Tuesday, December 13, 2011

<<<< the prism >>>>

"I bent forward, suddenly conscious of my legs in new blue trousers. But how do you know they're your legs? [...] For it was as though I were looking at my own legs for the first time — independent objects that could lead me to safety or danger."

Reading the above passage from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man a few months ago instantly reminded me of Marina de Van's In My Skin — a film I hadn't seen for a couple of years. Thematically, the excerpt and the film are similar. De Van's movie centers on a woman (played by the director) who scrapes her leg at a party, an incident that sends her on a journey where she obsessively investigates the disconnect between mind and body (perhaps the phrase "scrape of chairs" preceding the above excerpt also helped trigger the connection). Much like Ellison's protagonist, de Van becomes conscious of her body as some separate, foreign thing. On the one hand, yes, that's my leg; on the other hand, it's just a slab of meat and bone. Exploring this mystery becomes more important to her than anything else.

In My Skin's great strength is that it doesn't try to intellectualize (or even verbalize) these questions. Quite fittingly (considering its subject), de Van's excellent horror film bypasses the viewer's mind altogether, opting instead to take us on the same visceral journey as its protagonist.

It explores its ideas simply by showing.

in my skin, marina de van, Dans ma peau
in my skin, marina de van, Dans ma peau
Dans ma peau / In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002)

The value in connecting the above passage from Invisible Man to In My Skin is scant (at best); nevertheless, it's part of a mental process I want to briefly explore.

* * *

When I'm in the middle of reading a book (and for a few days after I've finished), I tend to see everything in the book's terms. It acts as a prism that filters the world around me, and it even works its way into my memory from time to time, illuminating and distorting distant thoughts through its lens. A few weeks after reading Obedience to Authority, for example, it seemed to me as though everything in the world could be explained and understood in terms of Milgram's book.

The prism also tends to cast the book all around me, causing it to magically appear. I'll hear it referenced in an overheard conversation, see it in an article, notice it on a shelf or table in a film; it'll even turn up as an answer to a question on a game show. All of this is part of the effect of the prism, highlighting what I previously wouldn't have noticed. (Of course it's not really possible to consciously note the numerous times this doesn't occur, but it's more fun to pretend that the Universe is smiling on me.) Until I've absorbed a book more fully, it remains on the forefront of my mind, defining the world in its terms (oftentimes with a disproportionate or unwarranted influence).

Below, I will continue using Ellison's Invisible Man to explore the prism through which I briefly viewed the world several months ago.

invisible man statue, ellison monument

* * *

The following, which occurred in August while I was reading Invisible Man, is strangely similar to Ellison's text. It's almost as if the novel had somehow started to bleed into reality...

First, some set-up.

At one point in Invisible Man, the unnamed protagonist walks past an angry crowd and looks up to see a group of anxious people standing around the home of an elderly black couple who're being evicted. He sees — piled on the sidewalk and spilling from drawers — some of the couple's various belongings: their portrait (when young), potted plants destined to die in the snow, a curling iron, a card reading "God Bless Our Home," and another with the message "Grandma, I love you" written by a child.

These objects take on significance for the protagonist and connect him to the couple, as well as to his own past. After being moved by a vision of his mother "hanging wash on a cold windy day," he gives a speech to the sympathetic crowd, hoping to prevent the situation from boiling over into violence.

The following day he picks up a newspaper:

"On the subway people around me were reading their morning papers, pressing forward their unpleasant faces. I rode with my eyes shut, trying to make my mind blank to thoughts of Mary. Then turning, I saw the item Violent Protest Over Harlem Eviction. [...] It had lasted for two hours, the crowd refusing to vacate the premises."

The very same day I read the following in an electronic newspaper:

"In New York City, an 82-year-old resident of Brooklyn facing eviction was allowed to stay in her house on Friday after more than 200 people gathered in front of her home to block the eviction.

"The woman, Mary Lee Ward, gave a speech to the crowd:

" 'We're not slaves anymore. My grandfather was a slave, but I'm not. And they're not going to force me to do anything against my will. You've got to put up a hard fight for the faith, and that means the fact that you have to stick with it when you know you're right, you know you have the evidence, you know you have the facts. Don't let nobody walk over you. Don't let nobody make you a slave.' "

Mary Lee Ward, brooklyn eviction, ralph ellison, invisible man
Mary Lee Ward

Now, the "Mary" mentioned in the Ellison excerpt is not the woman being evicted but a maternal woman the protagonist is staying with, and it was Mary Lee Ward — not an unnamed man from the crowd — who gave the speech in reality. But seeing the name "Mary" mingled into the mix of New York, evictions, an angry crowd of onlookers, a speech, and evocations of slavery... Well, it was pretty bizarre to read on the very same day I finished a similar section of Invisible Man! Serendipity, obviously, but odd enough to give me the very brief feeling that my imagination was leaking.

An exclamation point was added later by the fact that Mary Lee Ward surrounded her house with a chicken-wire fence as an "imagined security blanket of sorts." Chicken-wire, I found out 40 or 50 pages later, is also evoked symbolically by Ellison. And in a section related to the Harlem eviction, no less:

"Outside, the audience had begun to drone; a distant, churning sound that brought back some of the terror of the eviction. My mind flowed. There was a child standing in rompers outside a chicken-wire fence, looking in upon a huge black-and-white dog, log-chained to an apple tree. It was Master, the bulldog; and I was the child who was afraid to touch him, although, panting with heat, he seemed to grin back at me like a fat good-natured man, the saliva roping silvery from his jowls."

