Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Dissident": A Chinese Honorific

Artist Ai Weiwei Saluting His Comrades
While the world has been looking the other way at Japan and Libya, China has been busy silencing "dissidents" or chasing them out of the country. From the South China Morning Post:
Xiao Shu, an outspoken veteran columnist for Southern Weekly, was pressured into taking a two-year sabbatical after his employer ordered him to stop writing, a former colleague said. Phone calls to Southern Weekly chief editors rang unanswered yesterday.

Xiao Shu, 48, whose real name is Chen Min , wrote in his blog: "Sadness is inevitable, but...I have no regret being independent, fair and rational [in my writing]."

In addition, Peng Xiaoyun - an opinion editor at Guangzhou-based Time Weekly, who was put on involuntary leave after running a special report on "100 Influential People to China's Progress" that included milk safety activist Zhao Lianhai - was officially notified she had been sacked, she said on Twitter yesterday.
Ran Yunfei, by R. MacKinnon @ Flickr.com

Another huge threat is Sichuan writer and blogger Ran Yunfei. This poor sod is a major subversive. He actually had the nerve to criticize the authorities for prosecuting those who blamed corrupt officials for the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake! Imagine that? Here's what the scoundrel wrote back in 2009:
"In striking against those who criticize the government with subversion...they think that would block people's determination to fight for freedom, but that's just underestimating people's resolve to protect their own rights."
The charge of inciting subversion was also used to jail Liu Xiaobo, winner of last year's Nobel peace prize. Pity China for being plagued with such enemies. "Dissident" has become a coveted label, something to be worn with pride.

Then there's the case of the Ai Weiwei, probably the most famous international Chinese artist. He helped design the "Bird Nest" Stadium for Beijing's 2008 Olympics, which he then disowned while calling for a boycott. More recently he exhibited 100 million hand painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London. In China, he has been harassed, beaten and prevented from working. What's a poor guy to do? Get out. Weiwei has just announced plans to set up a studio in Berlin to showcase his work.
"Most of my activities have been in Europe and I cannot really show my work in China... It's very discouraging what's happening here and if I want to continue to develop my work, I have to find a base. But I will stay in Beijing unless the situation is an absolute threat to my life."
The PBS program Frontline just ran this brief documentary, Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei, a few nights ago:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Butterfly Of Hysteria: Klaus Kinski

"Every grey hair on my head, I call Kinski" - Werner Herzog
Anyone would be lucky to have a best 'fiend' like Klaus Kinski. The man had the raw power of Iggy Pop, the ugly beauty of Serge Gainsbourg and the wacked hysteria of a caged King Kong. He could be a gentle butterfly, then flare into a violent demon in the blink of an eye. But he always brought it...at least when working with Werner Herzog. The pair had a relationship that spanned decades, from when they were in their youth, and included six films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde (1987) and finally, Herzog's postmortem tribute, My Best Fiend.

A Kinski performance is like watching a bridge trembling immediately before it collapses. The stakes are high and nothing else but the performance is worth considering. As Herzog said, Kinski needed to create a sense of chaos to propel himself into a scene or a role and produce something no one else was capable of achieving. But riding that mad tiger can be devouring and it often turned on him, and by extension, the film. Kinski was notorious for breaking contracts and storming off sets in the middle of production, including Cobra Verde, his last alive with Herzog.

But Herzog and Kinski usually brought out the best in each other. "He is the only person, basically, who ever taught me anything," Herzog has said. Their relationship thrived on pushing one another to the edge - as Kinski says in My Best Fiend, "He's crazy. That's why we work together." Herzog concurs, adding, "The only thing that counted in the end was the result on screen."

"I came into this world in the form of a human, but the sun, the stars, the wind, fire, deserts, forests, mountains, skies, oceans, and clouds were trapped inside me. Do not be sad, Nanhoi [Kinski´s son]. The truth is, I can never die."- Klaus Kinski (October 18, 1926 – November 23, 1991

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Naked Flame: Doukhobors Amuck

"Pagan or passion scorching the screen...a drama of our time!"
The Naked Flame (1964) is a sleazy, vile and exploitative film about the Doukobors...and that's why I love it. It's so bad, it's good. "Filmed in the World's Most Rugged Country" and starring the great Dennis O'Keefe, it focuses on the radical Doukhobors of Banff, Alberta. I guess the B.C. Kootenays were too expensive.

O'Keefe plays a lawyer investigating potential trouble in Little Creek for the Dominion Mining Company. Al Ruscio is the nasty Walter Sorkin, a sunflowerseed-sucking Freedomite who might bomb the mine or send his cult of nubile young women bearing torches and breasts to scare business away.

