Friday, January 25, 2008

Speaking of Artists Against War

I wrote this article about the Peace Reel Film Festival that Artists Against War organized last year for the website of the Canadian Labour International Film Festival. CLIFF is launching in 2009 but has begun planning now. Check it out.

When we launched Artists Against War in February, 2003 we had no money, no infrastructure and no staff (much like today, actually). But with a looming war, we knew we had to do something.
And so in the space of two months we organized the One Big No festival in Nathan Philips Square, which culminated in a concert with some of Canada’s biggest name acts, including Sarah Harmer, Jian Ghomeshi and the Lowest of the Low. We estimate that 20,000 people came out over the course of the event, which included 96 acts and dozens of arts displays and community tables, with several thousand at the final concert alone.
We’re now five years distant from the high point of the anti-war movement and the One Big No festival but we’ve continued to organize because the wars continue. And if the neo-cons and Harper’s Tories have their way, we’ll be in Iran next.
The need to sustain a culture that stands against the war agenda still exists.
It was with this in mind that we decided to organize the Peace Reel Film Festival last year.
None of us had ever organized a film festival before. As with One Big No, we had no funding sources save our own pockets – we’ve raised thousands of dollars over the years but we’ve given it all back to the movement, for buses to protests, for War Resisters, etc.
But we felt there was a need and that we had a good idea: an outdoor film festival dedicated to anti-war and anti-imperialist films.
We decided on Christie Pits Park, which has a natural slope that makes it perfect for theatre-style outdoor seating. And we decided on one feature length film each Sunday for four weeks over July and August.
If we were to have any success we knew that we would have to have films that were a draw. Classics became fifty percent of our program with The Battle of Algiers as our closing night screening and Kahnesetake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the Oka Standoff in 1990, on another night.
As luck would have it, the Omeish brothers released their incredibly powerful documentary on Palestine, Occupation 101, in the United States but not in Canada. We contacted them and they agreed to have Occupation 101 premiere at Peace Reel – and one of the brothers, Sufyan, would come up and introduce the film.
Then we contacted the producer/director of The Prisoner: or how I planned to kill Tony Blair. It screened the year before at TIFF to good reviews but hadn’t gotten a wide release.
There was now a full program of features and we put out a call for shorts, as well as soliciting others. It was way to get a wider exposure for local artists than they might otherwise have the opportunity to achieve.
The opening day of the festival it poured rain and we bit our nails. Sufyan arrived safe and sound with a suitcase filled with DVDs to sell to help cover their debts from the film. We were worried that nobody would be there to buy them.
We located the screen near a covered picnic area, which meant that if it continued raining we could set up under shelter. But still: would anyone come?
Then half an hour before sunset, the rain stopped and as showtime approached the people began arriving, first by trickles and then in groups. Soon it was standing room only underneath the picnic area. Over 200 people showed up.
There was a great discussion and Sufyan received a standing ovation for his film. He sold all his DVDs.
The premiere was a high point for the Festival, to be sure. But the remaining events were also successes: over 100 people came every other night. The final night, filmmaker Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil) introduced The Battle of Algiers to a crowd of 135 people. Close to 600 people came out over the course of the Festival.
There’s something wonderful about sitting on a hillside in a park and watching great films about some of the most important struggles of our times
It’s an opportunity to build a community of resistance that shares the time-outs, as well as the hard work; about infusing the air we breathe in our little corner of the world with the dream that a better world is possible. Isn’t that part of what winning change is all about?

