How to beat perfectionism

Percussionist Patti Niemi talks about enduring anxiety, rejection and how to handle failure and not fall apart

LISTEN: How to beat perfectionism

When you have lots of conversations with women like I do, a few themes start to emerge. One that comes up again and again is the pursuit of perfection.

Anxiety is the drumbeat to perfection, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than men, so perhaps it’s appropriate that I got explore its rhythms with Patti Niemi, a world-class musician and percussionist for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

She’s written a memoir about her experiences, called “Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit,” and she spoke to me about how even now, after 25 years with the same orchestra — that’s 25 years without needing to audition, which is a major anxiety trigger for her — that perfectionism is still alive and well.

Niemi had been at Juilliard for two years when she sat down at a rehearsal and suddenly realized she had no control over her hands. She had been playing percussion since the age of ten, had participated in hundreds of rehearsals and countless performances, but had never experienced something like this before.

“Physically, what it feels like is you’re just going off the rails, and about to lose your mind,” she says, looking back on her old panic.

A painful inner monologue kept the engine going. It went like this: “I need to be perfect, I can’t be perfect, therefore what am I going to do?” And then, “Back to, I need to be perfect. It’s a long hard dialogue,” she says.

She says her anxiety got really bad at Juilliard because she suddenly realized how high the stakes were. “I felt like I suddenly had something to lose.”

She ended up using Inderal, a beta blocker, to calm her nerves so she could focus during an auditions and move forward.

During her last year there, an older male professor told Niemi that he had fallen in love with her. She was deeply uncomfortable and says it was “the perfect storm” of imbalanced power dynamics — and a sense of feeling trapped.

Listen to our conversation:
https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=inflection-point-with-lauren-schiller-6NkYz8&ge=s1!7a4126191ee956161c1af5eeac2ce277adb68f8c

“Here you have a very powerful mentor an hour a week alone, and they have this power over you,” she says. “A teacher can recommend you for a certain audition if you weren’t able to get in to the audition,” at first. “I mean, they still have a lot of power as far as jobs go.”

Like Anita Hill did with Clarence Thomas, Niemi continued to work with her professor, and even go out to dinner with him. “It didn’t occur to me not to,” she says now. “I need to manage it, “ she thought at the time — and attempted to control the situation by asking her professor lots of questions about percussion and avoiding talking about anything else. “I just thought if I made him mad he would retaliate.”

Niemi says she’s heartened to see that things are different for women in universities now. Back then, in the late ’80s, she says there was no mechanism at the school for her to share what was going on. “It just wasn’t talked about,” she says.

“It still happens but now you’re told very clearly these are the lines you can’t cross. This is what you can’t do. And to be fair to him, he wasn’t told that, how it worked at the time.”

Niemi’s anxiety appeared well before the period her professor told her he was in love with her, but his “confession” did nothing to ease it.

“It had a pretty strong effect on me physically,” she says. Eventually she developed an ulcer. That anxiety came out most of all during her auditions.

In spite of her uncomfortable relationship with her professor, Niemi decided to stay on at Juilliard in their graduate program. “I started a master’s program mostly because living in New York and not having a place to practice for production is very difficult,” she told me. But after a few weeks, being around her teacher became overwhelming.

A few months in she braved another audition and succeeded in landing a position with the then-new New World Symphony, which accomplished two things for her: she was able to get away from her professor and she finally accomplished what she had set out to do from the age of 10 — live and work as a professional musician. But her professional aspirations were not yet complete. The New World Symphony is a training ensemble, and the participants are expected to continue to audition for permanent positions elsewhere.

In spite of the great lengths Niemi went to manage her anxiety and perfectionist standards, after a number of auditions she almost won but didn’t, she finally lost it. “My room got messy,” she writes in her memoir. “I didn’t care enough to clean it. While I was practicing for the Boston audition, it had been filled with instruments. Now the floor space was covered with dirty clothes. I let dishes sit in the sink until the silverware rusted, and a little white mouse appeared from behind my bookcase one day. I had been sitting at my table so immobile he probably assumed I was one of the chairs. He darted away only when I screamed.”

Niemi says it’s important to talk publicly about anxiety so that others don’t have to struggle as much as she did and because she says there is still stigma. “When I was in school it was so painful to me. I thought, I’m the only one doing this. Everybody else manages anxiety no problem.”

Twenty-five years ago she earned a spot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and has played with them ever since.

During complicated performances, the old feelings return sometimes. Here’s how she described awaiting her moment in the orchestra pit for a cymbal crash: “Sitting there, trying to keep track, watching the singers up on stage, and it’s getting closer and closer. Finally, I’m counting down, I’m listening to the music. I’m waiting for my moment. I stand up I take these big hunks of metal I’m about to fling at one another and I wait for the moment and the conductor lowers the baton.”

Even after two and a half decades, “I know I have to be perfect in this moment and it has to happen.”

Niemi has tempered her anxiety with wisdom. She’s accepted that to do anything in life truly meaningful, failure comes with the territory. “Rejection is a gift,” she says.

“You are going to fail. It’s how you handle the failure to be perfect that you have to manage.”