Not a conclusion but a digression:

What of this? Shall we draw a comparison between Mary Lee Ward using chicken-wire to "keep the dogs at bay" and the above excerpt? Shall we make a feeble remark about art mirroring life, life mirroring art? How about the cliche "the more things change the more they say the same"? We could think in these terms, sure, but if we dare for a moment to step beyond the limiting views that imprison us in the tower of What Never Could Be, we'll notice something else entirely. I read, and it was so! Yes. Call me biased, but that's the insight I took from the experience... (Now, if you'll excuse me I'm going to go test this hypothesis by fervently reading the Marquis de Sade's Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice.)

* * *

Once again, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: "Since you never recognize me even when in closest contact with me, and since, no doubt, you'll hardly believe that I exist, it won't matter if you know that I tapped a power line leading into the building and ran it into my hole in the ground. Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I've illuminated the blackness of my invisibility — and vice versa. And so I play the invisible music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians. Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music out of invisibility?"

dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary

Putting "invisibility down in black and white" in order to "make music [art] out of invisibility" is exactly what Mark Singer did in his documentary Dark Days (pictured).

The film follows some of the homeless inhabitants of New York City's underground subway system, specifically an area dubbed Freedom Tunnel. In the prologue of Ellison's novel, the unnamed protagonist is living rent-free in an underground room in New York City, somewhere that's been "shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." His ceiling is covered with 1,369 light bulbs powered by electricity that he's siphoning illegally from the city's power grid. Likewise the residents of New York's Freedom Tunnel siphon electricity from the city's grid, and once — as Greg, one of the homeless men tells us — they even had running water down there. "When you have lived invisible as long as I have," Ellison's protagonist tells us, "you develop a certain ingenuity."

invisible man prologue, jeff wall, dark days, ralph ellison
dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary
Top: Jeff Wall, After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000); Bottom: Dark Days (2000)

Unlike the homeless in Dark Days, Ellison's protagonist withdraws purposefully, though he does so largely because of something he cannot control — the racism and indifference of the world above. There's a scene in Dark Days where some of the people come up from the tunnel to look for food, sifting through huge piles of trash that have been stacked in bags on the streets. Usually they were completely ignored by passersby while doing this (people wouldn't even look in their direction, let alone look at them) — in other words, they had become invisible. However, as Singer notes on the DVD commentary, when they were being filmed, people would crowd around to watch (which understandably annoyed and embarrassed them).

"I'm an invisible man and it placed me in a hole — or showed me the hole I was in, if you will — and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint. Perhaps that's the way it had to be; I don't know."

After spending months living with the homeless, Marc Singer decided to make Dark Days with the explicit goal that the money generated from the project would go towards getting everyone out of the tunnel. He was someone who decided to integrate himself — whether through curiosity, compassion, or some variation of both — into the lives of the people in the tunnel, not a filmmaker who came there to exploit them. In fact, he didn't even have the slightest idea how to make a film when he first came up with this idea, and since he had no help, he ended up asking the homeless people — by that time, his friends if they would like to become the makeshift crew for the film. It's in this beautiful idea that Dark Days becomes something rare: a work of political art in which the process itself becomes a form of DIY activism. Not only did Singer offer everyone the chance to help themselves, he also gave them the opportunity to take part in the telling of their own story.

Henry, for example, was a former railroad worker, so he was most equipped to build the dolly. After finding a shopping cart, he stripped off the wheels and assembled them to some plywood he found. Construction was underway. Once completed, the dolly turned out so well that Singer asked him to make a second one (which he did), but it was soon lost to the environment — someone found it and integrated it into their makeshift shelter. (Note: I thought this was interesting because it reflects an unspoken philosophy integral to this way of life. In a community built around scavenging, searching, finding, looking, and collecting, nothing can be taken at face value. If what others discard can be food, then certainly anything can be, well, just about anything you want it to be. Invention and ingenuity trump an object's typical, predetermined function. By not reclaiming the dolly, Singer is recognizing that it is NO LONGER A DOLLY; it has become whatever the person who found it saw it as when they looked at it. Instead of taking it back, he acknowledges the dolly's (now "dolly") new identity. This is a world made up of soft lines where "what you see is what you get" has never been more literally true.)

Singer, who had been staying in the tunnel with a homeless man named Ralph (who, in an act that demonstrates the film's true communal nature, can sometimes be heard asking people questions from behind the camera) shot 20 hours of footage without even knowing if any of it was going to turn out. It was so dark down there that he couldn't even see what he was filming most of the time, and, on top of that, the eye-piece tended to fog up. In order to know where to point the camera, he tried to make out the top of a person's head, aimed when he found it, and then simply hoped for the best... After awhile, some of other people involved learned how to use the camera as well as set up lights.

Eventually the shooting had to stop for 10 months so that Singer could involve himself with the social work that was underway. Much more than a snag in the production, this delay was part of the fruit that was created by the process finally coming to fruition. One can hardly imagine a shoot more in opposition to the mentality of Hollywood.

Marc Singer has yet to make another film.

"I couldn't return to Mary's or to any part of my old life. I could approach it only from the outside, and I had been as invisible to Mary as I had been to the Brotherhood. No, I couldn't return to Mary's, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home. I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out. Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet..."

dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary, film
dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary film

For another example of Invisible Man as prism, see THIS POST.


