Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review - The Searchers - 19%

I watched The Searchers because it was ranked the number one Western on the AFI's new list of top genre films. So... do Native Americans have rights in the United States? I have a feeling that if this film had presented a different minority in the same way that it treated the Comanche there would be a mainstream outcry each time it was screened. I am shocked that The Searchers is spoken about without any caveat like the permanent introduction attached to screenings of Birth of a Nation: "this is a racist film important for its filming techniques". When I gave my rating of 33% I imagined I would accompany the screening in order to encourage a critical discussion.

Director John Ford was trying to make a movie that plainly showed the racist and genocidal tendencies on the frontier. Sounds interesting, neh? Unfortunately, while he crafts a wide variety of interesting, racist, white characters the Indian characters are shallow, stereotyped plot devices.

The Searchers starts with a Comanche revenge raid -they kill a family and abduct the daughter for assimilation. Thus begins the long search to rescue the youngest daughter from being raised as an Indian. It takes a while but they find her and John Wayne wants to kill her because 'she's gone Comanche' and he hates the Comanche. I liked the film for its darkness. John Wayne is perfect in his role as the racist, cold, frontier savvy tough guy. But don't go thinking that this film has depth. Despite the critics talking about its "deep layers" it's still the heavily sensationalized frontier simulacra so popular in American cinema.

This film has a degree of understanding akin to suburban kids singing along to gangsta rap. They know all the words but they're clueless. Perhaps it was remarkable for its time to include so many Native American words in the screenplay and that brief lament by one white guy about an innocent Comanche woman being killed (clearly the issue is whitey's epiphany and not the dead woman).

Consider this comic relief. A young white man "accidentally" buys an Indian wife in a trade. After trying to scare her off like a wild animal he tolerates her pouring him coffee. Then, upset that she has laid down beside him to sleep he gives her an exceptionally violent kick that sends her rolling down a hill. The music suggests that this is comical and John Wayne laughs.

The film does not cut to her.

The film follows John Wayne and the other white guy talking. In any film, when a character that the audience is trained to care about is injured we immediately cut to them to see that they are all right. She was left off-screen. It was a haunting sign denoting who I was being trained to care about. Amazingly, she is pulled roughly back into the frame as both men begin physically threatening her to tell them where 'Scar' is.

In the end, they go back and rescue the daughter. It's really startling to see her come out of Comanche mode and back to white girl mode as if they're two separate states of being. I'm sure she was instructed to "look like you're waking up from a terrible nightmare". Once again John Wayne wants to kill her for being raised by the Comanche. But he lifts her in the air, recalling a scene at the start of the film, and shows mercy. He shows mercy because he is reminded of her whiteness.

The film ends happily. Except for the Comanche who were killed in the climactic white man's revenge raid. I would have endless respect for this film if it ended with two Indians planning revenge for the senseless murder of their family thus continuing the violent cycle of the frontier but I daresay that this film felt, after all of the superficial criticism, whitey had earned his happy ending.

Sure you can study it for cinematography or storytelling technique but it's purpose is no more noble than sheer entertainment. In the end, The Searchers could only be popular in a state where Native Americans are second class citizens.

This essay gets it, why can't everyone?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Orange

Before my atheism was confirmed by reading the Bible my personal proof of God was the orange. What a delightful and well-designed treat; tasty insides packaged in an organic wrapping.

Each peel seemed like a private message that I was being protected by a great and kind being.

Steps toward atheism:

My young mind was thoroughly confused and disappointed when I prayed for some trivial toy and then got what I asked for. Was God's vision really so petty?

It was high school when I realized that Zeus was not a fictitious character from our mythology unit in english class. He was a god that people put their faith in to explain the things that terrified them (lightning, thunder, the indifference of nature). Identical to our God who explains what happens when we die, why bad things happen to good people, and the indifference of nature.

All debates on Christianity ended with "well, have you read the Bible?" I was irritated by this trump card so I decided to read the Bible. I quickly lost my taste for debating the virgin birth or if God had cruelly set-up Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I had never seen the whole outdated silliness of the Bible laid bare. It was so obviously the work of humans feigning divine inspiration. Debates still had an irritating end:
"... and that's why it's ridiculous."
"(scoff )Well, have you read the Bible?"
"Yes. Have you?"
"No. But I know that it takes a long time to truly understand."

I'm shocked that any educated person can hold onto their gods. By educated I mean aware of other major religions. Our deeply held beliefs are a product of geography. It becomes so embarrassingly arbitrary.

