Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It's Fitzmas in March!


Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted Tuesday of obstruction, perjury and lying to the FBI in an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

Libby had little reaction to the verdict. He stood expressionless as the jury left the room. The verdict was read on the 10th day of deliberations. Libby faces up to 30 years in prison, though under federal sentencing guidelines likely will receive far less.

One proto-fascist down, eleventy billion to go.

The Lives of Others and Black Book

The Lives of Others

There was a video floating around the Net a few months back of a UCLA student being violently Tasered by Campus Police Officers, for the serious offense of not showing them his student ID in the library. I wrote about it, along with some other issues, here. What was so shocking was not just the brutality of Tasering a young person for the crime of not having a proper ID, but the fact that the cops continued to shock the guy long after he was clearly incapacitated. Other students are crying out, begging for them to stop, but they do not.

If I had to guess why, I'd say it's the same reason that Police Departments across the nation have been having trouble with Taser-happy officers. It's human nature. Give one group of individuals supreme, unchecked power over another group of individuals, and they will use it. Now that police are being issued Tasers in greater numbers, they are using them more. Because they can.

It's a pretty simple principle, one of the best arguments against the sort of invasive, aggressive Executive Power to which Dick Cheney and George W. Bush aspire. Those in power, I suppose, will always want to increase the level of control they can exert over as many other individuals as possible, which is why no single person or small group should ever be given unrestricted, unmonitored access to our nation's terrifying intelligence-gathering infrastructure. It's an Orwell novel waiting to happen (or, depending on your view, already past the prologue and well into its introductory chapter).

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film of 2006) The Lives of Others, the story of a committed socialist and Stasi (East German Secret Police) officer who slowly discovers he's devoted his life to a sham. In the East Berlin of the '80s, Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) takes his surveillance job too seriously, running into an essential paradox. To excel at watching, he must pay attention, but the system of which he is a part cannot stand up to scrutiny. In serving his nation, he becomes compelled to destroy it.

Wiesler's been assigned by the odious Cabinet Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) to make trouble for the State's favorite playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). As an artist, Dreyman associates with a few subversives, but he's not much of a radical himself, contenting himself with writing safe, pro-Socialist plays starring his beautiful actress wife, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Hempf doesn't want him taken down because he's a genuine threat; he just wants Dreyman out of the picture so he can pursue the man's wife.

At first, Wiesler doesn't let this information bother him. He's a good follower and a devoted Stasi officer. Muhe does a terrific job of combining a fierce intelligence with a learned obedience. Wiesler's clearly a man that could have excelled in a real job, doing something more important than spying on strangers in the hopes of ruining their lives. But over time, watching Hempf and the cruel beurocratic apparatus at his disposal destroy Dreyman becomes too much to bear. (It's also hinted at that Wiesler's a lonely man who fantasizes about relationships with Christa-Maria and Dreyman to fill a void in his own life, but let's see it's the cruel beurocratic apparatus for the purposes of this review).

At about the halfway point, the film shifts from a thoughtful historical drama into a full-blown Hitchcockian thriller. Wiesler winds up taking some incredible risks, concealing the nature of his surveillance from Dreyman and Christa-Maria while keeping the majority of his findings out of the hands of his superiors at the Stasi. Tightly-wound, perfectly shot and edited suspense sequences pepper the film's entire second half, culminating in a fevered search for a hidden typewriter that's reminiscent of the Master's work in Rope.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (making his audacious debut with this film) cleverly uses Wiesler's dilemma to mirror the paranoid duplicity in which all East Germans have been forced to exist. His applied scrutiny has placed countless other people into this very situation, watching as someone methodically and pointlessly condemns you to a life in prison or even execution, and now it is Wiesler's turn to sweat.

One brilliant scene has Wielser sharing an elevator with a precocious child, who asks if he's really a member of the Secret Police. When the child lets slip that his father has sternly warned him about speaking to the Stasi, going so far as to pepper the entire organization with insults, Wiesler is tempted to ask for the father's name. He holds back, but we sense that, just as easily, he could have the man reported, questioned and potentially destroyed. Over a child's mistake.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film is taken up with a largely unnecessary epilogue. To his credit, Von Donnersmarck closes the film on an emotional beat that feels significant, with a nice freeze-frame profile of his hero in a rare moment of happiness. But he could have ended the film without all of this last-minute business and it would have been as effective, if not more so. I'm just not a big fan of ending a film with a "Four Years Later" or whatever, unless it's really really urgent to do so. (Another, significantly worse, film that annoyed me with its epilogue was Matchstick Men. What the hell do we need that endless little scene in the carpet store for? Just end that sucker already, Rid!)

