Monday, September 02, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fruitvale Station Review by Trevor Cunnington

 Subscribe in a reader

Fruitvale Station is a special film that does almost all the right things. I find my thoughts returning to the film quite often in the week since I’ve seen it. It takes a familiar narrative, adds a few surprises, bucks the mold of emotional evocation in film, does some daring things, some plain things, and some innovative things all with panache. It acquires a particularly intense gravitas because of its roots in real events in recent history. I saw it in Toronto, in a less than half-full, smallish theatre, and I hope it was less than half-full because it has been running for a while. This hope is particularly strong because of the resonance between Oscar Grant’s murder by the BART police and the recent murder of Sammy Yatim on a street-car in Toronto. Where is the word of mouth momentum?

The familiar narrative is that of the struggling young black man in urban America, and the difficulty of escaping the ghetto. It takes as its point of departure a cell phone video of the real life event of Oscar Grant having his head slammed into the concrete of the Fruitvale transit station in Oakland, California, and then being shot by BART police officers. Thus, it does a daring thing, narratively speaking – it shows the end of the story first. Not only that, but the footage is so jarringly authentic, I must admit it made me feel a little nauseous. (The advantage of this approach is that the film can’t be “spoiled”). Then, it rewinds to the day leading up to this event, and we follow Oscar trying in difficult circumstances to be a better person. Difficult circumstance #1 is he cheated on his girlfriend, with whom he has a young daughter. Difficult circumstance #2 is he has been fired from his job at a grocery store for lateness. Difficult circumstance #3, we find out later, is a troubled relationship with his mother that he tries to mend by taking on responsibility for the success of her birthday party on December 31, 2008.

After a terse interchange about his activities for the day with his girlfriend, he heads out to the grocery store where he used to work to try to get his job back. One of the innovative things about the film is the blending of onscreen action with a second screen: that of his cell phone as he texts and dials various people. Thus, it tries to deal with the opacity of phone interactions in real life to offer a more internal glimpse of Oscar’s life to great effect. The sequence in the grocery store is marvellously executed. He gets his friend to get him some high-quality crab for his grandma’s famous gumbo, and notices a young white girl struggling to make a decision for a type of fish for a fish fry. After some slick signals with his friend, he lets her know he works there, but is on his day off. Then he calls his grandmother, a master traditional cook, to instruct the young woman. The meaning of this scene is lent some interesting ambiguity by the context of his conversation with his girlfriend in the second scene of the film about cheating and the context of his visit to the grocery store. Being that we don’t know a whole lot about the character yet (except that he has the characteristically fatherly tendency to curry favour with children out of the disciplinary reach of the mother), he could either be trying to pick up this young woman, or he could be trying to go the extra mile in customer service to get his job back. When we learn more about his character, the latter becomes the more likely interpretation.

After this exchange, he tracks down the store manager to beg for his job back. The manager refuses, and we see Oscar has a temper as his voice escalates in anger. The sound editing of this part is masterful, with very subtle ominous tones accompanying his raising voice. As a tactic of persuasion, he asks rhetorically and heatedly if the manager wants him selling dope again (marijuana). This makes no difference, as the manager has already hired someone else. Then we see Oscar driving around in his car, alternately listening to music, and making plans on the phone. One of the plans is his mother’s birthday party, so he speaks both to her and his sister, who can’t make it because she’s working (probably a low-paying job). His mother chastises him for talking on the phone and driving, so he jury-rigs his phone under his skully hat so that he has both hands on the wheel, then he pulls over, showing how he is trying to be more responsible. He’s 22, and we can grant him some slack on this front. He also makes a phone call to a drug buyer to make an appointment.

