Nimoy transformed the classic intellectual, self-questioning archetype…

 …into a dashing “Star Trek” action hero

How Leonard Nimoy made Spock an American Jewish icon
Leonard Nimoy as Spock on “Star Trek” (Credit: CBS)

I suspect I can speak for most American Jews when I say: Before I’d watched even a single episode of “Star Trek,” I knew about Leonard Nimoy.

Although there are plenty of Jews who have achieved fame and esteem in American culture, only a handful have their Jewishness explicitly intertwined with their larger cultural image. Much of the difference has to do with how frequently the celebrity in question alludes to his or her heritage within their body of work. This explains why, for instance, a comedian like Adam Sandler is widely identified as Jewish while Andrew Dice Clay is not, or how pitcher Sandy Koufax became famous as a “Jewish athlete” after skipping Game 1 of the 1965 World Series to observe Yom Kippur, while wide receiver Julian Edelman’s Hebraic heritage has remained more obscure.

With this context in mind, it becomes much easier to understand how Nimoy became an iconic figure in the American Jewish community. Take Nimoy’s explanation of the origin of the famous Vulcan salute, courtesy of a 2000 interview with the Baltimore Sun: “In the [Jewish] blessing, the Kohanim (a high priest of a Hebrew tribe) makes the gesture with both hands, and it struck me as a very magical and mystical moment. I taught myself how to do it without even knowing what it meant, and later I inserted it into ‘Star Trek.’”

Nimoy’s public celebration of his own Jewishness extends far beyond this literal gesture. He has openly discussed experiencing anti-Semitism in early-20th century Boston,speaking Yiddish to his Ukrainian grandparents, and pursuing an acting career in large part due to his Jewish heritage. “I became an actor, I’m convinced, because I found a home in a play about a Jewish family just like mine,” Nimoy told Abigail Pogrebin in “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” “Clifford Odets’s ‘Awake and Sing.’ I was seventeen years old, cast in this local production, with some pretty good amateur and semiprofessional actors, playing this teenage kid in this Jewish family that was so much like mine it was amazing.”



Significantly, Nimoy did not disregard his Jewishness after becoming a star. Even after his depiction of Dr. Spock became famous throughout the world, Nimoy continued to actively participate in Jewish causes, from fighting to preserve the Yiddish language and narrating a documentary about Hasidic Jews to publishing a Kabbalah-inspired book of photography, The Shekhina Project, which explored “the feminine essence of God.” He even called for peace in Israel by drawing on the mythology from “Star Trek,” recalling an episode in which “two men, half black, half white, are the last survivors of their peoples who have been at war with each other for thousands of years, yet the Enterprise crew could find no differences separating these two raging men.” The message, he wisely intuited, was that “assigning blame over all other priorities is self-defeating. Myth can be a snare. The two sides need our help to evade the snare and search for a way to compromise.”

As we pay our respects to Nimoy’s life and legacy, his status as an American Jewish icon is important in two ways. The first, and by far most pressing, is socio-political: As anti-Semitism continues to rise in American colleges and throughout the world at large, it is important to acknowledge beloved cultural figures who not only came from a Jewish background, but who allowed their heritage to influence their work and continued to participate in Jewish causes throughout their lives. When you consider the frequency with which American Jews will either downplay their Jewishness (e.g., Andy Samberg) or primarily use it as grounds for cracking jokes at the expense of Jews (e.g., Matt Stone of “South Park”), Nimoy’s legacy as an outspokenly pro-Jewish Jew is particularly meaningful right now.

In addition to this, however, there is the simple fact that Nimoy presented American Jews with an archetype that was at once fresh and traditional. The trope of the intellectual, self-questioning Jew has been around for as long as there have been Chosen People, and yet Nimoy managed to transmogrify that character into something exotic and adventurous. Nimoy’s Mr. Spock was a creature driven by logic and a thirst for knowledge, yes, but he was also an action hero and idealist when circumstances demanded it. For the countless Jews who, like me, grew up as nerds and social outcasts, it was always inspiring to see a famous Jewish actor play a character who was at once so much like us and yet flung far enough across the universe to allow us temporary escape from our realities. This may not be the most topically relevant of Nimoy’s legacies, but my guess is that it will be his most lasting as long as there are Jewish children who yearn to learn more, whether by turning inward into their own heritage or casting their gaze upon the distant stars.

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in “The Morning Call,” “The Express-Times,” “The Newark Star-Ledger,” “The Baltimore Sun,” and various college newspapers and blogs. He actively encourages people to reach out to him at matt.rozsa@gmail.com

 

Banksy filmed himself sneaking into Gaza to paint new artwork

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World-renowned street artist Banksy released a 2-minute video on his website this week that delivers an eye-opening view of life behind the guarded walls of the Gaza Strip.

The video, “Make this the year YOU discover a new destination,” invites viewers to witness the devastation of war-torn Gaza and the tribulation of the Palestinian population cordoned within its borders.

The satirical mini-documentary, which is set to the legendary East Flatbush Project’s “Tried by 12,” presents itself as an advertisement for world travelers. It begins by showing an individual, presumably Banksy himself, entering Gaza by climbing through what’s parenthetically described as an illegal network of tunnels. “Well away from the tourist track,” the caption reads.

Exiting one of the dark tunnels, Banksy ascends into the bombed-out region and is greeted by children playing amid piles of rubble. “The locals like it so much they never leave,” the video says. Cutting to a scrum of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, it continues: “Because they’re never allowed to.

 

The video captures four of the mysterious artist’s new pieces. The first, titled “Bomb Damage,” is painted on a door defiantly erect at the facade of a destroyed building. Potentially inspired by Rodin’s “The Thinker,” it shows a man knelt over in apparent agony. Another depicts one of the Israeli guard towers along the separation wall transformed into an amusement park swing carousel. The third and largest piece is a white cat with a pink bow measuring roughly 3 meters high; its paw hovering above a twisted ball of scrap metal like a ball of yarn.

