Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jason comments on the Presidential campaign

I swear this isn't becoming a political blog, I promise, promise, promise.

Originally, this was going to be a funny idea of reviewing the current campaign commercials from a purely cinematic view, ignoring the politics or the veracity of their claims. But I couldn't stop throwing up in my mouth whenever I tried to watch one. Honestly, I haven't seen a watchable campaign ad since Mike Gravel's "Rock" (screw you Paultards! I was a proud Gravelhead! At least, I was whenever I remembered he exists)

Anyway, everyone agrees, by a pretty wide margin, that McCain is running far more negative ads. However, this appears to have brought him even with Obama in the polls. I, for one, am not surprised. One thing pundits seem to never realize is that going negative is a good thing! And I don't mean that they're effective. They work exactly 50% of the time--both candidates inevitably go negative, and one candidate has to win. I mean negative ads are actually better than positive ads because they're more informative.

Imagine these two generic campaign ads:

Ad 1: "Candidate A loves America. See how American he looks standing in front of the American flag with patriotic determination on his face. He feels your pain, shares your values, and will fight for you!"

Ad 2: "Candidate B is wrong for America. His tax plan will bankrupt you and cause unemployment to skyrocket. His energy plan will make us Saudi Arabia's bitches. His position on crime will allow psychotic convicts out of prison with orders to rape your grandmother. Candidate A, on the other hand, will give you free money and create jobs out of thin air. He craps pure electricity and pisses gasoline, enough to power the entire nation. And if anyone even looks at your grandmother funny, he'll incinerate them with his heat vision"

Okay, I got a little carried away there. But my point is that Ad 1 tells you nothing. Even if the claims in Ad 2 are bullshit, you can research and find the truth behind the claims. It might not give you a completely accurate picture, but it gives you much more information. And since they can't really get away with outright lies, there's almost always a grain of half-truth.

The interesting thing about this is that at least McCain's first two negative ads--"Celebrity" and "The One", are remarkably negative while being completely uninformative. Here I am trying to defend negative advertising and McCain goes out and destroys my thesis by creating two of the most vacuous negative ads ever. McCain, by going negative and stupid you've actually sullied the reputation of negative campaigning.

Finally in his third try McCain actually puts some information in it, as he attacks Obama's tax plan. In this one, he moves from providing no information to providing misinformation...which I guess is a type of information? His claim that Obama voted to increase the taxes on everyone making more than $42,000 is based not on Obama's stated tax plan, but an earlier vote on a non-binding resolution to do away with the Bush tax cuts. Interesting aside, does this mean the McCain camp is tacitly admitting that the Bush tax cuts gave nothing to people making less than $42,000, since phasing them out doesn't affect them?

A quick comparison of their stated tax plans, courtesy of the Tax Policy Center and, can be seen in this graph:

I have no statement on which tax plan is better. I don't want to get into a debate about tax fairness or whether giving more breaks to the rich helps the economy. I will point out two things--first, Obama's stated plan does in fact give a substantial cut to people making $42,000. In fact, it gives a bigger break than McCain's plan, so McCain is clearly lying. Second, both plans are a net tax cut, meaning their promises to balance the budget (and both have promised this) are pretty much bullshit without some deep spending cuts. And don't give me crap about the Laffer curve--people who think lower tax rates result in higher overall tax revenue are idiots who don't understand their own argument.

More importantly, tax policy is not the only issue in the campaign. There's of course the war, health care, energy policy, and hot button issues like abortion or gun control.

I would like to meet someone who has studied both candidates stands on every issue and used that to make their choice in this election, because I have one question for them--are you fucking retarded!? Or, to put it a little more kindly, are you ignorant of--or willfully disregarding--the manner in which laws get passed? Our current unitary executive not withstanding, there are checks on the powers of the President, primarily that he has no power to write laws. Congress writes laws, and the President either signs them or vetoes them. Neither McCain nor Obama will have the power to change the tax rates by fiat. And given that Congress looks to not just stay in Democrat control but increase the Democratic margin, chances are any tax changes that come from it will look a lot more like Obama's plan than McCain's. And if you don't like that, work on changing Congress, because the President won't have a chance to change that. Same is true for all other legislative stances. The President can propose laws and draft bills and send them to Congress, but Congress has no obligation to act on any of his proposals. So why would you choose a President based on his legislative stances--the one thing he has virtually no control over? And that's if you even believe he'll keep his word when it's no longer politically necessary/expedient. I invite any of my readers to make an argument as to why the issues actually matter.