Newsflash: Shithouse Goes Up In Flames

When the US Federal Reserve Bank decides to cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point, between meetings, that’s what you call the smoke that tells you there’s a fire.
This is the first time that the Fed has cut rates at an emergency meeting since September 2001, after the World Trade Center attacks. And it’s the biggest single cut in interest rates since 1982.
And word is that there will be another half percentage point cut by the end of the month if this adrenaline shot to the heart attack patient doesn’t revive it. But a lot of folks are worried it’s too little too late and that the economy is already in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
A look at the numbers certainly would indicate that things are not good :
“U.S. payrolls rose by 18,000 in December, capping the worst year for job creation since 2003, and unemployment jumped to a two-year high of 5 percent, according to Labor Department figures released Jan. 4.
“The housing slump also deepened last month, with home construction falling 14 percent. Starts were down 25 percent for all of last year, concluding the worst year for the industry since Jimmy Carter was president. Sales of previously owned homes also slid in December, as single-family property prices posted their first annual decline since the Great Depression, the National Association of Realtors said today.”
Claims that the US isn’t already in recession are belied by these kinds of numbers and the panic that’s setting in on stock markets and in government. The degree of slowdown isn’t known yet but what is known is that it is greater than they’re saying.
The stats for the third quarter in the US indicated that growth had “rebounded” to 3.9% but once inflation and population were factored in, it was actually closer to 1.5%. The fourth quarter numbers haven’t been released yet but don’t be surprised if we’re already in a contraction.
In the face of this unfolding debacle the US government has also stepped in with its own $150 billion economic stimulus package. However, that package is entirely in the form of tax rebates of up to $600 per head, plus $300 per child. In other words a family of four that earns a household income of less than $75,000 would get a cheque for $1,800.
Now, $1,800 is nothing to sneeze at and it shows what bogus are the claims of from politicians and economists that the market should rule. $150 billion dollars is a big interference in the market.
But the package specifically doesn’t include extending unemployment benefits or granting more food stamps. US rulers live in fear that workers in the US will get uppity or decide that the poverty of unemployment insurance is better than their shitty, soul-destroying and/or dangerous job.
There’s a problem here though and it is two-fold.
The basis for restoring the US economy is consumer spending, which makes up 70% of GDP. But the trouble is that consumers have no more cash. In fact, they are drowning in debt, which has been increasing at a rate of 7.5% per year since 1997. In that time the amount of household debt has increased from $8 to $14 trillion dollars. In other words household debt as a percentage of GDP has rocketed from 66% to around 95%.
And not surprisingly, debt servicing payments are now at record highs.
I haven’t even gotten into the massive and ballooning US government debt, which is headed towards $10 trillion.
The point of all this is that the $1,800 that family of four is about to get in the mail is probably going to go on paying down the credit card to ease the interest burden. This is especially the case since some see house prices declining by 20 to 30 percent, which means that any further credit against home value will have dried up for a lot of Americans.
And credit card payments are not an economic stimulus – that’s just paying for old growth, not creating new growth. So, the layoffs will continue, which will reduce demand and create more layoffs.
Giving out money is also stupid economics.
$150 billion dollars that is dedicated towards specific employment projects, such as they had in the 1930s is a much more efficient way to spend money than to just throw it in the air.
Economic enterprises have multiplier effects on the economy – building the Hoover dam gave jobs to thousands of workers, those workers spent money, the project bought equipment and raw materials, those materials had to be shipped, etc.
Of course, other than in the field of military spending, this doesn’t fit with the neo-liberal consensus. What does that mean – the shithouse is going up in flames and they’ve locked us inside.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Artists Against The War

The Society of Illustrators in New York city has an exhibit of anti-war illustrations on display from January 3 until January 28. It's being held in conjunction with The Nation magazine. There's some beautiful and disturbing work there by some of America's leading illustrators. If you're in New York you can see it in person. Definitely check it out. And while we're on the subject of artists against the war - Artists Against War in Toronto, Canada has set up a Facebook group that is growing fast. We've been around since 2003, organizing events and fundraisers for the anti-war movement. Last summer we held an outdoor film festival called Peace Reel, that is planned again for this summer. And our annual conference - Art Changes Everything - is coming up April 12. So, get on over to Facebook and hook up with us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nick Cage, why have you foresaken us?

I thought if nothing else National Treasure would be good fluffy fun. Mystery, sleuthing, adventure, a teensy bit of sex and a clever solution to the puzzle.
Let me save you the time and money. It was none of those things. It sucked. In fact, sucked is too weak a word.
I like Nicolas Cage. I have often defended him from the many people I know who hate him. I think of Lord of War, Raising Arizona or Moonstruck and I think warm, fuzzy thoughts about him.
No more. He will now be indelibly seared into my brain as an insipid, charmless, neurotic turd. He's like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible only without the cool gadgets or the stakes or the gusto.
To be fair to Nick, it's not just him. Jon Voigt and Helen Mirren, playing Cage's wacky scientist parents, are utterly wasted as a pair of mugging idiots, played so broadly you could damn up the Yangtse River with their performance. The director - who I won't even name - should be barred from walking within a kilometre of a film camera, including the family hand-held at Thanksgiving.
This film is a half-assed, half-baked, poorly written, deadly dull ass-suck of the star-spangled banner.
The nauseatingly Disney, liberal nationalist jingoism made me want to light myself on fire and throw myself at the screen. Not even primarily because it was the basest, stupidest kind of feel-good nationalism.
No, because it was stupidly obvious, dull and predictable like everything else in this piece of ca-ca. You could time your watch by the plot turns and your watch is exactly what you'll be looking at if you are unfortunate enough to end up in a theatre screening this dreck.
If you're really so desperate to kill 90 minutes of your life - watch water drip from your tap. It will be more rewarding.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Donut Semiotics

