Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lame Things About Good Movies

I've seen a lot of good movies lately. All of these are highly recommended, despite my complaining.

King Kong
General Impression: I was trawling through a video store while the giant-bug-attack scene was playing on the TV screens, and every single person in the store stopped what they were doing and gaped at the screen with their jaws hanging open until it was over. Tremendously creepy scene. The rest of the movie swings from one wildly implausible situation to the next (think dinosaurs fighting while swinging on jungle vines), but it never stops entertaining and never slows down long enough for you to realize how bizarre it all is. Andy Serkis is amazing (again), and The Empire State building scene is nicely done.
Part That Sucked: The portrayal of the natives. OK, I get that Peter Jackson is remaking a film from an earlier time and deliberately not updating it to reflect modern sensibilities, but still, this is a little over the top. The Skull Islanders aren't just aboriginals, they're also evil - you can tell by their crazed, glassy eyes and stringy hair, and the freaky, guttural chanting. What gives? He might as well have cast the Orcs from LOTR. Maybe he was trying to save money by reusing the costumes.

Film: Munich
General Impression: Political violence and and our notions of when and how it can be legitimate is something I've always obsessed about (see here and here), and so it goes without saying that I found 'Munich' to be pretty fascinating. Oddly it reminded me of the Bourne movies -- heart-pounding action sequences set in the capitals of Europe -- and highlighted the truth that most spy movies are pretty empty-headed. Although it's probably to Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's credit that they managed to anger both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, I don't think the movie is best thought of as an opinion piece about the Middle East. The focus of its argument is on the psychological effects of violence on those who commit it. All told, an extremely exciting and thought-provoking film; rent this with 'Paradise Now' and talk amongst yourselves.
Part That Sucked: OK, this is more of a tangent, but one bit of the film that sticks with me is the offhand remark by an Israeli general that the targeted killings of the terrorists are unnecessary since Israel has alreadyretaliated for the Munich killings by bombing training camps (in Lebanon and Syria) and killing 60 (a Palestinian character later puts the number at 200). Still -- 60 people? All guilty terrorists we presume? Or maybe random people in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or if some were innocent, are we are to think that those killings are less heinous because they are 'accidental'? And then the movie asks us to agonize over the targetted killings? Perhaps we should be more worried that our technology now allows us to kill without directly experiencing the violence, and that that dehumanizes us even more. But that's a different movie, I suppose.

Film: The New World
General Impression: A beautiful film. It's opening mirrors both the opening passage of Howard Zinn's history and Wagner's narrative of innocence lost, with the shimmery prelude to Das Rheingold playing as the Virginia natives look out on the arriving ships of the English settlers. The movie barely manages a narrative, instead offering up a series of poetic images roughly telling the story of Pocahontas, John Smith and the Jamestown settlement. It bogs a bit in the middle, but the scenes in the native village and later when she travels to England to meet the royals are pretty much perfect.
Part That Sucked: Hollywood seems to have a one-hit-movie quota for beautiful, accomplished non-white and/or non-western actresses, and then it's back to television and independent films with them. Cases in point: Irene Bedard, Ming-Na, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Sarita Choudhury, etc. So its worth hoping Q'Orianka Kilcher, the young native actress who plays Pocahontas, gets to act in another movie again someday ever, and isn't doomed to a career of bit-parts on Law and Order.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Make My Funk the P-Funk

Yeah! We saw Dar Williams, RJD2 and George Clinton + Parliament/Funkadelic at the annual Summer Breeze concert Saturday night. Dar had some funny jokes about finally sharing a stage with George Clinton, but that's exactly why Summer Breeze is so awesome: a few years ago they had Guided By Voices, Jurassic 5 and Medeski, Martin & Wood on the same stage. Talk about eclectic. Anyway, the concert was awesome.

Dar: This was the 4th time I've seen her in concert, and it was nice to hear her do the solo guitar thing without her backing band (which sometimes makes her sound a little too adult-contempo-lite-rock-y). As usual, she was her funny, goofy self, and she played a nice mix of old and new stuff. Apart from a small group of acolytes around the stage, a lot of the crowd wasn't really paying that much attention, which was too bad. A lot of them didn't even sing along to 'Iowa' even though she promised them it would get them into bed with cute girls. Their loss, I guess.