Though I would consider Dark Days to be an essential documentary — that is, one everyone should see — it does contain, in the form of an editing choice, a very unfortunate mistake. Judging from what is known about Singer's process as well as the finished film itself, I'm confident that the cut is nothing more than an unnoticed misstep (as opposed to some kind of malicious editorializing). Nevertheless, for this oversight I am hereby forced to wrap Mr. Singer's knuckles until the blood flows a bit. Intentional or not, the cut is there, and the association it makes is very off-putting, especially when one considers how it could easily lodge itself in the mind of certain passive viewers and be used to subconsciously inform or buttress a prejudice.

The cut — which I present more or less accurately but not down to the frame — goes as follows:

dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary
dark days, marc singer, invisible man, ralph ellison, documentary film

So you see, here we have two homeless people rummaging through the trash to find food, and at the end of the scene they mention milk. CUT TO: a shot of two rats eating a discarded piece of trash that appears to contain milk or a milk product. Undeniably the film has drawn an association between the men and the rats.

I found out more details about this scene by listening to the audio commentary. Singer was interested in filming the rats because he wanted to give an impression of the environment the people living in the tunnel were faced with, but every time he put the lights on to film, the rats would scatter. They weren't afraid of people at all, just light; in fact, there were so many unintimidated rats down in the tunnel that, once it was dark, packs of them — hundreds and hundreds — would come out and cross the train tracks. Sometimes there were so many that you'd literally have to stop and let them pass.

One day someone (Singer, I think) was eating a bottle of Yoplait yogurt, didn't like it, and threw the half-filled (see, I'm an optimist!) bottle onto the tracks. Within seconds, hundreds of rats went for it... After seeing this Singer got someone to buy five or six bottles of yogurt for him to throw onto the tracks when he was ready to film. And once he did, voilà! Rats and rats!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

D.J. Carlile Reviews Bruce Duffy's Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud

I was lucky enough to pick up a very cheap copy of Bruce Duffy's book many weeks ago at a Borders going-out-of-business sale, and immediately lent it to my friend D.J., knowing that he was anxious to read it. (Coincidentally, I received Jamie James very recently published Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage in the mail today; its beautiful design brings to mind an antique adventure-book.) For D.J.'s review I tried to select images that Rimbaud aficionados haven't already seen hundreds of times (with perhaps two exceptions).

D.J. Carlile is a poet, playwright, critic, and translator of Rimbaud: The Works. He lives in a thousand gallon tank in Los Angeles where he is kept alive by a respirator that's powered by hundreds of tiny goldfish and a dozen vegetarian piranhas who keep the goldfish working hard.

* * *

rimbaud, duffy, disaster was my god

A novel on the life of poet Arthur Rimbaud— a life that already reads like a novel— is not a novel idea. Richard Hell has updated it in Godlike (2005) and James Ramsey Ullman set The Day On Fire in 1971. But this time, with Disaster Was My God (2011), Bruce Duffy has accomplished it with something like the hallucinatory brilliance of the subject's best work. It is not a biographical study. It is, after all, fiction; the facts are altered, tweaked a bit here, broadly embellished there, and woven into a tapestry of dysfunction, desire, derangement and destiny.

It begins at the end, with the opening of the poet's grave by his mother for a re-interment. And it ends, some 400 pages later, with a series of funerals, Rimbaud's, Verlaine's, and finally the mother's in 1907. For the body of the main narrative, we are whiplashed between Africa and Europe in alternating episodes: the child Rimbaud, the precocious scholar, vis-a-vis the gaunt African trader in hides, coffee, guns and gold... A.R. the drug-dissheveled, poetic demon-teen versus A.R. the crippled invalid borne across the desert to the sea in the company of armed Yemeni and Somali— and burdened with a banished British missionary, his wife and kids, along the way. And then there's Paul Verlaine, the lover, the spoiled and spoiling alcoholic, the cracked lyric genius, who is unsentimentally portrayed in the gaps between.

Hovering over all is the spirit— and presence— of La Mother, "The Mouth of Darkness," Madame R, the widow Rimbaud, the poet's notoriously harsh and hard-edged mother.

The four D's mentioned earlier here might seem to be alliteratively overstating the case, but they are the strands of Duffy's tapestry that make for a tightly-woven tale. They effect the design around which all the action turns and is embroidered.

Most of the characters in the book (as in their actual lives) are seriously dysfunctional in some way, that is, impaired or abnormal in their dealings with each other or the world. Rimbaud, a gifted youth, good-looking, educated, eloquent, stops bathing or washing, collects vermin, drinks and does drugs to excess at age 16, assuming an uncouth, surly manner to keep people at a distance. This dysfunction is, of course, part of his plan for "deregulating all the senses." Verlaine, despite his literary elegance and sensitivity, is a closet queer, a violent drunk and a wife-beater, and he follows the younger poet in his plan to "change life."

rimbaud painting, leger forgery, la grive
Rimbaud by Fernand Léger (1948) (Correction: This is a forgery. See comments section for details.)

Both Rimbaud and Verlaine came from dysfunctional families— father gone, an overbearing, ever-present mother— and even the fictional British missionaries, the MacDonalds, are askew, with a gormless dad, a feisty mom and two spooked children. Djami, Rimbaud's Ethiopian factotum, is portrayed as having been an orphan, a streetboy, when he is hired. Likewise, Tigist, Rimbaud's Abyssinian mistress, is a jealous and temperamental teen whose demands and desires eventually lead to her dismissal.

All these characters, including the poet's sister, even La Mother herself, are survivors or victims of a family dynamic severely impaired or shattered. Verlaine's child-bride Mathilde is the pampered princess of a snobbish upbringing, as spoiled and willful as her erratic husband.