Out walking the other day with my wife, we had occasion to stop and rubber-neck at the new Tim Hortons Donuts going in around the corner from us. Already in the neighbourhood there are two Coffee Time donut shops, plus a Portuguese bakery that serves espresso.
Now, coffee and donut shops are thick as locusts in Southern Ontario. Nobody eats the sugary holes or drinks the bitter, black stimulant more than us it seems. Though it has to be said that the donut craze is not just about Ontario – Americans consume something like 10 billion donuts per year, or about 33 donuts per person – almost a donut per week. And given that there are those of us who never imbibe in the deep fried doughy circle, someone out there is eating a lot of donuts.
Canadians as a whole are no shirkers either, with 15 million of us spending $5 billion in coffee shops each and every year.
The omnipresence of the donut and coffee as a staple, not only of our diet, but of our culture got me thinking about the meaning of the donut and the coffee. I think we can all agree that The Donut exists on multiple levels of meaning – there’s the elegance of the crueller, the decadence of the jelly filled, the asceticism of the plain. Then there’s the hybrid donut semiotics, for instance the sprinkle covered old school hole; which I think of as the post-Vatican 2 Catholic donut.
But let us return to our neighbourhood Tim Hortons. I have to admit that my partner and I were both a little disappointed that what was coming into the neighbourhood was a Tim’s and not a Starbucks or a Second Cup. And yes, I feel shame at this; yes, I know Starbucks owner is a big-time supporter of Israel and America's War of Terror. We talked about this emotional response and realized that it all has to do with the meaning of Tim’s vs the meanings of Starbucks. The latter indicates a more upscale community, greater education levels, higher disposable income, more discriminating tastes. Starbucks goers don’t eat deep fried circles of dough – they consume oat and date squares or biscotti with their mochacino soy latte.
But neither is Tim’s at the level of Coffee Time, which are to cafes what crack houses are to wine bars. Universally dirty, it seems, they are on the corners of low-income neighbourhoods, gathering in the filthier elements in the neighbourhood. Used to be, before it was banned, that they were smoke filled and you could guarantee that jelly-filled, sugared donut you were about to scarf down would taste like stale tobacco. The tables are fixed to the floors and the chairs are attached to the tables – to keep people throwing them, I presume, or knocking them over. In any case, a February 2007 CBC article revealed that Coffee Time’s were receiving an inordinate number of health violations – something like 78 percent of inspections resulted in citations and 35 percent of Toronto outlets were on probation.
As an aside - just for the record, no, I don’t think that low-income people are dirtier than everybody else. Hell, I’m low income – as are most of the people I know. I think that corporate donut franchises want to maximize profits by minimizing quality, including health conditions, and low-income people often can’t afford any better. And it’s not like there’s publicly funded community centres on the main streets of our cities and towns. Places that people can drop into and engage in healthier activities than eating fat-drenched, sugary, carbohydrate heart-attack bombs. Donut shops are the community centres of the new, overweight millennium.
Looked at in light of all this, the arrival of Tim Hortons to our neighbourhood is a sign of things changing. Our coffee shops may not sell ten varieties of coffee, in 36 combinations from 22 countries. But, dammit, at least we now have those cute little Tim sandwiches and soup of the day.
We live in an area of Toronto’s west end where rising property values has put pressure on the local poor and on drug users, dealers and prostitutes in the neighbourhood. They are literally being forced out, though I often wonder where they are going – to the suburbs, I presume. We are not yet ready for the sophistication of a Second Cup/Starbucks – or even less a Lettieri – but we are definitely moving up from Coffee Time. The arrival of Tim Hortons – just like the Shoppers Drug Mart that opened down the street last year – are all signs that the demographics of our neighbourhood are changing fast.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Zombies in the Street of America

