Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Last Throes

Mass graves, napalmed corpses, and a little girl with a blinding smile.

One of the few dismal, traumatic films I find easy to watch repeatedly, the animated Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is also sweet and rapturous, in an E.T. kind of way. A near-century of Disney's batted eyelashes and pouncing villains can't compete with the character animation in Fireflies. I become attached instantly to the film's two orphaned siblings as they escape a firebombed Japanese city in the last days of World War II. The little sister, Setsuko, has no idea that her parents are gone; her big brother Seita doesn't know how to tell her. And so they spend their days scavenging and playing silly games in the forest and along the beach. It's a reverie as beautiful and affecting as any in cinema.

Director Isao Takahata's animators render the minutest changes in the children's demeanor, creating complete performances. The way a neck cranes, a foot sideswipes a pile of dirt, a parasol twirls on the wind... I'll take these microscopic gestures over the Pixar/Dreamworks troupes of breakdancing robots, toys and beasts any day. The child voice actors (in the Japanese version) also sound completely natural.

When the reverie ends and a torrent of grief begins, Takahata is just as exacting in translating the emotions into poetic gesture. He is squarely in the tradition of his countrymen Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi: Steady, stealthy, revelatory storytelling in which a single slow pan or subjective cutaway can take us from heaven to hell. Or straight into a character's soul.

Grave of the Fireflies is twice as devastating upon second viewing, where Takahata's gently skewed structure (from a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the real-life Seita who survived similar tragedies during WWII) makes the impending losses deepen and become personal for the viewer. I love Seita and Setsuko as if they were my own children because, as rendered by Takahata and his endlessly compassionate animators, they are.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Hustle and Flow

Now that a vast section of minority, underclass youth is either too drugged, too badly beaten or too hopelssly devoted to the dominant religion (Wealth and Narcissism) to oppose anything that isn't interfering with their cash flow, no one is counting on them to bring the system down. Good. That means nobody's really looking at them. We're at the point in the movie where the villain turns away from the lifeless bodies, snickering in malevolent satisfaction. Time for all those merely playing dead to rise up and fight.
Except that many of these kids aren't playing dead. They are, in terms of positive social change, as dead as a Crispy Strip. The corporate deities have dangled cars and PSP's over their heads, given them the worthless jobs to pay for them (but little else), and now everybody's happy. A little weed, closet full of Sean John--what more do a nigga need? The trend toward drafting minority high schoolers into the NBA should tell us where this is going. Flatter and pamper the underclass, make its struggling youth feel as if all they need is within reach, and they will capitulate to anything.

Not that the "properly" educated young minorities are any better off. They just buy their trinkets from more upscale malls and cram them into more spacious apartments in safer neighborhoods. The effect is the same: Distract these kids from the horrors that finance and extend all this apparent prosperity. Keep them disinterested in all but the most superficial facts of what is happening around the world. Keep them staring at the mirror and counting their "paper." Which explains the surreal spectacle of hood niggas and other authentic types getting downright patriotic after 9/11. There are dudes with jail tats and corn-rows who would fight you in the street for saying something disrespectful about the U.S. "If you don't like it here, take your ass to Iran or Taliban-Land, or one of them places where they wear turbans and cut women's privates off."

(Malcolm X used to call such apolitical, agreeable blacks "handkerchief-head negroes." He was referencing the classic 19th century House Nigger/Uncle Tom; he didn't live to see the metaphorical rags become literal on the heads of every third ghetto child.)

The shock and awe of those towers coming down has forced such brothers to become reflective, but reflection ain't much when you have little history to reflect upon. In the skewed rearview mirror of so many American youth, there is nothing in the past to outdo the 9/11 tragedy for sheer scale and horror--certainly nothing precipitated by the U.S. A lot of black youth understand that there was this thing called slavery that was really, really fucked up, and something else called Jim Crow that was almost as fucked up, but the spaces between those dark ages is murky. All the unions that were smashed, all the suspected seditionists that were jailed, exiled, executed or cast into poverty, all the countrysides flattened in the name of anti-communism, anti-fascism, whatever, all the innocents slaughtered in the name of preserving or introducing democracy.... These kids know nothing about that stuff, and they don't care. Any foreigner that would bring violence to our shores is just jealous that they ain't got it as good as we got it.

Again, though, nobody is looking at these kids anymore. There are no freedom marchers or student organizers among these complacent Pimp My Ride watchers, so they don't pose a threat to business-as-usual. But if they ever come into contact with the fact of their complicity in the destruction corporate forces and their elite masters have wrought worldwide, they might be moved to protest, or at least reject the beads and trinkets that reward their passivity.

Oh. What does this hateful rant have to do with the new movie Hustle and Flow? Not much, really, other than the fact that I was moved to write it after seeing a trailer for that film.

Image from Los Olvidados (aka The Young and the Damned) 1950. (DVD screen capture from

Friday, July 08, 2005

Post-London Crystal Ball

Bush will get amazing mileage out of this attack. This is as good for his retaliatory campaign as 9/11.

Americans already shaken up by terror alerts, marauding child snatchers and BTK will relinquish the last shreds of the constitution to Bush's protective wisdom.

