GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”
The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:
“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”
The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.
The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.
In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”
Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.
According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.
Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.
It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.
As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”
It’s National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way,
our children will hardly know what poetry is.
Photo Credit: Aaron Amat via Shutterstock.com
April 15, 2014 |
“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” —Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano
“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
A relatively simple sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems:I wish I had written that. It is the same awe and wonder I felt as a shy, self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wished I had drawn.
Will we wake one morning soon to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?
We have come to a moment in the history of the U.S. when we no longer even pretend to care about art. And poetry is the most human of the arts—the very human effort to make order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).
The course was speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home. Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.
In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience. That was more than 30 years ago, but I own two precious books that followed from that day in class: cummings’ Complete Poems and Selected Poems. Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poemswould join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over, I wish I had written that.
But my introduction to cummings was more than just finding the poetry I wanted to read; it was when I realized I was a poet. Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.
As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.” That always broke my heart. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:
I began to teach poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M. At first, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit on the blog “There’s time to teach”).
Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students would gather in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music, even closing the door so two of my students could dance and sing and laugh along with the Violent Femmes.
Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured. It was an oasis of happiness in their lives at school.
my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….
Each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.
I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:
I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries. Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:
I have loved a few people intensely—so deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.
And that is poetry.
Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.
Poems are not fodder for close reading.
Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.
We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.
That is poetry.
Like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”
Will we wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?
Maybe the doomsayers are wrong. Maybe poetry will not be erased from our classrooms. School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.
Both are tragic mistakes, because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.
“Comcast and proposed merger partner Time Warner Cable claim they don’t compete because their service areas don’t overlap, and that a combined company would happily divest itself of a few million customers to keeps its pay-TV market share below 30%, allowing other companies that don’t currently compete with Comcast to keep not competing with Comcast. This narrow, shortsighted view fails to take into account the full breadth of what’s involved in this merger — broadcast TV, cable TV, network technology, in-home technology, access to the Internet, and much more. In addition to asking whether or not regulators should permit Comcast to add 10-12 million customers, there is a more important question at the core of this deal: Should Comcast be allowed to control both what content you consume and how you get to consume it?”
More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Arinovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.
Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)
Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.
Clint Mansell, whose orchestral accompaniment to this and other key scenes is so effective, has an interesting background. He was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Pop Will Eat Itself, a group that originated in 1981 and whose style incorporated hip-hop and industrial rock at one point or another. Mansell made the transition to film score composer in 1998, working on Aronovsky’s first film “Pi”, a surrealist thriller about a character named Maximillian Cohen who believed that everything in nature could be understood through numbers.
Speaking of numbers, Russell Crowe was cast perfectly as Noah given his past leading roles. As mathematician John Nash in A Perfect Mind, who suffered from schizophrenia, he played a man hearing voices after the fashion of Noah. The voices in Nash’s head told him that he had to save the world from the Commies, while those in Noah’s assured him that “the Creator” needed to kill everybody on earth except Noah and his immediate family. Which character was more insane? That’s the real question.
Another role that prepared Crowe for his latest was as Captain of the HMS Surprise, a British warship led on an Ahab-like pursuit of a French rival during the Napoleonic wars. As Captain Jack Aubrey, Crowe was ready to sacrifice his crew and himself for the greater glory of the British monarchy just as Noah was ready to do for “the Creator”, an entity that never makes much of an appearance in Aronovsky’s film, unlike the typical Biblical epic.
One of the two revisionist elements of Aronovsky’s film that have merited the most controversy is his inclusion of a character named Tubal-Cain who is a descendant of Adam’s bad son just as Noah is a descendant of the good son Seth. Played by Ray Winstone, Tubal-Cain is the warlord ruling over all those wicked people the Creator is bent on destroying, just like an artist who burns a painting from earlier in his career that he deems inferior to his latest. Unlike a movie based on the tale of “Sodom and Gomorrah”, it is not quite clear what got enraged God. After all, there are no sadomasochistic orgies going on in Tubal-Cain’s camp as he lays siege to Noah’s Ark (not that there is really anything wrong with sadomasochistic orgies). All we know from the Torah is that “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.” If you read the bible carefully, you’ll understand that the deity gets much more pissed off at worshipping false idols than he does over murder, theft, rape, and other acts normal people consider far more wicked. Indeed, Tubal-Cain is convinced that Noah is a mad man since his fundamentally “deep ecology” views on the need to rid the planet of the pestilent homo sapiens is at odds with God making man in his own image and giving him ”dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” What’s wrong with that? Animal rights lovers and vegetarians need not apply.
The other element is “the watchers”, who are Ent-like creatures that help Noah and his family ward off Tubal-Cain’s warriors while serving as carpenters on the Ark. Instead of being tree-like monsters, they are giants made of stone who happen to be “fallen angels” trying to get on the Creator’s good side after their past transgressions. Unlike the characters in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, these angels seem perfectly reasonable and no threat to the established order. As is persistent throughout the film and the Old Testament itself, the Creator’s moral compass often seems more broken than those he holds dominion over.
That fundamentally strikes me as the underlying philosophical issue of Aronovsky’s film, namely the impossibility of living a “good life” on the basis of biblical myths, legends, and fables. The moral relativism of “Noah” was likely to have angered those who believe that the bible was literally written by God, even if it was close to the mark.
The film also resonates with current-day concerns over a new threat to the continued existence of humanity, namely the climate change that is capable of a new Great Flood that will unfortunately only kill the innocent rather than the wicked. What the bible never makes clear is that god is merciful to those who have capital rather than pure hearts.