RJD2: Pretty cool DJ music. The thing about seeing DJ's spin live is that I don't really know enough about what's going on to be properly impressed. He certainly ran around, shuffled vinyl and did stuff with the 4 or 5 turntables he had, and the music that came forth was really interesting and engaging, but I'm never really sure (without getting a closeup view) exactly which "parts" he's creating through cut-n-paste and which are pre-recorded. I'm happy to take it on faith that he's a real badass, however.

P-Funk: Pretty much a religious experience. I did have a moment of doubt early on... (I mean, GC's been doing this for, what? 30-40 years? And he's clearly an old man now. Even the guy in the diaper is an old man, and he's been wearing that diaper for-ev-er. So, is this just a nostalgia act? Are they merely a party band now, here to get the frat boys pumped up? You can just imagine how crazy and dangerous and anarchic they must have seemed back in the 70's when they ruled this planet and several others from the deck of their mothership. And now the anarchy has been going on so long, it's become... pre-planned - is that weird? or sad? or something?) ... but then I decided to stop thinking about it and dance. And, really, they still don't compare to anything else out there - the passing years have only made them better at what they do. There were like 147 of them up there on stage -- 14 guitarists, 8 keyboard players, 64 backup singers, the male-belly dancer/acrobat with a six-inch prosthetic nose dressed up like a pimp and climbing all over the stage, the guy eating cereal, the skinny sound-tech guy breaking up fights, the female rapper, the keyboardist who looks like Che, the guitarist with the half-hour solos that would make the Grateful Dead have to take a break and sit down, and on and on... in the end you can't fight the funk. You have to join it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Science Blog!

For my museum internship, we've been asked to contribute posts to the Science Buzz Blog that's a part of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Keith and I decided to post on the recent formation of a second Red Spot on the face of Jupiter. You can read our full posting by clicking here.

Anyway, check out their blog - it's pretty cool, and they're always looking for people to leave comments and initiate discussion.

Dear NSA,

Funny Link of the (unspecified time period),

I especially like the Liberian scam one. Substantive blog post coming soon, I plomise.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

gripe gripe gripe

Ugh. What a 'orrible day. 40 degrees, rainy, windy. And of course I left the house without a coat or a functioning umbrella. And why would I do that, you might ask? Because, dammit, it's the middle of May already!

Stupid Chicago "spring". For some reason I can handle ten-below-zero in January. That's even kind of exciting (assuming a warm coat, of course). But, I expect spring to arrive on March 1 like clockwork, and by May, the continued appearance of damp, frigid weather drives me a little... crazy. Hee.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


In celebration of Mayday, I managed to make it to three separate protests yesterday: the massive immigrants rights march, the Mayday celebration in Haymarket Square and the Save Darfur Rally. This involved a lot of quality time spent on the Green Line to and from Hyde Park. Here are my reflections; sorry if they're a bit lengthy.

Immigrants Rights March

The mainstream papers are reporting that in Chicago alone, nearly half a million people turned out for the immigrant rights march, so the total number was at least that many. When I arrived at Union Park at around 11:30, people were already heading down Randolph towards downtown. I never personally saw the beginning or the end of the sea of marchers. The crush of people was already threatening to swamp the CTA's capacity. My train was packed solid, almost entirely Latino families: strollers, little kids waving homemade "No on 4437" signs, teenagers wearing Mexican and American flags like capes, a constant hum of Spanish. Just getting out of the Ashland El stop took 10 minutes.

The day is grey and threatening rain, but thankfully, the promised thunderstorms hold their distance. Union Park is awash in people. Since the march started on the West Side, the Latino turnout was understandably enormous -- probably more than 90% of those marching. But this being Chicago, there is a substantial Polish contingent as well, many of whom are 'sin papeles' and come here to work in the construction trade or as janitors. There are certainly a good fraction of Mexican and Polish flags, but mostly it's the Stars and Stripes. Street vendors are selling a combo-pack of U.S. and Mexican flags for $4. I think this may be the most American flags I've ever seen at one time. Everytime the news helicopters do a flyby the crowd cheers and starts waving like crazy.

The cops funnelled the march out of the park through a very narrow gate, and then only let us march on one side of Randolph, even though the other lanes were closed to traffic. This meant that for the first hour the mass of people I was with moved about 500 yards. Not so much marching for immigration justice, as shuffling slowly forward. Once we got past the bottleneck, it sped up a bit.

At this point, a feeder march of anarchist youth joined the column to great cheering. The Black Bloc kids brought a lot of energy with homemade drums and loud chants of 'Si Se Puede', and, because they've never seen a police line not worth crossing, they streamed over into the unused lanes, overturned the blue barricades and encouraged everyone else to cross over as well.

