Archive for July, 2008

The Last Conquistador

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin, observing the degree to which history is written by the rulers, called for a new form of narrating the past that would “brush history against the grain,” in essence a history from below. I found myself thinking about Benjamin often as I was watching The Last Conquistador, a new documentary by John J. Valadez and Cristina Ibarra, that depicts the controversy that arose when the city of El Paso approved the construction of a giant bronze statue commemorating Juan de Oñate, a sixteenth century conquistador who brutally killed hundreds of Native Americans. The statue is intended by its creator, John Hauser, to be a part of a larger twelve-piece project commemorating the history of El Paso, one that would serve not only as a tourist attraction but that could also provide residents with a better sense of their past (at one point he refers to public art as a “project of history”). However, as Hauser quickly discovered, such commemorative histories run the risk of obscuring what one Native American woman refers to as “generation after generation of grief” at the violence and genocide associated with the colonial project.

When Hasuer first embarks on making the statue, he sees it as a means of remembering an important figure from El Paso’s past, and he is able to glean support not only from a city council hoping to promote tourism but also from the town’s elders, many of whom are white. While some are aware of Oñate’s brutal history, others choose to diminish his legacy, emphasizing the fact that the colonial era had a far different moral code. The Last Conquistador, which will be broadcast on P.O.V. on July 15, takes care to remind viewers about the atrocities committed by Oñate, who killed over 800 Acoma (Pueblo) Indians and had all of the surviving women and children sold into slavery. He also decreed that his soldiers amputate the left foot of every Acoma man over the age of 25, actions that hardly seem to be worth commemorating, particularly in a 42-foot tall statue of a man on a rearing horse, the largest equestrian bronze in the world according to Wikipedia.

But the film is also careful to provide us with a fairly sympathetic of the sculptor who designed the statue, John Sherrill Hauser, who is clearly committed to the social role of public art.  His father worked as an assistant carver on Mt. Rushmore, and he felt that he had inherited a sense of the power of public art in bringing history to life.  And as fate would have it, Hauser develops glaucoma over the course of building the statue and realizes that he may never see the complete version of his work.  In addition, Hasuer gradually begins to realize the wounds that a statue of Oñate might open up, and he is even willing to engage with the Native Americans who are offended by the statue at a public lecture.  The artistic drive that motivates Hasuer is fascinating to watch, and his moments of self-criticism seemed genuine.  By humanizing Hauser in this way, Valadez and Ibarra show the complications involved whenever we seek to memorialize the past.  Even though Hauser’s intentions may have been quite good, he helps to perpetuate the moral “blindness” that he diagnoses in the past.

I’ll admit that I knew little about Oñate before seeing this film and absolutely nothing about the controversy over the statue, a debate that clearly crossed class and ethnic lines, as we see in several scenes that contrast the city’s wealthy elite and its working poor.  But the primary question that the film introduces, without fully answering, is the role of public art.  It is no doubt true that we need to remember our past and that public art can provide a means of doing that, but the biggest challenge comes in narrating that history in such a way that we understand the complexity of our history and its legacy in the present moment.

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Dancing around the World

I’m pretty late to the party on “Where the Hell is Matt,” but it’s such a sweet and entertaining video, I can’t help but mention it. The video depicts Matt Harding dancing in various cities and towns across the globe, sometimes alone, but more often joined by dozens of strangers. The video works, in part, because of Matt’s goofy dancing (not that I’d do any better) and the fun that his fellow dancers seem to be having with the whole thing.

As he notes on his website, Matt traveled to 42 countries on all seven continents on the dime of Stride Gum, who paid for the whole thing. So, yeah, this is sort of an advertisement for them, but the video is still irresistibly fun. Also worth checking out: a more recent video documenting Matt dancing with the Huli Wigmen of New Guinea.

Update: Just wanted to add a quick pointer to Virginia Heffernan’s column on “Dancing,” which offers a good overview of the video, including some useful context on how it was produced.


Top 100

Like a number of other bloggers I enjoy, I just found out that my blog was listed as one of the “Top 100 Liberal Arts Professor Blogs” by Online University Reviews. Their classification system is a little curious–Marc Bousquet, for example, is listed under Sociology–but, in general, it’s a pretty solid list, and I’m flattered to be included.

Update: Like a lot of bloggers, I’m now pretty convinced that this was a cheap–but successful–ploy to draw in incoming links.  I sort of suspected something was fishy at the time and considered not linking, but the list did include a number of good blogs (even if it miscategorized some and ignored many others, as Sharon points out).

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Wednesday Links

At least, I think it’s Wednesday…I always lose track of time in the summer. At any rate, here are the links:

  • First, a little self-promotion. Ted at Big Screen Little Screen took a short break from blogging while traveling to Tokyo, but to keep the blog running, he invited a group of film and media types, including myself, to guest blog. I ended up writing about this summer’s big topic: the indie film crisis and what it means for independent filmmakers and audiences.
  • Second, I wanted to mention that Jill Walker’s book on blogging is out. Readers in the UK can pick up the book via Amazon, but US readers will apparently have to wait a few more weeks. I’ve been reading Jill’s blog for years and can’t wait to read the book.
  • Finally, Chris Hansen has a proposed panel on any topic related to the Doctor Who phenomenon for this year’s Film & History Conference which will take place October 30-November 2 in Chicago. I’ll include the full text of the CFP below the fold.

