Archive for November, 2003

Photographing Iraqi Women

War correspondent Kevin Sites is blogging again. Before the war, Sites had been blogging his observations of daily life in Iraq when CNN asked him to stop. Now, he’s working freelance for MSNBC, and they’ve agreed to allow him to continue blogging. The decription of Baghdad as a “colonial” city in one entry was intriguing (I can’t find the specific entry now), a sentiment he connects to conversations with Baghdad citizens. He combines photography and personal narratives in a compelling manner, creating a powerful first-person account of things.

In his October 27 entry, he discusses the ambivalence he feels about photographing Iraqi women:

I often end up taking more pictures of men and boys in Muslim nations because women here are conditioned in modesty and don’t like to be photographed. But it creates a dilemma for me–for while I want to respect their cultural boundaries, I also don’t want to document a society devoid of half it’s population.

This ethical dilemma–situated around around the politics of photography and power–is a major question, in my opinion, and the “modesty” associated with the refusal to be photographed may mean something else, perhaps a refusal to allow one’s image to be co-opted by the “colonial” power (using Sites’ description of the conditions in Baghdad).

A second photograph taken by Sites during a raid of a woman and her daughter also strikes me, especially the young girl who stares (defiantly?) into the camera while her mother covers her face. The gestures have a similar meaning: on the one had, a refusal to be photographed, on the other, a recognition of the apparatus. I’m not making any promises, but given some of the things (especially Marker’s Sans Soleil) I’ve been thinking about lately, these war (or is it a non-war, given the claims of a mission accomplished?) photographs are pretty compelling.

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So I have a question….

Would we be asking so many questions about Francois if he had his own blog? I’m not sure I can add to the range of observations that others have already made, especially this late at night (I’ll have to remember to cut myself off caffiene a little earlier tomorrow), but there’s something about “blogging from the margins” (to use Matt’s phrase) that makes his presence in this blogging community felt so powerfully.

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Bubba Ho-Tep

Bubba Ho-Tep (IMDB) is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time. It stars Bruce Campbell, the B-movie king, as Elvis Presley, in his seventies and living in an east Texas retirement home. It turns out that Elvis, bored with life as a celebrity, switched lives and careers with one of his more adept impersonators, and the impersonator died before the “real” Elvis had a chance to get his life (and his substantial fortune) back.

Now, strange things are happening in his retirement home, with several people dying mysteriously, and after Elvis is attacked by a giant cockroach, he learns that the home is being preyed upon by an ancient Egyptian mummy who is cursed to feed off the souls of the living in order to survive. He learns this from John F. Kennedy (played by Ossie Davis). When “Elvis” reminds “Jack” that Kennedy was black, Jack tells him that “they” dyed his skin and reminds him that it is, after all, the perfect disguise.

I could talk about the ways that the film is about the derealized images produced by the cult of celebrity, and that’s certainly there, but more enjoyable for me was the sheer fun of the B-movie experience: the playfulness, the sight gags (Jack’s bedroom has posters with photos of Oswald), the cheap special effects. I don’t want to give away any more of the film’s gags, so hopefully, Bubba Ho-Tep will soon be playing at a theater near you…

This is my first visit to the newly renovated Landmark Midtown Theater, which is an eight screen art house theater under new management here in Atlanta. The ATL has suddenly transformed itself into a film mecca (lucky for me!). I was impressed by my first experience there. At the early shows they had an Elvis impersonator in the lobby, and for the midnight screenings (one of which I attended), they had a raffle featuring all kinds of cool stuff (none of which I won–unlucky for me).

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Catching Up

I’ve had an eventful week hence the blog silence lately. The last few days have been devoted to revising and polishing off my paper on Sans Soleil, so I haven’t really had the chance to write (or, more honestly, I’ve been too tired). Also, the power is out in half my apartment (some funky wiring up in the attic), so it’s a little spooky in here right now.

There’s something about a writing marathon that makes it impossible to concentrate on anything else, not to mention that writing tends to be a solitary activity, so my own tendencies toward solitude are magnified even further, but a few cool things have happened that I wanted to mention.

I had dinner with my family at Noodle, a tasty little restaurant here in Decatur, to celebrate my parents’ birthdays (they were born exactly six days apart, which is pretty cool). The food was very good, although I’m still bummed that I forgot to order the basil roll appetizer.

