Friday, April 28, 2006

Airbrushing The Dead

It takes a deft hand to not only erase an active sponsor of genocidal violence, but also hide some 200,000 butchered human beings. Yet Guido Guilliart of the Associated Press did so in a single sentence:

"Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and ruled the tiny half-island territory with an iron fist until 1999, when a U.N.-organized plebiscite resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence."

The ol' "iron fist" line. Seemingly descriptive, but in this case, incredibly vague. An honest, accurate account would read:

"Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975, after receiving the green light from then-U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who visited Jakarta on the eve of the Indonesian invasion. Indonesia ruled the tiny half-island territory through terror and mass murder, killing some 200,000 Timorese, nearly a third of East Timor's population, thanks to several billion in military and economic support from the United States. This state of siege lasted until 1999, when a U.N.-organized plebiscite resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence. The Clinton administration continued to finance the Indonesian military as it committed more atrocities in a last-ditch attempt to stem Timorese independence. As U.S. Ambassador to Jakarta, Stapleton Roy, told reporters at the time, 'Indonesia matters, East Timor does not.' International pressure and outrage in Congress finally forced President Clinton to halt military aid on September 10, 1999."

Something tells me that if the Soviets or Saddam were financing these atrocities, especially over a 24 year period, their sponsorship would be mentioned. Indeed, we'd never hear the end of it. But knowing when to tell the whole story, if telling it at all, is one of the many tricks a journalist must learn in order to climb the mainstream ladder. An "iron rule," if you will.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


About half way through "Wild Man Blues," the docu about Woody Allen's jazz band touring Europe, I'd seen enough, ejected the disc. I've long been a big Allen fan, from his 60s stand-up to the many fluctuations of his film career, but the sourness and misanthropy he displayed in "Wild" was too much for me to take. I certainly hope he's not as bitter and petty as he's portrayed in that film; yet, when you look at some of his darker efforts and note the consistent bleak strands within, Allen probably is like that in life (reflected also in a Vanity Fair profile from Dec. '05). How else could he so accurately and artfully translate this to film? For him, a half-empty glass is unreasonably optimistic.

Watching "Match Point" reinforced this perception, though not unpleasantly so. When Allen is on his game, he sweeps you right into the narrative and smoothly carries you to its end. This is not to say that it's a completely comfortable ride -- the delusion, hypocrisy and cynicism of his characters would immediately repel any reasonable or sensitive person were they flesh; but as flickering images, they are irresistible to observe. And that Allen uses contemporary London as his location, a new backdrop for him, lends "Match Point" a certain freshness that would be missing were the film set in Manhattan. No one shoots New York like Allen, but he's pretty much wrung that great city out, so it's nice to see his story unfold elsewhere.

I won't reveal much of "Match Point" -- if you've seen it, you don't need my explication; if you haven't, it's now out on DVD, so grab one and watch. It's one of Allen's better films, though like much of his recent work, elements from earlier efforts appear, in this case, "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which to me is Allen's masterpiece. Characters are made to pay for the bad choices they've made, and in order to extricate themselves from potentially ruinous consequences, they choose to behave even worse. In Allen's world, one can do something or be part of something horrid, and while detection always looms, they usually get away with it, thanks to chance and luck. And that's what's so horrifying about these scenarios: the getting away with it. We know that people get away with murder in real life (when they're not simply celebrated for killing others), but it requires fiction to really make us understand the full implication of this, something Allen has down. There's no relief for the supposedly Not Guilty, not if they have any conscience or sense of personal morality. They escape jail only to be imprisoned in their mind. In "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Martin Landau's character rattles the bars in his soul to the point of a complete emotional breakdown, only to find, one sunny morning, that the bars are melting away. Distance from his crime allows rationalization to soothe his battered psyche, and in time he's free once again. Not only does he get away with it, he becomes happier and financially prospers, perhaps the most frightening development of all.

In "Match Point," Jonathan Rhys-Meyers isn't allowed Landau's luxury. His amoral ambition and appetite not only land him in a mental prison he cannot escape, but a physical one that he refuses to flee, namely, the wealthy family he marries into. By film's end, you see the suffocation in his eyes. He knows he's going to prosper, safely tied to big money and class privilege, but he sure as hell doesn't look happier. Indeed, he looks worse. He's well aware of the crime he's committed, and for him there's no personal justification, just emotional repression, and even that appears shaky. "Match Point" is less horrifying than "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but it lingers in the mind, reminding you that perhaps everything is random, morality is a delusion, and that the only point to life is grabbing what you can, any way you can, before the final night falls.

Many seem comfortable with this. Woody Allen, resigned to it. Me, saddened if it is so.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Crazy Talk

It's nice to see that Time's Joe Klein has lost none of the pomposity he proudly displayed back in the day, when our public buffoons were a little less gaudy in their idiocy (the pre-Fox News period). Klein's smugness and occasionally wild remarks (recall that he predicted that blacks would riot after seeing Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing") earned him a seat at elite media roundtables. And the revelation that he was the Anonymous who typed "Primary Colors," his novelistic account of the first Clinton campaign, sealed his political insider status for keeps. The beauty of this arrangement is that you can say pretty much anything you like, so long as media gatekeepers consider it "reasonable" or "insightful."

So what's passing for insightful reason this month? How about nuking Iran? Or, better still, saying that you think nuking Iran is a viable option, or maybe not, given that you are crazy and incapable of rational assessment? As Klein himself put it recently, responding to a caller on Jim Bohannon's radio show:

"And I do believe that [nuking Iran] should be an option. But let me tell you what I actually believe about this. First of all, it should be an option and I think it doesn’t do us any harm for the Iranians, if they are going to go around saying crazy things, to think that we might act crazily as well."