“A local man came up and said ‘Please – what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”

“This cat tells the world that she is missing joy in her life,” a Palestinian man resting nearby speaks in Arabic to the camera. “The cat found something to play with. What about our children?”

The fourth and final piece is simple red paint on a wall. It reads: “If we wash our hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless we side with the powerful—we don’t remain neutral.”

According to the video, much of the recorded destruction is the result of “Operation Protective Edge,” a July 2014 Israeli military campaign, the stated of goal of which was to prevent Hamas rocket fire from entering Israeli territory.

During the seven weeks of airstrikes, Gaza suffered up to 2,300 casualties, including 513 children; 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 civilians were also killed. Up to 7,000 Palestinian homes were complete destroyed, and another 10,000 severely damaged, according to the United Nations. Over half a million people were displaced by the conflict. By some estimates, rebuilding Gaza City could cost in excess of $6 billion and take more than 20 years.

Banksy isn’t new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2005, he painted nine pieces along the 425-mile West Bank Wall, the barrier which separates Palestine and Israel.

Screenshot via Banksy/YouTube

http://www.dailydot.com/politics/banksy-new-gaza-artwork/?fb=dd

German television series Tannbach and German postwar history

By Sybille Fuchs
9 February 2015

The three-part series Tannbach—Fate of a Village broadcast by ZDF [German public-service television], which achieved high ratings in January, attempted to follow on from the great success of the trilogy Generation War (2013). The latter dealt with the impact on five young Germans of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Tannbachattempts to encompass the history of divided Germany in the years following the Second World War by dramatising the fate of the inhabitants of a small village on the border between the two Germanys.

Tannbach

ZDF broadcasting director Norbert Himmler asserts that the television series “tells how it all began: from our roots in the postwar Germany of both republics, the German Democratic Republic [former Stalinist East Germany, GDR] and the Federal Republic of Germany [former capitalist West Germany, FRG]”. This claim, however, is misleading. Despite some excellent performances, the series is loaded with clichés and prejudices, which it often promotes in quite an embarrassing way.

With respect to both the “West Germans’ view of East Germany” and “East Germans’ formulaic attitudes and prejudices”, screenwriters Josephin and Robert Thayenthal fail to critically examine issues in any depth. Despite the supposedly “objective picture” of the times, the view upheld in official propaganda since the demise of the GDR predominates: that in eastern Germany one kind of totalitarian dictatorship [Nazism] was replaced by another [Stalinism], which was no less brutal and cruel than the first. The screenwriters themselves speak of the “two great German dictatorships of the twentieth century”.

This equation of two completely different regimes—on the one hand, the Hitler dictatorship, which destroyed the labour movement in the interests of German business, unleashed the Second World War and murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, Roma, disabled persons and prisoners of war; and, on the other, the Stalinist dictatorship, which nationalised large estates and industries, but suppressed workers’ democracy in order to secure the rule of a privileged bureaucracy—precludes the possibility of any realistic and credible representation of the period. Tannbach tends to present viewers with stock figures rather than human characters.

The US forces, who initially occupy the village at the end of the war, are generous, benevolent and “cool”. The Soviets, who later take over from the Americans, descend on the defenceless villagers like barbarian hordes. At the end of Part 1, the first appearance of the Soviet military concludes with their shooting of an innocent old man, a mother and a child, simply because a portrait of Hitler is found in a drawer. This pattern of presentation runs through the whole film.

Trying to balance this one-sided view by including two “good” communists fails to make things better. Both of them—Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has returned from exile in the USSR, and Friedrich Erler (Jonas Nay), the son of a Communist murdered by the Nazis—appear naive and implausible in their idealistic belief in a better future.

The film’s scriptwriters are so unaware of their own prejudices that they even reproduce the kind of bigotry characteristic of the Nazi era. Of the two young friends who flee to Tannbach from the rubble of Berlin, Friedrich Erler (non-Jew) becomes a farmer, while Lothar Erler (a Jew) ends up a smuggler. The writers should be ashamed of themselves.

“The Morning After the War”

Tannbach is a fictional village on the Thuringian-Bavarian border. It is based on the actual village of Mödlareuth in Upper Franconia-Thuringia, which was split between the US and Soviet occupation zones in 1945. The stream running through that small village is the Tannbach. The three-part series was actually filmed in Besno in the Czech Republic. Considerable effort was put into the attempt to make details of scenery, costumes and props as historically accurate as possible.

Part 1, “The Morning After the War”, begins in the last days of World War II. Just before US troops break into the estate of Count Georg von Striesow (Heiner Lauterbach), a young SS officer (David Zimmerschied) has the Countess (Natalie Wörner) shot because she refuses to betray her husband who has returned from the war as a deserter.

The count was denounced by Franz Schober (Alexander Held), a prosperous farmer and fanatical Nazi, who immediately offers to serve the Americans with his meticulously recorded insider knowledge of Nazi members and their activities. The SS officer, Schober’s illegitimate son, is exposed to the Americans by his own mother, Hilde (Martina Gedeck).

In any event, the US occupation is brief. Thuringia is assigned to the Soviet occupation zone, while Bavaria remains under American control. Soviet troops take over the village. Following a later revision of demarcation lines, US troops return to the western side of the village, which is divided down the middle.

The Soviet soldiers are portrayed as violent thugs, taking revenge for the atrocities of the German military through rape and plunder. What the German troops have done in the east is not revealed until the third part of the trilogy. Schober’s firstborn son, returning late from the war, shouts into the count’s face that he himself had ordered massacres before deserting his command. In retaliation for the killing of German soldiers, entire village populations—men, women and children—were shot as partisans.

