Post Capitalism

tumblr_ltswdxD3HY1r4h4p6o1_500

Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

https://medium.com/@jonathantaplin/post-capitalism-f8d687d19c3

R.W. Fassbinder at 70: the German filmmaker’s life on display in Berlin

By Hiram Lee
23 July 2015

German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was born seventy years ago this May. To honor the anniversary, a number of events have been held in Berlin.

An exhibition on display at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum until the end of August, entitled Fassbinder Now, features several artifacts from the director’s personal archives. Annekatrin Hendel’s new documentary, simply calledFassbinder, has been shown in cinemas and on German television.

Throughout July and August, Berlin’s Arsenal cinema is screening some of Fassbinder’s classic films, including three of his best works—Effie Briest(1974), Fox and His Friends (1975) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).Fassbinder’s plays, or plays based on his films, have recently been staged at the Deutsches and Gorki Theaters.

A serious appraisal of Fassbinder’s work on the occasion of his seventieth birthday would have been most welcome. Unfortunately, the exhibition in Berlin and Hendel’s documentary do not by and large rise to that level.

©Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, Berlin

While it has certain worthwhile features, the Fassbinder Now [Fassbinder—JETZT] exhibition is a mostly superficial affair. Curators have culled a number of items from Fassbinder’s personal archives, though some of the materials chosen for inclusion are puzzling.

It is difficult to imagine why anyone should be especially interested in seeing a pinball machine once owned by the director, or his bicycle for that matter. This is not an appraisal of Fassbinder the artist, but a presentation of Fassbinder as icon or celebrity. One is even invited to take a seat on the director’s sofa.

More interesting is the collection of home video cassettes that once belonged to the filmmaker. These include the works of Douglas Sirk, of course, whose influence on Fassbinder is often noted. But his library also contained a large number of major and minor films from Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks and several other of cinema’s greatest storytellers. Fassbinder was well versed in the works of classic Hollywood and European cinema, as his own efforts demonstrate.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970 ©Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Foto: Peter Gauhe

Most significant is the large selection of Fassbinder’s shooting scripts, handwritten notes and other working materials on view. For all the attention paid to his private life, Fassbinder appears to have spent most of his time working. He was a tremendously prolific artist, creating 41 feature films as well as numerous works for the stage during his short life.

Included in the collection are materials from his epic-length adaptation for television of Alfred Döblin’s classic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a work that held a lifelong fascination for Fassbinder, and his notes toward a film about Rosa Luxemburg, which he was preparing near the end of his life. A version of her life story would ultimately be filmed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of Fassbinder’s early collaborators, in 1986.

While such materials are worth seeing, the museum provides little context for them and offers generally poor introductions to the different pieces shown.

Tom Geens, You’re the Stranger Here, 2009 ©BFI & FILM4

Regrettably, several of the exhibition’s rooms are given over to works by contemporary artists said to follow in Fassbinder’s footsteps. You’re the Stranger Here (2009), a short film by Belgian filmmaker Tom Geens, is a nasty piece of work, in which a middle class family is victimized by an unstoppable military dictator who rapes and murders at will. There is no escape, not even an attempt is made. The film has far more in common with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s severely demoralized 1975 film Salo than it does with any of Fassbinder’s work.

A 2005 video installation by Maryam Jafri entitled Costume Party depicts a room of partygoers who adopt the dress of various social types and perform the roles associated with them. The implication is that we are all complicit in the social order and conform to this or that role, taking part in our own oppression or that of another. Apparently there are no innocent parties.

To the extent that these artists were influenced by Fassbinder at all, they have gravitated toward whatever was weakest or most pessimistic and cynical in his work. What was a limitation for Fassbinder has become a priority for them.

There is, more generally, an attempt on the part of certain middle class critics and admirers of Fassbinder to over-emphasize the director’s sexuality and play up the treatment of sexual orientation and “personal identity” in his films. The social content of his best work and his hostility to capitalism and opportunism are obscured in the process.

Hendel’s documentary Fassbinder is the summer’s other major tribute to the director. While it is a more sympathetic film than the tabloid documentaryFassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Christian Braad Thomsen), which debuted at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, both works tend to gossip about Fassbinder’s sex life and do what they can to confirm his reputation as cinema’s enfant terrible in a leather jacket (the jacket too is on display at Martin-Gropius-Bau). There is something unseemly about watching Fassbinder’s former friends and collaborators badmouth him in these documentaries, giving voice to petty jealousies and other personal grievances.