When I asked Niemi if she has ever had a moment where she asked herself why she stays in a field that makes her feel this anxious, she said, “I always wanted to do it. It was so hard. But I never questioned whether I was going to do it. I worried about that in the book because I put so much emphasis on the hard parts of it that I would that come off sounding like I was ungrateful or I didn’t appreciate this opportunity I had. I’ve never felt ungrateful. I loved music. I love it. And I was really lucky to fall into this opportunity. I wanted to write about what was hard about it.”

Lauren Schiller is the Executive Producer of Audio for Salon.com and the creator and host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast about how women rise up.

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of “Like a Rolling Stone”

How Bob Dylan took a “long piece of vomit about twenty pages long” and turned it into a six-minute masterpiece

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of "Like a Rolling Stone"
(Credit: AP/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)
Excerpted from “Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” by Mark Polizzotti (Continuum, 2006). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

It has to be the most celebrated drumbeat in all of popular music. Often described in ballistic terms—a “rifle shot,” a “gunshot”—Bobby Gregg’s inaugural smack is indeed the shot heard ’round the world. “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA,” Bruce Springsteen recalled twenty-four years after the fact, “and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Greil Marcus, in his penetrating if overwrought study of “Like a Rolling Stone,” contends that while many other songs use the same kick-off—including the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” from the previous year and Dylan’s own “From a Buick 6” further down Highway 61—“on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” This might be overstating the case somewhat: as Al Kooper reminded Marcus, it’s very common for the drummer to end a one-two-three-four count with a sharp thwack. Still, there is something about this particular beat that makes it more than simple timekeeping, that renders it more memorable. Somehow, a common device has turned itself into a signature. If you heard only this one second of “Like a Rolling Stone,” you could still identify the song.

This drumbeat has become so associated with the song, in fact, that its presence or absence directly inflects upon the character of the performance. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the invariable closer of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. One can almost gauge the degree of exasperation he felt on any given night over the catcalls that greeted his electric set by the emphasis that drummer Mickey Jones placed on his opening salvo. It echoes authoritatively in Edinburgh. It booms with smashing finality in the valedictory concert at Albert Hall, following a drawling introduction in which Dylan dedicates the song to “the Taj Mahawwwl.” And it positively deafens with scorn following the legendary “Judas!—You’re a LIAR” exchange between Dylan and disgruntled fan Keith Butler at the Manchester Free Trade Hall ten days earlier, which triggered Dylan’s exhortation to the band to “play fuckin’ loud.” Its absence in favor of a cranking instrumental build-up, in the version played at the Isle of Wight in 1969, was one of the reasons for that performance often being tagged as lifeless. (Oddly, the version played at the infamous Newport concert, only weeks after the studio version was recorded and with many of the same musicians, also foregoes the opening bang: it made enough of a statement as it was.) Among the many, many covers of the song, one by the band Drive-By Truckers is notable in that it begins with a similar drum shot, which then rests for a few bars, imbuing their entire rendition with a kind of we-know-you-know slyness.

In fact, the famous drumbeat is actually two beats, the resounding snap of the snare followed by the almost subliminally faint echo of a kick-drum, which makes the whole thing take a half-step back and gives it an extra push of forward momentum: not ONE-(pause)-TWO, but ONE-two-THREE. Marcus, again, tends to oversell when he likens “the empty split-second that follows” the initial beat (but that’s just it: it’s not empty) to both “a house tumbling over a cliff ” and the Oklahoma Land Rush. What he’s missing in his own rush to hyperbole is the way that half-heard second beat pulls in, eases in, the onslaught of guitar, piano, organ, bass, and drum that henceforth sends the song—and the album it starts off with a literal bang—charging forward.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is also no doubt the most famous song ever written out of sheer boredom. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England, for what would be his last fully acoustic tour. Both the performances and the time surrounding them, captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back (the title’s lack of apostrophe mirroring Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation), show a man barely going through the motions. Dylan is in control of his material and his audience, but there is no spontaneity and little verve. Even supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“This one is called ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’—ho ho ho” [audience laughs]) have been rehearsed many times before. By the time he returned to the States at the beginning of June, he was considering giving up performing altogether. “I was very drained,” he explained [in a Playboy interview] several months later. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.… It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

What changed his mind, he said, was the new musical vista opened by “Rolling Stone.” “I’d literally quit singing and playing,” he told Martin Bronstein of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.” As he described it to Jules Siegel, the “vomit” began as simple prose ramblings: “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper… I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.”

Dylan’s interviews are notoriously unreliable sources of information, more like theatrical performances than communication sessions, and perhaps none more so than the ones he gave around the release of Highway 61. But what emerges consistently from his remarks about “Rolling Stone,” in addition to his pleasure at having written it—“the best song I wrote,” he told Gleason—is the sense of spontaneity regained, of an elusive but thrilling encounter with the muse. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that,” he recalled in 2004, with a note of wistfulness as if speaking of a long time gone. “It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.” To television commentator Ed Bradley that same year, he described the songs of this period as having come from “a place of magic.”

In this case, the magic seems to have been triggered precisely by the creative stagnation Dylan had been feeling (and that his records had been showing) over the previous two years. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is well-crafted but resolutely downbeat, more like medicine than entertainment, while Another Side, despite a few stand-outs, just sounds bored. Little wonder that by the time Dylan returned from his all-acoustic British tour, he’d decided to give it all up—or that the inspiration of “Rolling Stone” seemed such a godsend. It ushered in a creative outpouring that is almost unrivaled in Dylan’s career (let alone anyone else’s), and that over the following half-year resulted in many of the songs on which his reputation still stands.

