Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Hate Speech is Loathsome, but Trying to Silence it is Dangerous" or: "How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Put Mark Zuckerberg in Charge of Everything"


Matt Taibbi continues to write for Rolling Stone on the troubling implications of tech giants aided by dubious star-chamber influencers like the Atlantic Council named below, charging themselves with the role of curbing dangerous speech online. The real consequences of doing so being collateral, and society-wide, "Censorship Does Not End Well Or... How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Put Mark Zuckerberg in Charge of Everything”. In which Taibbi asserts; “Americans are not freaking out about this because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between general principles and political outcomes. So long as the “right” people are being zapped, no one cares. But we should care. Censorship is one of modern man’s great temptations. Giving in to it hasn’t provided many happy stories. The platforms will win popular support for removals by deleting jackasses like Jones. Meanwhile, the more dangerous censorship will go on in the margins with fringe opposition sites - and in the minds of reporters and editors, who will unconsciously start retreating from wherever their idea of the line is. The apparent efforts to comply with government requests to help “prevent the foment of discord” suggest the platforms are moving toward a similar surrender even in the United States. The duopolistic firms seem anxious to stay out of headlines, protect share prices and placate people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who just said deleting Jones was only a “good first step.”

And previously, also in the pages of Rolling Stone, "Many of the banned pages look like parodies of some paranoid bureaucrat’s idea of dangerous speech." writes Taibbi, in "Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship". Where he continues; "A page called “Black Elevation” shows a picture of Huey Newton and offers readers a job. “Aztlan Warriors” contains a meme celebrating the likes of Geronimo and Zapata, giving thanks for their service in the “the 500 year war against colonialism. Facebook also wiped out a “No Unite The Right 2” page, appearing to advertise a counter-rally on the upcoming anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Facebook was “helped” in its efforts to wipe out these dangerous memes by the Atlantic Council, on whose board you’ll find confidence-inspiring names like Henry Kissinger, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, former acting CIA head Michael Morell and former Bush-era Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. (The latter is the guy who used to bring you the insane color-coded terror threat level system). These people now have their hands on what is essentially a direct lever over nationwide news distribution. It’s hard to understate the potential mischief that lurks behind this union of Internet platforms and would-be government censors. When Facebook works with the government and wannabe star-chamber organizations like the Atlantic Council to delete sites on national security grounds, using secret methodology, it opens the door to nightmare possibilities that you’d find in dystopian novels."

"The pre-Internet system for dealing with defamatory and libelous speech was litigation, which was pretty effective. The standard for punishment was also very high. In the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan - the bedrock case for libel law involving a public figure - the court went out of its way to make sure that complainants needed to prove reckless or knowing disregard for fact. Among other things, the court worried that absent such a tough legal standard, outlets would play it too safe with speech, and “make only statements which steer far wider of the unlawful zone." This mostly worked. Historically there were few analogs to Infowars that got anything like wide distribution because of the financial threat, which scared publishers most of all. In order to have power to distribute widely you needed resources, but you put those resources at risk if you defamed people. That all changed with digital media. Way back in 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. It contained the following landmark language: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Essentially this meant that Internet providers wouldn’t be treated like news organizations. In the eyes of the law, they were less like CBS or Random House than they were bookstores or newsstands. The rule allowed platforms to grow exponentially without the same fear of litigation. Companies like Facebook and Google became all-powerful media distributors, and were able to profit from InfoWars-style programs without having to be liable for them. The sheer market power of these companies over information flow has always been the real threat. This is why breaking them up should have long ago become an urgent national priority."

The above Taibbi pieces make for a corresponding web companion read alongside The New Yorker's "The Hell You Say: New Battles Over Free Speech", and the most concise argument I've read on the subject of free speech in America, from the Los Angeles Times' Editorial Board, "Hate Speech is Loathsome, but Trying to Silence it is Dangerous". In which they expressly take the stance; "Despite the debacle in Charlottesville, Virginia - or perhaps because of it - you can rest assured that there will be more marches around the nation in the coming weeks by people who espouse hateful, racist ideas. And those events, some of which are already planned, will undoubtedly draw counter-protesters determined to shout down, if not shut down, the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, self-styled storm troopers and others from the cesspool of the far right. The vast majority of Americans would sooner have their communities hit by a plague of locusts than by the torch-bearing racists who invaded Charlottesville. Nevertheless, it is vitally important to recognize that people are constitutionally free to hold even the most deplorable views, and to express them as well. Counter-protesters, for their part, are equally entitled to say clearly and forcefully that racism, anti-Semitism and similar beliefs that denigrate or deny the humanity of others have no place in our society."