The trend that I have noticed in high school students is a struggle to believe in a God outside of religion. A clear attempt for the psychological comfort of a galactic father figure without the obvious contradictions of human scripture.

Fast fact for all followers of the religions of Abraham (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), did you know God might ask you to stab your kid?Don't worry, at the last second he'll send an angel to reveal it's all jokes.

Fast fact, did you know the line that did me in was Leviticus 19:19? The part about not being allowed to wear clothing from two different materials.

Friday, June 6, 2008

My Name is Rachel Corrie - Review

I thought this play was a worthy project. It was based on the journals of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of a Palestinian settlement.

I recently watched this production (made famous in Toronto by the controversy caused when it was rejected by CanStage). Unfortunately, I was so excited to see this piece that I came up with a better play in my head as was disappointed by what I saw.

What I saw:
The first half of the play was terribly boring. I didn't know what was more painful: the relentless misfiring jokes or watching Corrie's life being ruthlessly pounded into the mold of "typical American girl". Her relationship with her parents was wonderfully sophisticated but so misunderstood. Corrie was being played below the intelligence of her dialogue. It's a one-woman show and while Bethany Jillard held her weight she had a tendency to shout her lines -like a high schooler who "turns on" their acting. This poor choiceto show youth (I hope it was a choice) was dropped for the second half of the play. Corrie talks about life in Rafah, the horrors of civilian lives amidst military conflict, and her resolution that she is doing good in the world. The play collapsed under the weight of its politically charged content. There's a lot of talk about it being a simple story about a passionate young girl in a mad mad world but it's clear that it's written to raise awareness of the suffering of Palestinian civilians as a result of the state of Israel's security policies. It's part tragedy and part journalism and it does neither effectively.

The play in my head:
My version is a story about the politics of youth: the mix of inspiring idealism and pathetic naivety -not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

drop any pretense of fair representation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and show Corrie at her most indignant and righteous. The play I saw was boring because it tried to remove her bias and show a safe, watered-down version of her politics. It was embarrassing that this tame play is considered controversial. She was a political radical. I want the audience to see and feel that.

Second: show a more realistic and flawed Rachel Corrie. I say this because, looking between the lines of the play, she struck me as an interesting outsider. Intelligent, passionate, and an introverted journal writer. She has no lasting friends in the play (other than her parents) and the only suggestion of an intimate relationship looks like it was based upon an exaggerated fantasy in her journal. I was very interested in the final video played. Who put those words in her mouth? How do so many children develop their "save the world" perspective?

Third: Show her to be naive, childish, and desperate. She's an American girl traveling abroad to
police the globe. Be honest. Her desire to save the world is rooted in her self-esteem and attempt to make friends (my bias is that human life is most often a struggle for the individual to be accepted by the group on their own terms). There's also an edge of wanting to be an exotic freedom fighter. I have spoken with many high school students with an imperial "I Must Save Africa" worldview. It provides a moral high ground in the hopes that others will look up to them (I have seen this backfire -striving to be an inspiring mini-Gandhis can push others away by making them feel guilty or inferior).

Fourth: Now that the audience has dismissed her as flawed and misguided, show her courage and the difference she makes. Whatever her flaws, Corrie took risks, made sacrifices, and stood up. She never resigned herself to thinking violence cannot be stopped. Maybe she's compensating for first world white guilt but what of it? She used her life to protect civilians in a conflict. There is a profound frustration in Corrie about the world we live in and wisdom in the awareness that we are the ones choose it. My play would leave audiences with the following feeling:

That girl was embarrassingly naive but what the f*ck have I done with my life? When did I give up? If the audience carried that sentiment into learning about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict then I would consider my work worthy.

When Werner Herzog's doc "Ballad of the Little Soldier" was accused of criticizing the Sandinista rebels (in the Nicaraguan conflict in the 1980s), he responded that he was not making a political film. He was trying to tell the story of child soldiers. My own view is that everything is political -everything is about power and choosing a side. But I prefer Herzog's approach to storytelling: listen to now and speak to forever.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Joy of Coding

I worked in html for two websites and a user-friendly interface to make two video games (See: my sweet Video game Art. Treeplanter Ryan dismounting from 4-Wheeler with his Zombie-killing shotgun). My dives are shallow but I've seen the depths of the coding abyss.