The desires (aside from the purely sexual) that drive these characters are all for a makeover, some sort of change, manipulation, or a refashioning. Rimbaud wants to make another self— even in Africa— (the famous Je est un autre, "I is somebody else"); he wants to change the world with his poetry, to re-invent love. Verlaine wants to make poetry to noise with his boyfriend; Mathilde wants to make herself the perfect wife to the perfect poet. The mothers want a "successful" boy, via coddling on the part of Mme. Verlaine, via tougher-than-tough love with Mme. Rimbaud. The MacDonalds just want to start over with their lives. Djami— and Tigist too— want more trust and commitment than Rimbaud is capable of giving. And all these desires revolve in some way around the "love" that Rimbaud insists must be re-invented.

The Abyssinian tribesmen, "the skinny men," who stealthily follow the invalid's caravan have but one desire. "Men hard as fire sticks carrying long gut-stirring spears," they want to massacre the Euro interlopers. They strike by night, killing off the men of Rimbaud's bodyguard one at a time, hacking off their genitalia for trophies.

Derangement is the most vivid strand in the tapestry, set off as it is by dysfunction and desire. The teenage Rimbaud, acting upon his credo of "a long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses," disassembles Verlaine's marriage, turning the older poet's desires into sexual submission and deranging his passions with physical abuse. Verlaine is complicit in these activities... all for a new kind of poetry, to "achieve the level of dream and fracture."

rimbaud painting, valentine hugo
Valentine Hugo, Portrait d'Arthur Rimbaud (1933)

The mothers are just plain crazed in their own peculiar ways. Madame Verlaine keeps the miscarried fetuses of Paul's two brothers and a sister in jars of alcohol on her dresser like an altar. She prays before them every night and talks to them as if they were able to hear. As an adult, in a drunken rage, Paul will smash these jars. Madame Rimbaud hoards money, hoards her affections; she physically and verbally assaults her children for the least inattention to chores, treating them like workers under her iron rule. Her experiences with a drunken father, wastrel brothers and an absent husband have poisoned her relations with all men, even God whom she perceives as male through and through. As the novel progresses, she is presented with some compassion, for all her hardness of heart.

The MacDonalds are uprooted, displaced, impoverished— on the wrong continent at the wrong time in the wrong vocation. Mrs. MacDonald castigates the crippled Rimbaud (to whom she is in fact beholden) for the violence that keeps "the skinny men" at bay; she is like a soft-focus version of La Mother, disapproving, confrontational. In the case of Isabelle, the poet's younger sister, her life is deranged (or re-arranged) in a positive way when she becomes his nurse and caretaker. This allows her to assert herself at last, to get out from under her mother's thumb, to become her own woman. From the repressed quasi-servant she turns into a strong female mirror-image of the latter-day Verlaine— icon-maker, devotee and flamekeeper of the idolized Poet-brother-lover. Another sort of derangement, yes, but certainly an improvement over crushing servitude (in Isabelle's case) or slavery to alcohol and sex (Verlaine).

rimbaud, shot, verlaine, rosman, wrist
Rimbaud in bed after being shot in the wrist by Verlaine (Jef Rosman, 1873)

So: The destiny of poets, the fate of those who put their lives on the line, the word, the syllable, to be idolized or excoriated, is to disappear as a living body into the body of work. Likewise, the destiny of all the characters in this novel, both factual and fictional, is to be subsumed into Le Mythe de Rimbaud.

Early on there is a scene where the invalid Rimbaud, his knee swollen to more than twice its normal size, waits on his stretcher in the fly-infested heat of Harar, waiting to depart, "...when he looked across the white desert, blazing like freedom, free freedom..." And as he waits his mind wanders.

"Seeing again, that's it— seeing, such as he hasn't seen in years.... Days of light and storm when, high above, clouds coiled and spoke and limbs crashed and leaves blew.... Cold and darkness coming. Then coldest of all, that windy, hair-raising excitement, the sudden zero of writing. Writing— you, my willed and willing disaster, my storm....

"Bitten-down nails. Moving lips. When he wrote— that is, when life yanked him hard by the hair— he always moved his lips, mumbling and murmuring to himself. Trees shook and shone like ice. Leaves struck his nose and electricity seized his hair, until he felt like a candle, a very blown-down candle, to the point that he forgot his own hunger as the wind commanded, Write more. So, opening a rusty penknife, he whittled his already whittled-down pencil stub. Then, trembling, moved it over the dirty paper, then covered it with his body as the rain splattered down, walloping hot pellets that lashed his back and ran down his nose. And camped over himself, over words like hot food, he pushed and pushed the pencil, until suddenly it stopped: literally stopped, and he dared not look or speak.

" 'Monsieur!' comes the voice that breaks him from this reverie. It's Djami. Shading his eyes, Djami is pointing across the street. 'Monsieur, don't you see? Look. It is Monsieur Bardey! All the frangis. See? They come to see you go.' "

Indeed, we all come to see him go, the man with his heels to the wind.

The title page and dust jacket of this book read, "A novel of the outlaw life of Arthur Rimbaud." Duffy capably delivers exactly that— exactly that and more: a meditation on family and failed expectations, on the vagaries of self-image, idealism and art, on the ecstasies and execrations of love.

arthur rimbaud, billy the kid, drawing
Billy the Kid, Rimbaud [via]

Oh yes, many details are bent, are non-factual, outright blue-sky fabricated. But the little lies convey the larger truth. These people actually seem to live and breathe, eat, love, starve and defecate. If you choose to read this "more allegorical than historical" tale, prepare to be yanked hard by the hair, moving your lips as you read.