Unlike the past five extinctions, the sixth that is posed by climate change and other looming environmental disasters will be as a result of human intervention rather than a deus ex machina like a meteor.
Interestingly enough, there is some scholarly support for the idea that a great flood occurred in the distant past, one that is evoked not only in the Torah but in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato’s Timaeus as well.
In an article titled “Noah’s Flood Reconsidered” for the autumn 1964 issue of Iraq, a scholarly journal, E.I. Mallowan concluded that the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh—the obvious inspiration for Noah—occurred some time prior to 2650 BC.
Indeed, archaeologists working in the ancient city of Ur in 1928-29 found evidence of two deep pits that exposed a stratum of “clean water-laid clay”, proving in their eyes that a Noachian-type flood had occurred. However, neither the Epic of Gilgamesh nor the archaeologists viewed the flood as impacting all of humanity, only a great city and civilization that existed at the dawn of history. Despite Iraq’s reputation as desert-like, it is also subject to powerful storms that wash away everything in its path—a natural catastrophe rivaling the man-made catastrophe of George W. Bush.
It has been many years since I looked at Plato’s Timaeus—48 in fact, when I was avoiding the draft in the New School Graduate Philosophy program—but I took a quick look in preparing this article.
Like the rest of his work, this is a Socratic dialog in which the principals are sounding boards for Plato’s idealism. One of them, an Athenian named Timaeus, describes a Creator who is a lot more human than the cruel and capricious figure of the Old Testament: “Why did the Creator make the world?…He was good, and therefore not jealous, and being free from jealousy he desired that all things should be like himself.” And, like the hero of Darin Aronovsky’s “Pi”, Plato’s creator sees the natural world as one based on numbers. After creating three major entities of the existing world—body, soul, and essence—god proceeded to divide the entire mass into portions related to one another in the ratios of 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, and 27.
Once Timaeus establishes the ratios that govern the known universe, he drills down into the less than perfect reality that govern our daily lives, such as those inflicted on our bodies: “When on the other hand the body, though wasted, still holds out, then the bile is expelled, like an exile from a factious state, causing associating diarrhoeas and dysenteries and similar disorders.”
Critias, another Athenian, weighs in on the ever-present danger of natural catastrophes including the one that befell Atlantis:
Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia….But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.
Perhaps someday archaeologists will discover evidence of a great flood that destroyed Atlantis just as they have found evidence of the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In late January divers discovered perfectly preserved stone-age tools that were between 10 and 11,000 years old in the Swedish bay of Hanö. Södertörn University’s Björn Nilsson, the leader of the research team, was annoyed (by comparisons in the popular press made to Atlantis:
Nilsson admitted that “lousy Swedish tabloids” had blown the story out of the water by labelling the find “Sweden’s Atlantis”, even though the remnants never belonged to an actual village. The people were all nomadic at the time, he explained, so there was no village. He trumpeted, however, that the finds so far were “world-class” and “one-of-a-kind”. He added that was extremely rare to find evidence from the Stone Age so unspoiled.
We’ll probably never know what caused these nomads to be swept away by floods but we will know what might cover Manhattan under the Atlantic in the not too distant future. We cannot go back in history to change the circumstances that led to such disasters but we can control our own fate in order to save both animals and the human race. For that effort we need to rely on science and radical politics, not the Creator.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.
Four years after WikiLeaks’ release of the Collateral Murder video, Manning’s contagious courage continues to reveal the dehumanized colonizer within.
Four years have passed since WikiLeaks’ sensational release of the classified US military video titled Collateral Murder. On April 5, 2010, the raw footage was published depicting airstrikes by a US Army helicopter gunship in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. The soldiers attacked Iraqis, killing about a dozen men wandering down a street, including two Reuters staffers, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in the first of three reckless attacks involving civilians.
The video opened with a quote from George Orwell: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It gained global attention, with viewers reaching millions, shattering the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ and revealing the true state of modern warfare behind the warping shield of propaganda.
Much focus in the media at the time was given to analyzing whether some of the Iraqi people in the video were carrying rocket propelled grenades or AK-47s and arguments ensued about the rules of engagement. The unfolding of these scenes calls for recognition, for us to take a look at these wars from a wider perspective than the narrow view offered by the establishment media lens.
Before anyone talks about the laws of armed conflict and whether the rules of engagement were broken or not, we need to ask why these armed crews were even there in the first place. We should be examining the legality of the Iraq War itself. Speaking in defense of the disclosure of classified US military documents on the Iraq War, Assange pointed out how “most wars that are started by democracies involve lying,” and noted how “the start of the Iraq war involved very serious lies that were repeated and amplified by some parts of the press.”
Iraq has never been shown to have threatened the United States and it is common knowledge that the premise of this war was based on blatant lies. Colin Powell’s fabrications at the UN Security Council about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were a particular low point for the US in its base war propaganda. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg designated the term ‘war of aggression’ as an attack on another nation or people without any justification of self-defense and listed it as a major international war crime.
In a report given at a New York Commission Hearing in May 11, 1991, attorney and President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner seriously questioned the conduct of United States against Iraq:
As people living in the United States we have an obligation not to close our eyes, cover our ears and remain silent. We must not and cannot be ‘good Germans.’ We must be, as Bertrand Russell said about the crimes committed by the U.S. in Vietnam, ‘Against the Crime of Silence.’ We must bear witness to the tens of thousands of deaths for whom our government and its leaders bear responsibility and ask the question, ‘Has the United States committed war crimes with regard to its initiation and conduct of the war against Iraq?’
The questions raised by the graphic video-game turkey-shoot nature of this video needs to be placed within its larger context, along with examining the justification or potential war crimes of each incident in the video.