But this is a nitpick. Lives of Others deserved its Oscar (way more than Pan's Labyrinth), and it's a fairly remarkable debut for Von Donnersmarck with a lot of resonance at this moment in history.

Black Book

Lots of similarities between these two films. Both European films from 2006, produced or co-produced by Germany. Both feature Sebastian Koch in significant roles. Both include what, for me, felt like unnecessary epilogues. And both deal with dying totalitarian systems, pressing down on the main characters with greater and greater force as its last glimmers of hope fade out.
Set in Occupied Holland during the waning days of the Third Reich (several mentions are made of Russian troops positioning outside Berlin), Paul Verhoeven's brutal, pulpy WWII adventure Black Book tells a remarkable (and mostly fictional) story about a remarkable woman who quite simply refuses to die, despite considerable efforts to bring this about.

Combining the bleak desperation of Resistance classics like Army of Shadows with the high-flying '60s war/action genre, Verhoeven has made an extraordinarily entertaining, even brisk, epic. It's historically accurate, bold and intelligent, sure, but it's real strength is watchability. The film's 150 minutes absolutely flew by.

Rachel Stein (Carice van Houton) fully expects to wait out the war in her attic hiding spot until its blown up by a passing German plane. Setting out with her family in tow for asylum in Belgium, she is ambushed by Nazi soldiers. Though Rachel escapes with her life, everyone she cared about has died.

Eventually, she finds her way into the Dutch Resistance, who want her to seduce a high-ranking Gestapo official, Ludwig Muntze (Koch again) and bug his office. She agrees. The remainder of the film is a war film, a detective story, a romance and a thriller all wrapped into one blood-soaked, delirious little Verhoeven package of joy. This guy's films are just alive, bursting with energy and surprises.

He spoke at the Aero Theater after the film last night, and confessed at one point that he doesn't consider how an audience will react when making a film. He thinks about what works on him, and simply assumes that some in his audience will feel the same way. All I can say is, PV and I are on the same wavelength.

There are so many double-crosses, close calls and unexpected turns, I wouldn't even know how to ruin the movie for you if I wanted to. It opens in April and you should just go see it for yourself.

Van Houten does an amazing job as Rachel (who goes by Ellis de Vries for most of the film), who like every other character is essentially a mass of contradictions posing as a confident individual. She has recently watched Nazis gun down an entire family, yet finds a way to feel compassion for Muntze. And though she's sleeping with this man out of duty and not for pleasure, Van Houten brings an unexpected playfulness to the love scenes. Could she be enjoying the very transgressiveness of the act of fucking a Nazi? Or is it the inherent thrill of espionage, the opportunity to not only lie but to live within a false identity?

When Rachel/Ellis reveals her true identity to fellow Nazi girlfriend Ronnie (Halina Reijn), the reaction she finds is not anger or shock but curiosity. "You're a spy? How exciting? What's that like, then?"

The cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub is also stellar. Verhoeven discussed how they attempted to give the film kind of an Old Hollywood, '40s vibe to match the period in which the film is set. I felt, as I said before, that it more closely resembled the gritty '60s WWII action film. Movies like Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape introduce noble characters fighting small-scale but extremely significant battles against massive, nearly-unstoppable and thoroughly evil regimes, and that's what we have here. Minus the nobility. Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (who first devised this story when they were working on Soldier of Orange some 25 years ago) have fashioned several mini-missions of his characters, each progressively more difficult and of more dire importance, and the result is just one propulsive, edgy sequence after another.

In place of those older film's relatively straightforward good-vs-evil dichotomy, Verhoeven refuses to oversimplify. Some Nazis are incredibly evil, sure, but they're all human as well. Some of them don't seem to take the whole Nazi thing all that seriously, even. Likewise, the Dutch Resistance are not, to a man, likable and noble and impressive of character. Dolf de Vries in particular does great work as a lawyer who never seems totally trustworthy, but who gives no reason to doubt his sincere intentions.