If Fassbinder only paved the way for second-rate artists and abused many of his collaborators in the process, why should anyone pay attention to him today?

Character assassination aside, Fassbinder made one of the more remarkable contributions to film in the second half of the twentieth century. One can see powerfully dramatized in his work the consequences of sacrificing one’s principles to careerism, status and the pursuit of wealth or friends in high places. With often painful accuracy, he describes the debasement of human relationships under conditions in which success is defined by those very pursuits.

Among the film clips on view in the Fassbinder Now exhibition is the devastating scene from The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) in which the status-obsessed middle class family of a fruit peddler, now that he appears to be taking a step up the social ladder, finally permit themselves to speak openly to this black sheep of the family. One by one, the family members freely—and with relief—admit how they had hated and been embarrassed by his manner of making a living. The fruit peddler suffers in silence. It is a deeply affecting sequence. There are many more such examples to be found throughout Fassbinder’s work, especially in the films made between 1969 and 1976.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus on the set of Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970-71 ©Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Foto: Peter Gauhe

During his career, Fassbinder tackled virtually every period in German history from the late nineteenth century onward. There was the minor aristocracy of the late 1800s in Effie Briest, the Weimar Republic in Berlin Alexanderplatz(1980), fascism and the Second World War in Lili Marleen (1981), the postwar period and the “economic miracle” of The Marriage of Maria Braun and radical terrorism of the 1970s in The Third Generation (1979).

Two films about anti-immigrant chauvinism—Katzelmacher (1969) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)—appear even more relevant today than at the time of their release.

Fassbinder saw a thread of continuity running through German history. In film historian Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject(1996), one finds the following comment in which the director spoke about his film Lili Marleen: “[It] is my first attempt to make a film about the Third Reich. And I will certainly be making other films about the Third Reich. But that’s another subject, just as the Weimar Republic is another subject. This cycle will also be continued. Maybe at the end, a total picture will emerge of the German bourgeoisie since 1848 … I think, there is a logic in all this. Just as I think that the Third Reich wasn’t just an accident, a regrettable lapse of history, as it is so often portrayed. The Third Reich does have a sort of logic, as well as what carried over from the Third Reich to the Federal Republic and the GDR.”

However, an interest in history is not the same thing as understanding it. Of course, the Third Reich was not an accident, but neither was it the inevitable and “organic” outcome of German history. The horrors of Hitlerism were only made possible by the historic betrayal of the working class by Social Democracy and Stalinism in the years 1914 to 1933, in the course of which numerous opportunities to overthrow German capitalism and prevent the barbarism of Nazism presented themselves.

The concrete problem of the crisis of working class leadership in the 20th century—above all, the life-and-death conflict between Stalinism and Trotskyism—was largely a closed book to Fassbinder and other radicalized intellectuals and artists in Germany in the 1980s. Many settled for a relatively lazy, semi-anarchist bohemianism and consoled themselves with the thought that the critical political questions of the previous half-century were “old hat” or solely the concern of “Old Leftists.” And they paid a high price as a consequence.

Another remark featured in Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany is telling. “Freud sometimes seems more important than Marx,” says Fassbinder. “The changing of productive relations in society and the exploration of interpersonal communication must be achieved in parallel fashion … I find that psychoanalysis from childhood on should be the right of every citizen.”

This sort of Freudianized Marxism, associated with the Frankfurt School, held sway over the student protest movement of the late 1960s, which played a prominent political role in Fassbinder’s formative years.

Through this body of thought, many of his generation were directed away from the most vital questions of class society and directed instead toward individual psychology, sexuality and consumerism. According to the co-founders of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno, capitalist society had developed powerful mechanisms to integrate the broad masses of the population into their own oppression. One of the products of this political-intellectual process in Germany today is the pro-imperialist Green Party.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972 ©Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, Berlin

It is interesting to note that Fassbinder’s film The Bitters Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) was subtitled “A medical history” and not, for example, “A social history.” Effie Briest carried the cumbersome subtitle: “Many people who are aware of their own capabilities and needs just acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds, thereby confirm and reinforce it.”

This was a demoralized perspective, an outlook that emerged following the trauma of fascism and the Second World War and the brutal crimes of Stalinism, taking root under conditions in which German capitalism was able temporarily to restore its equilibrium after the war.