Also rare for a chart-topping pop hit, the lyrics focused not on love but its opposite. It was “all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest,” Dylan told Siegel, immediately amending that to: “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word… It was like swimming in lava. In your eyesight, you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.” Lucky in lava is not the same as lucky in love, but the contradiction is very much in keeping with the spirit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that manages to balance sadism, compassion, and sheer liberated joy in a six-minute display of pure bravado.

Theater professionals address the Flint water disaster

Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event

By Joanne Laurier
15 June 2017

Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.

Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.

Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.

Purni Morell

British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”

Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.

Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”

Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”

Audience members in Flint

The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”

Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”

Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”

In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”

In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.

Tyee Tilghman (Horster)

Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”

This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.

All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.

Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands

When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.

Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.

“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”

And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.

Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.

The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.

Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.

Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”

Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”

The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/15/ibse-j15.html

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture?

The archetype of the “techie” has become commonplace in the past decade in art and in real life. But what is it?

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture even?
(Credit: Getty/Geber86)

If you live in any major city in the world, you probably know the type: they roam the clean parts of town, lattes in hand, wearing American Apparel hoodies emblazoned with logos of vowel-deficient startups. Somehow, in the past decade, a profession turned into a lifestyle and a culture, with its own customs, habits and even lingo. In film, television and literature, the techie archetype is mocked, recycled, reduced to a stereotype (as in Mike Judge’s sitcom “Silicon Valley”), a radical hero (as in “Mr. Robot”), or both (as in “The Circle”).

If, as many claim, the hipster died at the end of the 2000s, the techie seems to have taken its place in the 2010s — not quite an offshoot, but rather a mutation. Consider the similarities: Like hipsters, techies are privy to esoteric knowledge, though of obscure code rather than obscure bands. They both seem to love kale. They tend to rove in packs, are associated with gentrification, and are overwhelmingly male. There are some fashion similarities: the tight jeans, the hoodie fetish, the predilection for modernist Scandinavian furniture. And like “hipster,” the term “techie” is often considered a slur, a pejorative that you lob at someone you want to depict as out of touch, rarefied and elite — not a fellow prole, in other words.

Yet there are differences, too: The techie often brings with him or her a certain worldview and language that attempts to describe the world in computational terms; the transformation of the word “hack” into an everyday verb attests to this. Some techies view their own bodies as merely machines that require food the way computers need electricity, a belief system exemplified by the popularity of powdered foods like Soylent. This happens in exercise, too — the rush to gamify health and wellness by tracking steps, calories and heartbeats turns the body into a spreadsheet.

How does a profession mutate into a culture? David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation,” suggests that some of the cultural beliefs common to those in the tech industry about the utopian promise of computers trickle down into what we may think of as tech culture at large. Golumbia describes the basic idea, “computationalism,” as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”

“You frequently find people who avoid formal education for some reason or another and then educate themselves through reading a variety of online resources that talk about this, and they subscribe to it as quasi-religious truth, that everything is a computer,” Golumbia said. “It’s appealing to people who find the messiness of the social and human world unappealing and difficult to manage. There’s frustration . . . expressed when parts of the world don’t appear to be computational, by which I mean, when their actions can’t be represented by algorithms that can be clearly defined.”

“It’s very reductive,” Golumbia added.

Mapping the social world onto the algorithmic world seems to be where tech culture goes astray. “This is part of my deep worry about it — we are heading in a direction where people who really identify with the computer are those who have a lot of trouble dealing with other people directly. People who find the social world difficult to manage often see the computer as the solution to their problems,” Golumbia said.

But tech culture isn’t confined to screen time anymore. It’s become part of everyday life, argues Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology of San Jose State University and a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck wrote an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley culture, “Cultures@SiliconValley,” and studies the people and culture of the region.

“We start to see our civic life in a very technical way. My favorite example of that is people going to a picnic and looking at some food and asking if that’s ‘open source’ [available to all]. So people use those technological metaphors to think about everyday things in life,” she said.

English-Lueck says the rapid pace of the tech field trickles down into tech culture, too. “People are fascinated with speed and efficiency, they’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what technology can accomplish.”

Golumbia saw the aspects of tech culture firsthand: Prior to being a professor, he worked in information technology for a software company on Wall Street. His convictions about computationalism were borne out in his colleagues. “What I saw was that there were at least two kinds of employees — there was a programmer type, who was very rigid but able to do the tasks that you put in front of them, and there were the managerial types who were much more flexible in their thinking.”

“My intuition in talking to [the] programmer types [was that] they had this very black-and-white mindset, that everything was or should be a computer,” he said. “And the managers, who tended to have taken at least a few liberal arts classes in college, and were interested in history of thought, understood you can’t manage people the way you manage machines.”

Yet the former worldview — that everything is a computer — seems to have won out. “When I started, I thought it was this minor small subgroup of society” that believed that, he told Salon. “But nowadays I think many executives in Silicon Valley have some version of this belief.”