Of course, The Naked Flame is low, B movie trash, all "torches and flesh," and any attempt at a fair representation won't be found in the script. The Douks are portrayed as either witless bumpkins or self-interested savages like Sorkin. It's all in good fun and as someone who is of Doukhobor-Freedomite stock, I can appreciate its campy buffoonery. But at the time, it would have increased hostilities and prevented any understanding of what was really happening. For one thing, most of the nudity involved overweight, middle-aged Russian women with gams like swollen turnips and not the slender young beauties portrayed in this film.

I've done a Masters thesis on my Doukhobor roots and I'm currently finishing a novel based on my uncle who blew himself up in 1962 at age seventeen. For all its obvious and hilarious flaws, the film is an invaluable artifact that helps document a unique period that could only ever happen in Canada. "Beware...of...Doukhobors!"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Airborne Toxic Event: White Noise

A low, vibrating hum; contrails; things that go 'bump' in the night. We rarely inquire into the causes of these elusive events until they intrude on our daily lives, stick a finger in our eye. Don DeLillo's 1985 classic, White Noise, is all about the intrusion. DeLillo coined the phrase "airborne toxic event" about a chemical spill that forces a mass evacuation in the novel's anonymous midwestern town. Jack Gladney, the narrator, is a professor of 'Hitler Studies' who shamefully can't speak any German. This is his predicament - an expert without expertise; he's everyone postmodern.

Gladney is a life groper - his fumbles his way through with Babette, his wife, and their four kids. At one point, he gets convinced that dylar, a special drug, has the power to dispel all fear of death - the white noise fizzing at the edge of his consciousness - and goes on a mad pursuit to find some.

I've just finished the novel as a real life toxic event is occurring in soundbite morsels via the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. An evacuation has already taken place and the world is charting the radiation cloud as it shifts out to the Pacific Ocean...

Real life imitating art - Japan intrudes, a reminder of those little triggers that lay hidden just below the surface, ever-present, wrapped inside the surrounding white noise. In the face of such a catastrophe, I heard the cry, "helpless, helpless, helpless."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beginning Or End Of The World: Japan

The above image, "Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mount Fuji," was painted by the great Ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, towards the end of his long life. It symbolizes strength, vitality and rebirth ascending above the trauma of a cataclysmic event. That is Japan; its people will endure and overcome this catastrophe.

"Asakusa, Tokyo" by Yuko Kootnikoff
The weekend started in catastrophe and hasn't yet ended. The tsunamis have ebbed, but the tremors continue and reports are there is a 70% chance of another major quake in the coming weeks. Yuko and I are so lucky and extremely thankful that none of our immediate family members or friends were seriously affected.

On Friday, the day of the earthquake, Japan literally came to us - two of Yuko's friends arrived from Tokyo for the weekend. They were in the air when the quake struck and didn't hear anything until after landing. Such is the wonder of modern life.

That evening, I attended the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. I had tickets to see Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate of the U.K. from 1999-2009. He started with a few from his "Harry Patch" series, based on the oldest living veteran of World War I who has since died. The theme appeared to be one of "war." But there was one other poem written about Bella Chagall, the painter's first wife, which included a line that rang like a bell:
"Was it the beginning or the end of the world?"
After seeing video and images of the tsunami clotted with debris and rolling like spilled water across the rice paddies and fields of the Tōhoku region of Japan, it seemed like the only question worth asking.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

John Yoo & Obama: Pity The Fools

"He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge" - Man Out Of Time, Elvis Costello
Look at that oily smile - doesn't it just scream, "Punch Me!"? It's John Yoo, one of the war criminals who provided legal cover for the Bush and Cheney torture regime. But he was just doing his job. When called to duty by the U.S. President you don't have a choice...unless, of course, you've got a better option with Morgan Stanley, Halliburton or Fox News. Poor John never had one of those offers. He was just a lowly Professor of Law at Berkeley when Bush came to call.

Yoo jumped when asked to issue rationals and excuses for executive privileges and gross extensions of presidential authority in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraqi invasion. Oh, and the torture of children. In December 2005, when Yoo debated University of Notre Dame law professor Douglass Cassel, this exchange took place:
Cassel: "If the President deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?"

Yoo: "No treaty."

Cassel: "Also no law by Congress — that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo..."

Yoo: "I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that."
What a guy. Nothing else sums up the degeneration of the Obama administration than the continuation of the Bush/Cheney war crimes as illustrated by Yoo's ugly endorsement. With Obama's recent decision to allow military trials to resume at Gitmo - reneging on his promise to close the prison camp - he appears to have made the calculation that progressives have nowhere to go in 2012; they'll stay loyal and remain hopeful that he'll transform the U.S. state of torture and war in his second term when re-election isn't a concern. I pity the fools.