"Neither side, however, has a right to start throwing punches. Nor should the mere risk of such violence be used as pretext for denying people the ability to exercise their right to free speech or assembly. These exceptionally American notions seem lost on some of our leaders. A case in point: Several elected officials have asked the federal government to withdraw a permit for an Aug. 26 rally at San Francisco’s Crissy Field organized by Patriot Prayer, a Portland-based group of right-wing provocateurs. That is the exactly wrong approach. Denying permits in order to shut down speech that is offensive or so controversial that it might provoke a violent backlash is the act of an autocratic government. It is in fractious times like these that we must hold firmest to constitutional principles. Unfortunately, this nation has a history during times of stress of trampling the very rights we supposedly revere. A century ago, anarchists and leftists were arrested and in some cases deported because of their beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s it happened again in response to wars hot and cold. Fear and racism during World War II also propelled the establishment of internment camps for Japanese Americans, and a generation later the government reacted to protests over the Vietnam War by spying on American citizens exercising their right to free speech. That is a dangerous path - one even more dangerous than a street brawl among political radicals. Violence at protests should be denounced no matter who perpetrates it, but the wrong response would be to silence those with whom we might not agree. We would not urge anyone to avoid confronting and countering political or social ideas they might find disagreeable, or even hatefully reprehensible. But as a society, the nation cannot countenance its political debates descending into violence - or being preemptively shut down - no matter how noxious the ideas might be."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Cannes Film Festival + Cinema Miscellanea



The summer issues of Sight & Sound and Film Comment have landed, and with them their respective overviews of this year's Cannes Film Festival and it's concurrent and collateral aspects. The Competition and this year's award winners, works screened Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard, Cinefoundation, Special Screenings, Cannes Classics, Critics Week, and alternate festival of the Directors' Fortnight. Despite pressures from industry giants of the small screen, this year's festival was accounted for as having the strongest offerings seen in decades. The release of the program alone inspired the announcement of, "Cannes Ups its Game: The 2018 Program isn’t Resting on Any Laurels", with rounds of equal enthusiasm seen at it's close, "Cannes 2018 Verdict: Sombre Brilliance Wins the Day". Detailed in overviews by The New York Times, British Film Institute, and The Guardian, with coverage in Sight & Sound's roundup and extensive representation offered by Amy Taubin's "Why Settle for Less?", Kent Jones "Drifting Apart", and Nicolas Rapold's "Trolling the Croisette", for Film Comment. Now in it's 71st year, the 2018 program was testament to the organization's ongoing credo of representing quality, continuity, innovation, and audacity in the filmmaking arts. Evolving with the times, Cannes has seen changes in format, context and release platforms, while in response endeavoring to preserve their inherent mission and ethos. In the digital age there have been casualties in this parsing of what constitutes cinema, and how it is presented to the public. Most notably the exclusion of the legendary, once thought lost, and now available to view after its protracted restoration behind Orson Welles', "The Other Side of the Wind".

Other questions of inclusion and representation were tackled by this year's Cate Blanchett-led jury, which included a cross race, culture, and gender assembly of notable actors, directors and artists. With such names as Chang Chen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Khadja Nin, Denis Villeneuve, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Ava DuVernay, and Robert Guédiguia, among their numbers. The jury's realization of Cannes mission to represent quality work, regardless of it's origin was elucidated by its president, "Cate Blanchett States that Change Will Come to Cannes, but Not Overnight". With the awards given, further elaborating on the question of representation was made, "Jury Head Cate Blanchett on Gender, Race and Choosing the ‘Right’ Palme D’Or". In the way of the selection and the award winners themselves, it was the most recent in a decades-spanning line of contemporary familial dramas that Hirokazu Kore-eda took home hist first Palme d'Or for "Shoplifters". While closely adhering to the form and content of the larger body of the director's filmmography, this "Unfancied Japanese Film Took the Palme d'Or", with Blanchett adding at the awards ceremony; “The ending blew us out of the cinema”. Arriving at the tail end of the festival, another greatly anticipated film screened with relatively little fanfare. There are few examples in recent film production history that approach the ruinous complexity that faced Terry Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote". This decades-delayed adaptation of Cervantes novel survived two separate failed productions, in doing so becoming a biblical ordeal of extreme weather, wrecked sets and collapsed funding. Outliving two of the actors once cast, and the accrued colossal legal acrimony, "Terry Gilliam's Epic Journey Found a Joyous End".