Some of the older marchers seemed uncertain and a little annoyed about this confrontation, but large numbers of high school and college aged kids crossed the median onto the other side. The cops made a panicked show of blocking these lanes with their bikes and trying to force us back into line, but the pressure of so many people was too great and after a few minutes they surrendered the right side of the street and the people flowed into it. I can understand the annoyance towards a group of mostly (but not entirely) white kids provoking a confrontation with the cops during a peaceful, family oriented march, but the police-lines were ridiculous and anyway, it ended well.

There were a lot of great signs. The one in the picture above says "My Brother is in Iraq fighting for his country." Other favorites:
"Today I March, Tomorrow I Vote"
"Somos America"
"Las luchas de los obreros no tienen fronteras"
"Sacar corriendo el gobierno de Bush"
"All religions believe in Justice"
"Queremos Legalizacion"
"Immigrants and Workers Forged America"

Part of the UNITE-HERE contingent.

This is the view from the top of the Kennedy overpass, looking back on the throngs of people. For myself, I have to say that it was incredibly moving to be a part of this march. Everything about it had the feel of an organic, grassroots uprising for justice. There were undoubtedly tireless organizers who threw themselves into making this march a success, but the impetus for half-a-mil to leave work and come out into the streets could only have come from a deep, visceral understanding that their very existence in this country is under attack. There are too few times in history when such a mass mobilization happens. The trick now is to focus all this energy on getting specific legislation pushed through.

For the record, we've been told for so long that corporations and gobs of capital should be stateless and free to go wherever they want in the world, so to me it seems only fair to allow the same for humans. But since an 'open border' policy isn't going to be passed anytime soon, I hope for an immigration policy that strongly rejects criminalization of people already here, that allows a path toward permanent legal status and citizenship, and that gives immigrants equal rights and access to services. I know that amnesty is not the most popular proposal right now, but it is the goal we need to work for. Call your reps, go to a rally and sign this petition.

Mayday Celebration in Haymarket Square

I had to drop out of the immigration march before it finished at Grant Park, but I headed back downtown later in the afternoon for the Mayday rally. Most of the rest of the world celebrates May 1 as International Workers Day, except the US, even though the history of the date started here in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, during a rally of unionists protesting the killing of two strikers by the Chicago police the day before, a bomb was thrown by someone at the watching police (killing several) and the police retaliated by firing upon the crowd killing several and injuring many more. The state convicted eight anarchists for inciting the crowd to riot (even though no evidence linked any of them to the bomb-thrower). Four anarchists, August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer and George Engel, were executed on November 11, 1887. Since then, Mayday has been a cause celebre for labor unions and left-wing political parties in most countries, except here, where its celebration was stamped out by the Red Scare. Good histories of the riots can be found here and here.

These days Haymarket Square is a completely non-descript strip of sidewalk, west of the downtown, and perched above the Kennedy Expressway. For years, a statue of a police officer stood here commemorating the incident, until it was bombed by the Weather Underground in the late 60's. After years of antagonism between the police and the labor unions about the history of the incident, the city agreed two years ago to put up a new memorial statue as part of a proposed Labor Park. Chicago labor unions have been trying to reclaim this bit of history as theirs, and so staged a worker's rights rally there this year. It was cool to be at Haymarket for Mayday and to support the local unions, but the rally was small and fairly tepid in comparison with the immigration march.

Save Darfur Rally

Our final stop of the day was Federal Plaza for the Save Darfur rally. I was struck first off by the tremendous diversity of the participants. White folks, black folks, awesome suburban high school kids, a huge Jewish presence. A singer ran through a medley of freedom songs from Bob Marley to the Beatles. It definitely felt like a movement growing beyond the usual activisty suspects. The message was a little unfocused ("We need action! Now!", but what?), but the passion was tangible.

There were a bunch of speakers, but two really stood out. The first was Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Faith Community. If you ever get a chance to check out the worship service at St. Sabina, it really has to be seen to be believed. Father Pfleger is a true fire-breathing, truth-telling, social-justice preacher, and he set the place on fire, issuing a strong condemnation of any church, synagogue or mosque that remains silent or apathetic about genocide. The second speaker was the Imam Senad Agic, of the Northbrook Mosque (a Bosnian Muslim, with first-hand experience of genocide), who put the issue in plain words: the Quran says, anyone who kills an innocent person, it is as if they are killing the entire world, and anyone who saves someone from death, it is as if they have saved the entire world.