The moving imagery in the video revealed a particular mindset displayed by these US military-trained soldiers. It is the consciousness behind the gun-sight. The mind is generally blind to biases behind a perception that is trained to look at the world through the crosshairs of a gun-sight. From a broader historical perspective, one could say it is a colonial mind that controls an inception point, setting its own rules of engagement and defining the course of events and destiny of those caught in it.
“Lets shoot. Light ‘em all up. Come on, fire!” In a series of air-to-ground attacks, a helicopter crew excitedly found a target. One man can be heard saying, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and another responds saying “Nice.” When they find a wounded individual trying to crawl away, another man simply says: “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” expressing his wish to shoot him.
After finding that there were kids in the minivan that they had engaged, simply on their way to school, one man can clearly be heard blaming the victims: “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” These civilians are no longer seen as victims and the permission to engage is manufactured by the aggressors attacking “targets” who are just trying to get away.
In the original 38-minute video recording the scenes in New Baghdad on July 12, 2007, the past century has lingered to haunt our global society. The dark shadow of colonization is carried over into the military-industrial age of the 20th century with its outward-thrusting brutality. The cynical naming of the ‘Apache’ helicopter evokes a memory of the genocide of American natives long ago. Native American activist Winona LaDuke once spoke of how it is common military-speak when you leave a base in a foreign country to say that you are heading ‘out into Indian Country.’ The brutal projection of US power into the oil-rich Middle East contains echos of these historical ‘Indian Wars’. The unfolding scenes appear as if the US is almost glorifying and continuing these crimes against humanity from the past.
This colonial mentality and injustice, never atoned for, is now expanding into a global web of military forces that more and more serve hidden corporate goals and agendas. In Discourse on Colonialism, the French poet and author Aimé Césaire wrote how colonization brutalizes and de-civilizes even the colonizer himself:
[C]olonization … dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.
The real scenes of modern war on the ground stand like a mirror. Reflected in the graphic WikiLeaks video, we begin to see something about each one of us that has long escaped consciousness. In the raw image of this cruel scene, we can see a part of our culture’s collective shadow, as the barbarian degraded in the effort of ‘civilizing’ those ‘others’. Descending into torture, drone attacks on wedding parties and other acts of collateral murder, this barbarism is clothed in the rhetoric of civility and self-defense, yet reveals the unredeemed colonizer within.
What is it that is shattering the armament around the hearts of so many? The conscience of Chelsea Manning, the source behind the leak of Collateral Murder, was the spark for a worldwide awakening. Her act of conscience shattered the abstraction and opened the gate that guarded this inception point, allowing the public to bear witness to uncensored images of modern warfare and decide for themselves how to see it. In the unfolding images, we were able to see what Chelsea Manning saw.
At the pretrial hearing in her prosecution for leaking the largest trove of secret documents in US history, Manning read out a personal statement to the court in Fort Meade, Maryland, describing how she came to download hundreds of thousands of classified documents and videos from military databases and submit them to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. She spoke about facts regarding the 12 July 2007 aerial weapons team — the video depicting the incident in New Baghdad.
Manning began her statement by saying how at first, having already seen countless similar combat scenes, she didn’t think the video was very special. Yet she came to be troubled by “the recording of audio comments by the aerial weapons team crew and the second engagement in the video of an unarmed bongo truck.” Then she spoke of the attitudes of the soldiers in the helicopter: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me … was the seemly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have.” She continued:
They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as “dead bastards” and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.
Manning furthermore spoke about the specific moment where the father driving his kids to school in a van stopped and attempted to assist the wounded:
While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew’s lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see that the bongo truck [was] driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response the aerial weapons team crew — as soon as the individuals are a threat, they repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck and once granted they engage the vehicle at least six times.
She further pointed to the attitude of the aerial weapons team when they learned about the injured children in the van, noting how their actions showed no remorse or sympathy for those they killed or injured, even exhibiting pleasure when a vehicle drove over one of the bodies.
Manning had come to see this everyday reality in Iraq from the perspective of those who have been conjured into the designation of ‘enemy’. From that moment, she began to see these unfolding human tragedies increasingly from the point of view of those she was trained to see as others; those who have been methodically demonized throughout this war of terror.
How should we understand this sudden awakening of conscience? In elucidating the etymology of the word conscience, the Jungian psychoanalyst Edward Edinger related it to the concept of consciousness:
Conscious derives from con or cum, meaning ‘with’ or ‘together,’ and scire, ‘to know’ or ‘to see’. It has the same derivation as conscience. Thus the root meaning of both consciousness and conscience is ‘knowing with’ or ‘seeing with’ an ‘other’. In contrast, the word science, which also derives from scire, means simply knowing, i.e., knowing without ‘withness.’ … The experience of knowing with can be understood to mean the ability to participate in a knowing process simultaneously as subject and object, as knower and known. This is only possible within a relationship to an object that can also be a subject.
Conscience first engages the empathic imagination, breaking down walls of separation. One can begin to feel another person’s pain as if it were one’s own. The moment Manning saw other human beings who she had been trained to see as ‘enemy combatants’ in the gunsight, she freed them from a perception enslaved by the subject position of US supremacy; a perception that had made these human beings into lifeless objects. Here, the other perspective that had long been denied was brought back to consciousness. Manning saw another human being whose life was as precious as hers; not an enemy, but a victim of an unjust war waged by an imperialist military-industrial complex.