From the grand heights of the Palme, to the great disappointments of the festival. Some of the least satisfying submissions of this year came from two auteurs who are known to delivered kinetic, sometimes transgressive cinema. Beyond simply activating the senses and troubling the mind, they each have contributed significantly to moving the needle forward in regard to cinema on the edge. Building on a bodies of work that are often technically groundbreaking, and occasionally astounding to perceive, Lars Von Tier was back at Cannes with "The House that Jack Built", and Gaspa Noe resurfaced after the tepid (yet visually engaged) "Amor", with "Climax". Sadly, it appears that neither have rediscovered the strength of their respective forms. While Noe's film didn't meet with the divisive response that his work traditionally garners, "Gaspar Noé: 'Six People Walked Out of Climax? No! I Usually Have 25%'", neither did reach the visceral peaks of his best and sensorial work. Von Trier has also been on a particular downward trend since attaining persona non grata at Cannes in 2011, a label which he no doubt cherishes, yet his films fail to express those past qualities worthy of controversy. While exhibiting more frisson than was seen in the flaccid "Nymphomaniac", this newest was met with a spectrum of responses running the gamut of, "'Vomitive. Pathetic': Lars Von Trier Film Prompts Mass Walkouts at Cannes".

Cinema from the Chinese mainland now in it's sixth and seventh generation, had a strong showing with the return of Bi Gan after the extraordinary debut of 2016's "Kaili Blues". Returning with "Long Day's Journey into Night", he's taken a venture into genre cinema of sorts, with an oneiric and stylized noir, where, "Long Day’s Journey into Night Follows its Own Woozy Dream Logic". Sixth generation director Jia Zhang-ke has been at the spearhead of mainland cinema for over two decade now. In the long arc of his increasingly expansive art, he's built a body of work as observations on globalism, largely comprised of a mildly-surreal tangent of social realism, with an unexpected recent turn into the realm of politically conscious crime drama. As Peter Bradshaw's review details, "Ash is Purest White" falls into the general classification of the latter. Setting it apart, Zhang-ke has imbued the tale with what Bradshaw describes as a "miasma of visionary strangeness", giving a distinct glow to the film's social realist grit. Seen through the film's eerily futurist sheen, this complex romantic tragedy set within China’s crime classes is a "Chinese Gangster’s Girlfriend Saga that Burns Bright". Of a more pure, and consistent social realist strain are the films of Wang Bing. "Dead Souls" may prove to be his truest account dedicated to film, and Eric Hynes' associations with the life work of Claude Lanzmann aren't off the mark. Through hours of personal accounts from survivors, Bing shines a steady light into a corner of 20th Century Chinese history; the Maoist regime's 1957 anti-Rightist campaign, in which over 3,000 men were forcibly relocated, and effectively left to die at the Gobi Desert's Jiabiangou work camp.

Upping his technical form and content, Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" is a sensuously shot and musically scored mystery, taken from a Haruki Murakami short story centering around the (sometimes hallucinatory) fixations of an obsessive love. Where it differs is that its psychological drama is set in the cultural fallout of modern consumerist Korea, with bold diversions into the pastoral and surreal, this visually gripping observation on, "Male Rage Blazes a Chilling Trail on the Korean Border". Also returning in strength, two of the most notable provocateurs of the world of moving pictures, returned with quintessential works. In "BlacKKKlansman" Spike Lee delivers the film that Quentin Tarantino has spent a lifetime seemingly discovering that he is unqualified to make. In this sharply cutting extrapolation on historic events, Lee has assembled a raucous investigative satire of American white nationalism. All the while not obscuring the bigger picture of bigotry enduring in the current era, one can't help but watch Lee's southern period drama as "A Clanging Rebuke to the New Trump Order". With "Le Livre d'Image" Jean-Luc Godard delivers another of his recent provocation of images, resonances, associations and history. From "Notre Musique" on, Godard has been making works where his relation to the art of cinema, a reckoning with European post-colonial history, and the impending end of his own existence are at points of convergence. This quest seemingly began with his late-period masterwork, 1998's "Histoire(s) du Cinéma". Continuing on form, his newest is a mosaic of film clips and image fragments, his voiceover punctuated by sloganized textual excerpts, his signature unpredictable sound cues, and declamatory orchestral chords. And like the more successful of his recent experiments, "Godard's Eyeball-Frazzling Video Essay Bewilders and Delights".