One of the most powerful scenes in the first part includes the screening of a film recording the Americans troops’ liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, which the Tannbach villagers are made to watch.

Further plot developments focus on the count’s daughter, Anna (Henriette Confusius), and Friedrich Erler, the working class youth from Berlin. The young couple fall in love, hoping to find fulfilment in a new and better world, where there are “no top and no bottom classes, and no more war”. Friedrich’s mother, Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl), wants to escape the bad times, go to America and take her family with her.

Meanwhile the countess’s parents, former brewery owners from Zwickau and still fervent Nazis, have prepared their escape to Argentina via the “rat line” organised by Nazi operatives in collaboration with the Vatican, and want to take their granddaughter Anna with them, but she refuses.

“The Expropriation”

Part 2, “The expropriation”, deals with land reform in the Soviet occupation zone. Landowners who possess more than 100 hectares [247 acres] of property, or who were members of the Nazi party and committed war crimes, are expropriated without compensation. The land is then divided into five-hectare [12-acre] portions and allotted to the so-called “new farmers”.

Tannbach

The film fails to explain the brutal and reactionary role played by the Junkerclass (Prussian nobility) during the Wilhelmine Empire (1871-1918), the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933. Instead, Count von Striesow (convincingly played by Lauterbach) is presented as not such a bad fellow, although he reacts to the expropriation of his estate as the worst injustice imaginable.

After returning from POW incarceration in France, he refuses to accept that his daughter Anna has married Friedrich and is working with him to cultivate five hectares of land allocated to them from the Striesow family’s former estate.

“My Land, Your Land”

In Part 3, “My Land, Your Land”, Anna and Friedrich are living on their small farm, which is barely capable of supporting them and their child. Lothar contributes significantly to the family’s subsistence through his cross-border smuggling and as a black marketeer.

Tannbach

Four years later, in 1952 and during the Cold War, the East German Stalinists build a fence running across the whole of Germany. It goes through the middle of Tannbach, which lies within the five-kilometre protected area behind the fence. The entire population of the eastern part of the village is subjected to stringent security regulations.

At this point, Liesbeth visits Tannbach from America, enthusiastically praising New York, where everyone can say what he or she wants and it “doesn’t matter whether anyone is a Jew or a Catholic”. She denies that anyone wants a new war: “You’ve all just talked yourselves into believing that.”

No one watching Tannbach would know that the US had just initiated a bloody war against North Korea and China that claimed three-four million lives, that the American ruling elite was engaged in the ferocious, anti-democratic McCarthyite witch-hunts and that African Americans were subject to brutal apartheid conditions in the US South.

A young East German border guard in Tannbach is shot and killed by West German border guards, leading to a tightening of border security. All people suspected of not being one hundred percent loyal to the Stalinist regime are forced to relocate away from the immediate border area or face prison if they oppose the evacuation order.

Tannbach

District administration head Konrad Werner, an idealistic communist, initially protects the Erlers when they are targeted for arrest by the increasingly powerful state security forces because of Lothar’s smuggling activities. Lothar is shot by East German border guards as he attempts to illegally cross the demarcation area to attend the baptism of Anna and Friedrich’s child, which Anna had requested be held at the village church in Tannbach’s western half.

After the baptism, Liesbeth remains in West Germany. The family is finally separated. District commissar Werner is removed to Berlin. He says goodbye to Friedrich with the words: “Working for a fairer world is not a bad idea, but unfortunately there’ll be setbacks along the way. New world orders take time to bring into existence.” Anna receives her downcast husband, Friedrich, with the words: “I’m proud of you. I believe in this here. I believe in everything we’ve built up here. This is our home”.

This open but scarcely credible conclusion is apparently designed to allow the filmmakers to claim they have presented the problems and perspectives of East and West Germans objectively.

Screenwriters Josephin and Robert Thayenthal write in response to the many questions raised by the period treated in the film, as follows: “Television won’t be able to give the answers, but perhaps it will give a sense of how people feel, think and act, how they develop and harden, how they behave under the threat of overwhelming power and in the grip of extreme fear”.

This statement points to the dilemma, faced by television productions, which claim simultaneously to entertain and educate. Communication of vague “feelings” is not enough for the understanding of history. Different viewpoints and experiences are juxtaposed, but they cannot be comprehended in any profound way because the socio-historical context has not been presented.

What Tannbach entirely leaves out, among other things, is the role of the parties responsible for the defeat of the German working class and the catastrophe of fascism, the Social Democrats and, above all, the Communist Party, which due to Stalin’s catastrophic policies, facilitated Hitler’s rise to power. Apart from coming to terms with the failure of the social revolution in Germany due to the crisis of working class leadership, no significant chapter of mid- and late-20th century German history can be profoundly understood.

Due to certain outstanding performances, the production offers numerous impressive scenes, but ultimately Tannbach is unsatisfactory. Compared to Edgar Reitz’s epic series Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984), for example, the portrayal of the characters and their involvement in various events is often quite flat and unconvincing. But this is more the fault of the weak and limited script, and not so much that of the director, Alexander Dierbach, or the performers.

The documentary Spring 1945, broadcast by Arte on January 13, is far more successful in conveying an accurate picture of the immediate postwar period. The three episodes of Tannbach and related documentation are currently available in the ZDF media library.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/09/tann-f09.html

VOIZES speak up against global prison industries

By Luigi Celentano On January 31, 2015

Post image for VOIZES speak up against global prison industriesFirst-person insights into incarceration and freedom, by ex-prisoners themselves, from Barcelona’s Fractures Photo Collective and its project, VOIZES.

Today in the world, there are more people incarcerated than ever before in human history. VOIZES is an international census of this prison experience. Through a collaborative archive of interviews with prisoners and ex-prisoners, VOIZES documents what prisoners have to say about the international prison industrial complex.