Fassbinder’s best films evinced a real sympathy for ordinary people, but only rarely did he demonstrate any great confidence in them. Toward the end of his career, in the last years of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, he churned out one story after another in which individuals compromise themselves, conspire with reactionary elements and are destroyed in the process. Something in him had been fatally worn down. He died, tragically, in 1982 from a drug overdose. He was only 37 years old.

A critical appreciation of Fassbinder’s work on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of his birth, taking up the significant strengths and weaknesses in his work and placing them in the appropriate context, would be of great value. This is not to be found in the Fassbinder Now exhibition or in the recent documentaries of his life.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/23/fass-j23.html

 

How “Big Data” can help save the environment

Journalists, scientists & techies must work to translate data into the knowledge needed to address climate change 

How "Big Data" can help save the environment
A rider attached to the appropriation bill that funds the EPA would end the moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon which could contaminate the Colorado River
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American

A recent study using NASA’s CALIPSO satellite described how wind and weather carry millions of tons of dust from the Sahara desert to the Amazon basin each year – bringing much-needed fertilizers like phosphorus to the Amazon’s depleted soils.

To bring this story to life, NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization team produced a video showing the path of the Saharan dust, which has been viewed half a million times. This story is notable because it relies on satellite technology and data to show how one ecosystem’s health is deeply interconnected with another ecosystem on the other side of the world.

Stunning data visualization like this one can go a long way to helping communicate scientific wonders to the wider world. But even more important than the technology driving the collection and analysis of this data is how the team presented its findings to the public – as a story. NASA’s CALIPSO data offers a model of how scientists, technologists and journalists can come together and make use of data to help us respond to this a slow-motion crisis like air pollution.

Being able to see the dust blowing in the wind has broad implications. Today, one in eight people in the world dies from exposure to air pollution, which includes dust. This stunning fact, issued by the World Health Organization last March, adds up to 7 million premature deaths per year. Air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk in the world, and it occurs both indoors and outdoors.

The WHO report, which more than doubles previous estimates, is based on improved exposure measurements including data collected from satellites, sensors and weather and air flow information. The information has been cross-tabulated with demographic information to reveal, for example, that if you are a low- to middle-income person living in China, your chances of dying an air pollution-related death skyrockets.

These shocking statistics are hardly news for people living in highly polluted areas, though in many of the most severely affected regions, governments are not eager to confirm the obvious. The availability of global scale particulate matter (dust) monitoring could change this dynamic in a way that we all can see.

In addition to the volume of satellite data generated by NASA, sensor technology that helps create personal pollution monitors is increasingly affordable and accessible. Projects like the Air Quality EggSpeck and the DustDuino (with which I collaborate) are working to put tools to collect data from the ground in as many hands as possible. These low-cost devices are creating opportunities for citizen science to fill coverage gaps and testing this potential is a key part of our upcoming installation of DustDuino units in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this summer. Satellite data tend to paint in broad global strokes, but it’s often local details that inform and motivate decisions.

Satellites give us a global perspective. The official monitoring infrastructure, overseen by large institutions and governments, can measure ambient air at a very high resolution and modeling exposure over a large area. But they don’t see everything. The nascent field of sensor journalism helps citizen scientists and journalists fill in the gaps in monitoring networks, identifying human exposures and hot spots that are invisible to official infrastructure.

As program officer of the Earth Journalism Network, I help give training and support to teams of data scientists, developers and environmental journalists around the world to incorporate this flood of new information and boost local environmental coverage. We have taken this approach because the skills that we need to communicate about slow-motion crises like air pollution and climate change require a combination of experts who can make sense of data and journalists who can prioritize and contextualize it for their readers.

Leveraging technologies, skills and expertise from satellites, sensors and communities alike, journalists, scientists and technologists need to work together to translate data into the knowledge needed to address environmental crises.

 

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/18/how_big_data_can_help_save_the_environment_partner/?source=newsletter

The scam of austerity explained

This Viral Video Is the Anti-Austerity Poem You’ve Been Waiting For

Yesterday, British Spoken word performer Agnes Töröka release an inspired, three-minute poetic call-to-arms for the austerity generation that quickly went viral, garnering almost 100,000 views by the end of the day.

In “Worthless” ,Töröka masterfully calls into question the unfair social contract inherented by todays youth: from nonstop internships to massive debt to the wholesale gutting of social programs. Underlying the spoken word poem is a biting sarcasm, contrasting the public funding of bank bailouts with the raiding of public trusts. She also wonderfully skewers the patronizing, “realistic” platitudes of austerity, from “cost cutting” to telling out-of-work graduates to focus on “polishing their CV’s”.