Maybe too indebted to Russian literature in the resetting of concerns and character types lifted from Chekhov and Dostoevsky, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" still remained something to witness in its acerbic series of observations on folly. Set against the barren austerity of the the surrounding Cappadocian Steppes, its beauty won out over the inertia that set in as the film's protagonist went, by degrees, further and further astray of the world. With "The Wild Pear Tree", Ceylan "Contemplates a Restive Rural Homecoming" through a writer’s reluctant return to his small town origins, and in doing so, effectively tipping the balance back the other way. By setting the film's extensive series of conversational encounters against the richness of the rural Turkish landscape, he's moved his typically wry observations into the realm of a melancholic mood piece, delivering a "Delicious, Humane Tableaux". Another retooling of a director's formula was seen in the dialing back of the magic realist bent of her 2014 Grand Prix-winning "The Wonders". Alice Rohrwacher's "Happy as Lazzaro" is more unsentimental in its depiction of tobacco sharecroppers straining against the dealings of a tyrannous aristocrat. Geoff Andrew draws parallels with Ermanno Olmi’s "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" in the film's peculiarly Italian fabulism. Yet as a "Beguiling Fable of Golden, Rural Italy Trampled by Modernity", it stands apart as its own "Practice in Magic Neorealism".

Begun as a concurrent, alternative festival in 1969 by the French Directors Guild in response to the events of 1968, The Directors' Fortnight celebrated its 50th Anniversary retrospective. Not limited to restorations and presentations of notable works from the canon, from its inception The Quinzaine Realisateurs has been a showcase for rising new directors working in genre, content and form on the edge of what might usually pass the master in Cannes competition. This year's selection included standouts from Debra Granik with "Leave No Trace", Mohamed Ben Attia's "Dear Son", and the rare occasion of anime appearing during the festival, represented by Mamoru Hosoda's "Mirai". Where's Gaspar Noe's "Climax" failed to quite deliver his expected shocks and thrills, Panos Cosmatos upped the ante with his sophomore effort, "Mandy". By taking a series of pages from the stylebooks of both Noe and Nicolas Winding Refn, wedding them to a unhinged genre vehicle overflowing with gloriously lurid cinematography and a lead actor's penchant for bombast, "'Mandy' has Nicolas Cage Wreak Revenge at the Fiery Gates of Hell". Ratcheting up the visceral engagement to such heights, and a pounding, sensory-fraying score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, "Cosmatos’s Mock-1980s Oddball Nerd Fantasy Yarn" deftly circumnavigates the trappings of much similar postmodern territory. 

Thematically dark cinema of very different natures can be found in the filmmographies of Italy's Matteo Garrone and Japan's Ryusuke Hamaguchi. While both have issued works exploring social, political and neorealist realms, they are each inclined to brief and suggestively surreal intrusions into these same narratives. And in both, we are witness to a slow unfurling of troubling events and their coming to intersect the lives of everyday people. In the case of "Dogman", the bad-to-others comes in the form of a local thug who terrorizes everyone, breaking noses and intimidating the local businesses. Yet like much of the director's work, though it might well be bleak, it recognizes humanity when it sees it, and doesn't reject humor in doing so, "Matteo Garrone Nitpicks Gangster Insecurities with Hilarious Flair". Less assertively cynical than his last offering, the epic duration plumbing of suburban malaise that was "Happy Hour", Hamaguchi's earnest romance "Asako I & II" switches things up by adapting Tomoka Shibasaki's tale of mirror-image obsession. A inversion of cinema's "male gaze" and its depiction of passively enigmatic female beauty, here things are reversed in a counter-"Vertigo". By turns nostalgic, romantic and melancholic, with the gentlest of heightened conceits, it remains beguiling and mysterious through to the conclusion. Much in the way of the original "Masterful Look at Loneliness and Malaise in Tokyo" by this Akutagawa Prize-winning author.

From the once Soviet Union come two films of varied dystopic visions. Historic and more measured in its study, Pawel Pawlikowski's "Cold War" is an episodic and elliptical tale of imprisonment and escape, as the film's central love affair falls to the opposing forces of state constrictions and the freedom of a foreign country. Much in the way of 2013's "Ida", Pawlikowski’s "Seductive Tale of Love in An Age of Borders", is rendered in a gorgeous monochrome cinematography that vibrantly depicts a whirlwind love between two musicians and eventual succumbing to the gravitational pull of cynicism, exhaustion and state-sponsored fear. It is not only a prolific time for Russian director, Sergei Loznitsa, but a highly qualitative one. Exactly a year ago his "A Gentle Creature" premiered in Cannes, followed by this past February's documentary "Victory Day" at the Berlin International Film Festival, and now at Cannes once again he's back with "Donbass". His films have always entangled themselves with the complexities of the historic and cultural aftershocks of post-Soviet Russia. But this new stretch has a forcefully dark, absurdist strain to it, that of a voyeur to the tragedy of a history witnessed. In light of the aggressions of Putin's Russia, both at home, toward the Republic of Ukraine, and wider eastern Europe, Loznitsa is not without lack of material in this regard. Channeling the current state of Orwellian unreality which dominates much of the region, and events lifted from real world news, Sergei Loznitsa’s feverish procession of scenes watches as a, "Freakish Fake-news Kaleidoscope of Ukrainian Civil War".