– VOIZES Archive

An interview with William Sands, photojournalist with the Fractures Photo Collective and VOIZES.

Luigi Celentano: A little introduction for those who do not know you at all: What is the Fractures Photo Collective and what do you do exactly?

William Sands: Fractures Photo Collective was created in the spring of 2011 here in Barcelona, and we primarily focus on long-format photojournalism and documentary work. However, the VOIZES Archive is not exclusively a Fractures’ project. In reality, only two members of Fractures are active participants in VOIZES. The rest of the VOIZES team is made up of activists, artists, and other journalists from the Groundpress collective.

What has been your main impulse in taking up this challenge of creating VOIZES? And how was the project born?

Some of us have been long time participants in a grassroots abolitionist initiative called La Biblioteca de la Evasión or the Library of Escape. La Biblioteca de la Evasión is a prisoner book-sharing program we’ve been doing for more than five years. Two weekends a month, we visit a prison near Barcelona called Quatre Camins and give books to family members entering to visit their loved ones, and they pass the books along during the visit. Using the books as a meeting point, La Biblioteca seeks to engage prisoners where they are, in a conversation about prison abolition. Inside all of the books there is a stamp that explains the project and how they can request specific literature and an address where they can write to if they have other requests or concerns. We state very clearly that we are abolitionists and seek alternative forms of conflict resolution.

After years visiting Quatre Camins, La Biblioteca organized our first public event: Voces Desde Dentro, an exhibition of artwork by prisoners and ex-prisoners from all over the world. The exhibition was hosted in an occupied social center here in Barcelona and lasted for three days. There was poetry, photography, drawings and sketches as well as a series of presentations. The exhibit finished with a round-table discussion of prison abolition, privileging the voices of ex-prisoners, current prisoners’ family members, and social workers working in prisons.

The VOIZES Archive is a natural continuation of this process. Given that today we live in a globalized world, we believe that any real lasting conversation about prison abolition has to be international in nature and has to be guided by prisoners and the communities they come from. As a result the idea of creating a global census of the prisoner experience was born, and the VOIZES Archive was created.

Looking around the internet we couldn’t find a single site that was dedicated to collecting these stories and experiences, and even less so on an international level. So it seemed the project was relevant and worth embarking on.

Are they collaborative interviews, in the sense that anyone in civil society can contribute to the project?

Yes! Anyone can participate! Our goal is to include interviews from as many countries as possible, and the only way to do so is through collaboration. We’ve launched the website with the interviews we’ve done here in Barcelona and we plan to continue to do more interviews. But in order to expand the breadth of the project we’ve reached out to specific activists, photographers and videographers, asking them to contribute. And on the website there is a how-to manual explaining the basics of a VOIZES-interview, as well as a list of other ways to collaborate with the project. So it is our hope that eventually the project will boast of broad international participation.

In order to make the archive as powerful as possible, there are some aesthetic and theoretical guidelines to all of our interviews. They are all anonymous. All interviews use the VOIZES questionnaire. And, finally we reserve the right to approve all final edits and post-production.

What has been the process of selection of inmates for these interviews? Did you have certain parameters to follow as to which kind of prisoners to approach, or was it more of a voluntary process on their part? [I talk about inmates and prisoners, but I’ve realized most of them are in the process of getting out, or have been released already]

Anyone who has been incarcerated for more than a month can be interviewed. And we define incarcerated fairly broadly: immigration detention, prison, jail, juvenile detention, court ordered psychiatric treatment in a closed facility, etc. We’ve decided on the one month minimum in order to establish a basic common denominator given that the experience can vary so much between institution, state, country, etc.

Unfortunately most of the interviews we’ve done have come from our own communities. They are friends and family. I say, unfortunately, because we all would prefer not to be so intimately affected by the prison industrial complex.

How do you think these interviews help the prisoners themselves? Is it merely cathartic for them? What has been their reaction to the interviews and to the project?

I can’t really presume how this project has helped any of its participants. I’d hope that it is in some way cathartic, however I think the experience for the interviewees varies greatly. This being said, of all the people we have interviewed ourselves, regardless of how they felt about participating before the interview started, none have responded negatively. All edited interviews must be first approved by the interviewee before they go online, and everyone has been happy with the final cuts.

While I’m not specialized in mental health, I want to believe this project has some therapeutic value. It is designed to be a safe space to anonymously share an experience that unfortunately too many people in this world have lived. Sharing is an important first step to healing any sort of trauma, and it probably goes without saying, but I consider incarceration a trauma.

Have you encountered any kind of opposition or censorship from penal authorities when coming up with this project?

So far, no. I say so far because we’ve been doing all of our interviews outside of incarceration facilities. We are currently working on getting access to interview inside some prisons, but it is a slow and very bureaucratic process. Hopefully, in the future we’ll have more opposition and censorship, because that would probably mean the project is effective.

So far we have seen interviews about Spain and Puerto Rico prisons. Which has been the most difficult to shoot? Is there any subject the inmates refused to talk about, despite the questionnaire? And, in which other countries have you made interviews or received interviews from?

All of the current interviews have been shot here in Barcelona or in the surrounding area, including the interview with the woman that was detained in Puerto Rico. Generally, the questions in the questionnaire are designed to be broad, so as to highlight parallels and accentuate the differences between individual interviews. By far, the most difficult question for the interviewees to answer is the question about alternatives.

We are currently working on coordinating interviews in Argentina, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Venezuela, and France. And in March we are planning on taking the project to the United States where we’ll be organizing a series of workshops and presentations, as well as continuing the collection of interviews.

The majority of prisoners interviewed were incarcerated for the first time and they tell about the trauma of such an experience, of being imprisoned, of regaining liberty and its aftermath. Have you interviewed recidivist prisoners? Do you think they deal differently (or better, if we can say that) with the prison system?