It is on the rocks (the visual symbolism is telling) of the waterfront that he has a memory, narrated via flashback. The memory is of the year before, when he was in prison for his mother’s birthday, probably for dealing marijuana. His mother visits him, and they discuss his girlfriend and his daughter, from whom they’ve kept his incarceration secret. During their terse conversation, which begins with his mother asking about a welt on his face, a leering inmate makes a stray comment directed at Oscar, and Oscar explodes in anger. Presumably, this is the man responsible for the welt. After this explosion, Oscar’s mother implores him to calm down, and then tells him she will not visit him any more. He then erupts again and is restrained by prison guards, but it is not in anger this time, but despair, as he repeatedly yells an apology to his mother as she walks away in the foreground. This scene likewise has great sound editing, with the same ominous tones accompanying his outburst. We can see the absolute no win situation he’s in: if he doesn’t put on his tough front, he’s liable to suffer consequences later, but by putting on the tough front, his mother’s regard for him suffers.

After this memory, we see him take the bag of marijuana, and empty it over the rocks and the water. When his buyer shows up, he hands him a small packet for free and apologizes by saying he already sold the pot. The buyer rolls up and smokes, and then he goes to pick up his girlfriend from work and his daughter from the day care. His girlfriend verbally heckles him for smoking pot in the car before picking up his daughter, and he doesn’t bother to correct her. We realize later that he is probably mulling over what to tell her regarding his lost job. When they pick up their daughter Tatiana, we see him race her to the car, and this scene is tastefully rendered in slow motion with the sun in the background helping to signify the great relationship he has with his daughter.

Later, as they plan to go out to the city to celebrate the new year, he suggests staying in. She presses. A sequence of his mother’s birthday party is likewise well rendered with overlapping dialogue and a nice touch of domestic realism. His mother urges him to take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) instead of drive to San Francisco so they don’t have to worry about being sober to drive. All good advice that ends in catastrophe, with all the tragic implications that the girlfriend and mother must bear afterwards. The train gets delayed, so they are stuck on it when the new year turns. But, never fear! Someone has speakers and an mp3 player, and the subway car erupts in a party. Then, to return to the familiar narrative, Oscar’s prison past catches up to him when the man who threatened him during the conversation with his mother recognizes his name when the woman whom he helped at the grocery store sees him and calls his name. In this moment, his troubled past catches up to him and erupts in violence. The BART police are alerted, and the tense events leading up to the shooting are well-acted on all parts. My favourite thing about this film is the editing in the last few minutes. While Oscar is in critical condition in the hospital, having been shot in his back, the bullet piercing his lung and causing massive internal bleeding, we see a shot of him and his daughter Tatiana, speaking lovingly with each other. Unlike most films, which use music manipulatively in moments like these to evoke emotions, Ryan Coogler chooses to leave this segment totally silent. The result is heart-rending. The last two shots are absolutely gut wrenching, as the director includes in the final shot footage of a shy, downcast real-life Tatiana attending the anniversary of her father’s death. Thus, the film is bracketed by amateur video shots to lend its story an extremely endearing authenticity. This is the only film in the last six years I’ve been to that I’ve heard people audibly sniffling at the end.

For my theory nerds, this film is a great example of Benjaminian historiography; it does important work of salvaging history from the distorted view of the victors by telling it from the perspective of the people who get squashed in its imposing march. It is aesthetically wonderful: it doesn’t shy away from metaphor and symbolism to add heft to the story it tells and it is also daring and innovative. For me, it is a close call between this and The Hunt (Jagten) for best films of the year. Indeed for these two films and The Place Beyond The Pines alone, it has been a great year for film.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trayvon Martin: A Tragedy provoked by Racial or Class injustice?

 Subscribe in a reader

Trayvon Martin’s case, for better or for worse, has fired up the race debate once more in America, and while I think the idea that we live in some post-racial society is na├»ve and that work still needs to be done for full equality to be achieved, I’m not entirely convinced that race is the most important factor in the tragedy. I would like to suggest that perhaps class and behavioural norms played a greater role in the events that led to young Martin’s death. I do not wish to assert that the not-guilty verdict is faultless (the prosecution botched the case by overcharging Zimmerman, according to some), but neither do I think that Zimmerman deserved a guilty verdict on a second-degree murder charge after I reviewed the facts of the case.