Lil' Baby Code

I know I'm an amateur because I have a brother who has climbed higher. I often look up to ask him for advice when my clumsy rock banging won't start fire. He listens to my superstitious Neanderthal babble. "Fire no start. What you think? Moon god displeased?". He tries to explain flint, or simply hands me matches and returns to work on his fireworks. The life of a simple coder is full of frustration and awe. Experts laugh at my superfluous code and poor grasp of tools. Computer coding is a language and if you don't know the vocabulary you end up relying on what little you know. There's often more than one solution to any problem and the challenge is one of elegance and efficiency.

It's like needing to hammer some nails in a foreign country but only knowing the word for screwdriver. You can get the job done but it isn't pretty -they must have hammer technology but what do they call them?

The Scary Code Forest
It's too bad that more people don't travel into the lands of code. Most users never see the creativity of web design. For the pros there are never enough tools so they're alway embarking on complicated "workarounds" like figuring out how to gracefully use two saws and a crowbar because no one has created sandpaper.
In the struggle to be ahead of the competition coders go to great lengths to add simple features. This is a huge source of comedy and frustration in the programming world. The user knows what they want their website to look like but has little understanding of the hoops needed to jump through -particularly because their demands seem so innocent. "Just make it so it shrinks nicely if someone shrinks their window. Why is the text overlapping all ugly? It shouldn't do that. Make it not do that, okay?"

The Ugly Internet.
All webpages are text and images resting in an ugly series of boxes -as hideous as reading poetry on graph paper. But through the conspiracy of design it looks casual, like something you could draw on a napkin -including the coveted "soft corners" (which are actually done by pictures put in ugly hidden boxes on top of other ugly hidden boxes. See: h*ly sh*t Web 2.0 is here! Corners so f*ck*ng smooth you could set a baby on them!). Blogger lets you edit the code for you page but I was always hesitant because of the rise of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets -a coding language dedicated to keeping a webpages style consistent by controlling all of the colours, fonts, and spacing). My understanding of the ol' simple language of html wouldn't help me.

I was inspired by the "punchleft" feature of this page. So I learned some CSS, had to discover the name of a new tool 'z-index' and worked into the wee hours of the morning. Computer work is not physically fatiguing ('til your eyes explode) and hours disappear to tiny tests and bouts of googling (see: my previous undertaking. This image was created in MS Paint and used to create the cut corners for the top of this blog. The white pixel was my mistake and gives a feeling of humanity or delicacy to the cold world of the compunet).

Amateur or expert, there's a joy to creation. Problem-solving, trial and error, and results. I'm quite happy with how the images are set on this page now and enjoyed the logic problems of coding.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Improving Concerts

Concerts are weird. Standing around and watching someone play music is boring. It feels like a poorly planned party. We've turned live performance into a passive television watching experience. Why isn't anyone dancing?

Most listeners play music as we do other things (jog, make breakfast, make out, work, drive). In fact, I can't think of any time that listening to music is the primary activity. Except when a friend says "you have to hear this" and that leads to an awkward session. Unless there's a strong visual component at a concert I find it frustrating and ill-conceived.

The following ideas improve concerts. It took us fifteen minutes of passing notes (during a show) to think of them:

Compliments: people should write random compliments about audience members, they are passed to the front and projected on a screen.
A photo montage: If you're not going to perform with Daft Punk lasers or, at the very least, look wild and uncaged, then give me something interesting to look at. Art, kids' drawings, journalist photos from the Korean war. Anything.
Drawing: Everyone is encouraged to draw other people in the audience. As they are drawn they are posted on a screen. The singer encourages everyone to complete the picture by making sure everyone has been drawn (if I were doing this I would get someone on a laptop, plugged into a projector, scanning and adding the pictures to an updated mosaic).
Personal Reflection: A questionnaire is handed out. The audience answers personal questions about themselves that thematically match the song being played. At the end of the show the answers are handed in with an email address. Each individual receives their answers three years later via Futureme.org. I think I'll do this one at a Slam Poetry show. Or a show with a lot of forms, speeches, monologues, rants, music, poetry, just to rile up the crowd and make them think. I'm a f*cking genius.
Choreography: A simple, group dance is taught to the audience for the song.
Playground: Have a playground or obstacle course for adults to play on. Though I feel that Sumo Suits have an undercurrent of cultural insensitivity, I would rather watch audience members battle and apologize to the Japanese Ambassador than sit bored.

Interpretive dancers, chess sets, beach balls and balloons to bat around, cooking lessons...

This is only the beginning.

(Liz and I thought of this list while we listened to the talented Kay Pettigrew play her set at Stacy's fundraiser. She's definitely an artist who would embrace a chance for audience interaction.)