It’s a brilliant – and unexpected – piece of rage-fueled poetry that should speak to anyone who’s been tightened, cost-cutted, and left to fend for themselves by a system that glorifies the rich while, time and time again, telling the rest of us we’re “worthless”.

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.

 

http://www.alternet.org/anti-austerity-viral-video-masterful-rage-filled-poem-youve-been-waiting?akid=13305.265072.nk2hbZ&rd=1&src=newsletter1039390&t=11

Beware inspirational online images – they may be more insidious than you think

A photo of Daniel Cabrera, a homeless Filipino, is being used to support the rightwing narrative that there are no excuses for failure or poverty
This handout photo taken on June 23, 201
‘Someone has turned the picture into an inspirational postcard with the caption: “If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”‘ Photograph: Joyce Torrefranca/AFP/Getty Images

Moved by the scene, Torrefranca took a photograph and posted it on Facebook. “For me as a student,” she wrote, “it just hit me a lot, like, big time.”

Torrefranca wasn’t the only one inspired by the nine-year-old boy without a home. Since Daniel Cabrera’s house burned down, he has reportedly been living in a food stall with his mother and two brothers. His father is dead. Reports also say he owns only one pencil. A second pencil was stolen from him.

As the story went viral, people emerged to help the boy, giving him books, pencils and crayons. He also received a battery-powered lamp so he would no longer have to do his homework in the car park. A fundraising page was set up to help cover the costs of his schooling.

This is far from the first inspirational story to attract attention online. Whether it’s a limbless man surfing, a cancer survivor climbing some of the world’s highest peaks or a homeless woman making it all the way to Harvard, we are easily touched by these stories, and there’s nothing strange or wrong with that. But we might want to examine some of the reasons why we – or others – love them so much, or at least question the conclusions some of us wish to draw from them.

One tabloid newspaper has recommended parents show the picture of the hardworking boy to their children next time they are moaning. In a similar vein, someone has turned the picture into an inspirational postcard with the caption: “If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

In these interpretations, the picture is used to suggest that there are no excuses for failure or poverty. Even if you are poor and live in a makeshift home, you have the choice to work yourself out of that predicament. All you need is determination, willpower and the right, can-do attitude. Private troubles, whether poverty or unemployment, should remain private troubles. They should not be regarded as public issues because that is merely a way of trying to find an excuse. Such is the lesson we should teach ourselves and take from this.

It is depressingly easy to find other examples of this mindset today, the idea that we can all rise above our circumstances – however difficult – through a programme of self-improvement.

In Los Angeles, for instance, the New Village Charter High School is using transcendental meditation not just to release stress but also, in the words of itsprincipal, Javier Guzman, “to combat poverty”. This may help some of the children to achieve better results at school. But the problem is not personal when the bottom income quartile in the US make up only 5% of enrolments in top universities.

Another proposal to fight poverty comes from the US Republican politician Paul Ryan. Inspired by the writer Ayn Rand, he recently presented an anti-poverty plan in which he proposed poor people should sit down with a life coach and develop an “opportunity plan”.

This might sound a uniquely north American venture but Sweden, popularly known as the land of equality and welfare, is probably the country that has come closest to achieving Ryan’s dream.

In the course of only four years, the Swedish state paid out 4.7bn Swedish krona (£360m) to job coaches. The actual benefits of this initiative have proved modest, and the methods used by these coaches, including healing and therapeutic touching, have been called into question.

But more problematic than their questionable usefulness is that these methods implicitly encourage socially vulnerable groups, whether poor or unemployed, to stop looking for answers in the public sphere. They are told instead that the barrier lies within themselves.

One US study, which followed unemployed white-collar workers who attend support organisations, found that jobseekers were encouraged to stop reading the newspaper and go on a “news fast”. They were also asked to stop using the word “unemployment”, since that would betray a negative attitude.

Similar observations were made in Ivor Southwood’s auto-ethnographic account of UK jobcentres, Non-Stop Inertia, in which he describes how jobseekers are told to do “three positive things per week” or else they might be disciplined.

In his recent ethnography of the Swedish equivalent of Jobcentre Plus, Roland Paulsen describes mandatory humilating exercises, so-called brag rounds, in which the long-term unemployed are encouraged to show off in front of their fellow jobseekers.