I submit to you that it actually makes more sense to cast their vote for whoever makes them feel better. Every election year, it seems there's a poll about who voter's would rather have a beer with (or invite to their barbecue, or have watch their pets while they're on vacation, or something equally insipid). Now I'm not saying "pleasant drinking partner" is a good quality in a leader (I wouldn't necessarily feel better if some of my closest drinking buddies were in charge of anything). But the one thing the President does have more or less unchecked control over is the national mood. And as much as some people lamented that George W. Bush won twice just because he was more folksy than his more qualified opponents, I still submit that it's not that bad of a reason to vote for a guy (for the record, George W. Bush never made me feel good). I also submit this is actually how people make their voting decision. As much as most people claim to study the issues and make their decision based on them, their decisions are based singularly on who gives them a better feeling, and they'll even change their stance on the issues to conform to this person. A couple of quick questions. Is anyone planning on voting for the candidate who will make them personally feel worse (e.g., they'd suffer more but it's better for the country)? Has anyone caught themselves "refining" their stances on issues as their candidates did (e.g., McCain on immigration or "running an honorable campaign", Obama on public financing or offshore drilling)? I will emphasize again that I don't think this behavior is a bad thing. I think not only that it's natural, but it's the best criteria available.

Now as I was drafting this post, Obama announced his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate. I have no strong opinions one way or another about the guy, but the whole "veepstakes" brings up one other thing I'd like to know about the candidates. I'd like to know who their top advisers would be, especially their cabinet. Particularly, I'd like to see that they choose good, smart people, who are experts in their field, and who speak their mind (i.e., are not "yes men"). Biden seems to fit at least three of these--he seems like a good, smart guy and he's not afraid to disagree with Obama (most notably on voting for the Iraq War). I only reserve giving him "expert in his field" because I don't know how you show expertise in checking if the President is alive and then doing whatever you feel like (although our current VP seems to do a lot more, constitutionally that's the only thing he's required to do).

But the VP candidate is just one appointment, and I'd argue not as important as his cabinet secretaries, who should be his go-to guys (or gals) in their respective responsibilities. I would actually say that this would be my most important criteria in choosing who to vote for, except for the fact that we will never be given this information. For some reason, it's considered uncouth to even pretend that you're thinking about who you'd appoint. Why is it so forbidden to give me the most relevant information possible for my choice? And I know, they don't have ultimate authority over this either; their choices need to be confirmed by the Senate. But in all of U.S. history, only 9 cabinet nominations have been rejected (11 have been withdrawn prior to a vote), and it's fairly common to hear the argument 'I don't think he/she is a good choice, but I respect the President's right to surround himself with the advisers he wants.' That's reasonably close to a rubber stamp. And really, I don't need final choices, give me a possible short list of 3 or so names for each position so I can get a sense of your judgment. I won't hold you to any of them, and the first candidate to do this will score major points in my book.

Well, this ran on as usual when I start posting politics. Now I'm going to disappear for a week, I'm going to a land that's outside of the reach of the Internet. I'll be back on Labor Day to tell you whether or not I'm actually being serious.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees Douglas Fairbanks in "Reggie Mixes In"

Back at my favorite theater that plays silent films every Saturday night.

First a couple of shorts, starting with "The Thieving Hand". A one-armed honest beggar is rewarded by a rich man with an artificial limb. Problem is, the limb has a mind of it's own and starts stealing against his will, in this comedy trick film.

Then a Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle short, "Fatty's Tintype Tangle". Tintype refers to a type of camera. Fatty is married to a lovely lady, but her mother rules the house and abuses him. He leaves in a huff (presumably just for a walk to cool off) and is accidentally photographed in a misunderstood pose with a young lady (it's a misunderstanding, he was just being nice and trying to reassure her after he sat on her knitting needle). Unfortunately, they're from Alaska, meaning her husband is a hot-head who attacks with his pistols (which he doesn't know how to hold steady for shooting). To make matters worse, his mother-in-law sees the photograph. And to make matters much, much worse, the Alaskans are looking for a home and unwittingly rent out Fatty's home from his wife. Needless to say, wacky hijinx ensue.

