Category Archives: Film

Tarantino’s “Paranoid”

About halfway through The Hateful Eight, bounty hunter John Ruth is starting to worry that the people at Minnie’s Haberdashery aren’t who they say they are, or at least “one of them fellas (meaning Bob or Joe or Oswaldo or Chris) is not what he says he is.” John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren (and for that matter everyone at Minnie’s) will soon learn the hard way that these suspicions are well founded; but at this point in the story, John Ruth might just be imagining things, so Major Warren asks:

Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid?

The rest of the dialogue in this scene was lost on me, because I was taken out of the film and left wondering how or why Tarantino (and, for that matter, all the people who read the screenplay for Hateful Eight) had let this glaring anachronism stand.

The first known use of “paranoid,” according to Merriam Webster, is 1904, probably in connection with the introduction of paranoia as a clinical variety of dementia praecox by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin; the screenplay sets the action of The Hateful Eight “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War,” roughly in the 1870s. The term paranoia was around before Kraepelin, having been first introduced into English in 1857, but it didn’t come into use among English-language medical writers until the 1890s, and even then, the word in this more pristine form would not have been available except to medical specialists.

Major Warren’s casual and colloquial use of “paranoid” might have been possible as early as the 1950s, when psychoanalytic parlance became more widespread. I suspect the actual provenance of the Major’s “being paranoid” lies somewhere in the haze of late 60s and early 70s drug culture, a full century after the action of The Hateful Eight. Or maybe even later than that: “Almost Cut My Hair,” recorded in 1970, opts for “increases my paranoia” — casting paranoia as a constant affliction of varying intensity — as opposed to the Major’s use of the present continuous “being paranoid,” which suggests only a momentary lapse.

Not that Tarantino is trying, at all, to be strict about these things. His story might be set in the nineteenth century but his characters belong to the twenty first, and this is hardly the only anachronism in the language of the screenplay. (To take just one instance, O.B. proposes that he and Chris set out a line to the outhouse, because no matter how bad the blizzard gets, the people gathered at Minnie’s will have to “take a squat from time to time.”) To characterize these as slips or oversights — like the anachronisms I wrote about in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — would be to miss the ways in which Tarantino is playing self-consciously with anachronism throughout The Hateful Eight, from the opening Sergio Leone Close Up of the snow-covered crucifix to the mix of Ennio Morricone with Roy Orbison. We’re invited at nearly every turn to appreciate this directorial self-consciousness and to revel in this film’s constant references to other films, other stories and other times.

What strikes me about “being paranoid,” however, is how telling it is. The Hateful Eight presents a world in which everything (proper names, stories, letters, a song, coffee, the stew, the table, the floor, a peppermint stick, the gang in Red Rock, history itself) is contrivance. The most brutal, bloody violence is conventional and contrived, and artifice will either kill you or put you at risk of death. Even the act of dying can be wildly theatrical (like the deaths of John Smithers, John Ruth and Daisy Domergue) or one final act of deception, and there is no way out of deceit and contrivance except death. So it’s only fitting that Chris and Major Warren die together at the end of the film sharing and appreciating the finer points of Major Warren’s forgery. This is a world in which everyone is always plotting and everything is a plot. You’d be crazy not to be paranoid.

An Impossible Translation

A short scene, just 45 seconds in length, from Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Journey to Italy, about an “impossible” translation, in an Italian English-language film that’s preoccupied with the question whether people can ever understand each other. I’m especially captivated by where this scene ends up, not with people estranged from each other because translation is impossible, but with the shipwrecked Duca di Lipoli looking into Ingrid Bergman’s eyes and seeing stars in the night — a bon mot that makes her laugh. Keep in mind, too, this note from Gianni Rondolino’s biography of Rossellini : this scene, like most scenes in this film, is largely improvised, with actors left to find their way together.

Enzo Serafin, who was the film’s director of photography,recalls that Journey to Italy was truly filmed without a script, instead following the indications written on Rossellini’s note sheets, with the daily help of Vitaliano Brancati who was in charge of the dialogues. It was Bergman who acted as go between for Rossellini and [George] Sanders [who plays Bergman’s husband], mainly inventing things and improvising in turn, because Roberto didn’t give her any direction.