I did rent a couple of cool movies in my spare time. I really enjoyed 28 Days Later…, a postmodern zombie flick filmed in DV by Trainspotting director, Danny Boyle. The film opens with a group of eco-terrorists attempting rescue caged monkeys from a Cambridge University lab. The monkeys are infected with a deadly virus that kills most of the people in Great Britain and transforming countless others into zombies. The self-conscious references to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are lots of fun, and without giving too much away, Ireally enjoyed the critique of boys-will-be-boys masculinity at the end of the film. And an interesting comparison just occured to me: this film’s treatment of eco-terrorists, caged monkeys, deadly viruses, and apocalypse narratives might offer an interesting comparison with 12 Monkeys (both films even have numbers in their titles). Lots of things to like about the film. Maybe soon I’ll find an excuse to write a longer paper about it.

[Brief reminder: I've been noticing that I'm much more fascinated lately by horror films than science-fiction or time-travel films. Maybe that's a hint about where I should be taking my writing?]

I also The Quiet American, which I also liked quite a bit. Michael Caine is always fun to watch and Brendan Fraser is an underrated actor. I’m not sure I fully internalized this film, but it’s a pretty powerful critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam, focusing on the early, secretive attempts to support regimes that might challenge Ho Chi Minh. The film is based, of course, on a Graham Greene novel. I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve really liked both films I’ve seen that are based on his work. The Third Man, which I’ve been planning to watch again for weeks, uses Vienna beautifully, and Orson Welles has one of my favorite “entrances” in film history.

I saw another film this weekend (no, not that one), but it deserves its own entry….

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Tru Calling

I normally don’t watch prime time TV, but I’ve recently become addicted to Fox’s new show, Tru Calling (IMDB), starring Eliza Dushku as Tru, a 22-year old medical student who takes an internship working at a city morgue. Whenever someone dies of “unnatural” causes, their corpse “calls” her to help. Tru is then propelled back in time to the beginning of that day, with just a few hours to prevent their death. Because she has only a limited amount of knowledge of each case (the identity of the dead person, the location where they died, and cause of death), Tru often finds it difficult to prevent the dangerous situations from taking place. I’m pretty much a sucker for time-travel narratives, so I’ve become pretty much hooked (not that I’d be watching Friends or Survivor anyway).

I really enjoy how the show visually conveys time travel, using what appears to be a quick “rewind” through the day’s events, and the show has already dealt with the possibility that Tru might not always be successful is rescuing everyone who calls her. Like many reviewers, I think the show is comparable to Run Lola Run, one of my favorite time-bending movies. Of course, in Tru’s case, she knows that she has the opportunity to save people from dying while Lola’s status is more ambiguous.

It’s certainly not a perfect show: the premise may wear thin, and the Run Lola Run comparisons sometimes point out the show’s limitations, but Dushku is fun to watch, and so far, the show has demonstrated some self-awareness: her knowledge that her professor boyfriend is cheating on her with a new student allows Tru a second chance to reject him with just the right amount of strength (of course, the fact that he’s an “associate professor” who claims to be meeting with the dean because he’s “up for tenure” kind of cheapens the whole thing). I know it’s not the most complicated time-travel narrative, so call it a guilty pleasure.

Now I really need to be working on my article.

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Mary Magdalene

Like Eric, I watched the ABC special, Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, which addresses some of the speculation about the mysterious Biblical figure, Mary Magdalene, who had for centuries been identified by the Catholic Church as a prostitute. More recent scholarship has suggested that Mary Magdalene was, at the very least, one of Jesus’s closest followers, and possibly the mother of his child.

The TV series picks up on some of the questions raised by the best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code (DVC), which I haven’t read (although now I am mildly curious). DVC suggests that a small sect passed this knowledge down through the generations and that DaVinci was a member of the group and put “hidden messages” in his paintings to convey this knowledge. Part of the novel’s success seems to be based on the fantasy of obtaining hidden or secret knowledge, a claim that usually arouses a little suspicion for me, but I’m intrigued by the popularity of the book, especially given the boycotts inspired just a few years ago by The Last Temptation of Christ, which made similar claims about the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus (of course it remains to be seen how people will react to the film).

[Brief aside: when I was in college, a woman I wanted to date asked me to join her at a boycott of Last Temptation, even though nobody at our college had even seen the film. I'm proud to say that even though she was really cute, I didn't go. Of course, my dating life slowed considerably as a result of my principles.]