Then after an intermission, the feature program, Douglas Fairbanks in "Reggie Mixes In". Fairbanks is best known for his swashbuckler roles, but this film predates those and he plays a contemporary character. Specifically, he plays Reggie, a lazy but athletic idle rich kid, just out of college. With no real aim, he amuses himself with his servant "Old Pickleface." Out on a drive, they find a little girl who is lost. They take her home, his first introduction to the working class part of town. There his eye catches a lovely lady who he learns is a dancer at a local club, Gallaghers. He and Old Pickleface dress up as working class toughs and visit Gallaghers. A gang fight breaks out, he equips himself well, and earns a job as the club's bouncer. He gets into a war with the gang, barely escaping, and finally wins the girl. Everyone is happy (except the gangsters he whups).

And that was that. Kudos to Frederick Hodges at the piano.

Next week, although I won't be there, is comedy shorts night, which is always possible. So if you want to see it, show up early.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Jason watches "Pineapple Express"

My neck has been hurting me the past couple of days. I just realized why--I haven't watched a movie in almost a week! Turns out, it's important for my posture that I sit in front row center and crane my neck upwards for at least a couple of hours for a day or two a week.

Well, my neck is all better now, and as a bonus I got to watch a pretty entertaining movie. It's fair to describe it--as so many critics have--as a stoner action flick. It's also a very homoerotic story about the friendship between a pot smoker and a pot dealer. Seth Rogen as Dale Denton plays the customer, who early on rants about dealers who want to be your friend. For him it's a (cordial) business relationship. James Franco is Saul, the pot dealer with a heart of gold (he started dealing to get his grandma into a better nursing home). No need to rehash the plot, you get all you need from the trailer. I will say although it is absolutely full of pot, it's accessible enough to be funny to a guy who rarely smokes and usually prefers to laugh at those who are way more high than him. I assume it would also be funny to heavy pot smokers...because everything is funny to them.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jason previews a Shakespearean duel

A more detailed post will be coming soon. But I'm disappearing next week (even out rang of the interwebs), when a cinematic Shakespeare duel throws down.

Anyway, if you're like me you've been giggling at the trailers for "Hamlet 2" and humming "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" in your head. I really hope this movie is good. It comes out in limited release tomorrow and wider on Labor Day weekend.

But next Tuesday the really really independent Shakespeare movie comes out (on DVD)--"Never Say Macbeth" which was made for less that 1% of the budget of "Hamlet 2" (and that's billed as an independent film). The only reason I know about this is because one of the producers kindly contacted me and sent me a DVD screener. I watched it (actually a couple of months ago) during a family reunion. Because it was months ago I don't remember it well enough to give a detailed review (I'll watch it again after seeing "Hamlet 2" and give a more detailed comparison). Here's what I do remember--science guy travels across the country stalking his actress girlfriend. He accidentally gets a part in a production of the Scottish play, and then even worse he goes against all theater superstition and actually says the name of the play--Macbeth. Well, that unleashes ghosts of actors who were performing when the theater burnt down ages ago. Wacky hijinx ensue.

I remember we (I and my family) generally enjoyed it. The low budget does show, but it's still impressive for what they spent, and it was funny. Personally, I was more interested in the ghosts than in the love story (and the fact that three different ghost productions are going on is a good source of humor). As long as you can read around low production values (I.e., you're a film festival veteran) it's reasonably good family friendly fun. As I said, a more detailed review will come after I see "Hamlet 2" and rewatch "Never Say Macbeth".

I do have to mention a problem with the audio on my screener disk. Ummm...yeah, that's it, there was a problem with the audio on my screener disk. Sometimes the dialogue was too loud, sometimes we could barely hear it over the soundtrack. It wasn't bad enough that we missed what was happening, but it was distracting. However, I've been assured that this is only a problem with the screener, and the DVDs from the distributor should be fine. If any of my loyal readers buy or rent this, let me know if the audio is good.

And finally, I also want to give a little shout out to an even more independent Shakespeare movie, "Green Eggs and Hamlet". Why would I bring a 13 year old video into this duel? Simply put, yours truly has a cameo as a member of angry mob shouting "Laertes should be our sire! That is what we now desire!" So see, I'm a Shakespearean actor, too (and a scientist, and I didn't have to stalk a girl across the country to be both).

Jason receives fan art!

More proof that I've arrived on these here Internets! And just after I claimed the Front Row Crew are not my "disciples", one of them sends me this:

I like this, it simultaneously makes fun of my career, my slovenly appearance, my movie addiction, my raging alcoholism, and my skills of an artist. Plus it looks like I've had a psychotic break with reality and the movie is talking to me. And that's exactly the psychotic break I wanna have! Although I want my psychotic hallucinations to give me beer, not demand it from me.