In a distressing article recently published in Medical Humanities it was suggested that these types of exercises, intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, have become a political strategy to eradicate the experience of social and economic inequality.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being moved by a picture of a young boy concentrating hard on his homework. But we should remember that pictures of this kind may serve more sinister purposes when paired with “inspirational” messages. Serious discussion of external circumstances – including a proper understanding of inequality – is not helped by the suggestion that the only thing holding a person back is their attitude.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/10/inspirational-online-images-daniel-cabrera-homeless-filipino?CMP=fb_gu

 

Terminator Genisys and the trajectory of American “independent” filmmaking

By David Walsh
8 July 2015

Directed by Alan Taylor; written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier

The fifth in a series of science fiction action films, Terminator Genisys centers on the struggle between the human race and an intelligent machine network, Skynet, bent on wiping it out. The action takes place over a number of decades, from the mid-1980s onward.

Terminator Genisys

Recurring characters in the Terminator series have included John Connor, the leader of the human resistance to the machine’s genocidal plans, his mother, Sarah Connor, his right-hand man, Kyle Reese, and various “Terminators,” nearly unstoppable cyborg assassins, sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor or her son or otherwise alter the course of history. The original Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first film is later reprogrammed to defend Connor and generally oppose Skynet’s plans.

The mildly entertaining elements in the 1984Terminator, made relatively cheaply, included the Austrian-accented Schwarzenegger as the laconic, unsmiling, human-looking machine and Linda Hamilton’s overmatched and unprepared but scrappy Sarah Connor. James Cameron directed in his usual impersonal manner, but there was something slightly pleasing about the mayhem let loose in complacent 1980s’ Los Angeles, amidst its dreadful clubs, clothes and hairdos. If anything seemed “terminal” in that work, it was the social and cultural atmosphere of Reagan’s America.

The second in the series, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), also featuring Schwarzenegger and Hamilton and directed by Cameron, is more or less an extension of the first film. Edward Furlong plays a 10-year-old John Connor, living in Los Angeles in 1995 and the primary target of a new and more advanced, shape-shifting Terminator (Robert Patrick).

In 2003, I noted that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (directed by Jonathon Mostow) was “a stupid, gloomy film.” John Connor (Nick Stahl in this one), accompanied by his future wife (Claire Danes), is the target “of a machine sent from the future that specializes in assassination.” The only twist this time is that the killer machine in question “is a female, so to speak—an icy blonde super-model terminatrix [Kristanna Loken]—and is more advanced than the Schwarzenegger robot.”

The three lead characters in Terminator 3 spend much of their time attempting to forestall a nuclear war, or Judgment Day. “In a particularly unpleasant turn of events, they fail, and the film’s final images depict the destruction of major urban centers by a nuclear holocaust. What is one to make of such a cheap and unserious, but misanthropic and morbid conclusion? A Terminator 4 is foreseen, and there is most likely no way to forestall that future.”

The fourth installment, Terminator Salvation (2009, directed by McG), with Christian Bale, Helena Bonham Carter and others, we neither saw nor reviewed.

In the new film, John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his resistance fighters are on the eve of defeating Skynet in 2029, when the network sends a new killer-machine back to 1984 in one more effort to wipe out the unfortunate, much put upon Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). In turn, Connor’s lieutenant, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), is dispatched to the earlier time period to protect Sarah. Schwarzenegger turns up again as the now aging T-800 Guardian.

The secret weapon having been relatively easily eliminated, Sarah and Reese, along with the T-800, turn their attention to another problem: at some point in the future, Skynet will become self-aware, take over every computer, cell phone and tablet on earth and prepare to launch nuclear war. (It is never seriously explained why the powerful machine network should have such a dim and lethal view of humanity.) The pair has to travel forward now to 1997, or rather 2017, and prevent all that from happening.

Many explosions, car chases and hand-to-hand combats later, the two humans and one humanoid machine must destroy the mainframe computer at a giant corporation, Cyberdyne. They appear to succeed, but one is led to believe that a sixth Terminator will be forthcoming.

This is a bad film, with unconvincing dialogue, muddy and confusing plot twists and tedious action sequences. Viewed in IMAX 3D, it may induce headaches.

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys imagines humanity faced with annihilation and reduces this terrible dilemma to almost unrelieved banality. John Connor in 2029: “I look at each of you and I see the marks of this long and terrible war. If we die tonight, mankind dies with us.” Sarah Connor in 1984: “The timeline John sent you to no longer exists. Everything’s changed … and we can stop Judgment Day.”