In the famous chat log with hacker Adrian Lamo that led to her arrest, Manning recounted how she wanted “people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public… We’re human… and we’re killing ourselves…”
Manning saw what people too often fail to see: she saw those who had been branded ‘enemy combatants’ as human beings like herself. This happened also to US soldier Ethan McCord, who rescued the little girl from the bongo truck in the Collateral Murder video, and who realized she was no different from his own daughter:
Manning’s deed of whistleblowing was an act of conscience: knowledge gained by placing herself in a relationship with others; putting herself in the other’s shoes. She was willing to sacrifice her safety to restore a lost image; an inception point and authentic act of courage from a place of our common humanity.
Manning’s courage to act out of her conscience interrupted a trajectory of history that had been moving in a particular direction. The memory started to flow, reaching back before the invasion of Iraq, before 9/11 and even before the nation’s addiction to oil began — to the genocide of the natives; the moment when those who are made enemies became dehumanized in eyes.
Before anyone even starts talking about justification for acts of war, we should all be asking: who are these Iraqis and Afghans, these Libyans or Syrians who are so often portrayed as “putting America in danger”? In that iconic leaked footage from a fateful day in New Baghdad, who did we see or fail to see? Unfolding images of the decimated Reuters reporters shot from the Apache helicopter confront us with a question: are we truly civilized? Who are the people who have been dehumanized, turned into enemies and made into inferior beings?
One ordinary person with extraordinary courage offered the possibility to restart a genuine conversation about the legitimacy of Western “civilization” that has until now been operating as a monologue. Manning created a possibility for real dialogue, one that is long overdue. Her courage, and the tireless work of those at WikiLeaks, calls us to truly see these events beyond the political language that makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable.
Are we able to witness what is really happening — ongoing collateral murder carried out in our name — even right in this very moment? Manning’s conscience awakened her heart. We, too, can awaken our hearts, for courage is contagious.
In 1926, J.R.R. Tolkien, one of fiction’s finest crafters of fantasy worlds, translated the 11th-century epic “Beowulf.” Nearly 90 years later, his son Christopher Tolkien is releasing an edited version of the translation to the public, complete with a series of his father’s lectures at Oxford about the poem and a short story, “Sellic Spell.”
The son of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” writer told the Guardian that his father “seems never to have considered its publication.”
Tolkien, who died in 1973, was captivated by Old English myth and said “the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real,” reports the Guardian. His images of the story’s dragon bear some resemblance to Smaug in “The Hobbit,” says his son:
Tolkien’s “creative attention to detail” in his lectures gives rise to a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision”, said his son. “It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.”
Tolkien also closely considers the dragon which would slay Beowulf, writing of how the beast was “snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup” – an image reminiscent of his own thief Bilbo Baggins, sneaking into the lair of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit – but, said his son, the author “rebuts the notion that this is ‘a mere treasure story … just another dragon tale’”.
“He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is ‘the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history’ that raises it to another level,” said Christopher Tolkien.
“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” is the most recent in a series of previously unpublished writing to be released by the Tolkien estate, which include his unfinished Middle-earth tale, “The Children of Húrin,” published in 2007, and “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún,” in 2009.
Tolkien’s translation will be published by HarperCollins on May 22.
Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from President Roosevelt’s January 11, 1944 message to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Union:
“ It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens.
For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
What incredible vision from FDR, in 1944, yet look how far we have yet to go. If anything we may have less support for such a noble vision now than we did then.
What has happened to America? What has happened to the Democratic Party? Even the Republican Party! I’m going to put a quote in the update from Republican President Eisenhower, denouncing those that might think to diminish Social Security that will make even our own centrists squirm.
This noble, wise, compassionate, and generate vision is the vision of America and the Democratic Party I was brought up on.
This is the vision of America I have spent my life fighting for, and it used to be the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Now we are called leftists, oddballs, “idealist purists,” socialists, communists, or worse. Sometimes, we’re even invited to leave.
Well, I’m not going “nowhere!” (sic – building street cred as a dog of the people! woof!) I’m fighting for this vision of American equality, justice, prosperity, fairness, generosity of spirit until my last breath.
I call on those who are similarly inspired to come back and join us in making this vision a reality not just for Americans but for all people around the word.
This story was done in collaboration with VICE News
CRANBURY, N.J. – Half a century ago, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow came to this pancake-flat town in central New Jersey to document the plight of migrant farmworkers for a television special called “Harvest of Shame.”
Today, many of Cranbury’s potato fields have been built up with giant warehouses that form a distribution hub off Exit 8A of the Jersey Turnpike.
But amid this 21st century system of commerce, an old way of labor persists. Temporary workers make a daily migration on buses to this area, just as farmworkers did for every harvest in the 1960s. Temp workers today face many similar conditions in how they get hired, how they live and what they can afford to eat. Adjusted for inflation, many of today’s temp workers earn roughly the same amount as those farmworkers did 50 years ago.
Across the country, farms full of migrant workers have been replaced with warehouses full of temp workers, as American consumers depend more on foreign products, online shopping and just-in-time delivery. It is a story that begins at the ports of Los Angeles and Newark, N.J., follows the railroads to Chicago and ends at your neighborhood box store, or your doorstep.
The temp industry now employs 2.8 million workers – the highest number and highest proportion of the American workforce in history. As the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, temp work has grown nine times faster than private-sector employment as a whole. Overall, nearly one-sixth of the total job growth since the recession ended has been in the temp sector.
Many temps work for months or years packing and assembling products for some of the world’s largest companies, including Walmart, Amazon and Nestlé. They make our frozen pizzas, cut our vegetables and sort the recycling from our trash. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves.