He also sent me an early prototype of the mad scientist character, apparently making bubble appear from an Erlenmeyer flask through use of a magic wand (little known secret--science doesn't exist, we all use magic and just call it science)

All credit goes to Alan for the artwork (Go MS Paint! Sad that you can do better there than I can do with pen and paper). The line in the second comic is mine. I said it to him once and now he can't get it out of his head. So I guess I inspired this all. I apologize.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jason has disciples, apparently

At least according to this blog post from Dan.

I wonder if this is how religions get started?

When I first read this, at first I was kind of flattered, then I didn't think much of it (I don't consider myself a leader, just another audience member who has welcomed/encouraged other people to enjoy the front row). I thought about commenting and identifying my disciples and anyone else I knew by name, but Dan only allows comments by team members.

Then I happened to run into one of the people described in this post who thought it was creepy. It got me thinking a bit more. I've put myself out there on the Internet, so I don't mind if others talk about me. But as far as I know these other people don't have blogs or websites or anything like that (let me know if you do, I'll link to it). And I wouldn't really like it if someone was writing on the Internet that I was "shifty looking", even if I wasn't identified by name (actually, I'd laugh at that, but I could see how other people would be bothered). Now I'm kind of glad I didn't identify anyone.

Anyway, I allow posting by anyone (even anonymous posting, at least until I get enough spam to change that setting), so if anyone wants to identify themselves, they can do that here. For that matter, if anyone wants to anonymously bitch out Dan for writing about them, feel free to do that here, too.

And for the record, I don't refer to anyone as my disciple. Those who sit with me in the front row I call "The Front Row Crew" (or FRC, which I mentally pronounce "Freak"). If I'm the de facto leader it's only because I have less of a life than any of them, or because I'm goofier looking, or because I'm selfish and always grab the exact center seat (at the Roxie, my fat ass has actually pushed this seat down slightly more than the other seats--it's actually more comfortable to sit in front row +/- 1 seat off center). I guess those are as good as any reason to choose a leader.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jason mourns the loss of Kelly Bundy's boobs

Aparrently three weeks ago Christina Applegate went under the knife for a prophylactic double mastectomy. But...but...but...I grew up with those boobs! I mean, not dying of breast cancer is great for her, but don't my fond adolescent reminiscences count for anything? I guess I'll always have my memories, if not her mammaries. Hah!

Seriously, here's wishing her the best of health and luck in the future. I think she got typecast as the dumb blond from "Married With Children", but in the few interviews I've seen/read of her, she seems much smarter and a better actress than she gets credit for. Plus she let Donnie Darko masturbate to her (after Alyssa Milano refused). With that and her jokes about how after reconstructive surgery she'll have indestructible boobs that will be the envy of her nursing home, she's pretty cool.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Jason watches "Tropic Thunder"

And it's funny--really fucking funny in parts. So funny in parts, that the unfunny parts are even flatter in comparison. It veers from comedy to action, trying to have both without fully committing to either. In that way, it feels a little like Ben Stiller's earlier film, "The Cable Guy", which tried to play Jim Carrey both funny and scary. Stiller famously filmed a "scary take" and a "funny take" of every scene in that movie, and then edited them together somewhat haphazardly (for the record, I still liked "The Cable Guy" despite it's flaws. And for the further record, "Tropic Thunder" is much better than "The Cable Guy"). It makes me wonder if there's a "funny take" and an "action take" of every scene in "Tropic Thunder".

Anyway, you can find plot synopses and (generally rave) reviews everywhere. Much has been made of the all-star cast and especially Robert Downey Jr's blackface performance, and he is pretty amazing. But I have to say (and I never thought I'd write this) that Tom Cruise is actually the best thing in this movie (and unrecognizable under old man makeup playing the foul-mouthed cruel bastard studio executive).

Going back to Downey Jr's blackface performance, it's well handled as a parody of method acting and Hollywood's historic (and continuing) treatment of minorities--both as characters and as actors. In fact, from what I've read it's generally been accepted positively by African American leaders. Same is not true of the mentally disabled. Stiller's character made a movie called "Simple Jack" where he played a mentally disabled character. Despite being Oscar-bait, it failed to connect with audiences or critics, and becomes the source of many "retard" jokes. Although it's parody of Hollywood cliches in much the same way as Downey Jr's performance, it has prompted protests from mentally disabled advocacy groups. This just goes to show what I've said all along--black people are much, much smarter than retards.

I should probably stop now.