Even the happy ending isn't really all that happy. Without blowing the final sequence, it ends on a decidedly ambiguous note, implying that even if Rachel can escape the horrors of the Nazi Occupation, neither she nor anyone else can ever really find real safety in this world of violence. It's one of a few truly chilling, immediate moments in the film, another being a torture sequence in which Nazis hold a man underwater to simulate the sensation of drowning. That Verhoeven dares to jolt an audience in this fashion, to introduce remarkably pointed social commentary in the midst of what's ostensibly a period adventure film, to me speaks to his bravery and confidence as a filmmaker.

Here's the somewhat NSFW international trailer, with relatively poor but somewhat amusing English subtitles:

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Good, The Bad, The Queen and The Mouse

Check out this video for a slowed-down version of Okkervil River's "No Key No Plan," from the Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP. The video itself is just shots of lead singer Will Scheff traveling through an airport and some city too blurry for me to identify, but I really dug this rendition of the song.

I've also been listening to the new Modest Mouse album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, all week. The one with Johnny Marr. It's coming in anywhere between strong and quite strong. I'm pretty sure I like it significantly more than Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

First single, "Dashboard," comin' at ya:

As you can probably tell from this song, the addition of Marr hasn't significantly changed The Mouse's sound. Naturally, the guitars are emphasized this time around, but not once was I reminded of "Boy With the Thorn In His Side." In fact, it feels very much like a follow up to Good News, although the songs are a bit looser and more dynamic this time around. Less tight little pop songs like "Float On" and one-off Tom Waits-inspired oddities, more intensely spacey rock songs. My favorite track, to which I can't seem to find a legitimate link, is "Parting of the Sensory," which definitely has a "Cowboy Dan" kind of vibe. And "Cowboy Dan" remains one of my favorite Modest Mouse tracks.

Having said all that, I think the above video is pretty stupid. I also didn't really like the "Float On" video. Oh well...

I'm kind of split on The Good, The Bad and The Queen, the latest weird side project from Damon Albarn, aka The Dude From Blur.

On the one hand, it's kind of a cool concept album. Low-key songs about quotidian London life with an occasionally sinister, even supernatural, undertone, performed by Albarn, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the guitarist from The Verve and drummer Tony Allen. According to Wikipedia, Albarn said the album's actually a mystery play in interviews. Also according to Wikipedia, and contrary to what I had been told, the album was apparently not co-produced with DJ Danger Mouse, thus preventing this post from having a cool rodent theme.

I've found that it's pretty good background music for when I'm working on the computer. But to just sit down and give it a complete listen...well, I get kind of bored.

It's the sort of thing that might very well grow on me over time. My iTunes does inform me, now that I'm checking, that I've listened to lead-off single "Herculean" and the first track, "History Song," a significant number of times. What I'm saying is, I reserve the right to reverse this opinion at any time, and you should probably give the thing a listen to judge for yourself if you have any interest in Albarn's music or contemporary British rock.

Here's the video for the album's most Blurry track, "Kingdom of Doom." Watch this video while squinting and it's almost like Albarn and Graham Coxon have gotten back together!

The last thing I want to talk about music-wise is the big Police reunion. They're playing in LA, but it's at Dodger Stadium. Who the hell wants to go see live music at Dodger Stadium?

I HATE DODGER STADIUM! And not only because I hate baseball, although that's part of it. It's just inconveniently located and uncomfortable and gross and the parking lot ranks among the most ungainly and difficult to navigate I have ever utilized. It takes hours to get your car out of Dodger Stadium, even following a typical, poorly-attended Dodger game. Imagine after a sold-out concert! With everyone leaving at once, unlike the crowds that begin to trickle out at the bottom of the Fifth when they realize they are at a Dodger game.

And sitting way the hell up in the nosebleed seats trying to enjoy a band's performance? No thanks. Not to mention, I'm certain decent seats will only cost several hundred thousand dollars by the time WMA's finished buying up the entire loge section for its preening millionaire client roster.

So, I won't bother to see The Police this summer, even though it would be awesome to see all those old songs again. I mean, I saw Sting play at what was then Irvine Meadows several years back with my parents (who are massive fans of Sting solo albums for some reason), and he did a lot of Police songs, and that was cool. But it's not the same as seeing the complete old band getting back together.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

It Is An Honor Just to be Dominated

Now, I know San Francisco has a reputation as something of a haven for gay living, but this may be going too far.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration will change its policy on issuing laudatory proclamations after a gay porn studio was honored last week without the mayor's knowledge, city officials said Friday.