Some media personnel have been fired for misrepresenting the facts of the case for sensationalist purposes, actions which arguably resulted in this case becoming a flash point for the discussion of race in America. NBC in particular aired edited versions of Zimmerman’s call to the police regarding Martin’s “suspicious behaviour,” which included, according to him, cutting behind houses and walking leisurely in the rain. These edits were defamatory and unethical. In one, Zimmerman is heard saying “This guy [Martin] looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something... He's got his hand in his waistband, and he's a black male.” In an even more distorted edit, NBC aired Zimmerman saying “This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.” The exclusion of the dispatcher asking about the race of the suspicious person made it seem as if Zimmerman racially profiled Zimmerman, as if he had offered information about Martin’s race without solicitation. Zimmerman has launched a defamation suit against NBC for airing this questionable edit.

I would like to draw attention to the reasons for Zimmerman suspecting Martin in the first place, before I offer evidence that contradicts the portrayal of Zimmerman as a racist. Zimmerman’s reasons for calling the police were that Martin was not hurrying in the rain, that he had his hand in his waistband, that he was cutting between houses. On the one hand, we have the police call as hard evidence; on the other, we have Zimmerman’s side of the story. We also have various witnesses’ perspectives. The missing part of the story is Trayvon Martin’s point of view and we must not underestimate this. In an interview granted exclusively to Fox news, Zimmerman said “I felt he was suspicious because it was raining. He was in-between houses, cutting in-between houses, and he was walking very leisurely for the weather. ... It didn't look like he was a resident that went to check their mail and got caught in the rain and was hurrying back home. He didn't look like a fitness fanatic that would train in the rain.” In other words, he was suspicious because his behaviour did not fit any of the moulds of Zimmerman’s expectations. Zimmerman was a Neighbourhood Watch Captain, was studying Criminal Justice, and had been mentored by Sanford police. He had trained in the observation of suspicious behaviour by the police, for whom social norms of propertied people are the standards to which they hold all people. This is the subtext of Zimmerman’s comment about the mail. It did not occur to Zimmerman that Martin was cutting behind houses as a short-cut on a rainy night. It did not occur to him that Martin may not even mind the rain so much, that he may even enjoy it. Why not?

Below I have copy/pasted parts of the transcript of George Zimmerman’s call. I have included what I think is important and at least described what I have excluded. My idea of what is important in this phone call lines up with many others.

Zimmerman: Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He's . . .[unintelligible], he was just staring. . .

Dispatcher: Ok, he's just walking around the area. . .

Zimmerman: . . . looking at all the houses

Dispatcher: Ok.

Zimmerman: Now he's just staring at me.

(some directions given, unimportant)

Zimmerman: Yeah, now he's coming towards me.

Dispatcher: OK

Zimmerman: He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.

Dispatcher: How old would you say he looks?

Zimmerman: He's got button on his shirt, late teens.

Dispatcher: Late teens ok.

Zimmerman: Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.

Dispatcher: Just let me know if he does anything ok.

Zimmerman: How long until you get an officer over here?

Dispatcher: Yeah  we've got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.

Zimmerman: Okay. These assholes they always get away. (gives same directions) Shit he's running.

Dispatcher: He's running? Which way is he running?

Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance to the neighbourhood.

Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he's heading towards?

Around this point in the phone call, you hear the car door open.

Zimmerman: The back entrance . . . fucking punks

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah

Dispatcher: Ok, we don't need you to do that

Zimmerman: Ok.

The next exchange is about Zimmerman's information (name, address, etc.) Zimmerman says after he's asked his apartment number "It's a home it's 1950, oh crap I don't want to give it all out, I don't know where this kid is."