Clarke is perfectly endearing in an insubstantial role, while Courtney is stiff as a board and unappealing. It may be an indication of some of the film’s difficulties that Schwarzenegger offers the most textured (and amusing) performance in Terminator Genisys. At least he shows signs of having had some real-life experience.

Terminator Genisys

The new Terminator installment is directed by Alan Taylor. This has a certain significance, because Taylor has a history as an aspiring independent filmmaker. In 1995, he made a film entitled Palookaville, which I saw at the 1996 San Francisco Film Festival.

Palookaville (1995)

I wrote about the film, which was loosely inspired by Italian comedies of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street. “Palookaville is a rare American film, one which deals with ordinary people in a sympathetic, yet not uncritical, fashion—and with some imagination. Alan Taylor’s film follows the lives of three unemployed men [played by William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo and Adam Trese] in Jersey City who take up crime for a variety of reasons.”

In a conversation in San Francisco in May 1996, Taylor expressed a sympathy for the “underdogs” in society. He said, “Every authority figure in the film is corrupt and untrustworthy. … This is obviously a film which has a lot of affection and faith in the class of people in which these guys are operating.” He remarked on the characters’ continued and mistaken belief in the American Dream: “That’s all they’re thinking about. It hasn’t gotten to the point where they’re thinking, ‘Well, wait a second, should we be more critical of the whole idea?’ They’re not at that stage.”

Moreover, Taylor expressed an antagonistic attitude toward Hollywood, and especially its tendency to divert attention from social problems with violence and bombast: “A lot of the Hollywood movies we see are responses to desperation and fear, economic uncertainty and political uncertainty. Most of them confront that fear by going: Pow! Pow! Pow! It’s a very reassuring thing for an audience to feel that they can get control back that easily.”

If Taylor, two decades later, is now contributing to Hollywood’s “Pow! Pow! Pow!,” it is less a personal failing than a reflection of profound socio-cultural problems, including the lack of serious political and historical perspective on the part of a generation of so-called independent directors and writers.

No doubt, Taylor made an effort. He directed episodes of several television series that were viewed, rightly or wrongly, as more substantial than most (Traders, Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street, The West Wing, The Sopranos, etc.). The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001), about Napoleon in exile, was charming but slight. His Kill the Poor (2003), about life in New York City in the 1980s, showed a social conscience. After that, there is mostly television work in Taylor’s résumé, including six episodes of Game of Thrones, and then suddenly, Thor: The Dark World, in 2013. And now this …

Around the same time as Palookaville, we interviewed Steven Soderbergh in Toronto, for his film Schizopolis (1996), who said he was happily located under Hollywood’s radar and planned to stay there. This was only a few short years before he became Julia Roberts’ “favorite director” for a time and prepared himself to shoot Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007).

Again, in neither case it is appropriate to make cheap jokes at the expense of the filmmaker involved. The problem is more serious than that.

The needs and aims of the handful of conglomerates that dominate the entertainment industry are enforced with iron rigor. Independent thought, creativity, spontaneity, criticism and outright opposition do not fit into the plans of the giant corporations. They are both hostile to those qualities or sentiments and uncomprehending of them. Whatever does not lead to immediate box office success is deeply suspect. As far as their executives are concerned, the studios should turn out a few large-scale, technologically advanced films a year that offend no one and say nothing, the equivalent of exhilarating amusement park rides.

And the economics of this situation tends to herd a certain category of artists in the direction of the blockbusters. Like Taylor and Soderbergh, they often have vaguely oppositional or “left” views, but nothing that would stand in the way of making wise and seemingly inescapable career choices. Largely cut off and insulated from broad layers of the population, from its hardships and seething anger, the filmmakers’ lack of definite social and historical views renders them vulnerable to the siren song of these vast and lucrative productions.

No doubt such a scale of operations seems a challenge for a filmmaker, and no doubt as well each director tells him or herself that he or she will contribute something personal and artistic and perhaps even socially critical to the action or superhero genre. But it never happens, or the touches are so slight that the overwhelming noise and commotion far outweigh them.

In any case, the movement of global independent filmmakers into the “blockbuster” vortex is widespread and deserves taking note of.

Here are a few other examples:

Paralleling Taylor somewhat, although their early work was never as interesting, are the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe. Their Welcome to Collinwood (2002), about a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, bore certain superficial similarities to Palookaville. Joe Russo commented at the time: “These characters are underdogs, the lovable losers. I think everybody, to some degree, thinks of themselves as an underdog.” And his brother added, “Especially in Cleveland, in a neighborhood like Collinwood that has had a lot of bad breaks over the last few decades.”