The temp system insulates companies from workers’ compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the duty to ensure that their workers are citizens or legal immigrants. In turn, temp workers suffer high injury rates, wait unpaid for work to begin and face fees that depress their pay below minimum wage.
Temp agencies consistently rank among the worst large industries for the rate of wage and hour violations, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal enforcement data.
A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers’ comp claims found that in five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees. In Florida, for example, temps were about twice as likely as regular employees to suffer crushing injuries, dislocations, lacerations, fractures and punctures. They were about three times as likely to suffer an amputation on the job in Florida and the three other states for which records were available.
The disparity was even worse when we looked just at dangerous occupations, such as manufacturing, construction and warehousing. In Florida, temps in blue-collar workplaces were about six times as likely to be injured as permanent employees doing similar jobs.
Day Davis, 21, was crushed by a machine at a Bacardi bottling plant barely 90 minutes into the first day on the first job of his life. Samir Storey, 39, suffocated from hydrogen sulfide gas on his first day when he was assigned to clean the inside of a tank at a paper mill. Mark Jefferson, 47, died after collapsing from heat stroke after a long day on a garbage route.
Ninety minutes into his first day on the first job of his life, Day Davis was called over to help at Palletizer No. 4 at the Bacardi bottling plant in Jacksonville, Fla. Watch what happens next.
Here too, the plight of the lowest level workers has changed little. The workers who reaped the nation’s fruit and vegetables also passed out from working in the heat or became sick from pesticides such as DDT.
In “Harvest of Shame,” two Florida towns – Belle Glade and Immokalee – became symbolic of the plight of farm labor. Today, researchers have identified “temp towns,” such as New Brunswick, N.J., and Little Village in Chicago, Ill. “Temp towns” are often densely populated Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they are cities where it has become nearly impossible for anyone, even for whites and African-Americans with vocational training, to find blue-collar work without going through a temp firm.
New Jersey has five of the counties – Middlesex, Passaic, Burlington, Camden and Union – with the highest concentration of temp workers in the country.
Lou Kimmel, an organizer for New Labor, a workers advocacy center in New Brunswick, said that when he first started working there, the founder used to say, “We’re all farmworkers in a way.”
For temp workers today, he said, “A lot of the conditions are the same: Low wages, wage theft, unsafe conditions, working with chemicals with no respect and dignity, and no organized effort to try to fight back.”
Murrow opened his documentary with the scene of a “shape up,” in which labor contractors hawk available jobs. Temp agencies today use a similar system that researchers have called a “modern-day shape up.” Temp workers stand on street corners or arrive at agency hiring halls as early as 4 a.m. so the agency’s dispatchers can round up enough to fill an order. In New Brunswick, one agency operated for a while out of a neon-lit beauty salon.
One morning last year, in Little Village, Chicago, workers lined up in an alleyway behind a dentist clinic and a shop selling quinceañer adresses. They knew little of where they were going to work, except that everyone called it los peluches– Spanish for stuffed animals – and that a guy named “Rigo” told them there was work. After following the bus, I discovered the warehouse was run by Ty Inc., one of the largest makers of stuffed animals in the world.
Locations of Temp Workers
These counties had high concentrations of temporary help service workers for counties with more than 100,000 workers in 2012. Overall, 2.2 percent of private-sector workers were temps in 2012.
Greenville County, S.C.
Kane County, Ill.
Kent County, Mich.
Middlesex County, N.J.
Shelby County, Tenn.
Lake County, Ill.
Passaic County, N.J.
San Bernardino County, Calif.
Fayette County, Ky.
Burlington County, N.J.
Fulton County, Ga.
Source: ProPublica analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data; Updated July 1, 2013
Rigo, whose full name is Rigoberto Aguilar, was what’s known in Little Village as a raitero, a Spanglish invention that roughly means “a person who gives rides.” But raiteros do more than that, essentially serving as immigrant labor brokers for the temp agencies. They recruit the workers, often charging them to apply for the job; then round up the workers in the predawn hours, charging them for the obligatory ride to the warehouse or factory. At the end of the week, the raiteros pick up the workers’ paychecks from the agencies and bring them to check-cashing stores, where workers are charged to cash them. If they don’t have the money for the ride, dozens of workers said, they don’t get their paychecks.
In “Harvest of Shame,” the farm laborers had similar brokers known as “crew leaders,” who skimmed money from workers’ wages.
After ProPublica published a story on the raiteros in Chicago, some temp agencies there stopped using them and started providing free transportation for the workers. Many agencies stopped giving the paychecks to the raiteros—although others continue to operate as they have for years.The Illinois and federal labor departments have launched a joint initiative to investigate issues temp workers face on the job, and have since opened investigations into three temp agencies for issues involving the transportation of workers.
Raiteros, however, are barely better off than temp workers. When I knocked on Aguilar’s door one Friday night, he was holding his infant son. He was renting an apartment not much bigger than what the workers have, with peeling paint and mold in the bathroom. He spoke of his own struggles to make ends meet. At one point, his adult son Victor grew angry as we talked about how the temp agency deals with his father.
“They don’t want to pay him,” his son said. “They have all the people come here. They don’t care. Screw you. You take the people. You give them the ride and you charge the fee. We don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
Here again, the past mirrors the present. Officials at temp agencies and the third-party warehouses told me they are squeezed by the retailers and big-name brands at the top of the supply chain. When workers are killed or don’t receive their pay, those companies deny knowledge or responsibility, directing blame at the temp agencies at the bottom.
Such was the case with migrant farmworkers. A farmer told Murrow’s correspondent that he was “trapped between what society expects and his market demands.” He, too, pointed to the supermarket chains at the top for demanding a price that didn’t allow him to improve the poor working conditions.