The rustling noises on the phone, starting when Zimmerman gets out of the car, settle down a little while this exchange happens, but start again near the end of the call, when the two discuss logistics about meeting the dispatched police. Considering the material of the red jacket he wore that night of the confrontation, these rustling noises suggest to me that he stopped walking, then started again.

Before I continue, it should be noted that three weeks before the shooting Zimmerman called the same police line and reported a man looking in the windows of one of the houses in the gated community where the shooting happened. Although the man escaped, a man was arrested four days later in connection with this incident with stolen jewellery and a laptop in his backpack, and Zimmerman identified the man he saw. If I were Zimmerman, I would feel a little more relaxed after that, seeing that perhaps the culprit for the string of burglaries in the neighbourhood had been caught. Rather than relax, however, Zimmerman maintained the same level of hyper-vigilance.

One of the witnesses, who provides us with only a second-hand version of Trayvon’s perspective, said that she was talking on the phone with Trayvon until moments before he was shot, which is borne out by cellular records. She said that Trayvon told her that a “creepy cracker” was staring at him, and then following him. She said that Trayvon had lost the man, but that he had reappeared again. She testified that she told him to hurry to his father’s house in the gated community, where he was staying temporarily, and this is borne out by the fact that Trayvon’s body was found only 64 metres from his father’s home. The witness testified that after the man following Zimmerman reappeared, Trayvon asked Zimmerman “why are you following me” to which Zimmerman responded “what are you doing around here?” The witness said after that she heard the sound of the two scuffling. The credibility of this witness was severely damaged when the defence showed that she lied under oath about being in the hospital on the day of Trayvon’s funeral after they could locate no hospital records. But the question I have, the one that does not depend upon a faulty witness’s testimony, is how Trayvon could have had one hand full with the skittles and fruit drink, talk on the phone with the other hand and “have his hand in his waistband?” In the transcript, Zimmerman says “Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.” How does Zimmerman not recognize that he’s on the phone, and as such, might be distracted, thus explaining why he’s “looking around?” Of course, Zimmerman’s on the phone, so he’s distracted, too. It was incredibly stupid of him to follow Trayvon, whether or not he is an “A” student. It was also stupid that he didn’t identify himself as a member of the neighbourhood watch to Trayvon. Perhaps the dispatcher should have been more assertive as well in instructing Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon, rather than merely say “we don’t need you to do that.”

Many are saying if Trayvon was white, he’d still be alive. That may be true. Race parity in the jury would certainly have been desirable and just. But the problem with the race argument is that Zimmerman may have earlier attended a City Hall meeting to complain about the former police chief of Sanford and how he handled a case where the son of a police officer beat a black homeless man. The leader of the NAACP broke ranks with black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson’s call for escalation in protests, perhaps because of the letter he received from a concerned relative of Zimmerman’s. Another problem is that Zimmerman is Hispanic and himself has African-Peruvian heritage. When it comes down to it, Zimmerman’s ungrounded suspicion may have been restricted to the way Trayvon dressed and how he acted. Had Trayvon dressed in a “classier” way, would there have been suspicion? Had he driven to the store for his treats, would he still be alive? A young man died that night, a young man for whom there was no evidence found that he committed any crime the night of the shooting, and justice has yet to be served. I believe the prosecution did a terrible job. I think a charge of manslaughter was more manageable and more just for all those involved.