By 2014, the Russo brothers (who in 2002 were looking in cinema history “for models that were straightforward, more honest, more open, more simple”) had graduated to directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They are scheduled to direct several more superhero films over the next few years,Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Avengers: Infinity War Part II.

British actor-director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his series of films intended to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour Lost and As You Like It), directed Thor in 2011.

British-born Christopher Nolan, whose low-budget Following made the independent film festival rounds in 1998, including San Francisco, has made a far bigger name for himself by directing several of the insufferably self-serious, murky Batman installments: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

John Singleton, African American director of Boyz n the hood (1991), about life in South Central Los Angeles, was recruited to direct the second installment ofThe Fast and the Furious franchise, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

New Zealand-born Lee Tamahori, director of Once Were Warriors, focused on an urban Maori family, voted the best New Zealand film of all time in 2014, went on to direct Die Another Day (2002), the twentieth of the James Bond fantasies.

Marc Forster, the German-Swiss director of the much acclaimed Monster’s Ball(2001), again a small-budget film, with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, andThe Kite Runner (2007), about life in Afghanistan, likewise turned to directing one of the Bond films, Quantum of Solace, in 2008.

Director of the (undeservedly) award-winning American Beauty (1999), the UK’s Sam Mendes, presided over the most recent Bond film, Skyfall (2012), as well as the next in the series about the British secret agent, Spectre, which opens in November.

Patty Jenkins, whose Monster (2003), recounting the life of serial killer Aileen Wuomos (Charlize Theron), received a great deal of acclaim for its supposedly hard-hitting and painful realism, is slated to direct Wonder Woman, to be released in 2017.

And so forth …

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/08/term-j08.html

The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

By Joanne Laurier
3 July 2015

The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle; Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa

The Wolfpack

At the center of Crystal Moselle’s debut film, The Wolfpack, winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, are seven young people who have been locked away for most of their lives in a New York City public housing apartment. Their father’s social fearfulness lies at the heart of this peculiarity.

Six boys and a mentally disabled sister lived with their parents in the Seward Park Extension projects, which house some 800 residents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Homeschooled by their mother, the children were forbidden by their father, Oscar Angulo, to leave their 16th-floor, four-bedroom apartment.

The Wolfpack

Confined to one thousand square feet of space, the boys became absorbed in watching films, of which there were some five thousand in the apartment. Making props and costumes and reenacting scenes from their favorite movies became their mode of existence. In Moselle’s film, the boys come across as endearing, articulate and emotionally vulnerable. Their long black hair—which their father forbid them to cut—only adds to the mystique. Their overall appearance and the peculiarity of their circumstances, however, tend to distract the viewer from considering what must be serious psychic scars.

Only in the barest outlines does the filmmaker trace out why the Angulo children were confined. Susanne, their mother, briefly explains that she and her husband Oscar were afraid of their offspring being “socialized” by a bad and hazardous world. The Wall Street Journal cites Moselle’s comment: “It’s not like they were chained. … They were just not socializing with the outside world. They didn’t leave the house because they were scared.” She documents the family’s odd and fascinating—mostly by virtue of its oddity—story, but seems generally unconcerned with probing the larger questions at work.

The movie’s production notes provide a sketch of the family’s background: Peruvian-born Oscar aspired to be a musician. He met and married Susanne, a hippie from the American Midwest, in 1989 and became a Hare Krishna devotee. In 1994, after the birth of five children—Visnu, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana and Mukunda—the family traveled around the country looking for opportunities for Oscar to become a rock star, during which time one of the children was birthed in their van. In 1996, the family moved to the Manhattan housing project. There, the last two children—Krsna and Jagadisa—were born.

In The Wolfpack, the boys explain that Oscar believes that having a job makes one a social slave and robot. Susanne gets money from the state for homeschooling. Clearly protective of their shy, somewhat bewildered mother, they discuss Oscar’s abusive, domineering nature, made worse by his drinking. Only toward the movie’s conclusion does a dejected Oscar appear on screen. Earlier, he makes a brief comment regarding the family’s shabby living quarters.

In January 2010 Mukunda finally escaped the apartment, wandering the streets wearing a Michael Meyers mask. (Meyers is the psychotic killer in theHalloween horror movie series.) He was arrested and spent some time in a hospital psych ward. In April 2010, the brothers started regularly leaving the apartment as a pack, a bizarre vision of dark hair, black suits and sunglasses.