The zombie film as a metaphor for political and social unconsciousness has a long and illustrious history. If they don’t begin with George A. Romero’s series of films, then certainly they have found their clearest political expression in them. Which is not to say that all, or even a majority of, zombie films are politically interesting.
Compared to, for instance, the mall setting of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a critique of consumerism and conformity, films like the stylish and beautiful 28 Weeks Later are intellectual ca-ca - at least after the first act's interesting commentary on the American Army in Iraq viz. the zombie-free "Green Zone".
But even the anti-conformist message of the Canadian film Fido is depressingly distanced from contemporary experience, so that all it manages is a pretty banal and hackneyed critique of the Leave It To Beaver 1950s. Hardly a revelation.
I bring this up because when I sat down to watch I Am Legend I figured that I’d have the usual experience – only more Hollywood: stunning effects that only a $150 million could buy, snappy one-line acting by a big star, and a hackneyed story line bled dry of any broader relevance, all wrapped-up in a structure so formula that Robert McKee would give it a hearty thumbs up.
Boy was I wrong.
It is 2012 and a re-engineered virus, designed to wipe out cancer, has killed off ninety-percent of humanity with most of the remaining turning into vampire-like monsters. I know this means I've been misleading by talking about zombie films but the role that the creatures play is more typical of zombies than vampires, which is why the other adaptation 28 Days Later treated them this way.
Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is seemingly the only uninfected survivor to be left in New York City, if not the world. He spends his days hunting and gathering with his dog, Samantha, working on a cure and watching news re-runs and Shrek.
He’s also coming undone from lack of human contact. He talks to his dog like a person and carries on conversations with mannequins he’s set up in the video store he frequents.
Certainly this was a big budget film with spectacular monster effects and remarkable production design. You can’t watch this “last man on earth” film and not wonder how they achieved the look of an utterly abandoned New York returning to a state of nature. Grass grows on the streets and deer lope away from hunting lions, as not a human is to be seen.
But director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) has understood that having boatloads of cash doesn’t mean you have to jam-pack every scene with toys and gadgets. For instance, there is no soundtrack, other than the occasional Bob Marley song played on the stereo of Neville. This gives the empty city a serenity it wouldn’t otherwise have. And it forces Lawrence to rely on visuals and acting to generate the plentiful tension.
And tension he has lots of. During a hunt for deer, Neville’s dog runs into a darkened building and he has to go after her. But the dark is where the mutated human creatures hide from the sunlight. And these creatures eat flesh. As Neville goes deeper and deeper into the darkness to find his dog, Smith’s acting and the shots will have you on the edge of your seat. The lack of music gives us a cleaner, more visceral experience of this abandoned city filled with danger.
And when there is music, as when Neville plays Bob Marley’s song Stir It Up to Anna (Alice Braga), it retains it’s poignance and emotional impact.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the politics behind it. Neville on several occasions describes New York City as “ground zero” – in reference to the man-made virus that was let loose there.
Ground zero, of course, is how New York was described after 9/11. And the virus that has been unleashed has turned the survivors of the city into hate-filled monsters. This hatred has spread outwards to engulf the entire planet. I Am Legend is thus an allegory for the post-911 world in general and of America in particular. Even the portion of Shrek that we see, and which Neville knows by heart, is a scene in which Shrek takes on a mindless lynch mob trying to drive him from his home in the swamps. Everything points us in the direction of seeing this film as a critique of the madness of bloodthirsty jingoism and prejudice.
What’s more, the survivors that we see are an African-American, a Brazilian woman and a little boy. This is refreshing from the point of view of a still mostly lily-white Hollywood but is also an interesting statement on who will be the agents of a global redemption. Of equal interest is the destination of Anna and her young companion, which is to the hills of Vermont. That probably doesn’t mean much to us Canadians but in the lore of the American Revolution and some of the more radical conceptions of early American democracy, Vermont is an important touchstone. For redemption they must literally return to the revolutionary vision of America – or at least it’s myth (and the myth or reality of the Vermont “colony” is a point of dispute in the film as well).
This film is on many levels a questioning of the current direction of the USA and the world and it is also successful as a story. Sure, there are flaws with the third act and if you look up the wikipedia page on the film there is an alternative ending that would have helped save the third act from eating itself (which it does). But as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, this is the thinking person’s cotton candy.
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