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome for some Thrillpeddlers Theater of the Ridiculous

I need to make a resolution--go to the Thrillpeddlers shows before the final weekend, so that I can tell you all how awesome they are while you still have a chance to catch them. Better yet, why don't you all just assume that the Thrillpeddlers will always put on a good show, and you should always see them.

The night started out with one of my favorite things--a sing-along of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the player piano. Always nice.

Then a little guide to manners for teenage girls, read by a man dressed up as a doll, being whipped by a girl. Cool.

Then the main feature, Charles Busch's "Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium", a hilarious combination of drag acts, revenge, and palace intrigue. Theodora is an ex-circus performer (and performer of less wholesome acts) who's climbed up the social ladder to marry Emperor Justinian. However, it's a loveless marriage--because Justinian prefers to stick peacock feathers up the ass of his male slave. Said slave is actually married to his own sister, and they're the children of the previous monarch whom Justinian conquered and killed. While they plot vengeance, Theodora looks for advice from the gypsy queen Fata Morgana. To do so, she sneaks out of the palace dressed as a boy. Fata gives her a love potion, but it backfires causing her (still dressed as a boy) to fall in love with a gypsy man who is plotting to sneak into the palace and murder Justinian. And wacky hijinx ensue, ending in many hilarious deaths. A good time is had by all (maybe even the dead people).

Then a little break, to get more beer.

Then we all enjoyed the musical stylings of dark seductress Jill Tracy, including a song dedicated to the recently discovered Bigfoot called "You Leave Me Cold" (as in, you make me shiver).

Then another sing-along, this time to Oom-pa-pa, which is always a good time (especially if you've got a beer to help you sing along).

And then the second play, "Jack and the Beanstalk". Not the kids story, this is the adult version, where the butcher ends up marrying the cow and Jack ends up marrying the giantess. Yeah, it's ridiculous and perverse, and if you're at Burning Man find it Friday night in center camp (at like, 1:30 am or something).

And then one last Jill Tracy song, ending with lights-out frights.

And that was one hell of a night. As I said, unfortunately their summer run is over. Look for their Shocktoberfest in...I guess Shocktober. And if you're at Burning Man, find the Thrillpeddlers at camp Flaming Sin at 9:30 and Esplanade.

Jason watches "The Judge and the General"

This was the one movie I heard about and most regretted missing at the SF International Film Festival. So I had to see it when it played for one night only at the Roxie, in advance of it's PBS premiere (on POV) this week (check your local listings--in the SF Bay Area it's on Tuesday at 10 pm on KQED).

Part Chilean history lesson, and part profile of a remarkable man, this is the story of judge Juan Guzmán, who by luck of the draw ended up investigating charges against General Augusto Pinochet. In the Chilean judicial system, when a charge is brought it's the judge who leads the investigation. When Pinochet was finally extradited back to Chile and the lawyers for the victims drew Judge Guzmán, they thought this was bad luck. He's from a well-off right wing family that had supported Pinochet (at the time when he seized power as an anti-communist crusader). Nobody expected him to investigate as thoroughly as he did. But he took on his duty very seriously, very carefully, and most importantly very transparently. He digs up bodies buried 30 years ago to find bullet holes in the skull (contradicting official reports that the guy died in a car accident), dives in the ocean looking for remains, and even digs up evidence of his own (unwitting) involvement in cover-ups. It's a truly remarkable story, not just about the dark history of Chile under Pinochet, but about how an honest, conscientious man looking for the truth will find--even if it goes against his natural bias.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot, here's a picture of producer/director Elizabeth Farnsworth at the screening:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and watches "The Legend of God's Gun"

I've really got to get back into the habit of updating this blog more frequently.

Last Wednesday was the grand finale of the Dead Channels "White Hot 'n Warped Wednesdays" summer at the Hypnodrome. And they closed on a good one.

"The Legend of God's Gun" is billed as a"new kind of Western--made by musicians!" And it's new, and very different, but is also steeped in the visual language of so many Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Think "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" filtered through some sort of drug haze (sorry, I don't know enough about drugs to guess exactly what the filmmakers were on). It takes place in and around the evilest, god-forsakenest town imaginable--Playa Diablo (Devil's Playa). The sheriff doesn't care that his whore wife is banging his deputy (hell, he barely cares about enforcing the law). A semi-retarded bounty hunter has killed a one-eyed member of the local outlaw gang, and is dragging the body back to town. Meanwhile the outlaw leader and scorpion venom-drinking badass El Sobero is on his way to Playa Diablo for a little revenge. But the biggest slice of vengeance is reserved for the gun-slinging preacher. At least, that's how I remember it. I was pretty drunk, and it was pretty awesome. The end.