In “Harvest of Shame,” the farmworkers traveled in buses and packed into the backs of trucks. Today, temp workers travel in buses and pack into vans. Workers say the drivers sometimes carry 22 people in a 15-passenger van.
They sit on the wheel wells, in the trunk space, or on milk crates. Female workers complain that they are forced sit on the laps of men they do not know. Sometimes, workers must lie on the floor, the other passengers’ feet on top of them.
As before, the products change by the season. But now, instead of picking strawberries, tomatoes and corn, the temp workers pack chocolates for Valentine’s Day, barbecue grills for Memorial Day, turkey pans for Thanksgiving, and clothing and toys for Christmas.
Back then, the farms provided housing, often shacks with shoddy bunk beds. Temp workers rent rooms in rundown houses, sometimes in a basement or attic with not much space other than for a bed. It is not uncommon to find a different family in every room. Rosa Ramirez, a 50-year-old temp worker, rents the living room of an old boarding house in Elgin, Ill. There is a cheap mattress on the floor, and a sheet blocks the French doors that separate her room from the hallway. A trap by her door guards against the rats that have woken her up at night.
“Harvest of Shame” reported that migrant farmworkers in 1960 worked 136 days of the year and earned just $900 – $7,087 in today’s dollars. Many temp workers struggle to find steady work. In 2010, a good year in which she wasn’t out for an injury, Ramirez earned $6,549, according to tax forms she provided.
One of the most memorable scenes in “Harvest of Shame” comes when the correspondent asks the mother of a migrant family, “What is an average dinner for the family?” Surrounded by her children, she replies, “Well, I cook a pot of beans and fry some potatoes.”
Remembering this scene, I began asking the temp workers I met the same question. A conversation with one Chicago man, whose family shares an attic with another family, underscored how very little things have changed. “Frijoles y algunas papitas,” he said.
l haven’t seen “Her,” the Oscar-nominated movie about a man who has an intimate relationship with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer operating system. I have, however, read Susan Schneider’s “The Philosophy of ‘Her’,” a post on The Stone blog at the New York Times looking into the possibility, in the pretty near future, of avoiding death by having your brain scanned and uploaded to a computer. Presumably you’d want to Dropbox your brain file (yes, you’ll need to buy more storage) to avoid death by hard-drive crash. But with suitable backups, you, or an electronic version of you, could go on living forever, or at least for a very, very long time, “untethered,” as Ms. Schneider puts it, “from a body that’s inevitably going to die.”
This idea isn’t the loopy brainchild of sci-fi hacks. Researchers at Oxford University have been on the path to human digitization for a while now, and way back in 2008 the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford released a 130-page technical report entitled Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Of the dozen or so benefits of whole-brain emulation listed by the authors, Andrew Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, one stands out:
If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality.”
Scanning brains, the authors write, “may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.”
Hmm. Immortality and radical human enhancement. Is this for real? Yes:
It appears feasible within the foreseeable future to store the full connectivity or even multistate compartment models of all neurons in the brain within the working memory of a large computing system.
Foreseeable future means not in our lifetimes, right? Think again. If you expect to live to 2050 or so, you could face this choice. And your beloved labrador may be ready for upload by, say, 2030:
A rough conclusion would nevertheless be that if electrophysiological models are enough, full human brain emulations should be possible before mid‐century. Animal models of simple mammals would be possible one to two decades before this.
Interacting with your pet via a computer interface (“Hi Spot!”/“Woof!”) wouldn’t be quite the same as rolling around the backyard with him while he slobbers on your face or watching him dash off after a tennis ball you toss into a pond. You might be able to simulate certain aspects of his personality with computer extensions, but the look in his eyes, the cock of his head and the feel and scent of his coat will be hard to reproduce electronically. All these limitations would probably not make up for no longer having to scoop up his messes or feed him heartworm pills. The electro-pet might also make you miss the real Spot unbearably as you try to recapture his consciousness on your home PC.
But what about you? Does the prospect of uploading your own brain allay your fear of abruptly disappearing from the universe? Is it the next best thing to finding the fountain of youth? Ms. Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, counsels caution. First, she writes, we might find our identity warped in disturbing ways if we pour our brains into massive digital files. She describes the problem via an imaginary guy named Theodore:
[If Theodore were to truly upload his mind (as opposed to merely copy its contents), then he could be downloaded to multiple other computers. Suppose that there are five such downloads: Which one is the real Theodore? It is hard to provide a nonarbitrary answer. Could all of the downloads be Theodore? This seems bizarre: As a rule, physical objects and living things do not occupy multiple locations at once. It is far more likely that none of the downloads are Theodore, and that he did not upload in the first place.
This is why the Oxford futurists included the caveat “if concerns about individual identity can be met.” It is the nightmare of infinitely reproducible individuals — a consequence that would, in an instant, undermine and destroy the very notion of an individual.
But Ms. Schneider does not come close to appreciating the extent of the moral failure of brain uploads. She is right to observe an apparent “categorical divide between humans and programs.” Human beings, she writes, “cannot upload themselves to the digital universe; they can upload only copies of themselves — copies that may themselves be conscious beings.” The error here is screamingly obvious: brains are parts of us, but they are not “us.” A brain contains the seed of consciousness, and it is both the bank for our memories and the fount of our rationality and our capacity for language, but a brain without a body is fundamentally different from the human being that possessed both.
It sounds deeply claustrophobic to be housed (imprisoned?) forever in a microchip, unable to dive into the ocean, taste chocolate or run your hands through your loved one’s hair. Our participation in these and infinite other emotive and experiential moments are the bulk of what constitutes our lives, or at least our meaningful lives. Residing forever in the realm of pure thought and memory and discourse doesn’t sound like life, even if it is consciousness. Especially if it is consciousness.