For evidence that the metaphor of the human body as a computer has gone mainstream, look no further than our gadgetry. Devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch monitor a the wearer’s movement and activity constantly, producing data that they can obsess over or study. “There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told Salon. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”

But this counting obsession, a trickle-down ideology from tech culture, is no longer optional: In many gadgets, it is now imposed from above. My iPhone counts my steps whether I like it or not. And other industries and agencies love the idea that we should willingly be tracked and monitored constantly, including the NSA and social media companies who profit off knowing the intimate details of our lives and selling ads to us based on it. “Insurers are trying to get us to do this all the time as part of wellness programs,” Golumbia said. “It’s a booming top-down control thing that’s being sold to us as the opposite.”

Golumbia marvels at a recent ad for the Apple Watch that features the Beyoncé song “Freedom” blaring in the background. “How did we get to this world where freedom means having a device on your that measures what you do at all times?”

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

Three intriguing new films that should not disappear unnoticed: Sami Blood, Past Life and Radio Dreams

By David Walsh
10 June 2017

There are still compelling reasons to pay attention to interesting, artistic films, such as Sami Blood (Sweden) , Past Life (Israel) and Radio Dreams (Iran-US), all of which opened in the US in early June.

Most of the films in movie theaters in the US at the moment are poor, juvenile or worse. As a result, the public is increasingly turning away. From 2009 through 2012, North American box office grew by slightly less than two percent. 2016 was one of the worst years in the history of the American film industry in terms of ticket sales per person. The decline seems likely to continue this year. Revenues climb solely because of the rising cost of movie tickets.

The exhaustion of the large film studios’ (i.e., conglomerates’) collective imagination has reached a dangerous, nearly provocative level.

It is almost a commonplace by now that more intriguing work, in general, is being done in the US in television, by the cable channels and so forth. There is even an argument to be made that the 8- or 10-part series is more conducive to pursuing certain subjects, including complex historical and social questions.

Moreover, the eruption of virtually universal political crisis legitimately and imperatively pushes certain issues to the fore. The film world comes in for justifiable impatience and anger for its failure by and large to confront those great issues.

However, that is not an argument against the filmmaker undertaking more personal or at least specialized work. The reasoning, should it emerge, that the urgency of the conditions means that only large-scale, panoramic films are worthwhile, is not a good one. As Trotsky once suggested, “personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist.” Moreover, he added, the new human being could not “be formed without a new lyric poetry.”

None of the three films that opened in early June falls into the category of “lyric poetry,” and, in fact, each raises certain historical or social questions, broadly speaking, but they are undoubtedly concise, detailed pictures, more concerned with the manner in which social events find psychological expression, and determine the course of individuals’ lives. Their greatest value lies in encouraging more complex thinking and feeling.

One or more may already have vanished from theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for example, but they are now in circulation, and will reappear somewhere or other, or in some other format. These are edited versions of comments that have appeared previously on the WSWS.

Sami Blood

Sami Blood

There are films that are painful and pleasurable at the same time. Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood, from Sweden, is not an easy film to watch. It creates considerable unease and anxiety, reflecting the internally conflicted, nearly impossible situation of its central character.

The film, Kernell’s first feature-length work, is set in Sweden primarily in the 1930s. Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), 14, is a reindeer-herding Sami girl, who is sent to a state boarding school aimed at “civilizing” its students.

The Samis are an indigenous people inhabiting northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Like other indigenous peoples, they have long faced racism and oppression.

One of the early scenes is memorable. Elle Marja is rowing herself and her younger sister, Njenna (Mia Sparrok), across a beautiful, tranquil lake. They are on their way to the boarding school, leaving their mother and everyone they know behind. Njenna cries quietly. “I don’t want to go,” she says simply, while her sister pulls the oars.

Elle Marja is a bright, ambitious girl. She wants very much to assimilate into the Swedish population. She sharply tells her sister, “You must speak Swedish.” Meanwhile local farm boys call them “dirty Lapps,” although one seems to be Sami himself.

One day, officials come to the school in a car and the girls and boys line up in their native costumes. The event starts out like some sort of stuffy but harmless bureaucratic ceremony. Horrifyingly, the officials are there to measure and photograph the Sami children, as part of research into “racial characteristics.”

Elle Marja wants to continue her education, she starts dreaming of another life, but her teacher (Hanna Alström) somewhat regretfully lets her know that “You people don’t have what it takes” to get by in the wider world. Eventually, Elle Marja takes off, for Uppsala, a large city. She tries to impose herself on the family of a Swedish boy she has met. Every effort to fit in ends in awkwardness for her, if not humiliation. At one point, a young guest at the family’s house, an anthropology student, asks her patronizingly to perform a traditional Sami singing style.

In any case, she needs money to pay for her schooling. She goes back home and demands a sum of cash. In an outburst, she tells her mother: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be with you. I don’t want to be a f–––––– circus animal.”

Kernell’s film is made with great sensitivity and attention to detail. The director was born in 1986 in the far north of Sweden to a Swedish mother and Sami father. Sami Blood was reportedly inspired by the experiences of Kernell’s grandmother. The filmmaker told an interviewer that the treatment of the Samis was an “untold” story and a “dark chapter” in Swedish history. The film, she said, is about someone “leaving what you’re from, becoming another.” What are the consequences for Elle Marja when she “cuts all ties”?