So far we have only done one interview with someone that has a long history of recidivism. While I can’t point to any specific differences, other than the broader focus of the interview, generally speaking the shorter the interviewee’s sentence is/was, the more they talk about their detention and entry into prison. Whereas in those interviews we’ve done with people that have served longer sentences or have been incarcerated repeatedly, the interviewee has focused more on the experience and institution of incarceration.

Many of the prisoners, when asked about who’s inside, they all agree on the same thing: the majority of the people incarcerated are individuals without resources, the poor, people who can’t afford a good lawyer, immigrants, minorities. The mere thought of it is depressing enough, but isn’t this a reflection of our society, of its inability or unwillingness to address its flaws accordingly? Isn’t prison a mirror wherein society can actually punish these people even more and in more appalling ways, for being what they are or what circumstances made them to be?

I think this is true. But I’d add that it’s also about maintaining very specific power structures and economic structures that guide the globalized capitalist world. Prison is about control and subjugation. It is about guaranteeing the economic and political interests of those in power, those controlling the criminal justice system and the broader economy. More than punishment, I’d say prison is about maintaining white power. It is the ultimate tool of marginalization. As a result, as long as we don’t address the broader legacies of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism and understand the prison industrial complex within this framework, it will be hard to affect any lasting change.

Dostoyevsky once said that a society is best judged by the way it treats its prisoners, and there is a saying that asserts that every prisoner is political. It already says a lot about Western civilization and the society we live in. Do you think that a change in the way we deal with the established concepts of crime and delinquency and, consequently, with sentencing, imprisonment and prisoners’ reinsertion into society, ought to be a progressive and gradual one, both from the inside as well as the outside, from the prisons themselves and from society and its political structures; or should it be a radical one?

In general I think history moves slowly, and as a result so will any abolition debate or movement towards meaningful reform in the dominant logics of criminal justice. Prison abolition or any radical change of the criminal justice system will not occur in a vacuum, it must be part of a broader social transformation. As a result it is part of an extended struggle, probably longer than our lifetime. Undoubtedly, there will be moments of radical change, but I think we should all be planning on playing the long game.

Finally, considering all the accounts of detention and subjugation stemming from the prisoners’ interviews, do you see any hope in the fight against the prison industrial complex in terms of better conditions, better treatment of inmates and detainees, or do you see this business becoming more profitable for speculators and at the same time more abusive and tyrannical in its scope, in spite of all the resistance movements against it?

I have to be hopeful; otherwise there is no sense in doing this work. As a documentary photographer and photojournalist I’ve covered many topics and followed many people documenting their stories of loss, struggle, resistance, consumption, and marginalization. And I’m continuously inspired by the human spirit. Our strength, creativity, and courage are really powerful. As result, I believe strongly in our capacity to affect change. Specifically, in regards to the prison industrial complex, I believe we’ve reached a critical historical moment where the opportunity for radical change is growing.

In the United States, where the prison industrial complex was born, the economic crisis has ushered in a new opportunity for debate. For many states the economic costs of mass-incarceration have become just too much of a burden. This, coupled with shifts in the country’s feeling about current drug policy, means there is more space for debate than ever before. I think we have to take advantage of this moment. Internationally, I believe that for the same reasons there is a growing awareness that incarceration does not work, be it subconsciously or not. So we just have to keep plugging along.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. We hope to see more interviews at VOIZES in the future and we wish you all the best for the project.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about VOIZES. We really appreciate it, and we strongly encourage your readers to take a closer look at the website and if possible, collaborate!!! Thanks again.

Luigi Celentano is an independent writer and translator based in Buenos Aires. As an advocate of libertarian (anarchist) ideas he has been contributing with his work to the abolitionist and social justice movements for several years.

All photo material taken from voizes.org.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/voizes-prison-abolition-project/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

“River’s Edge”: The darkest teen film of all time

“River’s Edge” understood ’80s kids — and what they’d do to combat that horrible feeling of emptiness

"River's Edge": The darkest teen film of all time

Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed Daniel Waters, screenwriter of the enduring and dark teen comedy and media satire “Heathers” for the book (“Twee”) I was researching at the time. The conversation was genial and funny, and I could tell he was what we used to call at my old employer Spin magazine a “quote machine.” Soon, the subject got around to films of the late American auteur John Hughes, particularly his iconic high school trilogy of “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and “Pretty in Pink” (the 1986 romantic comedy that he wrote but did not direct). “I felt like Hughes was trying to coddle teenagers and almost suck up to them, idealize them,” Waters said, with almost no fear of reprisal from the many millions who hold these films (and Ferris Bueller … and even, to paraphrase Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale,” minor Hughes efforts like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “She’s Having a Baby,” dear), “[With ‘Heathers’) I was more of a terrorist coming after John Hughes. What drove me nuts about the Hughes moves was the third act was always something about how bad adults were. When you grow up your heart dies. Hey, your heart dies when you’re 12!”

One could make an argument for Waters’ “Heathers” (directed as a gauzy, occasionally surrealist morality play by Michael Lehmann) as the darkest teen film of all time. The humor is pitch-black, there’s a body count, a monocle, corn nuts and an utter excoriation of clueless boomers who wonder, as the supremely camp Paul Lynde did a quarter of a century earlier in the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie,” what (in fuck) is the matter with kids today?