Security moms will be deputized to watch every corner of public space not covered by surveillance cameras.

Children will earn merit badges for informing on suspected enemies.

Lots and lots of innocent people will die from American bombs dropped from planes and foreign bombs carried in backpacks or planted in cars. (The ol' warplanes-and-baskets analogy from The Battle of Algiers.)

More prisons, more "security," more privatization, more environmental disaster, more misery for poor people around the world (despite the sacks of wheat dumped on Africa for photo-ops).

Europe will be cowed into obeying Bush's directives automatically. He was "right" after all. Look at Madrid and London.

A Europe/U.S./Israel Axis will storm the Third World, rooting out "terror" wherever it chooses to find it. Pillage and occupation. Something resembling genocide will ensue, and no one of any international influence will do anything about it.

The 2012 Olympics will either be Munich Redux or so heavily fortified as to resemble Thunderdome.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Europe on a Million Bodies a Day

Shimmering black-and-white in wide widescreen. Kanye West descends upon Prague like some kind of avenging black vampire, his preppy collar, and the gull wing doors of his vintage Mercedes, turned straight up. Audacious. The track is a collision of Shirley Bassey singing the theme song from the '71 James Bond flick Diamonds are Forever and a driving beat West stitched out of the John Barry original. This is ecstatic hip-hop narcissism gone global. So why does the music video leave me feeling so heartbroken?

Diamonds from Sierra Leone sounds like an average boast rap but, as a music video, it is a devastating reproach to centuries of European pillage and exploitation. No, it's not one of those videos. Those "Motherland" videos. No black Jesus, no dreadlocks, nobody with duct tape on his eyes or mouth, holding up a sign that says "Amadou." In short, no tired-ass Afrocentrism. This video, directed by Hype Williams, is an express tour of bloody European opulence. The camera circles Kanye magisterially as he tromps through cobblestone streets; it dollies into low-angle shots of exquisite religious architecture and sculpture. Light rakes these structures from strange angles, bringing out their monstrous beauty. Kanye looks right at home in all this splendor. But he is not at home, the visuals tell us, almost as stealthily as Outkast's Hey Ya told us that nothing can outrun time or death.

Pretty, immaculate white tourists and locals go diamond shopping. A white couple out of a Zales commercial gaze at each other lovingly in their expensive hotel suite as the man slips a diamond ring on the woman's finger, proposing marriage, looks like. But, like some kind of super-Stigmata, blood starts streaming from her fingers. She screams inaudibly as the apparition of a black child dressed in rags appears, eyes marble black. Several such children appear throughout the video to terrorize diamond lovers. One even scares Kanye right out of his Mercedes.

Before Kanye blazed into Prague, the video opened with scenes of these children working in deadly African diamond mines, and a graphic describing their plight. We learn that in the scramble for diamonds, warlords and gangsters are turning Sierra Leone into a slaughterhouse. This states the important business West and Williams want to address, but the video would have been that much more powerful if this context were provided later on. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" is the model for this kind of smiling subversion. She starts off promising a bouncy showtune and ends up issuing a death threat to white supremacists. Smile, smile, stab.

Still, William's visuals resonate with more than just the diamond conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola. Emphasizing early on the simple fact that innocents are being killed for diamonds, the video could just as easily be about cell phones, Rocawear jackets or iPods. Or anything that one poor person is willing to kill another poor person to attain. Without the inky anamorphic images or the precision with which Williams dissolves between them (linking West with his African ghosts and European gargoyles as elegantly as the opening montage of Apocalypse Now linked civilizations)--that is, without the heartbreak, only the sense of rage and injustice--Diamonds from Sierra Leone would be merely the latest black-black-blackety-black grievance video, and not the masterpiece that it is.

There's a simple lesson here for minority filmmakers trying to figure out how to address titanic subjects like slavery, colonialism and Third World exploitation: Show us how these things destroy us, not just the ones at the bottom, dressed in rags, but also the ones dressed for the office, the resort, the gullwing Mercedes.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Come and See the War of the Worlds

Great Spielberg suspense craftwork-- no surprise there. The usual bursts of lyricism--various Holocaust, Rwanda and 9/11 visual metaphors, search and redemption tropes that resonate as far back as The Searchers-- often flattened or rushed along by the newsreel-style John Williams score. (Thankfully, far less of this music than usual.)

But in the end, Spielberg's War of the Worlds makes everything alright, restoring the family, tucking the horror away in the tidy manner that his great A.I. put in chilling perspective. One could preserve the positive H.G. Wells ending without neglecting the sense of trauma, irrevocable change and spiritual crisis that no film about the destruction of civilization should do without.

Spielberg always takes us to the edge but just as often retreats, as if his characters have just gotten off a rather intense attraction at the Universal theme park. He achieves the hallucinatory hyperrealism of Andrei Rublev, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Come and See but too often dampens the fire with stock dramatic devices that dissipate the sense of real-time jeopardy.

As metaphorical sci-fi, there was more meat on Minority Report's bones. But as a Hollywood summer movie, WotW was still pleasantly subversive.

Photo from Come and See (Copyright 2003 Kino International).