The worst part of the story is that in order to make a life for herself, Elle Marja has to absorb into herself elements of racism and contempt for her own people. This is what Swedish society does to her. In one especially difficult scene, Elle Marja, who is trying to pass herself off as a “normal Swede,” is obliged to shoo away her own beloved sister, pretending not to understand what she is saying and blurting out, “Get away, you filthy Lapp.” Njenna may never forgive her for this.

The drama is remarkably intimate. We know at times almost more than we want to know about Elle Marja’s predicament. Kernell also provides hints of broader social processes–the concern with “race” and eugenics, for example. In the same interview, she said that she did not want to “explain” anything, but simply tell the story.

This is not the occasion to enter into a polemic on that score once again, especially in regard to a film that, for the most part, is moving and clear-sighted and a filmmaker who is obviously conscientious and humane.

However, it is one thing to recognize that artists for the most part are more expert at “showing” the world than explaining it, that they are seized by powerful impressions that have a strong element of intuition. It is another to make a positive program, as so many artists do today, out of “not explaining.” In our view, the filmmaker or novelist requires “high intellectual powers,” in Aleksandr Voronsky’s phrase, and cannot make progress without “immense, very persistent and complex rational activity.”

Sami Blood is an extraordinary, deeply felt film. But it is probably the sort of work that can only be done once. Even as it is, its strong emotional content should not blind us to certain tendencies that may endanger Kernell’s development: the relative narrowness, the intense immediacy. …

Past Life

Past Life

Avi Nesher’s Past Life, from Israel, is an intelligent, convincing film for the most part, inspired by a true story. It takes place in the late 1970s.

Aspiring composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is in Berlin to sing with her choral group when a woman approaches her after a concert, and upon hearing her name, calls her father a “murderer.” The woman seems to be Polish, and wears a crucifix around her neck.

Sephi and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), who has an axe to grind against her stern father, set out to look into the matter. Nana works for a leftist magazine of some kind and has arguments with her father about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. When we first see her, she is condemning Israelis for “robbing people of their land” and for justifying “our crimes by crimes committed against us.” Her father, a gynecologist, will hear none of it.

The sisters, with Nana (“I hate secrets”) in the lead, uncover painful facts about their father’s life in Poland during World War II, when he hid in a farmer’s basement from the Gestapo. Eventually, against his better judgment and against his wife’s wishes (“Why bring up the past?”), Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), reads to his daughters his wartime diary, a diary of “hell.”

The story is complicated by the woman Sephi met in Berlin, Agnieszka Zielinska (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), and her son, Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a composer with whom Sephi develops a friendship. Why is the Polish woman so convinced Dr. Milch is a murderer? Can a victim of the greatest crime in history have committed inexcusable acts?

There are many complications and intricacies in this story. There is even an element of “suspense.” Some of the situations seem unlikely, but they are apparently rooted in fact. Nesher, a veteran director, comments, “World War II ended in 1945 and it took the world seven decades but finally everyone seems to have moved on–everyone, that is, except for the sons and daughters of those Holocaust survivors, the very people who constitute the vast majority of the population of my homeland.”

He continues: “Slippery politicians know only too well how to press the Holocaust button and activate reactions that would do Pavlov proud. … [The Holocaust] is a deeply rooted trauma that is very difficult to overcome, but overcome it we must if our children are to have a future.”

Nesher, however, seems to have a limited notion of what “overcoming” the past would mean. It seems simply bound up with “forgiveness,” “reconciliation” and similar concepts. He has set the film when he did for a reason. Past Life’s production notes explain: “1977 is the same year Egyptian president Sadat decided to break the shackles of history and bravely embark on a peace process with Israel. In many ways this is exactly what the two sisters need to do as they travel throughout Europe, bent on uncovering the past and getting to the truth behind their parents’ darkest secret.” This is a poor comparison on every score.

The desire to promote reconciliation as such perhaps helps explain the somewhat unconvincing, pat final scenes, during which various attempts are made to bring Dr. Milch and his wife together with Agnieszka Zielinska.

For the most part though, the film is intensely and richly written and performed. The sense of historical nightmare hanging over the various characters is palpable. Tavory is particularly memorable.

Past Life is inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s autobiography Can Heaven Be Void? Milch’s diary was brought to Nesher’s attention by Milch’s daughter, Ella Sheriff. Sheriff explained to an interviewer: “It was terrifying to know that our parents had a secret, but never knowing what it might be. In fact, the atmosphere was consistently grim. There was never a feeling of a happy childhood. We could not share our own distressing experiencing with our parents, either, and yet on the other hand we girls were always overprotected, especially by our father, and we could not understand where this anxiety was coming from, the constant fear of loss.”

Shedding light on the mentality of many of those who emigrated to Israel after the war, Sheriff pointed to her father’s personal “Ten Commandments,” which include: “Thou shall have no other Gods before yourself,” “Do only that which benefits you, and do not sacrifice for others,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it,” “Do not get too close to people, and do not bring them closer to you,” and “Do not be gullible, and trust no one.”

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams, directed by Iranian-born, London-based director Babak Jalali, is a pleasurable experience. The film takes place for the most part in a Farsi-language radio station in the Bay Area during the course of one day.

Numerous tensions exist, side by side. The programming director, Hamid Royami, is an Iranian émigré, a novelist, well-known in his own country (played by the Iranian singer-songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo). He has artistic ideals, and some sort of leftist past. He wants to present something about life, including the lives of Iranians in the US, in poetry, songs, stories.