Horrific, harrowing, sad and hilarious, it holds its own against the most "accurate" of biographies— whether Steinmetz, White, Robb or Starkie. Here is how Duffy conjures Verlaine:

"Paul Verlaine, arise then! ... Sing to us of unquenchable angers— of literature as a blood sport, a criminal enterprise, and war by other means. Sing, heartbroken even now, of the teenage Pied Piper who wrecked your marriage, destroyed your reputation, spent the better part of your inheritance, then led you, a grown man, into the whirlwind, beyond which lay the portals of immortality.

"Sing, great shade, of the monsters together."

paul verlaine, absinthe, 1896
Paul Verlaine, 1896

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Main chant on Brooklyn Bridge: "We are unstoppable; another world is possible."


"Opposite the Verizon building, there is a bunch of city housing. Subsidized, rent-controlled. There's a lack of services, lights are out in the hallways, the housing feels like jails, like prisons. I walked around, and put up signs in there offering money to rent out an apartment for a few hours. I didn't say much more. I received surprisingly few calls, and most of them seemed not quite fully there. But then I got one call from a sane person. Her name was Denise Vega. She lived on the 16th floor. Single, working mom, mother of three.

I spoke with her on the phone, and a few days later went over and met her.

I told her what I wanted to do, and she was enthused. The more I described, the more excited she got.

Her parting words were, "let's do this."

She wouldn't take my money. That was the day of the eviction of Zuccotti, the same day. And she'd been listening to the news all day, she saw everything that had happened.

"I can't charge you money, this is for the people," she said.

She was born in the projects. She opened up her home to us.

She was in there tonight with her 3 daughters, 2 sisters. The NYPD started snooping around down on the ground while the projections were up, it was clear where we were projecting from, and inside it was festive.

"If they want to come up they're gonna need a warrant!," her family was saying. "If they ask us, well, we don't know what they are talking about!" They were really brave and cool.


The scale of the environmental and economic crisis we are facing, it's extraordinary. This movement is a response to that crisis. Our leaders aren't responding to any of that in a way that is commensurate to the crises we face. And that one sign has always spoken to me. We have to throw off our despair about the future world we might be facing, because if we come together as people and humanity, we can change it. And what Occupy Wall Street makes me feel is that for the first time in a long time that might be possible." --Mark Read, creator of Occupy Wall Street "bat-signal" [X]


Mark Read, from the above interview: "I knew I wanted to throw it on the Verizon Building. Everyone who lives in New York has looked at that big monolithic structure. For some of us, every time we look at it we think of how cool it would be as a projection surface."

It doesn't sound like the Verizon building was selected for any reason other than because of how physically great it is as a space, but symbolically it's also perfect to use the actual building (or body) of a giant communications company as a means in which to relay messages in support of OWS. Not only is Verizon providing its technology as a communicative aid to the movement, but now, through the creative use of other technology, they are providing their physical presence as well.

If they haven't quite been co-opted, they've certainly been "repossessed."


"Occupy London has taken over a huge abandoned office block in the borough of Hackney belonging to the investment bank UBS in a move it describes as a 'public repossession.'

Overnight on Thursday, a dozen activists from Occupy London, campaigners for social and economic justice as part of the global fight for real democracy, gained access to the building and secured it, giving them a legal claim on the space.

The multimillion pound complex, which has been empty for several years, is the group's third space and its first building, adding to its two camps at St Paul's Courtyard – near the London Stock Exchange in the heart of the City...

Occupy London supporters Jack Holburn said: "Whilst over 9,000 families were kicked out of their homes in the last three months for failing to keep up mortgage payments – mostly due to the recession caused by the banks – UBS and others financial giants are sitting on massive abandoned properties.

"As banks repossess families' homes, empty bank property needs to be repossessed by the public. Yesterday we learned that the Government has failed to create public value out of banking failure. We can do better. We hope this is the first in a wave of 'public repossessions' of property belonging to the companies that crashed the global economy."

The group say the space will be reopened on Saturday morning as the 'Bank of Ideas.'

Sarah Layler of Occupy London added: "The Bank of Ideas will host a full events programme where people will be able to trade in creativity rather than cash. We will also make space available for those that have lost their nurseries, community centres and youth clubs to savage Government spending cuts." [X]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

fish in a barrel

I just caught the trailer for this abomination:

Tower Heist is a comedy about a bunch of disgruntled hotel employees who were scammed by their Wall Street businessman tenant and decide to avenge themselves by robbing his penthouse. It stars a group of rich actors pretending to be average Joes & Janes while simultaneously lining their pockets with the cash of said Joes & Janes, and it's distributed by Universal Pictures, a company largely owned by a corporation famous for having paid zero in taxes last year. So basically the film is disguised as something that sides with (or at least tries to tap into) populist anger but which actually helps to deflate the anger, monetizes it, and then redistributes it upwards to the very Wall Street villains the audience is meant to root against.

Universal originally planned to release Tower Heist via parent company Comcast's video on demand service three weeks after opening it in theaters but decided against the idea after several theater chains threatened to boycott the film if Universal went through with the plan. The cost of ordering the film on demand was going to be a head-scratching $59.99. (Surely this must have been an homage to one of William Castle's gimmicks, the idea behind it being that the audience of Tower Heist would have actually been defrauded, thereby giving them the feeling of having been one of the characters in the movie.)

william castle, skeleton, gimmick, house on haunted hill, the tingler

Also from the trailer:

"We're not criminals. We don't know how to steal."
"Don't worry, I know someone who does."
Cut to: Black Man (Eddie Murphy).

It sure is funny(?) that the trailer for a film in which the villain is supposed to be a rich white man who stole everyone's money still cuts to an imprisoned black man when the image of a "thief" is to be evoked.