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Robots in Love

I doubt that I will have time to get into a theater very often for the next month or so–summer vacation is an oxymoron when you’re working on deadline–but if anything can drive me back into theaters, it is the right-wing apoplexy over a little Pixar movie called WALL-E. Apparently a film whose primary purpose is to engender any number of commercial tie-ins is, in fact, a piece of anti-consumerist propaganda lecturing the public on the evils of environmental degradation and other forms of liberal “non-sense.” Oh, and it’s filled with “Malthusian fear-mongering, too.” I might just have to get out to theaters so that I can receive my regular dose of political indoctrination.

You’d almost think that the conservative blogosphere was in the pay of Pixar to get liberals into theaters. Their complaints seem to be working. WALL-E has only made $72 million since opening on Friday.

Update: Then again, maybe there is something to this whole WALL-E as leftist conspiracy argument. From the folks at Brave New Films, a great videoblog that uncovers WALL-E’s Wal-Mart conspiracy. While I’m mentioning Brave New Films, I’ll throw up a pointer to the news that the New York Times had a nice article about their “Real John McCain” videos, which continue to find a wider online audience than McCain’s own campaign videos. The videos’ use of juxtaposition, a technique that Greenwald has used effectively for some time now, is especially successful at calling into question McCain’s reputation as a straight-talking maverick.

Update 2: Just wanted to point to this really interesting read of WALL-E from Steph at Reflexivity.  Steph also points to Frank Rich’s NYT editorial touting WALL-E for president, which is a really good read, in which Rich puts into perspective the fact that a children’s cartoon is talking about our planet’s problems in a way that is far more serious than virtually anyone on cable news or even the two presidential campaigns themselves.

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The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez

Film about national borders or crimes that take place along borders invariably address questions about national identity. Until I saw The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez (IMDB), I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about the story of a Texas teenager who was killed by a Marine patrolling the border between the United States and Mexico in 1997, as part of the war on drugs. These events took place in Redford, Texas, a tiny border town of approximately 100 people, and Hernandez, who was a high school student at the time, was out with his goats carrying a .22 rifle when a group of four Marines spotted him and mistook him for a drug dealer. Hernandez fired his rifle in their general direction, likely to frighten off stray dogs that he worried might attack his goats, and after tracking him for several minutes after the initial shot, one of the soldiers, Corporal Clemente Banuelos shot and killed him.  While Banuelos’s fellow Marines argued that he fired in self-defense, evidence suggests otherwise.

Ballad, which was directed by Kieran Fitzgerald, uses Esequiel’s story to open up some larger questions about the heated rhetoric that persists to this day about U.S. immigration policy and its relationship to the so-called “war on drugs.” We learn that near Redford, it was not uncommon for families to cross back and forth across the river that provides what is revealed to be a somewhat arbitrary border. Many people had relatives across the border, and the river itself is relatively slow and placid.  As Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin explains it, “On a map, it’s an international border, but in reality, it’s something you walk across in everyday life.”  The town of Radford is, in fact, one of the poorest in the state, and the locals were unaware that their community had been labeled as a major drug trafficking corridor, or that fully camouflaged Marines were tracking the border.

It’s probably no accident that Esequiel Hernandez’s name had been all but forgotten outside of the west Texas community where he lived.  We see local historians talk about Esequiel’s story, and balladeers tell the story in song, but despite the fact that Hernandez was the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the Kent State shootings in 1970, his story essentially disappeared from national consciousness.  In fact, the film’s director made the film in part because the story had been so sparingly covered by the national media and because the story now risked “drifting into obscurity.”  Because some of the details were foggy, Hernandez’s death was often misunderstood, and because the story called into question the role of Marines in guarding U.S. borders in the drug war, it introduced questions that might be difficult to answer.

Fitzgerald is careful to provide a nuanced version of this story.  Judiciously narrated by Tommy Lee Jones, the film presents reflections not only from Hernandez’s family and friends but also from three of the Marines who were on patrol when Hernandez was shot (only Banuelos, the actual shooter, declined to be interviewed).  It’s clear that all three soldiers are tormented by their actions and troubled by the policies and procedures that put them in the position of taking the life of an innocent young man.  A couple of them talk about the nightmares they still have, while all of them–in diverse ways–attempt to make sense of their military service.  But it was the gentle spirit of Esequiel, reflected in the comments of his friends and family, that stuck with me the most–his talent as an illustrator, his shy and reserved nature, and his gentleness.

Of course, as the film is quick to point out, the language about securing borders has only become more heated in the war on terror.  We see footage of Bill O’Reilly defending stepped-up border patrols and of Tom Tancredo campaigning for President almost entirely on the single issue of illegal immigration.  We’re also reminded that George W. Bush dispatched 6,000 armed U.S. soldiers to the border in the summer of 2006.  And in the ultimate reminder of enforcing these arbitrary lines, we see soldiers building the border wall between the two countries.  All of these images serve as important reminders that Hernandez’s story should not be forgotten, that we need to reflect more carefully on our failed border policies, especially as those issues continue to inform the 2008 election.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez will be broadcast on PBS’s P.O.V. series on July 8.

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