Conservative activists and pundits nationwide belittled the city after Newsom's office declared Feb. 23 to be Colt Studio Day, honoring the 40th anniversary of a San Francisco movie company whose Web site invites visitors to "come inside to experience the hottest man-on-man action."

I don't know what's more unbelievable. That the mayor wouldn't be aware that his staff members are issuing laudatory proclamations in honor of the local gay porn factory...or that any politician would knowingly do such a thing. Now, I'm not saying that this is the wrong move because it's gay porn specifically. A mayor honoring any producer of fine pornographics, be they gay, fetish, scheisse, mature or nun-themed, would be equally ill-advised.

The official document, bearing Newsom's name, was presented by a representative of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services to the company during its anniversary party. It said Colt Studio "has produced movies that have entertained the gay community over the past 40 years" and has contributed to the city by bringing in "hundreds of millions of dollars in business" and "stimulating the job market and the local economy in general."

Oh, the local job market was stimulated alright. In fact...

Nah, you know what? Never mind. That joke is beneath me.

Newsom's office issues nearly 2,000 proclamations a year, most covering such innocuous topics as Australian Heritage Day and Graffiti Watch Day. They are typically issued by the Neighborhood Services Office without the mayor or his top aides reviewing their content, which was the case with the document honoring the gay porn studio, Newsom's spokesman said Friday.

Oh, man. Someone is so fired.

What I wouldn't give for some kind of clandestine recording of this brainstorming session.

"Hey, you know? We really ought to honor Colt Studios! They've been making quality gay porn for over 40 years!"

"Well, normally I'd say that sounds like a pointless gesture sure to do nothing but generate hate mail and faux-outrage from conservative evangelical assholes. But the studio's remarkable masterpiece Beary Lyndon simply cries out for recognition."

But in the wake of attacks by conservative media figures such as talk show host Bill O'Reilly -- who said the proclamation reinforced San Francisco's reputation as the nation's "Sodom and Gomorrah" -- Newsom has decided to change the policy and have any potentially controversial proclamation cleared by either his chief of staff or director of government affairs.

"If there are any questions about proclamations, they will be reviewed," said Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard. "There's just going to be a stricter review process from now on."

Totally wrong move here by Newsom. You don't cave to pressure from Billy O. That just makes him feel vital and relevant. Sure, it was probably a mistake to officially recognize a gay porn studio, but now that you have done it, you have no choice but to stick by the decision. In fact, forget sticking by it. Embrace it! That'll throw Bill for a loop. As to be permitted on his program with the founder of Colt to discuss what a positive influence it has had on the community.

Conservative evangelical assholes are always going to think of San Francisco as a modern "Sodom and Gomorrah," mainly because most of them don't understand that Bible story beyond the observative that those two places were "bad" and full of citizens with what Ann Coulter might term "John Edwards-like tendencies" in her usual charming, effervescent manner. There's nothing Newsom or anyone else can do about that.

My hope is that you could push their outrage so far as to make it look ridiculous. Because it is ridiculous. Hey, I'm not saying the mayor's office needs to honor pornography producers, but I have no problem with the notion of gay porno, unlike Bill and his loathsome audience. Their agenda's all about hatred, and maybe by attaching one's self to a position on another extreme, one could tease this reality out.

Newsom should shower Colt Studios with praise at every opportunity. Speak at length about their high production values, about their talented stable of performers, about how they really pay attention to things like narrative structure and mise-en-scene while other homosexual pornographic purveyors focus exclusively on the sex and, depending on the sub-genre, the costumes.

How could Bill respond to something like that?

"Your city government is essentially supporting gay pornography."

"We sure are, Bill."

"But doesn't that violate the rights of the families and innocent children who live in your city."

"I want to educate our children, so that when they grow up and have to make their own choices about gay pornography, they make the right ones."


"To me, there's nothing more beautiful or arousing than the sight of a cock ring gently grazing the backside of a well-maniured pair of testicles. And I want to share that with my city's future generations."

He'd guarantee a classic bit of YouTubery, I can tell you that much.