But it’s not. Not even close, when compared with a film that preceded it by only three years, the Neal Jimenez-penned, Tim Hunter-directed 1986 drama “River’s Edge,” which is released this month on DVD after years of being difficult to find for home viewing. No other film captures more accurately what it’s like to be dead inside during the end of the Cold War, the height of MTV and the invasion of concerned but impotent parents. “River’s Edge” was the one film that seemed to understand that it wasn’t the rap music, heavy metal music or even drugs that made ’80s kids, it was … nothing. As in the feeling of searching your soul for what you should feel and finding it empty, and slowly, horrifyingly getting used to it to the point that at least one, maybe more of us, will do anything, even commit murder, in order to combat that horrible void. I didn’t want to kill anyone or even myself, but I wanted to disappear, or at least be frozen and wake up in art school in the early ’90s, when bands like Nirvana gave that feeling a voice, and a few anthems.



There’s a lot of Nirvana in “River’s Edge.” Most “what’s the matter with kids today?” films have their juvenile delinquents in some kind of drag: black leather jackets (“Blackboard Jungle,” “The Wild One”) or spiked hair and safety pins and pet rats (“Suburbia,” “Next Stop, Nowhere,” aka “the Punk Rock Quincy episode”). But the kids in “River’s Edge” dress in ripped jeans and T-shirts and chunky, shapeless sweaters. It’s sexless (the only sex scene takes place under a shitty maroon sleeping bag with bullfrogs croaking in the distance and a dead body being simultaneously disposed of not too far off). “The thing about a shark,” Robert Shaw famously observed during the “USS Indianapolis” speech in 1975’s “Jaws” just before all hell breaks loose, “is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… till he bites ya.” The kids who populate “River’s Edge,” Keanu Reeves’ Mike, Ione Skye’s Clarissa, Daniel Roebuck’s Samson, etc., don’t seem to be living, buzzed on sixers, many of which they must steal from a harried liquor store cashier (the great, recently late Taylor Negron), as they’re underage. Until they bite you. It’s hard to capture boredom on film without boring an audience (Richard Linklater’s “Suburbia,” for one, tries and fails). What keeps viewers of “River’s Edge” on, well, edge is the sense that these black-eyed, dead creatures in inside-out heavy metal tees (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, even the band logos are muted) is that they might bite. It’s a sickening feeling and you cannot turn away.

The first thing we see is a preteen kid, Tim (Josh Miller), a juvenile delinquent fast in the making, with an earring, holding an actual doll. We notice, with a little required deduction as he barely reacts, that he is staring across the river at a murderer and his naked, blue-ing victim, while holding the doll he stole from his sister: All four have doll eyes, the corpse (Danyi Deats’ Jamie), the killer (Roebuck) and the doll, which Miller casually drops into the river despite knowing well it’s his little sister’s security object and probably best friend. We are soon with Jamie and Samson after the crime has been committed. Samson is smoking. Despite the occasional feral howl that he knows nobody will hear (except Tim, which is the same thing), it feels like some kind of test for the audience. How much apathy can we weather? How many dead eyes can we stare back at? This is, of course, a testament to the young cast, all of them brilliant and committed (it can’t be easy to portray those bored soulless, can it? You want to react, you want to break). Jamie, a stunned look on her face, lies there, in the cold, also a committed actress, and there is simply nothing like this in any other teen film, or even a teen-populated horror film. Horror films, as the “Scream” franchise would soon remind us, have rules. I wanted to enter the screen, like Jeff Daniels’ genial explorer in Woody Allen’s charming comedy from the previous year, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and cover her body somehow. But Hunter forces us to look, which could not be easy for him as an artist, and must have been a challenge for him to ask it of his young cast. In his review, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “The difference is that the film feels a horror that the teenagers apparently did not.”

“Where’s Jamie?” Samson’s crew asks once he leaves the crime scene (for more beer).

“I killed her,” he says.

Most don’t believe him but Layne (Crispin Glover, top billed but unmistakenly launching his freak phase, only a year after playing Michael J. Fox’s bumbling dad in the blockbuster “Back to the Future”). Layne sees the event, the tragedy, as both fait accompli (“You’re gonna bring her back? It’s done!” he squeals in a reedy, wired voice) and a life-changing (and -saving) break in the day-in, day-out living hell; a kind of moral test. He believes Samson, he rallies around Samson, and he tries to motivate his crew to do the same. The corpse is a gift to Layne and Layne returns the favor by pledging his loyalty. He can’t help stifling a smile when he is led to the site. “This is unreal! Completely unreal. It’s like some movie, you know?” Layne enters the movie, doing a reverse “Purple Rose …” Even Samson doesn’t want in. He wants out … of the world, and yet he becomes strangely proud when he displays the body to his group of friends, who borrow a red pickup truck to end their suspicion that they are being jerked around. Most of them instantly recoil at the site of the corpse (still naked!) and cannot get back to the torpor (arcades, sex, beer) quickly enough. Only Reeves’ Mike is conflicted and contemplates going to the cops. Similar terrain was covered in the hit “Stand By Me,” which was released the same year. “You guys wanna see a dead body?” Jerry O’Connell’s Vern asks his pals River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton, but they are clearly spooked and remain so into adulthood (as the narrator, Richard Dreyfuss, attests). The kids of this bumfuck town go about their bumfuck business, sleeping through class, hating their non-bio broken-home inhabitants (“Motherfucker, food eater!” Reeves yells at the slob who’s moved in with his mom). They’re not stupid. They’re just … unequipped for reality that does not repeat on a loop, sun up and sun down. Layne, in his makeup, watch cap, black clothes and muscle car is the only one among them who wants to feel “like Starsky and Hutch!”

“River’s Edge” is based, loosely, on reality. In late 1981, a 16-year-old student, Anthony Broussard, from Milpitas High School, near San Jose, California, led a group of his friends and his 8-year-old brother into the hills to see the barely clothed body of the 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad, whom he’d strangled days before. “Then instead of reporting the body of their dead school chum to the police,” reporter Claire Spiegel wrotein her coverage of the case, “they went back to class or the local pinball arcade. One went home and fell asleep listening to the radio.” She added, “Their surprising apathy toward murder bothered even hardened homicide detectives.”