Katherine Joyce: What an unusual home you have — and so comfortable.
Count: That sounds to me like one of those compliments that hide the usual reproach: ‘dolce far niente’.
Katherine: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Count: How do you say in English, ‘dolce far niente’?
Prince: It is impossible to say it in English. Perhaps I could translate it, ‘how sweet it is to do nothing.’
Katherine: Oh, I understand.
Countess: They say that all Neapolitans are loafers. Now I’d like to ask you, would you say that a shipwrecked man is a loafer? In a certain sense we’re all shipwrecked. You have to fight so hard just to keep afloat.
Katherine: Well it looks like a very pleasant shipwreck to me.
Duca di Lipoli: Especially when I look into your eyes: they’re like stars in the night.
Katherine: (laughter).

Two Upcoming Events In Marquette, Michigan

SWUP2015Gala

On Saturday, December 5th, I’ll be at Save the Wild UP’s December Gala, where I’ve been invited to give the keynote.

Save the Wild UP is a great local grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nature and the culture of the Upper Peninsula. The people at Save the Wild UP (most of them are volunteers) do the work of educators, naturalists, social scientists, industry watchdogs and field guides all throughout the year, and I hear they throw a great party, too.

If you can’t make it to Steinhaus Market on the 5th, and even if you live far from Marquette or have never been to the Upper Peninsula, check out Save the Wild UP’s website, learn about the critical work they’re doing, and consider making an end-of-year, tax-deductible contribution to support their work.

I’ll post the text of my remarks here after I talk.

On Monday, December 7th, the Peter White Library in Marquette will be screening 1913 Massacre,, the feature length documentary film I made with Ken Ross about the Italian Hall disaster and the Woody Guthrie song it inspired. Part of the library’s DocuMonday series, the screening is free and open to the public. The film starts at 7PM and runs 70 minutes, and I’ll stick around afterwards to take questions, talk and say hi.

Hope to see you there.

12-7DocuMonday

Can Films Still Make a Difference?

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.” And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

Now having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone-wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

Would Llewyn Davis Ever “Kick Back”?

ILD
About two-thirds of the way through the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn returns to his sister Joy’s house, in Queens, to collect his Master Mates and Pilots License. He’s just been to visit his nearly catatonic father at Landfall, a sailor’s retirement home. He plans to give up folk music and ship out.

Llewyn discovers Joy in the kitchen with her son Danny, who’s eating a bowl of cereal.

“How is he?” asks Joy.

Llewyn
He’s great. Good to see what I have to look forward to.

Joy
What. Llewyn.

Llewyn
No I’m not kiddin. I’ve got it all figured out now.  Put in some hard years, yeah, but eventually ya get to kick back, get your food brought to ya, don’t even have to get up to shit.

Joy
Llewyn! Danny is sitting right here.

Joy may be appalled by Llewyn’s use of profanity in front of her six-year-old son, but she should also be thrown by his anachronistic use of “kick back.” I was, so much so that it took me a while to find my way back into the film, which up to that point had me in its spell.  I half expected Joy to ask her brother what “kick back” means, or is supposed to mean.

It’s 1961 when Llewyn walks into his sister’s kitchen in Queens. Merriam-Webster’s can find no instance of the expression “kick back” before 1972. (Even then, I’ll wager, it wasn’t in wide use.) The expression carries with it the breezy attitudes and hedonistic aspirations of 1970s California, not the earnest commitments of Gaslight folkies.

Is this just nitpicking? I’m of two minds on that question.

On the one hand, in a film of such obvious artistic merit, there ought to be someone combing through the dialogue for anachronisms and other false notes, so that audiences can stay with the picture.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane had even bigger problems suspending his disbelief: while he admires the “gleefully precise” ways in which production designer Jess Gonchor recreates 1961 Greenwich Village, he concludes that “something in the movie fails to grip”: Llewyn never looks “very down at the heel”; and the beauty of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography “hazes over the shabby desperation that…should plague the struggling artist.” Even Al Cody’s apartment, which he describes as a “dump…looks pretty neat and clean.”

Terri Thal, the ex-wife of Dave Van Ronk, the West Village folk icon whose biography inspired the Coen Brothers’ film, also notes that “the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments.” She wanted to see “roaches” and “fallen plaster.” (The American movie industry never seems willing or able to go there.) On a more serious note, Thal also finds it beyond any measure of credibility that Llewyn can sit down with a “respectable” doctor and casually discuss an illegal abortion: the only woman Dave Van Ronk impregnated, she writes, “rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus.” Her situation was that desperate.