On the ABC special, I especially enjoyed the interviews with Elaine Pagels, who was an important thinker during one stage of my intellectual development, specifically her observations about the politics of Biblical canon formation. Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University also backed up the observation that Mary Magdalene would have been considered one of the most important Apostles had she been a man. As Eric points out, the production values of the ABC special (obnoxious spooky music, etc) pretty much sucked, but I was still intrigued that this kind of story could attract so much mainstream attention.

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Pieces of Other People’s Lives

In his entry, “Pieces of a Life,” George briefly lists three experiences and comments that “stitching the pieces together makes a life.” Some of these experiences (Halloween costumes in Kansas City, several of his classmates taken captive at gunpoint on a beach in Naples, chipping away at the Berlin Wall) are more interesting than others, but they all contribute somehow to his life narrative. Of course, it’s not just our own experiences that we stitch together, but the experiences of others as well.

I was talking to my father tonight on the phone, and he was telling me about his recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a reunion at a church he attended when he was a child. Naturally the weekend of seeing old friends and family left him feeling reflective, and he began telling stories about some of the people I knew.

He then mentioned that one of the church members told him that he (a family friend) had heard the explosion of the bomb that killed four young African-American girls on September 15, 1963. The two churches were just blocks apart, but in ways, there was, no doubt, a greater distance. My father has mentioned on several occasions his experiences growing up in the south during the Civil Rights movement and his frustration at the violence (both physical and emotional) committed by many whites at the time. A few years later, my father witnessed some of the rioting in Washington, DC, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I didn’t experience these events directly (I wasn’t even alive during either event), I imagine they must have shaped my life in some way. Both events are inaccessible to me in the way that History itself seems inaccessible, but they also must have had a profound effect on the life I lived, if only because they shaped my father’s values in some way. I wonder about the powerlessness he and others must have felt when they saw the riots or heard the explosion. I wonder about the choices or decisions they must have made in those crucial moments. I don’t want to reduce these events to my personal narrative, but I know these experiences must have overwhelming power for those people who lived them.

I had been planning to blog about this conversation tonight when I read George’s entry, and I found the connection between the two entries too coincidental to avoid mentioning George’s observations, even though my encounter with “History” is mediated by my father’s fragmentary narrative and my partial memory of it.

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Milk Plus

Just a quick “link and comment” to point out an interesting collectively-authored film review blog, Milk Plus. I came across it while doing a quick Google search on Chris Marker (I’m now polishing off my article on Sans Soleil, more details might be forthcoming), and I’m impressed by the range of interests and the depth of analysis. I’ll definitely be going back when I have more time.

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Prey for Rock & Roll

Prey for Rock & Roll (IMDB) opens with a series of close-ups of Jacki (Gina Gershon), the lead singer of an all-girl rock band, as she gets ready for a concert in a dirty dressing room backstage at an LA music venue. She snaps on the requisite black bra and puts on way too much eyeliner, and the cheap lighting makes Jacki appear old and exhausted. We soon learn that Jacki is about to have her fortieth birthday, and she’s about to give up on her dreams of rock-and-roll stardom. Of course, playing in a rock band is the only life she knows, and after one of her concerts, she gets a phone call from a promoter who might offer a recording concert and some good gigs.

I really enjoyed the film a lot, and I’m struggling with finding why I responded to it. In part, I think I simply needed a movie, particularly one that celebrated the escape from daily routine that rock music can offer. The shots of Jacki, wearing her rock-n-roll clothes in her mother’s middle-class home convey her distance from that world.

The plot itself felt forced in a few places, especially the melodramatic elements, especially Tracy’s self-destructive use of drugs and alcohol and a sequence dealing with the rape of one of the band members, but in general the performances carry the material pretty effectively (band members Gershon, Drea De Matteo, Lori Petty, and Shelly Cole were all very good), and the film wisely de-emphasizes the romance between Jacki and “Animal,” the ex-con brother of one of the band members, focusing instead on the women practicing and playing together, on rock-n-roll itself.

The film was based on a play by Cheri Lovedog, a musician based in LA, who also wrote the music performed by the band, and her enthusiasm for rock-n-roll provides the film with its power.

Update (11/2, 10:15 PM): I think that one of the things I enjoyed most about Prey was the ability of the film to engage with the politics of rock, least on a superficial level. The critique of the exploitative music industry wanna-be is pretty effective, and the band’s music consistently reinforces a critical edge. I think, more than anything, I enjoyed seeing interesting actresses (Gershon and Petty are among my favorites) in interesting roles. I liked the energy of the film, plus it gave me an excuse to go back to my favorite movie theater.

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