Maral (Boshra Dastournezhad), the daughter of the station’s owner, worries only about the income coming in from advertisers. The station owner himself is mainly interested in wrestling. Maral’s noisy, crass commercials for pizza shops and dermatologists interrupt and cut into Hamid’s artistic programming, threatening to send him over the edge.

Bizarrely, everyone at the radio station is waiting for the appearance of Metallica, the rock ‘n’ roll band. The three members of the Afghan band, Kabul Dreams, in particular are sitting around in hopes of meeting their idols. One of the band, meanwhile, falls in love with Maral and reads her a poem, in which he explains that he will wait “120 years in the gutter” for her to whisper his name.

An English-language interviewer asks Hamid why he has invited Metallica to the station. The latter explains, with and without the aid of his inadequate translator, that he was thinking of the tragic history of the two countries, the US and Afghanistan, and wanting to bring the two bands together, “without war, without violence.”

Out of the blue, the station has the opportunity to broadcast an interview with Miss Iran USA. On the way to the station, an employee points out to the young woman, who is dressed in full beauty queen attire, that “No one can see you on radio.” This is the sort of programming that appalls Hamid, her eventual interviewer. The pageant winner has a history of modeling and aspires to be a pharmacist. She is also a poet of sorts. “Do you want me to read one of my poems?,” she asks on air. “No,” Hamid replies, leaving it at that.

In the end, one of Metallica’s members makes an unlikely appearance, but it may be too late for Hamid.

Radio Dreams is appealing. Namjoo, with his amazing shock of grey hair, is an intelligent and sensitive presence. “Poetry like bread is for everyone,” he explains early in the film. How can he reconcile his artistic feelings and his social views with life in America, where he can barely speak the language, and, specifically, with the philistine goings-on at the radio station?

Taking into account the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia, one might wish for a greater urgency. Nor is the social layer represented in Babak Jalali’s film the most oppressed or hard-pressed. But there is a painful element here too: the strangeness of emigration, the indifference of the new country and its population … This is a rather sad comedy. If it were an American film at present, unhappily, the various episodes would be vulgarly done, over the top and terribly unfunny. Jalali brings humanity and sophistication to the work.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/10/past-j10.html

Taking Trump’s Tweets Seriously

Meet the creator of the Twitter bot that transforms the president’s tweets into formal White House statements.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

ELAINE GODFREY

4:52 PM ET

After Donald Trump’s election, many Americans wondered whether he’d stop tweeting from his personal account as he’d pledged during the campaign. He didn’t. In fact, in the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump sent more than 500 tweets from his @realDonaldTrump handle. According to an analysis done by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, those 500 tweets contained 18 explicit references to the TV show Fox & Friends, more than 100 jabs at the media, and the phrase “FAKE NEWS!” four times.

Trump’s personal account has nearly 32 million followers, almost twice as many as the official @POTUS account, and his spokespeople say he tweets because it’s the most direct way to reach his supporters. But Trump’s tweets about the news are often themselves newsworthy: In the past few months, the president has contradicted his own spokespeople, posted unsubstantiated allegations against former President Obama, and most, recently, taken the words of London Mayor Sadiq Khan out of context in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack.

In a Monday interview on Today, White House special counselor Kellyanne Conway downplayed the importance of Trump’s social media habits and condemned the media’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter,” and Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka reminded New Day host Chris Cuomo that Trump’s twitter is “not policy, it’s not an executive order. It’s social media. Please understand the difference.”

While it’s true that Trump’s tweets don’t carry any legislative weight, they do appear to come directly from the phone of the president of the United States. Why shouldn’t they be treated as official presidential statements? It’s a question Russel Neiss has been asking himself.

Neiss is a St. Louis-based software developer who, over the weekend, created @RealPressSecBot, a Twitter bot that transforms the president’s tweets into official statement format, like this:

I spoke with Neiss about his bot—and why he believes Americans should treat Trump’s tweets as real presidential statements. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Elaine Godfrey: How did you come up with the idea for the bot?

Russel Neiss: [Former Obama staffer] Pat Cunnane tweeted on June 4 that he mocked up one of the president’s tweets about the London attacks in a traditional presidential format. It struck me as a really powerful image, the idea being that essentially, at their core, these tweets are literally presidential statements for media use.

Putting it in the traditional format made it all the more jarring between what we’ve expected to see from those formal press releases—and the kind of stuff we see coming out of the president’s Twitter account on a regular basis.

So, when my kids took a nap on Sunday afternoon, I took 40 minutes and put [the bot] together.

Godfrey: How does it work? Are you going to go back and reformat previous tweets?

Neiss: Twitter has an application programming interface (API), that allows programmers to interface with the platform. I’ve created a Python script, a small computer program, that triggers that API, and says “Hey, Twitter, give me the last couple of Trump tweets.” Then it takes the text, runs it through an image processing library, converts the text to the nice format as an image file, then posts it to Twitter.

Now it’s basically tweeting in real time. Every five minutes, it scans the president’s Twitter feed for new tweets. We’ve had some requests from folks who have wanted to see some of the classics, but there’s something more pure about just focusing on going forward.