Sources and Notes: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/04/25/dershowitz-trayvon-prosecutor-overreached-with-murder-charge/?test=latestnews and http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/second-degree-murder-charge-may-be-hard-to-prove-i/nN26Z/ Some feel that the appointed prosecutor felt media pressure for an exaggerated charge in order to get re-elected. The cutoff date for qualifying to run against State Prosecutor Angela Corey was nine days after the Republican filed charges. For more details on this, consult http://www.wtsp.com/news/article/251911/19/Prosecutor-in-Trayvon-Martin-case-wins-re-eleection
http://m.newsbusters.org/blogs/matthew-sheffield/2012/04/23/nbc-news-president-network-should-probably-apologize-air-repeated Note, this source may be tendentious because it proclaims itself dedicated to exposing liberal bias in the media. However, NBC employees were fired and/or disciplined over the misleading edits. For more information on this, see http://www.mediabistro.com/tvspy/wtvj-reporter-fired-for-making-similar-edit-in-george-zimmerman-911-call_b46599
http://thegrio.com/2012/07/18/zimmerman-says-he-was-not-pursuing-trayvon-martin/ Please note that the defense’s decision to grant exclusive rights to the Fox network, known for its conservative bias, strikes me as cynical manipulation. That the Martins hired a publicist to drum up media attention, and the media’s subsequent misbehavior helped no one in this situation.
In none of the seven instances that George Zimmerman called the police did he volunteer the race of the suspicious person until asked by the dispatcher. See http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/05/11045284-in-police-calls-zimmerman-mentioned-race-only-when-asked?lite.
http://dailycaller.com/2012/04/02/zimmerman-family-member-calls-naacp-racists-says-there-will-be-blood-on-your-hands-if-george-is-hurt/. This story would be easy enough to verify with members of city council. I do not know whether it has been thus verified.
Transcript of George Zimmerman's call to the non-emergency police line:
http://www.motherjones.com/documents/326700-full-transcript-zimmerman
You can listen to this call here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trayvon_Martin




Monday, July 15, 2013

Painting & Film Chapter II: David Cronenberg

 Subscribe in a reader

In my imagination, two images have been juxtaposed for a while, conjured by the flights of fickleness engineered by my memory. The one is of the creatures in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, a stellar adaptation of a very difficult book to translate into film. Leaving issues of faithful adaptation aside, Naked Lunch stands on its own as a film. The level of difficulty in adapting it as a novel is perhaps only equalled by Finnegans Wake and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the latter of which, if you ask me, would make a better television sit-com than a film. Back to the issue at hand. The other image is Max Ernst's painting Napoleon. I have long harboured the suspicion that the mugwamp creatures in Naked Lunch were modelled on Napoleon's weirdly amphibious face in Napoleon. Today, using my google-fu, I decided to test my suspicion, and I show you the results below.


 Mugwamp from Cronenberg's Naked Lunch


Max Ernst's painting: Napoleon


Result: The faces are similar with folds of skin and flattened nose and lips. Colour is roughly consistent. However, the mugwamp has a more beak-like mouth that is smaller. As well, the painting doesn't feature the variegation that the mugwamp has, and of course the eyes are monochrome. The Napoleon figure in the painting also has more pronounced eye sockets, although the size, shape, and beadiness are quite similar. Conclusion: The production designer or costume designer may have been inspired by Ernst's painting. Here is the description of mugwamps from Burroughs: 

Mugwumps have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addictive fluid through their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism. (In fact all longevity agents have proved addicting in exact ratio to their effectiveness in prolonging life.)


Well, there you have it. I think the similarities between Cronenberg's mugwamp and Ernst's Napoleon are interesting. It is possible that the production designer or costume designer were more influenced by alien designs of science fiction movies and television series such as Star Trek. Regardless, the similarities for me are interesting enough. Incidentally, the mugwamps were originally Republican candidates who supported Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland because of the corruption of the Republican candidate, and thereafter came to mean a political deserter, or an overly sanctimonious politician who scorned party politics. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

All's Quiet on the Rural Front

 Subscribe in a reader

It’s All So Quiet
Director: Nanouk Leopold
Writers: Gerbrand Bakker (novel), and Nanouk Leopold (adaptation)
Netherlands, 2013. 

In this spare and understated exploration of the often fraught family relationships of the LGBT community, Helmer, a middle aged man returns home to the family farm to care for his sick father. The LGBT community is mostly a hyper-urban tribe, so a film such as this, that deals with the isolation of rural life in such an honest yet sophisticated manner, is very welcome. Nanouk Leopold narrates this film using suggestion and implication much more than explanation and revelation. As such, the film provokes questions rather than providing answers, closure, and tidy resolution. 