Jason watches the Olympics opening ceremonies

Not live, since that was like 5 am here. Nor did I watch it when NBC broadcast it, as I was busy with ministerial duties. But the next day, on my Ti-faux (Comcast DVR).

I'd been paying so little attention leading up to the games, I hadn't realized that the opening ceremonies were directed by Zhang Yimou. If I had known, I wouldn't have been surprised by the grand spectacle he put on. This is the guy behind "Hero", "House of the Flying Daggers", and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (and previously, many "smaller" films like "Raise the Red Lantern" or "The Road Home"). In fact, "Curse of the Golden Flower" has the distinction of being the first movie I ever wrote about on this blog. And these ceremonies practically prove the theory I advanced in that review--that while Zhang Yimou has become a master of spectacle, he hasn't become an "American style" filmmaker. He's still very clearly exploring Chinese history, culture, and it's relation to the world--he's just doing it with a healthier dose of spectacle more than with the quiet moments.

As for the spectacle he put on last week--amazing. The drummers, the movable type, the legions of people, the live dance-painting, the taikonauts the people running around the globe (including upside down and sideways). Just, "Wow!" Then the parade of nations, which in comparison is a big, tedious letdown (yeah, I know it's nice for all the athletes, and you can't get rid of it, but after so many "Wow" moments you just can't get excited watching people walk). And then the lighting of the torch, which confirmed another pet theory of mine--that all Chinese people secretly know how to fly. I'm just surprised they revealed that to the world.

On final point, I've heard some commentators remark that the ceremonies were a little intimidating. I was awe-struck, but not intimidated. In full disclosure, I work with a lot of Chinese-American people, including both my boss and my boss's boss (which is why I'm paying more attention to these games than to either of the last two). Chinese are very nice people, and are not to be feared! I sincerely hope that as China rises to equal our economic might, that the U.S. and China will rise together as good friends and allies.

Addendum: I forgot to mention that I wanted to comment a bit on the controversies regarding the "fakery" used in the opening ceremonies.

First, the computer-generated "footprint" fireworks leading up to the stadium. It's my understanding that real fireworks were shot off, and if you were in Beijing that night you would've seen them. However, what I saw on TV was CGI, due to the impossible logistics of filming the fireworks live from a helicopter (and through the Beijing haze). I thought NBC did a half-decent job pointing this out. It was clear to me that what I was seeing was created in advance using CGI (and reasonably good CGI), but some people were not so certain (Bob Costas saying this "is really cinematic" didn't really explain it that well).

Second, the little girl (Lin Miaoke) who sang "I Sing for My Country" when the Chinese flag was brought in and raised. Apparently she was lip-syncing while the voice of seven year old Yang Peiji was played instead (although there's some speculation that Lin was actually singing and didn't know her voice was being replaced). Apparently this was a last minute replacement, as Lin just looked prettier than Yang. I don't really feel cheated by the switch. It's a freakin' show, I expect some things to be faked (guess what, those fairies flying around were actually suspended on wires!) But I do feel bad for Yang Peiji. It must be weird being told you have the perfect singing voice but are too ugly to be seen on TV. For the record, judging by the pictures I've seen, there wouldn't have been anything wrong with showing Yang Peiji. I think this was a mistaken but harmless decision.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Wednesday, August 6

Okay, it's officially more than a week old. Due to personal commitments (congratulations again, Cynthia and Yuri!), I haven't had time to write. In fact, I barely had time to see a movie all last week. But one phrase brought me up to one more North Jewfest screening last Wednesday--"Israeli Holocaust Pornography". More on that in a moment.

The late show last Wednesday was another double bill of Heymann brothers documentaries, starting with "It Kinda Scares Me", directed by and starring Tomer Heymann. Tomer, as well as a filmmaker, is a volunteer drama coach in a program for at-risk Israeli youth. He sets out to coach them through writing, rehearsing, and performing an original play. They start with no idea what the play will be about, workshop some ideas, and then Tomer happens to mention that he's gay. This is about halfway through the movie, after they've been working together for a while, and it completely changes their relationships. Suddenly the movie becomes about how they react not just to his homosexuality, but his keeping it a secret (and whether it's any of their business anyway). The title comes directly from a quote from one of the kids. But they're still dedicated to putting on a play, and now they have an idea for a subject--their reactions to Tomer coming out of the closet. And so the play "Tomer and the Boys" is written and performed.