On the other hand, holding Inside Llewyn Davis to strict standards of historical authenticity will only end up limiting our experience of the film, which is as much a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey as a hard-luck story from the early 1960s. Part of the film’s magic lies in the way it discovers one of the Western world’s most ancient and most persistent narratives in Llewyn’s lonesome wanderings. This gives the film a magical-realist grace that neo-realist grit could never provide.

llewynsubwayA cat named Ulysses guides Llewyn to an underworld and seems, at one point, to offer a real chance at redemption. But Llewyn doesn’t take it. There’s no direction home, and no chance our hero will ever have the leisure or the luxury of just kicking back.

David Bromberg, who played with Van Ronk, put it simply: you’ve got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.

Time Out of Mind

I leave tomorrow for Lake Superior. On Thursday the 24th, Ken and I are going to show our film at Michigan Tech, where there’s a conference called Writing Across the Peninsula, and then, on Saturday the 26th, at the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette. I’m going up a little early to do some exploring, traveling north along the western shore of the lake to Palisade Head and then inland (west), through Finland and into the area around Ely, Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. That’s where Polymet Mining has proposed a huge open pit sulfide mine. It will be my first visit and maybe one of the few chances I get to see the area before the mining begins. After that, it’s never going to be the same. Or at least not in my lifetime — or in the lifetime of anyone alive today.

Polymet recently disclosed in a Preliminary Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that water runoff from its mine will have to be treated for the next five hundred years — “a minimum of 500 years,” just to meet water quality regulations. The proposal in its current form clearly violates Minnesota Rule 6132.3200, which requires that “the mining area” be “maintenance free” upon closure; but Polymet and its legions of apologists have already found some wiggle room here, arguing that state law allows for “perpetual treatment” as long as enough money is set aside and as long as the company can prove that it’s meeting federal and state water standards. For Polymet, it seems, this is just the start of a negotiation.

The Mining Examiner quotes Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota: “There’s no doubt it can be done, that it’s allowed. The concept is sound; the details have to be worked out by the experts.” I honestly don’t know how anyone can say things like this with a straight face. Five-hundred years: the experts just need to work things out. No doubt about it.

When I first heard about the five-hundred year disclosure, I tried to think of a place where mining was done five-hundred years ago: the best I came up with was Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia, where conquistadores set up silver-mining operations in the sixteenth-century. Potosi is now considered one of the most polluted places on earth. Of course, the Spanish crown did not set out the sorts of guarantees that Polymet is willing to set out; but apparently the mining company shares the crown’s illusion that its empire will last forever. Or at least they would like us to think so: they would like us to set aside our doubts and entertain the fantastic idea that they will provide water-treatment facilities for the maintenance of their copper mine for the next five-hundred years.

Mind you, the country’s only been in existence for 237 years, and Minnesota was only admitted to the union in 1858 — 155 years ago. The EPA only started operations in 1970; its workers only just got back on the job yesterday, after being furloughed during the shutdown. Why are we being asked to believe in the perpetuity or even the resilience of the EPA, the Minnesota DNR, or any government institution or form of government? Who can say what’s going to happen fifty years from now, let alone five hundred? Will there be a Minnesota DNR or an EPA in 2063? Will there be a Polymet? Minnesota? How about 2100? 2413? Insofar as history is about holding people to account, this is nothing more than historical fantasy: there’s no guarantee or even promise of accountability when you are talking about five centuries. As Steve Timmer would have it, nobody is going to be around to keep Polymet’s grave clean.

Time out of mind is the phrase this whole proposal conjures for me. The expression comes from English law. “Time out of mind” or “time immemorial” is a time before anyone can remember: a property or holding, a way of passage or a benefit has been enjoyed so long that those who claim it no longer have to prove ownership or their right to it; nobody can remember a time when it wasn’t so. In this case we are being asked to project that far into the future — way past the horizon of what we ordinarily consider the future, way beyond the time anyone can foresee.

Projecting that far into the future, time out of mind, is also a distorting lens. It’s easy when looking that far ahead to overlook what we know will really happen to the area in the near term, just in the course of constructing and operating an open-pit sulfide mine. Mine pollution that lasts for five-hundred years is a huge and terrifying prospect, no doubt, but that dread prospect might also have the weird effect of eclipsing (or normalizing) the more immediate environmental and social consequences of mining and the industrialization mining brings. Water Legacy estimates that the Polymet project will take 6,600 acres of forests out of public ownership, destroy or impair at least 1,500 acres of wetlands and result in 168,000,000 tons of permanent waste rock heaps and 228,000,000 tons of tailings waste. Add to this the haul roads, the mill operations, air and noise pollution, the effects of clear-cutting and deforestation, shifts in population, economic distortion, and so on.