* * *

While I'm on the subject, I'm sure I'm not the only one to have noticed how uncreative and condescending movie titles have become (I know this isn't anything new, but aren't they getting worse?). The major studios seem to have arrived at a formula where the stupidest movies (ie, the ones aimed at the largest possible audience) are given titles in which the sole purpose is to sum up exactly what the film is about in as few words as possible. Take a moment to actually consider the fact that, out of every conceivable possibility, the aforementioned film was named Tower Heist.

Here are a few other examples:

Dolphin Tale (cute pun!)
Hot Tub Time Machine (I guess this title is supposed to be funny?)
Vampires Suck (another pun!)
Night at the Museum
Horrible Bosses
Cars 2 (Roman numerals are confusing)
Bad Teacher
Battle: Los Angeles
The Fighter
And Killer Elite, a film about elite hitmen starring Robert De Niro as "Hunter." Unfortunately the much simpler and even more to the point "Hitman" couldn't be used because it was already taken four other times -- five if you count The Hitman. And make sure not to confuse Killer Elite (2011) with The Killer Elite (1975). (Killer Elite is based on a novel called The Feather Men, which, in terms of telling the audience exactly what the movie is about in just two words, would have been downright confusing. The Killer Elite is based on a novel called Monkey in the Middle, a title that is clearly unusable because of the word "monkey" (which is only permitted for horror films and comedies), and because it uses the letter "y" (which is sometimes a vowel but no one really understands why).

The precious titles that follow are an even more advanced demonstration of this mentality:

Fast & Furious
Monsters vs. Aliens
Aliens vs. Predator
Cowboys & Aliens

(Keep all of this in mind when you find out the title for Clint Eastwood's newest film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover.)

It's only a matter of time before we see trailers for the movies Explosions & Cleavage and Guns & Gore. But, unfortunately, even those titles will sound creative compared to their culmination:

Action & Adventure
Action & Adventure 2
Action & Adventure 3
Action & Adventure 4
Ad Nauseam
Suspense 2
Horror Film 6
Action & Adventure 5
Ad Nauseam 2

* * *

It's only in this context that one can make (some) sense of the Michigan woman who recently decided to sue the distributor of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) because the film didn't feature enough... driving! It "bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film," she said. If the film is called Drive, according to the formula, it had better have a hell of a lot of driving in it! Viewers, accustomed to movies being summed up (or represented literally) by their title, have now started to sue for false advertising when this is not the case(!) What else can be said?

drive, movie poster, woman sues, ryan gosling, scorpion jacket, refn

* * *

Probably the most famous (semi-)recent example of dumbing down a title is Harry Potter. Fearing that American children wouldn't want to read a book with the word "philosopher" on the cover (and ensuring that they never would), the publisher of Harry Potter changed the title of Rowling's first book to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, even though "philosopher's stone" refers to something very specific. As a result, the publishing company played their own role in a kind of alchemy: the turning of American children into future illiterates.

This brings to memory something Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview:

" ... They'll say, “Don't use the word 'Promethean.'” Actually, that happened recently. I used the word 'Promethean' and the [magazine editors] said, “Take that out because people won't know what Promethean means.” I said, “Maybe they won't. I'll cut it out if you give me another synonym for it. You give the words that would stand in for it and I'll change it.” “There doesn't seem to be one,” they said. “No, there isn't, is there?” You either know what “Promethean” means or you don't. If you do, it saves you about 50 words. And if you don't, then you can look it up! So I said, “No. I'm going to keep it, because it's an important word and it's actually not condescending to Americans in the least. You have to condescend far more by finding the 50-word substitute. No, I won't change it. Fuck you. And I don't mean to publish in your magazine, either, for that matter.” I'm reading this review, and I happen to remember – I forget what the review was of – but they mentioned Tolstoy. This sentence said, “This is reminiscent of the 19th Century Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy.” Now, clearly, the author [of the review] had not written this. But someone had thought, “Not all our readers know who Tolstoy is. We better tell them.” This is ridiculous! If you don't know who he is, that doesn't tell you any more than what you don't know. [...] “Homer's Iliad, based on Homer's The Iliad.” “The 19th Century Russian novelist…” It's insulting, the people who do that. It completely broke the rhythm of the writer's sentence. Whatever he had, it's completely undone by shoving all this crap in. It's yet another case of one thinking, 'What are they taking me for? Do they think I'm a moron?'"

* * *

And now the moment you've all been waiting for:


Sunday, October 16, 2011


"All imaginative and creative acts, being eternal, go to build up a permanent structure, ... above time, and, when this structure is finished, [...] its scaffolding will be knocked away and man will live in it. [...] Nothing that the heroes, martyrs, prophets and poets of the past have done for it has been wasted; no anonymous and unrecognized contribution to it has been overlooked. In it is conserved all the good man has done, and in it is completed all that he hoped and intended to do." --Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake


Imagine for a moment that a group of people got together and somehow managed to open a portal to an alternate reality. Imagine also that those who opened the portal made the alternate reality available to everyone.

Hard work and determination were required in order to keep the portal open, and those who opened it did their best to nourish it even if they weren't always sure how to do so (the portal was mysterious, almost unfathomable).

Tourists and the media came to look at the portal. Some of them pointed at it and said that it was underwhelming, pointless, or even silly. And some of them -- the media especially -- couldn't even see the portal. Sure, they thought they could see it, thought they could make out some idea of what the portal was, but they saw it only through the bodies and faces of those who had opened it, as well as those who had come to help nourish it.