Romantic and carnal opportunities knock on Helmer’s door in the form of a grizzly milk truck driver and a svelte young farmhand. Helmer’s resistance to these advances is puzzling, especially considering one of these men’s affections Helmer so obviously and painfully yearns for. A later conversation between father and son provides some psychological context for Helmer’s romantic angst, but it is up to the viewer to flesh it out. This crucial bit of dialogue also provides context for the direction of Helmer’s affection. 

Helmer’s reticent character is given depth and heft by the admirable facial control of Jeroen Willems. The manner in which we come to know the characters in the film is sometimes indirect. Two men deliver mattresses to the farmhouse; we get a point-of-view shot from Helmer’s perspective of the muddy tracks they left in the kitchen. The film then cuts to Helmer washing the kitchen floor with a rag under his foot. Seeing the ineffectiveness of this technique, he gets down on his hands and knees to scrub. We also learn from Helmer’s neighbor Ada that he painted the kitchen and brightened it up. When Helmer shows the farmhand around, the farmhand asks about a manure machine for the dairy cows. Helmer responds that there is no manure machine, revealing his (and his father’s) Protestant austerity. 

The casting decisions of this film are simply impeccable. Helmer and his father share a very similar body shape, giving their relationship a visible credibility. Wim Opbrouk puts in a nuanced performance as the milkman, Martijn Lakemeier captures the all-or-nothing erotic gusto of youth well, and Lies Visschedijk is a breath of fresh air as Ada, the nearest neighbour. A very curious element of this film is the visual absence of Ada’s husband, and the shots of her, Helmer, and her two sons suggest a surrogate family in the most wholesome tones. The casting of Ada’s sons is great as well, as one of the highlights of the film for me is the sheer beauty of the interaction between the one son and Helmer’s farm animals. I’m sure it is no easy task to find a child so ingenuous and gifted in his rapport with animals. 

It’s All So Quiet also uses symbolism very effectively. If you see it, pay close attention to the semantic weight of the weather and the hooded crow, whose significance is perhaps a nod to Poe’s poem “The Raven.” Or perhaps the poem and the film both draw upon an older folk tale tradition. The cinematography is excellent. The opening shots are gorgeous, and the contrast between beautiful, bright, serene exteriors and gloomy, dark, strained interiors is poignant. This contrast creates a paradoxical tension between Helmer’s emotional claustrophobia and the open fields we associate with rural life. There are some close-ups of Helmer’s father’s face so rich and full of detail that they remind one of the poetry Ingmar Bergman found in the human face. There is one scene of Helmer standing in front of a mirror, looking at his own naked body, perhaps contemplating its inevitable decay, that is so beautifully lit, it reminds one of the chiascuro painting techniques of Caravaggio. The minimal piano score suits the film beautifully and it never feels intrusive or manipulative.   

The one shortcoming of this film is that it leaves too much up to the audience. There is a phone conversation, for example, that is not very well contextualized. The audience is in the dark as to who is on the other side of the conversation, which deals with intimate family matters, and they remain in the dark. Such a strategy for filmmaking, often a conscious resistance to the obvious plots and characters of many Hollywood films, is praiseworthy, but some take it a little too far. Regardless, I would recommend this film for anyone who enjoys arthouse film.     

Friday, January 11, 2013

United Nations Nowhere

 Subscribe in a reader


I did this drawing over the Holidays. It is an implausible design for a united nations building. That isn't smoke coming out of the stacks; it is aromatic scents pumped into the urban atmosphere. For an idea of scale, I imagine it about 600 feet tall. Originally I was going to have the pinwheel-like structure in the front be like a windmill to generate power for the building, but I got a little fanciful with it, so now it's just decorative.