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 17 - 23


Legendarily difficult to procure, and often referred to in terms that paint it as a disastrous pileup of drugs, unbridled hubris, the complexity of foreign locations, unlimited major studio funding, and an increasingly ambitious editing process, Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie", has retained a status as one of the great, unseen films of its decade. The singular vision of an outsider artist who J. Hoberman succinctly refers to in his, "Dennis Hopper, Lone Horseman of the Apocalypse", “As an actor-director-lone horseman of the apocalypse, Hopper’s career suggests some druggy Dylan ballad with Marcel Duchamp and James Dean riding their motorcycles up Boot Hill to steal the carnations off John Wayne’s grave". Enabled by the massive cultural and financial success of "Easy Rider", Universal Studios selected Hopper as one of five American directors to whom they offered a one million dollar budget and the stipulation of little or no studio oversight. Working from a script which Hopper had developed in the 1960s, the freedom and financial backing offered by Universal allowed the production to be taken to a more desirably remote location in Cuzco, Peru. Assembling a wide reaching cast of actors and musicians, many of whom personal friends of Hopper, including singer Kris Kristofferson, director Samuel Fuller, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom and Michelle Phillips, Hopper spent much of 1970 shooting the film under the working title "Chinchero" with cinematographer László Kovács. Having produced what is said to be tens of hours of footage, Hopper then holed up in his home editing studio in Taos, New Mexico, working on assembling the massive body of footage into a coherent cut. Testament to the concoction of unbridled freedom, financial independence and alcohol and drug abuse in Hopper's life at the time, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson's "American Dreamer", is a troubling window into the year of the production. It is rumored that an initial, more linear, and conventional narrative cut of the film came of this period, but was rejected by Hopper following conversations with Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean director and author urged Hopper to more forcefully assert the meta-narrative underpinnings of the film's premise. From this came the crafting of a more disjointed, experimentally-inclined cut which Hopper completed in the spring of 1971. Choosing to foreground the challenge to the viewer's understanding of cinematic storytelling, Hopper assembled a more arcing non-chronological structure. In this, the remaining narrative passages are often disrupted by an an array of filmmaking devices such as rough jump-edits, production sequences, and "scene missing" cards.

Critically divisive at the time of its limited release in the 1970s, Roger Ebert's scathing review, and The New York Times' "A Gigantic Ego Trip for Dennis Hopper?" are representative of its general reception. A reassessment with time and distance turns a different lens on the film's perceived incoherence and use of avant-garde devices that so vexed in 1971. A new contextual consideration and fascination with the "The Last Movie" has been found, following the restoration by the recently launched Arbelos Films. The premier of the new restoration at New York's The Metrograph, and its first larger run of theatrical screenings at arthouse theaters like Northwest Film Forum have garnered notable press, like that seen in the Village Voice' "Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” Is as Essential as Cinema Gets", and "Dennis Hopper’s Misunderstood Masterpiece Deserves a Second Chance and Now, It’s Getting One". Still maligned at the time of his death, and thought to be lost to time and the complexities of it's production, Film Comment's "Fade Out on Dennis Hopper" posits "The Last Movie", as the masterpiece of this American artist and adventurer, who Manohla Dargis called, "A Madman, Perhaps; Survivor, Definitely". This singular work is best represented in this excerpt from the Museum of the Moving Image's symposium overview by Andrew Tracy; "However, while the programmatic content of "The Last Movie" stays safely within the bounds of permissible dissent, its chaotic form, the wild flurry of sounds and images, reveals - after repeated viewings - a truly striking focus and discipline. It’s hard to know how the film was originally envisioned - legend has it that Hopper tore apart a coherent narrative version after an upbraiding by Alejandro Jodorowsky - but it’s possible that Hopper, boozed, bedraggled, and bedrugged as he was, began to perceive while shooting and editing his welter of footage the paradox into which he had fallen. After all, his broadside against the American legacy of greed and violence had the backing of a major American corporation, was being made by a group of hedonistic, absurdly overprivileged tourists in the Third World, and turned on the hackneyed and narcissistic symbolism of Hopper’s stuntman as Christ figure, the American naïf dying for the world’s sins. Myth again, and forever. The apocalyptic promise of Hopper’s title shuffled back into the cycle of consumption, ritual violence made routine."