The Wolfpack

It was at that time that Moselle met the boys. She states in the film’s production notes that it “was serendipitous that I met these boys the first week they started going out into the world. It almost felt as if I had discovered a long lost tribe, except it was not from the edges of the world but from the streets of Manhattan. I was moved by their openness, resilience and sense of humor, and I formed a trust with them that could never be duplicated.”

Explaining that it was Oscar who introduced his sons to both classic and cult films, Moselle states that the boys “liked the violent, horrific, morally complicated films the best.” Thus began their obsession with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino [hence the Reservoir Dogs look]. “It opened their eyes to film outside the realms of the standard Hollywood films they were used to watching. Since films were their world, they started to interpret these looks into their wardrobe.”

At one point, the boys explain that their apartment was raided by a police SWAT team looking for a cache of weapons, but finding instead an array of home-made props. Although everyone in the family was handcuffed—a frightening ordeal—the Angulo boys speak about the incident very casually.

In spite of The Wolfpack ’s somewhat careless construction, it has endearing moments. It is almost heartbreaking, for example, when an emotional Susanne sends the boys off to see their first movie at a cinema (The Fighter), acting as if they were traveling to the other side of the world. Or when for the first time in decades Susanne speaks to her mother in Michigan, thrilled like a kid in a candy store. There is also the amusing sequence of the boys at Coney Island, lathering their bodies with sun block (“We don’t need sun. We are vampires.”)

The film never addresses itself to the reasons why Oscar and Susanne are so overwhelmed by the problems of society and especially why Oscar is such a misanthrope. One would have thought that this was rather central to any serious examination of the family’s circumstances. It is telling that Moselle apparently takes all this for granted.

Indeed, the parents’ disorientation is consistent with that of a substantial social layer, and even a portion of a generation. The Wolfpack never makes what seems an obvious connection between the father’s view of American society as a bottomless pit of sin and iniquity (crime, violence, drugs, gang activity, etc.) to be shunned at all costs and his sons being drawn to Tarantino’s shallow, sordid output and other gloomy films of the last several decades, likeThe Dark Knight, Taxi Driver, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Don’t these films, in their own way, reflect and even validate precisely the outlook Oscar espoused, that the family needed to be locked away, protected from the dangerous, sinister modern world?

In any event, The Wolfpack still intrigues, largely because of the Angulo boys’ liveliness and tenacity.

Dope

Another form of individual effort at escape is at the center of Rick Famuyiwa’s comedy Dope, which starts with three dictionary definitions of its title—a term for drugs, a term for someone stupid and a term of high praise.

Dope

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a high school senior living with his single mom (Kimberly Elise), a bus driver, in the Bottoms, a gang-controlled neighborhood in the city of Inglewood, in southwestern Los Angeles County. He is a self-described “black geek,” a moniker that also applies to his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel), who claims he’s 14 percent African, and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian whose family tries to “pray away the gay.” Malcolm, who sports an old-fashioned flat-top hairdo and button-down collar, is a straight A student, has aced his SATs, plays in a punk rock band with Jib and Diggy and is determined to get into Harvard.

While the film’s opening sequences are amusing and charming, Dope veers off in a convoluted, scrambled direction involving the unloading of drugs that have fallen into Malcolm’s possession (to prove the point—see Wikipedia’s endless plot description). Implausibly, he sets up a clever and successful online drugstore, wowing an admissions officer who turns out to be a drug kingpin!

Moore is worth watching; Revolori and especially Clemons are also amiable. There is nothing cynical about the lead trio. Through them the movie attempts to break down certain stereotypes about “typical” Inglewood residents. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is drenched in clichés and populated with boilerplate bad boys: sneaker-stealing school bullies, neighborhood drug dealers and teens negotiating typical “hood traps.”

While it is refreshing to see a reasonable facsimile of working class youth on screen, most of the film’s better moments end up by sermonizing, along the lines of platitudes such as “Don’t underestimate yourself” and “Always aim high.”

Famuyiwa (The Wood, 1999, and Brown Sugar, 2002) has a reputation for making films that dare “to show middle-class blacks as ordinary Americans.” This seems a pretty limited and limiting ambition. While individuals like the overachiever Malcolm may well escape the relatively mean streets of Inglewood, Dope seems largely unconcerned with the majority condemned to remain.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/03/wolf-j03.html