Godfrey: Do you see Trumps tweets as presidential statements? Should Americans treat them as such?

Neiss: We have a press secretary who is being constantly undermined by his boss’s tweets, and we have surrogates who say they can’t speak for the president. At this moment, the best thing we have is the man’s Twitter account.

That classic quote from the campaign that you have to take the president seriously but not literally? Everyone’s been telling Trump not to tweet, and he continues to tweet, and so I think it’s important to take him seriously, even if not literally. These are serious words coming out of the highest office holder in the land, and all that this bot does is just give those messages the proper honor they deserve.

Godfrey: Do you think it’s harmful that Trump is using Twitter as a sort of replacement for more formal presidential statements?

Neiss: I think it’s fine for Trump to tweet. Obama maintained a personal Twitter account. I’m sure that Clinton would have tweeted had Twitter existed at the time. Presidents always use alternative media to get their message out. This idea of going around the mainstream media is completely understandable and legitimate.

But one of the really interesting things about this president, is that it does not appear that these things are filtered through any formal vetting process. As such, it creates this really interesting world to see the thoughts and objectives of this particular president. These are statements of the president. Putting those tweets in this format emphasizes that, more than just saying it.

Godfrey: The account already has 65,000 followers. How long are you planning to keep it active?

Neiss: It’ll run for as long as Trump keeps tweeting. Maybe come 2020, or sooner, when the next president is inaugurated, we’ll turn it off.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/taking-trumps-tweets-seriously/529221/

Netflix’s War Machine: A hard-hitting attack on America’s military madness

By Joanne Laurier
30 May 2017

Written and directed by David Michôd

The Netflix satire War Machine is a forceful work that depicts the futility and madness of war in general and the war in Afghanistan in particular. The film revives a venerable tradition of anti-military and anti-war drama and comedy in the US, which the media and the establishment thought (or hoped) had been thoroughly suppressed and even extinguished.

Written and directed by Australian David Michôd, and produced by and starring Brad Pitt, the film is based on the 2012 non-fiction book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, by the late American journalist Michael Hastings.

Hastings, only 33 when he died under suspicious circumstances in June 2013, authored “The Runaway General,” the article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2010 that led to the removal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his post as ranking US commanding officer in Afghanistan. War Machine is a fictional account of McChrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan and the events leading up to his firing.

Brad Pitt in War Machine

In the movie, Pitt plays a platinum-haired Gen. Glen McMahon who, in 2009, has just been appointed to direct the war in Afghanistan, already in its eighth bloody year. McMahon, according to the narration, arrives fresh from “a successful stint running the secretive special operations killing machine in Iraq.” The narrator, Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a Rolling Stone journalist, describes the general as a throwback to another era,” his hand “bent into a permanent claw, like it was still clutching a World War II cigar.”

With a frozen face and a freakish squint, McMahon runs seven miles before breakfast, sleeps only a few hours a night and has been dubbed “the Lion King, the G-Man, Big Glen and, most commonly, the Glenimal” by his entourage of toadies. Front of that pack is the psychopathic Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), loosely based on Gen. Michael Flynn—described by a staffer in Hastings’ book as a “rat on acid.” Other members include Cory Staggart (John Magaro) as McMahon’s special operations advisor and Matt Little (Topher Grace) as his as his civilian press consultant.

Michôd’s War Machine presents the war in Afghanistan as a debacle, presided over by lunatics and egomaniacs (in Hastings’ The Operators, the author describes the war as a “clusterfuck” that “defied satisfying analysis”).

The mockery directed against America’s military and geopolitical policies begins at the outset, when the narrator ironizes, “Ah, America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response. You bringer of calm and goodness to the world.”

The conflict is presented as an entirely doomed project. In this regard, the tone is set early on by the journalist-narrator, who refers to “two types of generals in the American military. There are those who believe they can win in the face of all evidence to the contrary. And there are those who know they can’t. Unfortunately for the world, it’s the believers who climb to the top of the ladder.”

The narrator insists on getting “a handle on the madness of modern American war.” He explains that the US military’s “counterinsurgency” strategy (McMahon has his own personalized version—SNORPP, short for Systemic Negation Of Repetitive Procedural Practice) runs up against basic political realities. “When … you’ve just gone and invaded a place that you probably shouldn’t have, you end up fighting against just regular people in regular-people clothes. These guys are what are called insurgents. Basically, they’re just guys who picked up weapons ’cause … so would you, if someone invaded your country. Funnily enough … insurgencies are next to impossible to defeat.”

War Machine’s voice-over points out that the British and French tried to hang on to their “crumbling empires” through counterinsurgency and the efforts failed. “You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.”

The film’s version of McChrystal/McMahon’s sojourn in Afghanistan includes the general’s conflicts with Obama administration officials over release of his initial assessment (which the officials want to sit on and which he subsequently leaks to the US media) and, based on that assessment, his demands for tens of thousands of additional troops. War Machine devotes a portion of its time and energy to the Afghan war commander’s jaunt across Europe, where he attempts to raise more soldiers from reluctant US allies. It also touches upon his fantasy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, with “the unassailable might and power of our ideals.” Helping to pour cold water on that possibility, American officials inform the general that the sole crop the occupying force will permit local farmers to grow is poppies for the heroin trade.