Jimenez, then a college student in Santa Clara, California, read about the events and was inspired to begin working on a story based on this behavior. In the age of “Serial,” it’s hard not to see “River’s Edge” as prescient, and when I listened to the podcast last year, I thought a lot about the film. But its power comes not from reality, but from its craft: the script, the performances and the cinematography by David Lynch collaborator Frederick Elmes, who shot “Blue Velvet,” another milestone ’86 release. The beauty of the exteriors (the grainy opening, the murky drink, the perfect blue and shadows when Layne half-heartedly disposes of the body in it) make the ugliness of the behavior all the more disturbing.

Director Tim Hunter knew his way around a “youth gone fucked up” film by ’86. He was the co-writer of “Over the Edge,” known mostly as the film debut of then 14-year-old Matt Dillon who utters the pull-away line, “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” Loaded with excellent power pop (Cheap Trick’s “Downed,” and “Surrender,” especially), Dillon and his J.D. friends spoil the planned suburban community of “New Granada” on their dirt bikes, shooting off fireworks and BB guns. Dillon starred in Hunter’s directing debut, 1982’s “Tex,” based on a book by go-to wild, but sensitive, youth writer S.E. Hinton. Who knows why he didn’t appear in “River’s Edge.” Maybe it was too easy to see the heart beating under his flannel. Even Judd Nelson’s John Bender has a heart under his, and at the end of John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood,” Ice Cube’s scowling gang member Doughboy has a monologue that provides evidence that he’s got a big one. (“Turned on the TV this morning. Had this shit on about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places, where foreigners live and all. Started thinking, man. Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”)

The parents of New Granada are pretty pissed that their utopia has been vandalized and rally in protest, but the boomers of “River’s Edge” don’t even have the fight in them. There’s no Ms. Fleming from “Heathers” among them. Nobody will call when the shuttle lands. “Fuck you, man,” one of them rages in vain at his class. “You don’t give a damn! I don’t give a damn! No one in this classroom gives a damn that she’s dead. It gives us a chance to feel superior.” “Are we being tested on this shit?” a student asks. Even the media don’t really care. And if the kids themselves are apathetic (“I don’t give a fuck about you and I don’t give a fuck about your laws,” Samson tells Negron’s clerk before brandishing a gun), the new generation cares even less. Not even teenagers; they smoke weed, pack heat and drive big gas guzzlers they can barely see out of, when not speeding through nowheresville on their bikes or shooting trapped crayfish in a barrel, literally. Full disclosure: I was friendly with Josh Miller in Hollywood in the early ’90s. For a time, he was going to star in and produce a pretty decent screenplay I’d co-written, which eventually fell through. In person he was sweet, generous and caring, but I always, always looked at him sideways because he was also … Tim, who utters the following line: “Go get your numchucks and your dad’s car. I know where we can get a gun.”

There’s irony and black humor in “River’s Edge.” I don’t want to portray it as some kind of Fassbender-ish downer, 90 minutes of misery. Samson promises to read Dr. Seuss to his incapacitated aunt. And there’s, of course, Layne, who doesn’t even seem to realize that nearly every line out of his mouth is absolutely ridiculous (which makes him beyond endearing, sociopath that he likely is). When he is rewarded his sixer for chucking the corpse in the river, he complains, “You’d think I’d at least rate Michelob.” I wonder why Reeves became a star (this is only his second film, after a small part in the Rob Lowe hockey drama “Youngblood”) and Ione Skye, more briefly a sought after actress. Perhaps because his albeit belated actions make him as close to a hero as the film has … discounting, of course, Feck.

You know you are dealing with a dark film when its only true beating heart belongs to a crippled biker, weed dealer and fugitive murderer who is in love with a blow-up doll, having blown the head off his previous paramour. Feck lives alone. Feck, at the behest of Layne, briefly hides Samson. And, realizing he is dealing with a soulless and dangerous generation, Feck does what dozens of teachers and parents cannot, and will not do. He reacts. Perhaps it’s a testament to his skill, but Dennis Hopper the man looks genuinely heartbroken at what’s happened to the youth he fought so hard to liberate with his “Easy Rider.” In the midst of a glorious comeback (he’d appear in “Blue Velvet” and receive an Oscar nomination for the basketball film “Hoosiers”). It’s Feck that Samson finally opens up to (“She was dead there in front of me and I felt so fucking alive”). We don’t know why Feck shot his ex, but we do know that he maintains that he loved her. He sees none of that emotion, no emotion at all, in Samson. “I’m dead now,” Samson says. “They’re gonna fry me for sure.” Thanks to Feck, they won’t get the chance.

“River’s Edge” doesn’t end in a trial, but rather a quiet, plain, sparse church funeral and a bit of long-absent dignity returned to the victim. It somehow relieves the viewer. Sanity, as it is, has been restored. No one would call it a feel-good ending but somehow, strangely, bloodily, perversely, love wins in the end. “There was no hope for him. There was no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He didn’t feel a thing. I at least loved [mine],” Feck explains. “I cared for her.”

Released in May of ’87 in limited theaters, the movie quickly made a mark with critics, if not audiences, and began to amass a loyal cult of viewers who appreciated its unique and revolutionary qualities. It beat out Jonathan Demme’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” the acclaimed Spalding Gray monologue film, at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as John Huston’s final film, “The Dead.” And while far from a box office hit, it effortlessly set a precedent for films about teens. They no longer had to be either good or evil or anything at all. They didn’t have to dress or look like James Dean or Droogs or get off in any way on their heroism and their villainy. “River’s Edge” made all that seem quaint. It’s a singular film that foresaw the ’90s and freed the cinema teen to be a loser … baby.