And then the movie that really brought me out to the festival one last night: "Stalags--Holocaust and Pornography in Israel". Nowadays the horrors and atrocities of the Holocaust are pretty well known, but I've never thought much about how they were first revealed. Well, after the Eichmann trial, for many Israelis the first accounts (at least in Hebrew) came in the form of soft-core erotic paperbacks called "Stalags". They generally have a formula--American/British GI is captured by Nazis, sent to a prison camp, and sexually humiliated and tortured by buxom female German guards (sort of a precursor to "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS"). Conversely, stories of Jewish women kept in a brothel in Auschwitz were popularized by "The House of Dolls" by K. Tzetnik (which is still used in Israeli high schools today, despite controversy surrounding it's validity). These only existed for 2 years in the 60's, until the Israeli courts declared them pornography and banned them. But their brief existence (and the collector culture that still exists) raises some interesting points about the fetishizing of victimization. It was also interesting to learn that many of the first settlers to Israel weren't Holocaust survivors but people who emigrated out of Europe before the Holocaust. So when survivors started arriving, they were sometimes treated with suspicion and an attitude of "well, I was smart enough to emigrate before things got bad, so what's wrong with you?" Then when these books hit the market things got even worse for the survivors, as there was now suspicion around "what did you do to survive?" It's a fascinating documentary, controversial subject (obviously), and a point of view I never knew existed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Saturday, August 2

This was the first day this year in Berkeley, and my one and only day to really go all out and just Jew out at that movies all day. 5 movies (well, some were double features of half-length films), let's get to it:

First up, a pair of documentaries by the Heyman brothers, Barak and Tomer, starting with the music doc, "Black Over White". This can fairly be described as a concert tour film about The Idan Raichel Project on their 2006 concert tour to Ethiopia. But it's more that that, as the Idan Raichel Project is hybrid pop/Yemeni/Ethiopian music group, with Israeli, Yemeni, and Ethiopian members. Race issues in Israel are difficult and elusive. Although all the members are talented musicians, there would be no audience without their Israeli front man (who opens the movie comparing his work to a chef, who ignores all the hard work that goes into growing a tomato just to chop it up and make it a side dish). One member is considered black in Israel and white in Ethiopia. Although I assume they're all friends and they make fine music together, these tensions boil over frequently, as the struggle to find a place to fit in is evident.

And the second movie was a hopeful documentary, "Bridge Over the Wadi". Wadi means "valley" in Arabic, and in this case the Bridge is a school--specifically, one of only three bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools in Israel. Obviously it's brimming with idealism, and it is beautiful to see little Israeli and Palestinian children play together. But tensions of course arise. Mostly, it's when the parents see their children taking on aspects of the other culture--when Palestinians sing Hannukah songs or when Jewish children fast on Ramadan. And, of course, the most difficult date is the 5th of Iyar, also known alternatively as Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) or Palestine Nakba (“catastrophe”) Day. Working that into a dual lesson plan is quite a task for the teachers, who have trouble agreeing on it themselves.

Next up was another pair of documentaries, this time on queer Israeli life. "The Quest for the Missing Piece" is about that little covenant that marks men as Jewish. The most common cosmetic surgery in the world--circumcision. The filmmaker Oded Lotan is a gay Israeli man, who never thought much about his bris until he found out his boyfriend isn't circumcised. He interviews a mohel, talks to Jewish fathers, etc., and approaches it all with a wry sense of humor and absurdity, pointing out things like referring to an "uncircumcised" man would be like referring to an "un-mastectomized" woman (come to think of it, that line might not have been in the movie, that might have been in the introduction). But he does interview groups of "intact" men. Anyway, it was pretty funny.

The second half of this program was "Mother, I did not Kill Your Daughter", a film about a pair of Israeli men who we're born as girls and underwent gender reassignment surgery (one did it a long time ago, one is just starting out). Sometimes funny, but often more serious and somber, as they go through the trials of either getting to procedure or later getting legally recognized as a man. And of course, like in the previous movie, since it's Jewish there are strong opinions, and especially strong opinions from mothers.