Others who were seemingly sympathetic to the idea of alternate realities found the portal interesting, yet they couldn't seem to stop themselves from pointing at the mysterious vortex with a puzzled look. "What is the goal of this portal?" They would ask. "What are those who opened it trying to achieve?" It never once occurred to them that the portal was an achievement unto itself.


It's no wonder the media keep insisting that Occupy Wall Street is unorganized. How else could a leaderless community be viewed within a system that has dismissed such a possibility?
adj. 1. lacking a leader; as, a leaderless mob running riot in the streets.
The Occupiers at Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park have their own kitchen, their own medical, media, and legal centers, their own general store and library, their own art shows and displays, their own work groups and scheduled daily events, their own form of government called the General Assembly (click to watch an excellent mini-documentary), and even their own treasury which recently allocated $3,000 to purchase cleaning supplies that were then used in a highly successful (all-volunteer) clean up effort. Yet the Occupation is continuously said to be unorganized.

The majority are having trouble seeing this movement for what it is largely because they're trapped in a paradigm that says "nothing exists except for that which we already know." To give the Occupy movement the credit it deserves would be to acknowledge the existence of a secret door -- one that has been sitting under our rug all along -- and the current ideology is unable to permit that because the concept of a door that leads to a world outside of itself is impossible. By trying to parse some simplified meaning from the Occupation movement, people are missing the whole point.

The "door to Wonderland" that inspired Lewis Carroll. The Liddell
sisters were not allowed to enter the Cathedral Garden (pictured).

As a Pakistani cab driver said in a (live streamed) conversation with some Occupiers (paraphrasing): "It's a new world now. The world started with the church, then it started again with the politicians, and now it has started with the public. People. That's it. The Public has to be everything. This is a new creation."

The implication of such a view is precisely what's meant by the slogan OCCUPY EVERYTHING!

* * *

"In April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV and films and in novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. It means that people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dream. Here we don't think of prohibition. Because the ruling system has even suppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It's easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." --Zizek (from his speech in Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park)

Los (by William Blake), creator of consciousness and Golgonooza (the city of imagination).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cops of the Rich

Inspired by recent events, my friend Sarah B. refashioned the lyrics to Phil Ochs' "Cops of the World" to fit the police response to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

First, two quick things.

It's hardly a secret by now that J.P. Morgan Chase donated $4.6 million to the NYC Police foundation, but for anyone who hasn't heard about this I've placed a short interview excerpt in the comments section that highlights its importance. (Along with setting a frightening precedent, it seems very likely that this donation -- at the very least -- influenced a certain police action directly related to Occupy Wall Street. And of course it also relates to Sarah's lyrics in a major way.)

Second, for those who aren't already familiar with Ochs (one of the all-time great folk singers), or for those who simply want a reminder, here is his original song (followed by Sarah's reworked lyrics):

Cops of the World (1966)

* * *

Cops of the Rich

Come get out of the way, boys

Quick get out of the way

You'd better watch what you say, boys

Better watch what you say

We've roped you in corners and sprayed you with mace

And tied up your hands to expose your whole face

We are arrest you and tell you that YOU'RE the disgrace

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich

occupy wall street, mace, police

We pick and choose as we please, boys

Pick and choose as we please

You'd best get down on your knees, boys

Best get down on your knees

We shackle you up if you're part of a plot

We'll shackle you up even if you are not

Your guilt and your rights just don't matter a lot

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich


We'll meet you with shields in a line, boys

Meet you with shields in a line

The status quo is just fine, boys

Status quo is just fine

We've got to protect the executives' pay

No matter they flushed all our pensions away

Just stop making trouble and do as they say!

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich


Dump the tents in a pile, boys

Dump the tents in a pile

We'll change the rules all the while, boys

Change the rules all the while

We're confident that your resistance won't last

But still, if it does, you will all be harassed

The public we serve is the public we gas

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich

occupy wall street, police, brooklyn bridge, mass arrests

We have the Law on our side, boys

Laws are made for our side

Come in our van for a ride, boys

Step in and go for a ride

Stop your complaining that we act too rough

We don't need to catch you in illegal stuff

You're young and you're here and for now that's enough

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich


Here's a club in the back, boys

Here's a club in the back

You could use a good smack, boys

You could use a good smack

We'll target the ladies and rough them up too

We bloody your noses and cause you to bruise

If only YOU'D stop all the violence YOU do!

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich

occupy wall street, police, grope

They bankrupted your son, boys

Bankrupted your son

All in the name of good fun, boys

They sure had a lot of good fun!

They own all the money, oh say can you see

And maybe some day they will give some to me

So, like it or not, that is how it will be

Cuz we're the Cops of the Rich, boys

We're the Cops of the Rich



occupy wall street police arrest

occupy wall st police

occupy wall street police

Friday, October 07, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: some photos and impressions

None of the pictures that follow are very good or particularly interesting, but they give some sense of things from a personal perspective. My camera was acting up and eventually stopped working altogether (from rain, I assume; it's better now), and by the time of the march -- which I mention first -- it was no longer functioning.

Had I been quicker on the draw I could have snapped a great photo of a tall, handsome man in a well fitting suit standing motionless with the leash of his small dog in hand while the dog urinated on a pile of garbage. It might not sound that great, but to me it was an image of perfect symbolism. Another missed opportunity involved a man in a suit getting his shoes shined with an expression on his face that would be impossible to describe (my friend and I both laughed when we saw it). To give some indication I'd say he was expressing simultaneous contempt, embarrassment, and horror, but words don't do it justice. Rather I think what we saw was the birth of some as of yet unclassified emotional state.