This is how the U.S. is now governed - both parties have collided, they have become one regarding the criminal lengths they will go for "security." Pity the fools.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Elvis In Hong Kong: Up For Grabs

"Forget Iraq ~ Rebuild New Orleans" - written on the back of Elvis Costello's guitar
Last night the Elvis Costello show rolled through our clotted metropolis of Hong Kong and put on a spectacle worthy of the ages. Throughout his over two-hour solo performance, Elvis finessed, lathered, charmed and slayed with the ferocity and precision of a matador in the ring. The stage was literally "in the round" with the crowd surrounding Elvis and prompting him at times to stroll the periphery, arm raised in mock self-aggrandisement like Mussolini at Rome's Palazzo Venezia. The only thing missing were chants of "Elvis Is King!"

With a wink to China's surveillance state, he opened with "Green Shirt" from 1979's Armed Forces:
There's a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night
And she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white
From there he dipped deeply into his rich catalogue, stretching from his first-ever recording - "Radio Sweetheart" - to the ragtime-inspired, "A Slow Drag With Josephine" off his most recent, the excellent, National Ransom. Highlights included a genuinely acoustic rendition of "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," done without electricity when he stepped away from the mic and unplugged his guitar; a mash-up of "New Amsterdam" and the Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"; a smoldering "Almost Blue," sung again unplugged as he strolled around the stage; a truly moving version of "Shipbuilding; and "Oliver's Army" with the shout out for us, "Hong Kong is up for grabs!"

There were times when a full band would have added more variety and nuance, specifically backing vocals on "Everyday I Write The Book" and the bass line for "Pump It Up." At one point during "Watching The Detectives" his guitar loops descended into a cacophony of ill-placed intentions as he appeared to struggle with trying to be a one-man karaoke machine. But these are minor quibbles for an artist, who at 56, can still dance about architecture with tragic hipsters half his age.

Here's a rough setlist:
Green Shirt
Either Side of the Same Town
Bullets for the New Born King
New Amsterdam/You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Beatles cover)
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Everyday I Write the Book (a nod to Ron Sexsmith's version)
A Slow Drag with Josephine
Almost Blue
Watching the Detectives
Good Year for the Roses
Radio Sweetheart/Jackie Wilson Said (Van Morrison cover)
Brilliant Mistake
Alison/Somewhere Over the Rainbow/The Wind Cries Mary (Jimi Hendrix cover)
(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?

Beyond Belief
All or Nothing At All
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
Oliver's Army

Encore 2:
National Ransom No. 2

Encore 3:
My Three Sons
Pump It Up

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Fast And Furious: The Shock Doctrine

"Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change." - Milton Friedman
Over the past few weeks, capitalism's raw, corporate agenda has been coming home to roost. All across the American heartland in states like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, the Koch brothers' sockpuppets have been trying to use the excuse of a fiscal "crisis" to attack working people and unions. In Britain, a "polite coup" is taking place under David Cameron's Tory reign, one which would make Uncle Milt and Maggie proud. As the full title of Naomi Klein's 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism makes clear, these policies are lethal and depend upon illusions of desperation.

Klein's book has been getting a lot of renewed attention lately. It's probably because the shock and awe of what previously happened elsewhere - in Chile, Russia, Iraq - is now visiting the homeland. It's an excellent book that helps to illuminate the forces that are currently trying to (mis)shape us. As Nobel winning economist, Paul Krugman wrote in his recent New York Times column, "Shock Doctrine, U.S.A.":
From Chile in the 1970s onward, she [Klein] suggested, right-wing ideologues have exploited crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.

Which brings us to Wisconsin 2011, where the shock doctrine is on full display.
Despite polls showing overwhelming support for collective bargaining, they also suggest support for reducing union benefits. This after Wall Street got away with tanking the world's economy and then received an extension on their tax-breaks as a reward. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi recently asked the most obviously overlooked question of the past few years: "Why Isn't Wall Street In Jail?"

What happened to the notion of a social contract? It may have been based primarily on self-interest and preservation, but there was once a time when rich bastards saw the importance of social programs and worker benefits as a way to ensure stability and promote profits. But this corporate economy isn't about "profits" any longer. That's just too arcane, too much small grub. Now it's all about corporate control. These dogs are talking billions and trillions and they don't need a healthy middle class to support their industries - they simply need control. As China is proving, you don't need basic rights to ensure consumers shut up and consume. Disaster capitalism serves the mega-rich. Who needs a social contract when you have your own private security forces guarding your own gated community?

Here's Taibbi being interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: