Sunday, December 7, 2008

Happy Birthday, Noam

Today is an important date in history to remember. Firstly, it was a year ago that this site began in earnest with the completion of the now or soon-to-be famous "The Simpsons still got it, dammit!" missive. As life altering as that was for many, perhaps a greater event occurred 79 years prior, the birth of Avram Noam Chomsky.

It was sometime around my late-ish highschool years that I first introduced myself to Noam (probably around the time I realized the Taylor series was not going to be my path to personal fulfillment). The rumblings of certain "adolescent" "thoughts" and "feelings" had been percolating within me for some time (I was like a coffee-maker brewing disorganized discontent), perhaps best encapsulated by the broad sentiment that "there is something seriously wrong with what I am perceiving," - and I don't mean I was worried about the functioning of my senses - but no one previously and no one since has so effectively formulated a coherent explanation as to what was happening out there and why, complete with a whole slew of information that was at the same time both liberating and incredibly depressing. Having personally previously looked to the enlightenment thinkers ("Hang on, Voltaire," though Rousseau was my boy) and later the tenets of non-national socialism ("Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov!"), Chomsky was the bridge between the freedom and liberty of the former and the equality and justice of the latter. More than dropping off answers at your feet and being on his way, Chomsky's greatest gift to me, to us, has been asking the right questions and having the courage and integrity and ability to meet them head-on, dead-on.

I can say without the slightest hint of hyperbole or melodrama that Chomsky has been the single most influential figure in my life (sorry, family). He often says, rightly so, that change and progress come not as gifts from above, from one person, but rather from the struggles of many below. Perhaps not quite from above, I am nevertheless forever indebted, along with many others, for the clarity and hope his tireless work has provided. Here's hoping you live another 80 years, and that the world will be a freer and fairer place when you pass.

I'd like to link to one of Chomsky's most recent writings, on the Election, Economy, War, and Peace. There's way too much good stuff in here to excerpt, so I hope some of you will take the time to read it. For those of you that have perhaps scanned some of his writings that I have linked on this site and are skeptical of his truthfulness or wonder if he manipulates any of his facts or data, crack open any of his books and be prepared to be cited or footnoted into oblivion. The below is Barry Pateman, my former mentor at the Emma Goldman Papers Archive and also a very influential figure in my life, interviewing Chomsky about Anarchism and the history of Anarchism. Just part 1 of 5, they're all worth a listen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Slumdog Weekend

An equal parts long and relaxing as not-long-enough and too hectic Thanksgiving weekend wrapped up with a very rainy, very sleepy Sunday (three distinct naps went down) over in these parts. Four days of mostly eating and drinking and movie watching and dog walking, and even a bit of hockey playing, came to its inevitably melancholic and depressingly necessary end. We celebrated the occasion by watching Danny Boyle’s new one, the much talked about and Oscar-buzz gathering Slumdog Millionaire. Though Trainspotting remains an all-time favorite, I can’t say I’ve seen anything he’s done since The Beach, and I can say that I absolutely abhorred that silly stupid movie. Nonetheless, an onion interview and a couple internet convos later, and I was pretty looking forward to seeing this one.

Big mistake. This shit was disappointing. First off, I find it somewhat perverse for an Englishman to make a movie that uses very broad strokes to essentially show how fucked up India is. It’s kind of like what I imagine an American movie proselytizing about how horrible a post-Arbenz Guatamala, or modern day Iraq for that matter, is. Luckily, Hollywood has not been so brazen, yet. That said, that’s not what does this film in. It’s the never-ending dramatization of nearly every single event in nearly every single scene, ultimately giving the movie a caricatured part-fairy-tale, part-horror movie after-school-special feel, and depriving what I imagine are its real characters in what is certainly a real setting from the meaningful impact it deserves, that is Boyle’s biggest crime. Though I am admittedly a bit squeamish, I’ve seen enough of cruelty and gruesomeness on film when used appropriately and not heavy-handedly (think Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song), to not be averse to it, per se. But while seeing teenagers tortured and kids having their eyes gouged out is not particularly enjoyable on its own, it becomes even more deflating because the characters are so one-dimensional and the entire film is clumsily framed by a hopelessly na├»ve and immature love story that is never given real substance to make the audience believe in it. Nothing ever really happens on screen, especially in light of everything else that does happen, that makes the protoganist’s destinal quest for love anything but hard to believe and wildly unjustified, and yet how it will play out becomes so obviously predictable. Think of a Bollywood film where the dancing and costumes are replaced by suffering and filth.

An obvious comparison point is Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, a very gritty look at a similar if not the same slum in Bombay. The difference in the films is striking, however. Nair worked mainly with street children and rather than use a series of catastrophically tragic events to push the narrative along and frame the story of the childrens’ lives, she takes a much less dramatized approach and simply offers a wider-lensed (both technically and metaphorically) look at the struggle, pain, joy, and hope that fills the daily existence of the participants. The film is just as depressing and fucked-up as Slumdog, if not as visually jarring, but it does not have the same cartoonish feel; one never gets the feeling that the directors are using time-tested tricks to pull at your emotions as in Slumdog. There doesn’t appear to be anything contrived in Salaam; Slumdog, on the other hand, in part from its structure as a re-telling, appears at times to be nothing more than contrivance. Nair showed her street children turned actors Truffaut’s The 400 Blows before they began filming. If Boyle were to engage in a similar preparation, one gets the feeling he would have chosen something along the lines of The Notebook.

All that said, it’s not a terrible movie. One thing it does really well is show how terrible a place India still is, notwithstanding rapid industrialization and the emergence of a class of luxury product consumers. Though I suppose that’s shooting fish in a barrel. So on a weekend of giving thanks, I suppose I’m obligated to say I’m thankful for the English and Dutch and other Europeans involved in fucking up the country of my ancestors so bad that my parents were forced to emigrate half-way around the world to raise their family and live their lives. So that I could spend a weekend slumdogging it from the confines of my Park Avenue apartment. Thanks.