Anyway, here's a brief recap from when I went up to Zuccotti Park with two friends (Monday, October 3rd).

* * *

Zuccotti Park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza
Zuccotti Park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza
Zuccotti Park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza
Zuccotti Park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza

Between 5:30 and 6:00 we marched through the financial district of New York City, forcing some streets to close temporarily and keeping some cars and cabs waiting. Though our numbers were in the hundreds and not the thousands, it was satisfying if for no other reason than we were a nuisance, a small plug in the flow of the city. (Certainly this is why, aside from the more obvious reasons (real and symbolic), it makes perfect sense to march through that particular part of the city -- pressure through inconvenience.)

At one point an expensively dressed woman turned to a police officer as she was trying to get through the crowd (more accurately, as she was waiting for the crowd to pass) and asked, with utter annoyance, "Could you make them go home this week?"

Someone else, a man with a thick New York accent standing outside a restaurant smoking, said to his friend with complete contempt, "The dregs of society," as we passed.

Another man, as the chant "WE! ARE! THE 99%!" made its way along, yelled from a doorway, "I! AM! THE 1%!" But the strange thing about this man -- at least judging from the company around him as well as the way he acted, dressed, and spoke -- was that he was almost certainly not part of the 1%. He struck me more as someone who was simply trying to be antagonistic for the sake of it, or perhaps someone with no real understanding of what being the top 1% really means and therefore deluded himself into thinking he was part of it.

Some of the march was a little bizarre -- bizarre in the sense that we passed some very nice restaurants filled with dressy people drinking wine and chatting to one another, and some of them were looking away on purpose (our presence -- loud chanting and banging drums -- could not be missed). Other people in the area -- waitstaff, residents, various workers -- gathered by their building's front door (or peaked out), taking pictures when we walked by as if the circus had just arrived in town.

When we approached the Post Office a heavyset woman employee inside had a big smile on her face and was pumping her fists in the air, dancing to the rhythm of the drumming. Another worker -- a man with a short beard (or perhaps just a mustache) -- was applauding with a look of respect and thankfulness on his face while standing behind the counter. The other workers were looking up and smiling, though they seemed to be concentrating more on getting things done (or at least pretending to). It was very nice to see this after experiencing the other, more negative reactions. (At least some people get it, I thought.)

A little later I smiled again when I noticed a street vendor giving the peace sign to us and smiling as we passed, though I cynically wondered after the fact if his reaction was sincere or just an attempt to grab some quick business.

* * *

Zuccotti Park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, crass, punks
zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, tents, sleeping
zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, tents, sleeping, occupy wall st

The camp itself seemed to be well run.

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, schedule, events
zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, wash, laundry

A couple of people were peeling various kinds of fruit when we arrived, and shortly thereafter a big bowl of tasty looking fruit salad was placed on the table. (People were alerted to its presence by a guy who yelled, well, "FRUIT SALAD!") No restrictions were put on who could eat what; the food was placed on the table when ready and up for grabs to occupiers and tourists alike.

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, tents, sleeping, food, table

* * *

Here is a map of the park taken from The Occupied Wall Street Journal (which I will scan shortly if no good copies make their way online) [update: HERE ]:

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, map, occupied wall street journal

* * *

Early on I noticed some commotion and a small crowd, so I made my way towards it. A disheveled man was holding a sign that read "Nazi Bankers Wall Street", and he was going on a long (endless) rant about Jews and Wall Street and all kinds of other ridiculous anti-Semitic nonsense. I'm sure that pretty much everyone -- if not everyone -- was only standing there listening to him because it was such a spectacle. A few people yelled that they didn't want to hear his racism, but the man persisted. Others were laughing. And there was lots of media there, which fueled him more. My immediate reaction was to see this as an illustration of one of the inherent dangers in forming a group that's generally accepting and all inclusive (he could do real damage if not kept in check), but people there had their own way of dealing with it:

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, vendors, capitalism, anti-semitism, anti-semitic

The two people holding disapproving signs followed him around for awhile, and eventually I never saw the man again.

But before he disappeared, another guy came up to him and started yelling in his face:

"The people on Wall Street are not Jews! They people on Wall Street are white Anglo-Saxon Protestants! Got it?!? We don't want your hate here! This is not about race, religion or color!"

The irony was too funny.

* * *


Along the outskirts of the park sit a band of vendors peddling their wares.

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, vendors, capitalism

For all I know they might very well park themselves there for most of the year, but of course it's much more likely they were in those spots to take advantage of the occupation and the publicity it was generating.

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, vendors, capitalism

It struck me as parasitic behavior at worst, opportunistic at best. But at the same time, I can't really blame them too much. It's smart business (I doubt being a vendor is easy or particularly lucrative).

* * *

A couple of places in Zuccotti Park are covered with various signs the protesters have made. The signs sit on the ground all day on display (as information and decoration), and when the marches take place, everyone grabs their sign (or a sign) and carries it with them. When they return, the signs are placed back in the designated space. (Most of them are made on the back of pizza boxes.)

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, signs, occupy wall st

The occupied area is never totally abandoned. During the march I went on, some people stayed behind to, I imagine, "hold the area" -- i.e., keep watch over it / keep the attention and spectacle aspect of the occupation alive (a group played drums at the camp the entire time we were gone). Many of the people who went on the march were people who came just to join in for the day, which illustrates part of the importance of the occupation itself: holding a public space where people can come and join whenever they have the opportunity. It's something constant and on-going, and a great place for organizing.

zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, signs
zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza, signs
zuccotti park, occupy wall street, liberty plaza