature like Operation Diligent Valor, and Operation Legend, in addition to the surveillance of protests in at least 15 cities during the months of May and June prior. In the case of the latter, both manned and drone aircraft filmed demonstrations in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, among numerous other cities, sending video footage in real time to control centers managed by Air and Marine Operations, a branch of Customs and Border Protection. These all being aspects of a nationwide operation that deployed resources usually used to patrol US borders for smugglers, trafficking, and illegal crossings. As widely reported in most major newspapers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, New York and The Los Angeles Times, under the claimed auspice of, “The agents in Portland are part of rapid deployment teams assembled by the Department of Homeland Security after Mr. Trump directed federal agencies to deploy additional personnel to protect statues, monuments and federal property during the continuing unrest." The teams, which include 2,000 officials from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, "are supporting the Federal Protective Service, an agency that already provides security at federal properties." These agents have been dispatched to Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., Customs and Border Protection have also sent drones, helicopters and planes to conduct surveillance of the protests across the country. But in truth, many of the arrests detailed in the articles contained herein are far removed from the federal sites in question, and no clear crimes are seen being committed in much of the footage or first-person accounts. In addition, as reported by the Los Angeles Times below, federal agents appeared to fire less-lethal munitions from slits in the facade of the federal courthouse, one officer walked the street while swinging a burning ball emitting tear gas, and camouflaged personnel drove in unmarked vans making arrests outside of the federal properties they are deployed to protect. Subsequently, Oregon state officials have a very different take on the motives and objectives of the dispatch of these federal troops, and have confronted the Justice Department and Homeland Security, "Portland Mayor to Trump: Get Your Troops Out of the City".

“Governor Brown said in an interview that she asked the acting homeland security secretary, Chad F. Wolf, to remove federal officials from the streets and that he refused. She said the Trump administration appeared to instead be using the situation for photo-ops to rally his supporters. “They are provoking confrontation for political purposes,” Ms. Brown said. Mr. Wolf, who arrived in Portland on Thursday, called the protesters a “violent mob” of anarchists emboldened by a lack of local enforcement. In response Wolf dispatched, “Federal Agents Unleash Militarized Crackdown on Portland”, and to which, "Portland Mayor Demands Trump Remove Federal Agents from City". In a statement, "Brown, said Trump was looking for a confrontation in the hopes of winning political points elsewhere, and for a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing rising numbers of infections in Oregon and across the nation. Brown’s spokesman, Charles Boyle, said arresting people without probable cause was “extraordinarily concerning and a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights”. The Oregon attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, said she would file a lawsuit in federal court against the US Department of Homeland Security, the Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Federal Protection Service, alleging they have violated the civil rights of Oregonians by detaining them without probable cause. She will also seek a temporary restraining order against them. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said the federal agents appear to be violating people’s rights, which “should concern everyone in the United States”. But beyond generating content for the media cycle and current and future political campaigns, the normalizing effects of such misuses of power will have other far-reaching implications as noted by Jason Stanley, Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works”. “Now, the spectacle should already worry us, because he did the spectacle in Lafayette Square,” Stanley writes, referring to Trump’s violent clearance of peaceful protesters from a park near the White House in June. "Then he did the spectacle in Portland. And when you allow too much spectacle, as it gets worse over time, people start to say, ‘This has been happening for awhile, what’s the big deal?’ The spectacle normalizes, and then you can’t tell - say it’s November - you can’t tell if it’s still spectacle any more."
Illustration credit: Daniel Zender

Thursday, July 9, 2020

“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” | Harper's Magazine


In rapid succession over the course of a week following Matt Taibbi's “The American Press is Destroying Itself”, there came an open letter published by Harper’s magazine, signed by luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Salman Rushdie, and Noam Chomsky, which argued for openness to opposing views. The debate began immediately, as the New York Times coverage conveys, "Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction is Swift.". A surgically precise and more insightful response to the instantaneous backlash can be found in the pages of Reason magazine from journalist and the host of "Blocked and Reported", signatory Jesse Singal, “The Reaction to the Harper's Letter on Cancel Culture Proves Why It Was Necessary”. Outside the optics of identity, and the associated discussions of merit through which it is being considered, the letter is assuredly one of the higher profile and culturally significant statements of its kind. Linked herein is the open letter published in the October edition of Harper’s for all to deliberate, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”.

"Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

"More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement."

"This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us."
Illustration credit: Dan Bejar

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020 Edition: Jul 17 - 30 & Nippon Connection Jun 9 - 14 | Contemporary Japanese Cinema Virtual Theatrical Exhibitions