So I cannot agree with Ms. Schneider’s conclusion when she writes that brain uploads may be choiceworthy for the benefits they can bring to our species or for the solace they provide to dying individuals who “wish to leave a copy of [themselves] to communicate with [their] children or complete projects that [they] care about.” It may be natural, given the increasingly virtual lives many of us live in this pervasively Internet-connected world, to think ourselves mainly in terms of avatars and timelines and handles and digital faces. Collapsing our lives into our brains, and offloading the contents of our brains to a supercomputer is a fascinating idea. It does not sound to me, though, like a promising recipe for preserving our humanity.
To understand Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea, or the larger conflict between Russia and the West over the status of Ukraine, it’s not enough to talk about a continuation of Cold War politics or the autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin. Those are factors, of course, but we also have to try to understand the Russian mind-set, the essential Russian ideology of nationhood. You could go read the collected works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov and maybe get somewhere, over a period of years. If you don’t have time for that, I suggest Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad,” an eye-popping and extremely strange pop spectacle set during the most famous battle of World War II.
Shot in 3-D and then transferred to the IMAX format (which is absolutely the way to see it), “Stalingrad” is one of the biggest hits made in Russia since the end of the Soviet era and was intentionally made, as Bondarchuk essentially told me, to be a unifying myth for Putin’s Russia. Viewed as cinema, it’s an unstable and almost surrealist combination of Soviet-style war propaganda film, Zack Snyder-style action flick and sentimental fairy tale. Although it was shot digitally and color-corrected to the exaggerated hues of a video game, “Stalingrad” was made on an old-school physical set, a realistic re-creation of a central plaza overlooking the Volga River where the Red Army made a successful last stand, breaking the power of Hitler’s Wehrmacht and turning the tide of the war. Most of the action concerns a classic “band of brothers” group, an iconic assortment of Soviet soldiers and sailors holed up in a house between the Germans and the river, whose main concern is not Stalin or the motherland but saving the life of a simple, waiflike girl who’s been hiding in a bedroom loaded with stereotypical Russian knickknacks, with whom they’ve all fallen in love. Yes, really.
I suppose to Americans who’ve never seen movies of the Soviet period, “Stalingrad” will just seem bizarre or laughable. Very likely it is bizarre, but one might well ask how American-made military mythology, from “Top Gun” to “Lone Survivor,” would look to Russian viewers. Propaganda is always more obvious when it’s directed at someone else; directed at you it’s meant to feel normal and right, as natural as oxygen. I met Bondarchuk a few days before Russian troops took virtual possession of Crimea, a province in southeastern Ukraine, so we didn’t talk about that. I had the distinct sense, however, that our conversation was actually about the mutual incomprehension of this tense moment in Russo-American relations.
I didn’t use the word “propaganda” in my conversation with Bondarchuk, but as you will see, when I suggested that his film was more like myth than history, he leaped on that idea gratefully. It’s important to understand that Bondarchuk is a major Russian cultural celebrity – an actor, producer and TV host, as well as a director – who is closely allied with Putin’s political movement while maintaining some semblance of independence. (He has made mildly critical remarks at times, about the lack of genuine opposition parties, for instance.) Furthermore, he comes from a family with a long history of precisely this kind of accommodation to power. As fans of Russian cinema will already know, his father was Sergei Bondarchuk, an actor and director who was one of the most important cultural figures of the Soviet era. The senior Bondarchuk walked a fine line for years, using his international prestige to retain some artistic freedom while remaining in the Kremlin’s good graces. His Oscar-winning, seven-hour mid-‘60s adaptation of “War and Peace” (in which he also played Pierre) remains by some accounts the most expensive film of all time, costing something like $800 million in today’s dollars. (Fedor’s mother, Irina Skobtseva, was a major Soviet movie star, and his older sister Natalya is also an actress and filmmaker, best known for her role in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.”)
Fedor Bondarchuk’s first major acting role, at age 19, came in his father’s 1986 adaptation of Pushkin’s classic play “Boris Godunov.” His second, as it happens, was a small supporting role in a film called “Stalingrad” – not this one, but a 1989 epic directed by Yuri Ozerov that was one of the last big movies made before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians keep coming back to the battle, even at a time when very few living people can remember it, as a formative national myth, as a story of enormous sacrifice, of an act of defiance against long odds meant to protect Russian culture, Russian mores and the Russian way of life. Stalingrad was a moment of karmic payback and nation-building that enacted and then rejected a long history of foreign conquest and invasion, and transformed but did not entirely destroy a massive inferiority complex.
As Joseph Stalin, a man mentioned by name only once in “Stalingrad,” but who hovers over it like a presiding ghost, once put it: “The history of old Russia consisted, among other things, in her being ceaselessly beaten for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal rulers. She was beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords. She was beaten by the Anglo-French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. Everyone gave her a beating for her backwardness.” I believe it’s necessary to view what’s happening today in Ukraine against not just the canvas of current world politics, but also that psychological backdrop. Allowing what many Russians perceive as a pro-Western coup to happen on their doorstep is tantamount to accepting another beating.
Fedor Bondarchuk is a dapper, elegant man in his late 40s, with a shaved head and a neatly manicured goatee. He was tired after a two-day visit to New York and kept switching back and forth between English and Russian. His producer and I did our best to follow him. I hesitated to suggest that I saw any visual relationship between his films and those of art-house god Andrei Tarkovsky, given their very different intentions and audiences, but when I finally brought it up while saying goodbye, Bondarchuk grasped my hand eagerly. “Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ has given cinematographers and art directors so much, for generations,” he said. “For tens of years, hundreds of years.”