It is not possible or necessary to recount every detail, but certain episodes and themes stand out. They stand out, above all, because they run counter to the official US media and political establishment narrative, which finds almost unanimous expression in film and television. In other words, War Machine punches through the big lie.

One of the more striking and lengthier sequences occurs when McMahon encounters a unit of Marines, just back from rest and rehabilitation in Italy, and who we will meet again. A young black soldier (Lakeith Stanfield) complains to McMahon, “I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy. They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.” To which the Afghan commander replies, “Sometimes when you’re dealing with an insurgency, you’re not gonna be 100 percent clear on who the enemy is.”

Once McMahon has his troop “surge,” he sets out to organize Operation Moshtarak, aimed at removing the Taliban from the town of Marjah and destroying its influence in Helmand Province (which McMahon has just been told by a British military official is “a lost cause”).

During the battle of Marjah the death of an Afghan child traumatizes the same black soldier. A Marine sergeant offers money and empty platitudes to the grieving father. Later, a translator repeats a local man’s blunt protest to McMahon, “And every day that you spend here longer, the worse it will be for them [the residents] when you leave. So please, leave now. Please.”

The pointed portrayal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), Washington’s puppet, in War Machine adds a darkly and lively comic note.

In one scene, McMahon feels obliged to seek Karzai’s approval for Operation Moshtarak, and complains to the president, who he has not been able to reach, that he is not behaving “like a leader.”

Karzai-Kingsley responds sagely, but cheerfully, “But I am behaving like a leader. I’m unavailable. I am as unavailable to you as is your own president. Hmm? You have my approval, General. We both know it was never really mine to give. But… I thank you for inviting me to participate in the theater of it all.”

The performances in War Machine reflect genuine thought and commitment. The actors here, for once, are attached to an important reality.

Pitt bears the largest weight in the film, and bears it admirably. He enables us to “get inside the mind [and empty soul] of Glen McMahon,” this madman in whose hands lies the fate of vast numbers of human beings. Much of the role necessarily involves debunking, criticizing, not something American actors have done much of in recent decades. Too often actors want to be loved. Pitt remains unlovable and unattractive virtually throughout, as he should.

Pitt and Ben Kingsley

The general is a fraud. Supposedly committed to keeping the civilian population alive and sympathetic, he presides over war crimes. He is renowned for his irrepressible energy and determination, but what does that lead to? Destruction, criminality … His “folksy,” “man of the people” demeanor is another charade. As the narrator points out, “Glen was known as a humble man. But humble in that way that says, ‘My humility makes me better than you.’”

Hall gives Pulver-Flynn (“His official title was director of intelligence, but all I saw was a guy with anger management issues whose life had no meaning without Glen.”) his terrifying due. Tilda Swinton, as a pacifistic German politician who questions McMahon’s crude insurgency “arithmetic,” makes a mark during her brief time on screen.

Not everything in War Machine works. There are issues of tone and consistency and pace. The first half of the film is more successful. The European portion, in which we witness the personal idiosyncrasies and misbehavior of McMahon’s team, drags somewhat. Largely secondary issues suddenly arise.

The film does not delve into the larger geopolitical realities behind the war drive in the Middle East and Central Asia. Related to that perhaps, the Netflix movie’s comic, not to say occasionally flippant, element is incompatible at certain moments with the awfulness of the situation. To his credit, Michôd does allow the tragedy to unfold in the film’s culminating scenes, but at times the work suffers from a flatness as it tries to find the proper balance between dark and light.

However, even the failings in War Machine have to be seen in historical and artistic context. Michôd, Pitt and company are traveling in what is relatively uncharted territory in our day. Savagely satirizing and mocking the “glorious” American military, dripping with blood from every pore, has become practically illegal in the US. Widespread popular hostility toward a quarter century of brutal war and toward the politicians and generals who have conducted it finds virtually no outlet in American culture. Here, for once, the pent-up disgust and horror comes through.

Michôd explains in an interview, “The great sadness and the great concern is that we—and by we, I mean the United States and its allies, including my great country, Australia—are not only still at war in Afghanistan, but that this ‘War on Terror’ has expanded now to six or seven other different countries. And it’s shocking to me how seemingly un-newsworthy this stuff is.”

He told another interviewer, “And, at some point, in the process of outlining the movie, I realized that what I wanted to do was not just make a movie about the insanity of war but I wanted to make the movie feel insane. I wanted to create a kind of sharp and pronounced tonal schism between that upper executive level and the boots on the ground in order to make that distinction more pronounced.”

The critics for the most part have been unsettled by War Machine. They pick on certain weaknesses as a means of dismissing the film’s sharp and long-overdue critique. Variety, for instance, snidely refers to Michôd’s film as a “costly flop,” a “big-budget Netflix misfire” and a “colossally miscalculated satire.” A CNN review headline reads, “Brad Pitt’s ‘War Machine’ fizzles on Netflix.”

These are some of the same people who find complexity and depth in the rubbish Hollywood ordinarily churns out, including its exercises in psychotic violence, along with its superhero and comic book movies.

In fact, if the truth be told, the critics and the media generally identify with the US military and its drive for global hegemony. They instinctively react to any exposure of the institutions that protect their stock portfolios and comfortable lives. They are outraged that the universal consensus about the “war on terror,” another enormous falsehood, is broken through.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/30/mach-m30.html