Worldwide, the organizers of film festivals scheduled for the spring and summer have responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways. Generally by cancelling altogether, optimistically postponing, or going online with virtual theatrical exhibitions. Even Cannes, the world's most prestigious and influential festival will not be hosting a physical edition. But have instead opted to organize events in other festivals in the coming year, what they termed “Cannes hors les murs”. Cannes also joined Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York and other major film festivals to present last month's free live streaming fundraiser, We Are One: A Global Film Festival. Concurrently there are also a number of significant Asian and Japanese-specific festivals that have found themselves unable to host a physical edition this year and have transitioned into the virtual. From which The Japan Times have assembled an overview, "Asia-themed Film Festivals Migrate Online Amid Coronavirus Pandemic". These festivals continue to represent and offer a bounty of cinema over the course of the two decades since the Japanese cinema explosion of the 1990s. The directors who led that wave; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike, are still among the industry's most high profile faces on the international festival circuit. Contemporaneously, a new generation of filmmakers are also making themselves heard. Though one is hard-pressed to see the abundance offered by these voices in domestic theaters. Particularly regionally here in the northwest as we have seen a significant dropoff of such titles in the programming offered in the once-abundant Seattle International Film Festival. Make no mistake, while there is a dearth to be seen on domestic screens, this is not representative of the volume and quality still issuing from Japanese film culture. Taste of Cinema's 2017 overview goes some way to assert this, with their substantial serving offered in the "The 25 Best Japanese Movies of The 2010s (So Far)".

2015 was a standout year for this set of rising new directors, it saw the domestic release of Shunji Iwai's disorienting urban drama, "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 5-hour domestic tranquility stunner, "Happy Hour", and Koji Fukada taking home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes for “Harmonium”. In many regards, this "New Wave of Japanese Filmmakers Matches the Old". Of them, it could be said that "Fukada’s Filmmaking is a Breath of Fresh Air" following most explicitly in the footsteps of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his darkly pessimistic take on the concerns that comprise modern Japanese life. It is not long before it becomes clear that, "In ‘Harmonium,’ a Family has Let the Wrong One In". As well as directorial debuts from new voices like Isamu Hirabayashi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa student, Yui Kiyohara who arrived with her fully formed "Our House". There have also been strong returns offered by "Sion Sono's Set of Films That Don’t Fit His Bad-Boy Label", and Takahisa Zeze's miraculous transformation seen in "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine", offering up a whole new array of concerns around, "Takahisa Zeze's Crime, Punishment, and Transcendence". San Francisco's Japan Film Festival, and New York's Japan Cuts have been two of the standard-bearers for representing this ongoing issuance of quality film from Japan, as are examples seen in European settings like Frankfurt's Nipppon Connection. For further reading, The Japan Times feature highlights the unexpected convergence of quality and volume on offer from the latter, "Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Brings Together an Extensive Collection of Japanese Films". There's also no shortage of excellence presented annually by Japan Society's North American setting of, "Japan Cuts Film Festival at Japan Society Emphasizes the Eccentric". Year in and year out, the festival offers "Asian Cinema That Pauses for Reflection", "Life in the No-Go Zone of Fukushima and Two Views on Husbandry", "The Hard Road of the Japanese Documentary Maker", and generally an expansive representation of, "The Best of Contemporary Japanese Cinema".

By way of example, this year's online edition of Nippon Connection saw the memorable feature length oddity of Isamu Hirabayashi "Shell & Joint", the excellent Sakura Ando boxing vehicle from Masaharu Take "100 Yen Love". Documentary and genre works are presented,  Sabu's supernatural "Dancing Mary", the tough skinned urban realities of Tetsuya Nakashima's "World of Kanako", Sion Sono trying his hand at sci-fi in "Whispering Star", and the documentary on progressive journalist Isoko Mochizuki, by Tatsuya Mori "I-Documentary of the Journalist". There's also groundbreaking anime to be had in Masaki Yuasa's follow up to his award-winning "The Tatami Galaxy", "The Night is Short, Walk On Girl", and Keiichi Hara's historic "Miss Hokusai". Urban life is painted in very different hues by Yukiko Mishima in "Shape of Red", and Takafumi Tsuchiya's "Flowers & Rain". Inspired by Roc Morin's "How to Hire Fake Friends and Family" for The Atlantic, Werner Herzog delivers one of the slipperiest of his indistinguishable hybrids of documentary and fiction, "Family Romance LLC", and "Nobuhiko Obayashi, Unpredictable Japanese Director", leaves us his final film as a "Labyrinth of Cinema". Similarly there's some overlap to be had in this year's online iteration of Japan Cuts. Hirabayashi's "Shell & Joint" is on offer, as is Obayashi's final film, and a documentary on the late director as well. If one missed any of Yoji Yamada's serial films focused on the imperturbable Tora-san, there's a quartet being presented, from his first to the fiftieth, and a few in between. This year's winner of the prestigious Kinema Junpo award, Haruhiko Arai's "It Feels So Good", will surely be a highlight, as will Takuya Misawa's "The Murders of Oiso". "Snow on the Blades" director Setsuro Wakamatsu makes a return with star power and melodrama in "Fukushima 50", and "One Cut of the Dead" director Shinichiro Ueda is back again with some, "Special Actors". Tadanobu Asano likely had a wonderful time making Toshiyaki Toyoda's spirited response to his wrongful arrest. New films by rising directors can be found from the assistant director on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Journey to the Shore" Taku Tsuboi, as well as the passion project from Hirokazu Kore-eda protege, Nanako Hirose. Also appealing are award-winning mentions for relative unknowns Anshul Chauhan, and the intensity on offer from newcomer Ryo Katayama. Discussions on labor and class, with a dash of "the humanistic impulses of Kenji Mizoguchi", from Kana Yamada, and a tender and quietly devastating roadtrip drama, seen as a bridging of adolescence and adulthood in this Berlin Film Festival Special Mention from Nobuhiro Suwa.