It’s important to pull back, change the lens, and see clearly what’s going to happen, what’s already happening, to the waters and the wilderness areas, the Lake and all life around it, within our lifetime, and what effect our actions now will have for generations to come.

Labor Day, 2013: Will Big Mining Do Better This Time Around?

On Labor Day, I’ll be in New York City, so I won’t be able to see the television broadcast premiere of 1913 Massacre on Twin Cities Public Television. How many will tune in? How will the broadcast cut of the film look and play on TV? Above all, I wonder, what connections will the Labor Day TV audience draw between 1913 and 2013? My comments here run this holiday weekend on MinnPost.

Many people Ken and I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming 1913 Massacre urged us to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that had introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me to Calumet and the Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors.

But there were limits to their benevolence. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers – Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice “sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly-technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents; and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. Polymet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs – just 25% — will go to local communities. Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property. Overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

gogebicguard

Bulletproof Securities patrols Gogebic Taconite’s property in northern Wisconsin.

Did Werner Herzog Just Produce The “Red Asphalt” of Our Day?

Werner Herzog’s new documentary-style PSA against texting while driving, From One Second to the Next, is beautifully shot and edited. Its four stories, which revisit tragic accidents and ruined lives, are presented simply and compassionately, with an eye and an ear for telling little human details.

Still, I have to wonder how this film — which Herzog’s sponsor, AT&T, will distribute to “more than 40,000 high schools, as well as hundreds of safety organizations and government agencies” — will play with teen drivers. From One Second does not wag admonitory fingers and avoids the good-cop scare tactics of old California Highway Patrol road-safety movies like Red Asphalt or Wheels of Tragedy, but its emotional range is limited enough that after watching 3 of the 4 stories Herzog presents here I felt I had had enough of the same tones and colors.

More importantly, the film’s pacing and duration (it’s 35 minutes long) are not exactly suited to a generation that thinks even texts can be tl;dr. I have trouble imagining an auditorium or classroom full of sixteen year olds getting through it without — well, texting or tweeting or checking social media.

So it remains to be seen whether this beautiful and sometimes very moving document can also create an effective intervention. Herzog himself senses the difficulty, but he talks about the problem as a distant observer: “There’s a completely new culture out there,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m not a participant of texting and driving — or texting at all — but I see there’s something going on in civilization which is coming with great vehemence at us.”

I can’t help but be reminded here of the refain from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” written when Herzog was just 23 years old: “Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” But this isn’t just one generation griping about another, and Herzog is right to suggest that there’s much more at stake in all this than the hazards of texting while driving. It’s about the “new culture out there”, which is taking its toll on human life — a deadly and threatening “something” that’s “going on in civilization.” It’s coming at us, with great vehemence, bearing down on us.

Where it’s coming from and what it is Herzog doesn’t say, or at least the Associated Press does not report; but it’s precisely that “something” that From One Moment misses, and never asks us to confront or better understand. I am not so sure AT&T would have sponsored a film that did.

Public Television and Public Life – A Note from the Road

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

We’ve just completed a short tour of the Upper Peninsula, taking 1913 Massacre from Houghton to Ontonagon to Marquette. After each screening of the film, we take questions and comments from the audience. All sorts of things come up in those conversations. People see themselves or their own town in the Calumet story. They make connections between the past and the present, between what happened in Calumet to what’s happening right now in the UP, in Michigan and all around the country. In Ontonagon, one audience member came away from the film thinking about garment factories in Bangladesh; in Marquette, we talked about courage, resilience and how long it takes communities to recover from social catastrophe, among other things. We learn something new with every conversation.

Though the questions, insights and topics may vary, the thing that most impresses me about all these Q&A sessions — no matter the size of the audience or the setting — is the most easily overlooked: the gathering of the audience and the shared experience of seeing the film, together, creates an opportunity for public conversation.

That’s why I’m always a little thrown when someone raises his hand in one of these public gatherings to ask whether we’ve approached PBS with our film or whether 1913 Massacre will air on public television. There are other versions of the same question. Will the film be at Sundance? Will it be on HBO? Wouldn’t it lend itself to feature film treatment? Have we approached Steven Speilberg or — name your favorite Hollywood mogul or celebrity. But the PBS question is the one we get most frequently.