Think that'll get Klein barred from future talk shows and media panels? Are you crazy?!

Klein describes himself as a "raging moderate," whatever the hell that means. But assuming that, as a moderate, raging or not, Klein cares about the Earth's environment (which has become, at least rhetorically, a moderate concern), then advocating a nuclear assault on Iran, even as an "option," is simply irresponsible if we are to build a better, greener world. Nukes are environmentally unsound, for obvious, radioactive reasons. So if you're gonna suggest slaughtering tens/hundreds of thousands of people, then why not consider the old German model of mass extermination? Yes, there's that sticky Nazi legacy thing which still upsets a lot of people. But remember, 9/11 changed everything, and we simply must push past old emotions in order to confront new dangerous realities. If there is some way to march Iranian citizens into human abattoirs operating 24/7, then we achieve the mass murder we desire while sparing the planet further contamination. And as an added bonus, the remains of those dead Iranians can be reduced to powder, bagged, and sold as organic compost. So not only do we eliminate the Iranian threat, we strengthen the environment as well.

But that scenario might be a bit too rational for Joe Klein. As a highly-paid pundit, it's his job to say the things crazy people would love to say, if only they were given access to the corporate media. But you have to know how to talk crazily, how to keep your crazy ideas within the mainstream fold. Otherwise, anybody could go on TV and radio and say anything they wanted. And for a free society, that would be positively unhinged.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Memory's Soundtrack

Glad to see Sandra Bernhard's got a new show, "Everything Bad and Beautiful", at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Manhattan. Burning sass in a savage time. Nothing like it, or like Bernhard, for whom I completely fell when I first saw her in "The King Of Comedy" making a bound and gagged Jerry Lewis squirm with her ballistic night club act. My devotion was then forever won with "Without You I'm Nothing," the 1990 film which remains a personal fave. What I love about Bernhard is her utter and complete confidence, especially when she sings -- yet hints of insecurity emerge, as though she knows there are more glamorous performers with smoother voices and killer looks, but this accelerates her intensity, forcing you to immediately choose whether or not you can handle the full ride. A lot of people can't, and openly find Bernhard to be too abrasive, off-putting or disorienting. To me it's music falling from the cool night sky.

I also love how Bernhard weaves autobiographical material through a mad variety of pop culture & political references. Nothing is too cheesy or overtly obvious to use, and it shows how much the larger culture informs if not shapes our consciousness as we grow, later becoming the soundtrack to our memories. I happen to be in this very place at the moment, mostly for authorial reasons, but also to bridge the chaotic scenes from my past, put them in rough context, soothe some of the jangled nerves that have long tormented me. So news of Bernhard's newest stage offering, in which, apparently, she sings, rants and coos about her life up to now, is perfectly timed for what I'm composing. If I didn't look so frumpish in a sequined gown and beehive wig, the final effect would be even more dazzling.

Last weekend, I visited places that I hadn't seen in ages. It's interesting how direct physical exposure to a house, neighborhood or school not only clarifies memories that have started to fade or otherwise shift, it gives you an immediate, if fleeting, sensory reminder of how you felt at a specific moment in time. Standing in front of Francis Bellamy 102, the elementary school I attended (which is a block from the cul de sac I flew around as a kid), I reconnected with the confusion and dread I often experienced back then, when I would act up in class, stand on top of my desk and sing, draw giant fish on the chalkboard once the teacher left the room, then either get paddled by the school's principal, or punished later at home by my Dad, who was often called in to deal with his rebellious son. (Dad hated spanking me, and only did it a few times, but it never affected his appetite, whacking my bare ass with one hand while eating a bologna sandwich with the other.) This reconnection lasted maybe thirty seconds, yet I was completely transported, the six/seven-year-old boy trembling with anxiety once again.

Similar direct emotional sensations were felt throughout the weekend, some happier than others, but all of it under a wistful cloud. Driving down the long rural road that leads to the house where I lived with my Dad and Stepmother from 12 to 16 was especially overwhelming, as I still dream about that two-lane blacktop lined with acres of wood, abandoned corn fields and a few farm houses. The north side of the road remains as it was 30 years ago, almost eerily unchanged. The south side, sadly, is choked with prefab houses, the farm homes long ago torn down. Our old house is still there, sitting on 2 acres of yard, the swimming pool my Dad had built now corralled by a wooden fence. But where there was once fields as far as you could see (part of which I accidentally burned down when I was 12 -- two fire trucks needed to extinguish the flames filmed by local TV news, my broadcast debut, as it were) is completely covered with more prefab housing, many of the yards littered with garbage, rusting swingsets, abandoned refrigerators. The man who lives there makes his living repairing small engines in the garage I spent hours in, messing around with old tools, working on my cross-over dribble with an ABA basketball, playing with Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. He was extremely gracious as I told him about my time there; and while I dropped plenty of clear hints that I would love to see the inside of the house, primarily the cold basement where my bedroom was located (another regular dreamscape), the guy had no intention of letting me take a nostalgic tour. Still, I hadn't set foot in that garage since 1976; and that alone flooded my senses so thoroughly that it was an hour before my head returned to the present. I can't imagine how I would've handled the basement, the scene of so much activity, happiness and anger.

I was helped along my retro-journey by the numerous CD compilations burned by my friend Luke. Most songs on the discs have specific meanings set in specific times, while others establish general moods that capture certain periods. In this I share Sandra Bernhard's love of and intense connection to the music of one's past. In a way it's limiting to have old pop/soul/punk singles serve as guideposts when touring old haunts, using a stranger's musical expression to lend meaning to one's earlier life. But it can't be avoided, and would be ridiculous to ignore. One of the steady constants of our commercialized existence, alas. Nostalgia may be a prison, but memory can never be caged.