So then we continued with the documentary vein, this time delving into a political documentary, "Bi'lin, My Love". Bi'lin is a small Palestinian village on the West Bank, right where the "security fence" is being constructed. Many villages have been bulldozed and relocated to make room for the fence (which is portrayed in the movie as more of a land grab than a security measure). Some have tried to resist, but almost all have failed. Bi'lin looks to be another, but it has some amazing residents. Most notably Mohamed, the leader of the non-violent protest group. Israeli director Shai Carmeli Pollak originally came to Bi'lin as an activist, but found he could not put down his camera. The result is an up close and personal account of the protests, as well as some shockingly candid interviews with Israeli soldiers, who frankly seem so tired of protests they can't care any more, although they do go through the motion of letting the protesters have their say before bulldozing through their olive orchards. More than anything, the soldiers seem numb and almost disinterested in the conflict, like they'd rather just do their job, fulfill their service, and go home. But as I said, the star is Mohamed, and his clever, artistic, and sometimes quite funny forms of protest. The most violent he gets is throwing a water balloon full of sewage, but he gets attention to his cause, and is soon joined by like-minded activists not just from elsewhere in the West Bank, but from Israel and around the world (although I got a sense that a lot of the Americans were there for a week and back home, sort of activist-tourism). A very interesting and moving document.

And then finally we got into narrative films, first with Isaac Bashevis Singer mini-trilogy, "Love Comes Lately" (based on the short stories "The Briefcase", "Old Love", and "Alone". Max Kohn (Otto Tausig) is an elderly writer, absent minded and confused, who travels the northeast giving lectures to small colleges and Jewish groups. His girlfriend Reisel (Rhea Perlman) is tired of his shenanigans (which include some cheating). On a lecture trip he writes a couple of stories (the framing device for two of the stories), meets an old student of his, sleeps with her, leaves, forgets his briefcase, and mostly muses on the nature of old, lonely horniness. There are some fine moments and great performances, but mostly it was slow and almost as confused as Max. I started with high hopes for this film, and it ended up kind of flat.

And finally, the day ended with the truly great (or at least truly beautiful) movie "Emotional Arithmetic", which boasts an excellent cast of Susan Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, and Gabriel Byrne. It opens on a shot of a house and windmill by a lake in the northeast (turns out, it was filmed in Quebec) that is so beautiful it could be a nostalgic painting. But instead, it's the home of sorta-crazy Melanie Winters (Sarandon) and her husband David (Plummer). They have a son, and a grandson, but something is amiss. And then she gets a letter from Jakob Bronski (von Sydow), and it's clear that this is someone important from her pass. He shows up to visit with a surprise, Christopher Lewis (Byrne). Turns out, Jakob, Melanie, and Christopher were in Drancy together. Drancy was a transit camp in Paris from which the Nazis shipped people to other camps (e.g., Auschwitz). Chris had a crush on Melanie, but when they were freed and she returned to America and he to Ireland, they fell out of touch. Now she's married and had put that mostly behind her. Jakob, meanwhile, was their mentor and protector in the camp, and taught them to document everything they saw--a notebook that Melanie still keeps. But after the war he was sent to gulags in the Soviet Union, underwent shock treatment, and now barely remembers their time in Drancy. In an odd twist, in some ways they take the reunion much better than does David, who presumably never went through anything so traumatic. David predicts a storm, and to some extent that happens, but in other ways they're still strong survivors. And in the end, it's a story of how time heals all wounds--but leaves scars.

And it's a beautifully photographed movie with some excellent acting. A nice way to end the day.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and sees "The Period"

I've only made it to about half the Dead Channels White Hot 'n Warped Wednesdays at the Hypnodrome this summer. But I saw the trailer to this movie at a previous screening and I've been waiting all month for this.

Sherrie Heiman is having one of those heavy flows. In fact, it's non-stop and projectile. It grosses out her girlfriend, feminist artist Clittoria. She loses her job as a nude model for splattering all over the canvases. Clittoria kicks her out, she's homeless and bleeding all over the city. She runs into Clittoria's agent, and becomes a menstrual artist, taking over the pussy art scene of Kansas City (oh yeah, it's from KC). Then her pussy starts talking in a horrible sexist rant, there's a weird mosaic-faced guy following her, and her "punani tsunami" might just be the fucking fountain of youth (or she's run into a gang of really kinky vampires).

It's full of puns, so of course I loved that. If only it had a little more budget (especially for better sound) this would be a perfect movie. Oh yeah, and I guess there's some debate about whether this is all comedy. Well I laughed, I laughed a lot. In fact, I kinda love this movie. I already have the DVD (available at Amazon, of all places), and now I want to watch it at the same time every month until I'm 50.

Here's the mad genius who made this possible, J. Douglas Smith:
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