The simple answer is, of course we approached PBS, Independent Lens, POV, and so on, repeatedly, for funding and grants while working on the film; and of course we are still making efforts to bring the film to wider audiences. PBS, or some part of the public broadcasting system, might offer an opportunity to do that.

That, at least, is an answer that gets us past talking about the movie business and the business prospects of our film and back to the film itself and the experience of the film we all just shared.

I realize that the PBS question and others like it show appreciation and support for the film: it’s a way of wishing us success, or a way of saying that other people, friends, family, lots of people, millions of PBS viewers should see our film. They should, with any luck they will, and it’s good to hear others hope they do.

At the same time it’s worth asking why the PBS question comes up so often, and more importantly why the question seems odd and entirely out of place at a public gathering and in a public forum. Would a PBS broadcast give our film a seal of approval it lacks? Would an Oscar? Would Steven Speilberg? Maybe, but why should any of that matter right now? We’re not approaching Speilberg: we’re approaching you. What do you say? What do others in the room have to say? Why look elsewhere? Why wait for permission? What about the approval 1913 Massacre already received, just now, right here in this room? What about the experience we all just shared? Surely we haven’t exhausted that — and surely that counts for something, for much more.

We’re here together, right now, in this room. Let’s appreciate and own it, and make the most of the opportunity we have. Let’s forget about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and every other kind of corporate gatekeeper. Let’s not await a word from our sponsor or even admit them into the room. Let’s not diminish the present moment and our experience — a public experience, an experience of being together, in public. Let’s not look for validation or value beyond this room: we have it all, right here.

You see where this is heading. There are lessons in all this about the power people and communities have and the power we surrender, every day and for no good reason, to outside authorities, influencers and exploiters — to powerful institutions, brand names, celebrities, big money. These gatherings in small towns, in classrooms, halls and clubs, in local theaters and public libraries may look modest, but they give us a chance to exercise our habit for democracy.

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People gather in the Community Room at the Peter White Library in Marquette for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

That’s why, in the end, television broadcast can’t hold a candle to public screenings like the ones we’ve had and will continue to have. Television is not just a poor substitute for community gatherings and public life. It pulls us away from those things and from each other. Watching television is a retreat from public gathering — a withdrawal into the privacy of one’s own. In this sense, “public television” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

There’s an aesthetic dimension to this as well. Our film, all film, plays best on a big screen, with a live audience. People laugh and cry together, some gasp, some cough (somebody always coughs), others sigh, shift in their seats. Applause brings everyone together at the end. (Booing and jeering would do the trick, too, but with 1913 Massacre we’ve so far been spared that experience.) These emotions, actions and reactions are an under-appreciated but essential part of the motion, or kinesis, of the cinematic experience. Films come alive — that’s the right word, alive — when people gather to see them; and when people share in public conversation what they’ve seen, they have a special chance to see each other, anew, on the other side of a new experience.

A woman in the audience in Houghton seemed to understand all this when she rose from her seat and exclaimed: “this film should be shown in every small town across the country!” If only we could make that happen.

People’s History is Alive

Cross-posted from 1913 Massacre.
I love this tweet:

This is from the Twitter account of Voices of a People’s History.

I suspect it was posted partly in response to David Greenberg’s vituperative account of Howard Zinn’s life and work in The New Republic. Greenberg portrays Zinn as a deeply flawed, philandering charlatan, who didn’t keep pace with work in his own field, and kept “aloof from the intellectual ferment of the seminar rooms, journal offices, and conferences where radical history was being born.” As for Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States, Greenberg dismisses it as “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Zinn has always had his detractors and defenders, and plenty of people have risen to his defense. (Clement Lime wrote one of the stronger responses to Greenberg, I think.) It’s interesting to think that our film might have a place in the conversation.

But that’s not what I like so much about this tweet. If there’s one thing we discovered about “people’s history” in the course of making our film, it’s that people’s history is alive. History lives and breathes in people; their memories, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the photographs they cherish — all those things aren’t just artifacts or objects of study, even if historians say they are.

History is at work in everything people do — and in a place like Calumet, where past troubles were never really laid to rest, history can work in mysterious ways. People talk about the past in order to talk about the present; and if they do not want to talk about the past it will find a way to assert itself in the present. People may see in the past some faint image of ourselves and our lives, but more importantly we carry the past with us; it’s our constant companion. It comforts us and causes us pain; it can be a source of pride or shame, pleasure or remorse. It can entrap us and enrich us.

People’s history is alive not because there are historians who study it, but because, like it or not, deny it or embrace it, study it or try to forget it, it’s our story.