I know your father’s films, or at least some of them, and I was wondering about the relationship. He made big movies about Russian history, and now you’ve done the same thing. Were you thinking about his influence when you made “Stalingrad”?
First of all, there is a difference between my father’s films and my films. The main and most important difference is literature. All my father’s films were based on great Russian literature, on Leo Tolstoy or Mikhail Sholokhov [author of the epic “And Quiet Flows the Don,” the basis for Sergei Bondarchuk’s final film, not completed until years after his death].
My films are not based on famous books, they are original scripts. It’s my way of trying to create — maybe it’s a strong word — but all my life, I’ve been trying to create a new genre, after the end of the Soviet period. My first film, “9th Company” [made in 2005], it’s about the Afghan campaign, about the end of the Soviet period of time. Every time, I have heard comments, aggressive comments, about “music video type of editing,” or something like this. But, you know, this is my biography. It was a new era of Russian cinema, not Soviet cinema. After I graduated from the Moscow Film Institute, I was not involved in big cinema industry, because we had no industry at all at that time! We had very few cinema theaters that were still operating. But I was interested in music videos: It was a free territory of experimentation, with color correction, with a new type of editing, with new technology, with new digital instruments, etc. It’s not about technology for me, it’s only about trying to create a new genre.
In Russia, we have documentary and we have a classical type of Soviet filmmaking, which is sometimes rather conservative. My biography is based on those brilliant, fantastic films. But I am trying to create new territory, a new language of cinema. Sometimes it’s very close to American movies, and these are the comments from the more aggressive and conservative audiences of Russia. “9th Company” looks like “Full Metal Jacket,” or “Stalingrad” is very close to the slow-motion techniques of Zack Snyder’s “300,” etc., etc. But it’s not about technology. On one hand, we absolutely have a positive attachment to American cinema. On the other hand, our Russian directors have no chance to experiment with the sacral theme of World War II.
You know, my father told me that when he made “War and Peace,” the type of editing he used, the length of the shots, was revolutionary for that period of time, at least to the conservative part of the professional cinema community in Russia. Sometimes I think I am repeating my father’s path in cinema. Every time, I am trying to break the rules, at least as the conservative people see them. I hear the comments: It’s not a war drama, it’s more about advertising and entertainment. But that was my idea! That was why I used IMAX and 3-D technology. That’s why I tried to break all the rules about color correction, and how we think about pictures of World War II. You know, the war or the battle of Stalingrad — it must be black-and-white, or shades of gray. For me, 3-D and IMAX technology is only an instrument to clean the board between the audience and the screen. It’s not about shooting the bullets into the back row of the theater. It’s not about the explosions and the airplanes. It’s only about taking away the borderline, the fence, between the screen and the audience.
You just mentioned the classical style of Soviet cinema, and one thing you’re drawing on, which Americans probably won’t recognize, is the whole tradition of Soviet war films. You have the collection of actors, with their weatherbeaten, very Russian-looking faces, the composition, the staging, the lighting, the themes of heroism, sacrifice and revenge.
That’s a very good comment, because it was also my idea to have the place where we shot look absolutely classic. That was the whole idea: On this traditional, classical set, something happens that is absolutely different, and it’s going to be shot in a new way. There are so many details in the technical aspect of shooting, which the audience does not see. What the audience sees is the composition of all these details into one new and amazing piece. There’s no need to draw the attention of the audience to all the details, instead the idea is to create a composite which gives a new impression of the whole situation. And you are right about the actors. I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the actors act in a very traditional, classical way, according to the traditions of Stanislavski and Chekhov, but with an extremely new technology around them.
You were born 25 years after the battle of Stalingrad. It was already something that belonged to your parents’ generation. For today’s young people in Russia, it’s something their grandparents remember, at best. Why does it continue to be so important? What is the significance of this battle that took place in 1942 to Russia in 2014?
The number of different memories, different stories and different legends about this period goes beyond any borderline, there are so many of them. It’s kind of a sacred territory for Russia, which gives birth to legends, and also it is the basis for the self-understanding of the people, the self-understanding of the nation. It is a very protected space, as any sacred territory is protected. Actually, it’s already impossible to divide what is legend, what is real history, what is documentary, what is thought, what is fantasy. It is sacred territory, a kind of holy grail for the self-understanding and self-definition of the Russian nation.
There are not so many events of that importance for the self-understanding of the nation, to form the nation, and unfortunately most of them are connected with war. One critic said that had there not been a Second World War, the Russians would have nothing to remember, nothing to be proud of, nothing to make movies about. Of course this is an exaggeration, that is not the full truth. Don’t forget about all the great Russian and Soviet literature and poetry, or other historical events. But there’s no doubt that the Second World War is sacred territory, and the background that unites the nation. Our picture is not so much about the historical period; it’s more about the uniting function of this war. It gets people together, even nowadays. The memory of this unites the nation.
Well, I was thinking that your movie is not really about history. It’s a myth or even a fairy tale. It’s less about the real battle of Stalingrad than about a group of heroes who rescue a princess locked in a tower.
Of course! But it’s so new that there is no example of myth in this cinematic territory. We have only documentary or black-and-white drama or classical films based on classical literature. A myth is a new genre. We have no comics or superheroes. We have no history of creating something like that, no examples to draw on. This is the attempt to create that kind of new genre.
”Stalingrad” is now playing in approximately 300 theaters across North America.