Portrait of the Artist as a Dying Class

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Scott Timberg argues that we’ve lost the scaffolding of middle-class jobs—record-store clerk, critic, roadie—that made creative scenes thrive. Record store clerks—like Barry (Jack Black) in High Fidelity—are going the way of the dodo. (Getty Images)

BY JOANNA SCUTTS

It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places, that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America.

Though Scott Timberg’s impassioned Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class focuses on the struggles of musicians, writers and designers, it’s not just a story about (the impossibility of) making a living making art in modern America. More urgently, it’s another chapter in America’s central economic story today, of plutocracy versus penury and the evisceration of the middle class.

Timberg lost his job as an arts reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after real-estate mogul Sam Zell purchased the paper and gutted its staff. But newspapers are experiencing a natural dieoff, right? Wrong, says Timberg. He cites statistics showing that newspaper profits remained fat into the 21st century—peaking at an average of 22.3 percent in 2002—as the industry began slashing staff. The problem isn’t profitability but shareholder greed, and the fact that we’ve ceded so much authority to the gurus of economic efficiency that we’ve failed to check their math.

The story of print journalism’s demise is hardly new, but Timberg’s LA-based perspective brings architecture, film and music into the conversation, exposing the fallacy of the East Coast conviction that Hollywood is the place where all the money is hiding. Movie studios today are as risk-averse and profit-minded as the big New York publishing houses, throwing their muscle behind one or two stars and proven projects (sequels and remakes) rather than nurturing a deep bench of talent.

For aspiring stars to believe that they may yet become the next Kanye or Kardashian is as unrealistic as treating a casino as a viable path to wealth. Not only that, but when all the money and attention cluster around a handful of stars, there’s less variation, less invention, less risk-taking. Timberg notes that the common understanding of the “creative class,” coined by Richard Florida in 2002, encompasses “anyone who works with their mind at a high level,” including doctors, lawyers and software engineers.

But Timberg looks more narrowly at those whose living, both financially and philosophically, depends on creativity, whether or not they are highly educated or technically “white collar.” He includes a host of support staff: technicians and roadies, promoters and bartenders, critics and publishers, and record-store and bookstore autodidacts (he devotes a whole chapter to these passionate, vanishing “clerks.”) People in this class could once survive, not lavishly but respectably, leading a decent middle-class life, with even some upward mobility.

Timberg describes the career of a record-store clerk whose passion eventually led him to jobs as a radio DJ and a music consultant for TV. His retail job offered a “ladder into the industry” that no longer exists. Today, in almost all creative industries, the rungs of that ladder have been replaced with unpaid internships, typically out of reach to all but the children of the bourgeoisie. We were told the Internet would render physical locations unimportant and destroy hierarchies, flinging open the gates to a wider range of players. To an extent that Timberg doesn’t really acknowledge, that has proven somewhat true: Every scene in the world now has numerous points of access, and any misfit can find her tribe online. But it’s one thing to find fellow fans; it’s another to find paying work. It turns out that working as unfettered freelancers—one-man brands with laptops for offices—doesn’t pay the rent, even if we forgo health insurance.

Timberg points to stats on today’s music business, for instance, which show that even those who are succeeding, with millions of Twitter followers and Spotify plays, can scrape together just a few thousand dollars for months of work. (Timberg is cautiously optimistic about the arrival of Obamacare, which at least might protect people from the kinds of bankrupting medical emergencies that several of his subjects have suffered.).

In addition, Timberg argues that physical institutions help creativity thrive. His opening chapter documents three successful artistic scenes—Boston’s postwar poetry world, LA’s 1960s boom in contemporary art, and Austin’s vibrant 1970s alternative to the Nashville country-music machine. In analyzing what makes them work, he owes much to urban planner Jane Jacobs: It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America. In Austin, the university and the legislature provided day jobs or other support to the freewheeling artists, Timberg notes: “For all its protests of its maverick status, outlaw country was made possible by public funding.”

Today, affordability has gone out the window. As one freelance writer, Chris Ketcham, puts it, “rent is the basis of everything”—and New York and San Francisco, gouging relentlessly away at their middle class, are driving out the very people who built their unique cultures.

Take live music, for example. Without a robust support structure of people working for money, not just love—local writers who chronicle a scene, talented designers and promoters, bars and clubs that can pay the rent—live music is withering. Our minimum wage economy isn’t helping: For the venue and the band to cover their costs, they need curious music-lovers who have the time and money to come out, pay a cover charge, buy a beer or two and maybe an album. That’s a night out that fewer and fewer people can afford. Wealthy gentrifiers, meanwhile, would rather spend their evenings at a hot new restaurant than a grungy rock club. Foodie culture, Timberg suggests, has pushed out what used to nourish us.

Timberg is not a historian but a journalist, and his book is strongest when he allows creative people to speak for themselves. We hear how the struggles of a hip LA architect echo those of music professors and art critics. However, the fact that most of Timberg’s sources are men (and from roughly the same generation as the author), undercuts the book’s claim to universality. Those successful artistic scenes he cites at the beginning, in Boston, LA and Austin, and the mid-century heyday of American culture in general, were hardly welcoming to women and people of color.

It’s much harder to get upset about the decline of an industry that wasn’t going to let you join in the first place. Although Timberg admits this in passing, he doesn’t explore the way that the chipping away of institutional power might in fact have helped to liberate marginalized artists.

But all the liberation in the world counts for little if you can’t get paid, and Timberg’s central claim—that the number of people making a living by making art is rapidly decreasing—is timely and important, as is his argument that unemployed architects deserve our sympathetic attention just as much as unemployed auto workers.

The challenge is to find a way to talk about the essential role of art and creativity that doesn’t fall back on economic value, celebrity endorsement or vague mysticism. It’s far too important for that.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17522/portrait_of_the_dying_creative_class

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