Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Accused

I screened Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused(1988) in class yesterday. We watched this in conjunction with chapters from Diana Scully's Understanding Sexual Violence.

The movie is about prosecuting a gang rape case, and it explores a number of significant cultural issues about how we understand rape, particularly rape myths that blame the victim.

It's kind of a straight forward issue-y movie that in some ways isn't very interesting. Jodie Foster's anger and vulnerability as the rape victim were very well portrayed, but I guess courtroom dramas never really totally do it for me.

I first saw The Accused when it came out. I was in college and it seemed at the time that feminists were very vocal about bringing sexual violence against women to national attention; that young women were particularly aware of the significant sexism inherent in rape myths. In a way the movie did not hold up after twenty years because somehow this issue has become less socially/culturally relevant. I wonder how the young men and women in my class received this (I'll find out, of course, tomorrow).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

New York City Ballet

I went to the ballet last night! Saw the New York City Ballet perform three dances:

1. After the Rain with music by Arvo Part, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. This dance was very sparse, the music very modern, and for a while I found it a little difficult. It contained two parts. The first part featured three couples and was interesting and choppy. The second part drew me in much more, it was an intense, languid, erotic duet, danced by Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. I was mesmerized...

2. The second dance was called The Lady with The Little Dog. Choreographed by Miroshnickenko with music by Rodion Shchedrin. I didn't care for this piece very much. The music was difficult for me, and there was something tedious about the telling of story. The dance featured a main pair, and a chorus of male dancers, and I very much enjoyed the men. Their choreography was quirky and playful and was my favorite part of this otherwise kind of drab piece.

3. The third piece was wonderful and joyous! Balanchine choreographing Gershwin. (Called Who Cares?). It was a happy mixture of jazz dance idioms mixed with ballet and it was so very fun to watch. It was complex and beautiful and happy.

All in all, a terrific evening.

Stonewall Uprising

I saw Stonewall Uprising at Film Forum the other day and was deeply moved. I'm aware that there is another documentary, Before Stonewall, that covers the same ground, but I've never seen it.

Stonewall Uprising is about the 1969 riots in the West Village, and it contextualizes the events by painting a grim picture of what it was like to be gay in America in the United States. It relies heavily on creepy footage from a CBS program that warns people about the dangers of homosexuals.

The film made me feel so proud of the men who fought back that night, and really put the Gay Pride Parade (taking place tomorrow) in a very powerful context.

The Moth

The other night I saw Raised Eyebrows: Stories of Shocks, Surprises and Scandals, an evening of storytelling at the Cooper Union presented by The Moth. It was such a wonderful event. It was so nice to listen to people talk in an engaging and conversational way about things that had happened to them. It wasn't *fascinating* which is what was so enjoyable about it. Rather, it was deeply pleasant, a very special, unique way of being entertained.

The night was hosted by Adam Gopnik, and the storytellers were Jenny Allen, Mike Birbiglia, Simon Doonan, Brock Grant, and Padma Lakshmi.

The stories were quite varied. One about hanging out one afternoon with a group of friends in the 80s who ended up being Bernard Goetz's victims later that day. Another about a mother finding a picture of a giant penis in her 13 year old daughter's email; one about being the Christmas decorator for the Obamas in the White House. They were all slightly flawed, but totally wonderful.

Bowling for Columbine

Watched Bowling for Columbine this week. I had seen it before, and hadn't liked it. I just fined Moore so fucking annoying. But, he got on my nerves a bit less on second viewing. He does some interesting quasi-sociological analysis and attempts to answer a difficult question. Ultimately, however, his gimmicky shtick just rubs me the wrong way.

Witch Hunt

I watched Witch Hunt again this week. It tells a very moving story of a number of wrongfully convicted sex offenders who were victimized by the moral panic in the 80s... I felt the same way about it this time around as I did the first time I watched it: good, but no social context...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Monster's Ball

Yesterday in class I screened the 2001 film, Monster's Ball, (directed by Marc Forster).

I had seen this film before and had been deeply moved by it. In particular I was struck by how intensely it portrays the impact of working within the prison industry on career corrections officers. The brutality they absorb; the sad authority; the ugliness of their daily lives spent with prisoners deprived of human dignity. Monster's Ball tells the story of three generations of COs, with Peter Boyle playing the retired, horribly racist, and chronically ill oldest; Billy Bob Thorton as his son, and Heath Ledger as the youngest. The racism, violence and hatred that permeates the relationships between these three men is almost impossible to bear.

In fact, as much as I love this movie, as a whole it is almost impossible to bear. The first 45 minutes or so hardly leave you room to breathe, one intense scene after another. The story, in broad strokes, is about a relationship that develops between a woman (Halle Berry) whose husband is executed, and the CO that was in charge of the execution (Billy Bob). Both people have suffered terrible losses; both are full of rage; both actors play these hardened, emotionally shut down characters with an underlying sense of vulnerability that is just heartbreaking.

The scenes that involved Halle berry's son, Tyrell, were so excruciating I can't bear to describe them.

This film combines two of my favorite movie motifs, contributing to how much I like it: 1) unlikeable, difficult people/complex characters, being portrayed in ways that show their humanity; and 2) unlikely people coming together and forming a special, perhaps fragile bond.

After Innocence

The other day I watched After Innocence (2005), directed by Jessica Sanders. I had a seen it before, but was screening it for my class. This film follows several convicted felons, all who have served hard time, as they adjust to life after having been exonerated of their crimes. DNA evidence proved in these cases that the men had not committed the crimes and had spent decades (DECADES) in prison for something they hadn't done.

It is emotionally gripping, just the awesome face of what happened to these men. They are all portrayed as having "good attitudes" of not harboring resentment or struggling with rage, which I find so hard to comprehend. In a weird way the lack of expressed rage made these men seem more mysterious to me, their suffering unfathomable.

The film also went a long way in promoting the cause of the advocacy organization, Project Innocence, which is comprised of lawyers working to have innocent men freed. Their dedication was impressive and inspiring, and the work they do truly valuable.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I found the documentary Girlhood, by Liz Garbus, to be thoroughly engaging. It tells the story of two young girls in the juvenile justice system and follows them for three years, when they are out of the system.

The two girls, Shanae and Meghan, are both strong willed, and kind of charming. There were certain scenes where the strength of their personalities was particularly impressive. I was kind of inspired by both young girls’ resistance to authority at key moments when those authority figures attempted to insert dominant mainstream values in their definitions of the situation. I am here referring to the scene where Shanae was in “effectiveness” class and the instructor wanted her to judge the stereotypical image of an urban teen as a “scumbag”; and the equally powerful moment when Meghan refused to refer to drug users in her neighborhood as “undesirables”, stating that “if I don’t consider my mother one, I don’t consider him one.”

I felt a lot was missing from the movie, however. Both girls had committed assault (one had stabbed a girl to death) and there was little insight into the violence or aggression that motivated those actions. That is, you never really saw the anger that I assume these girls have in them. Even when Meghan was enraged at her junkie mother, the anger seemed (to me at least) consistent with many adolescent mother/daughter struggles. I didn't really see any special level of rage. And for this reason I felt their crimes were left unexplained.

The movie also carries a strong theme about mother/daughter bonds; the girl whose future looks better is the one who had a stronger more supportive and stable relationship with her mother.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

John and Mary

I just watched John and Mary; it is a very interesting, intelligent, thoughtful movie that in the end, for me, was kind of unsatisfying.

It's about a man and a woman who met in a bar and slept together. It opens with them waking up the morning after, and the whole film follows them spending the day together, awkwardly attempting to get to know each other at the same time that they are dealing with their own relationship issues. In odd and subtle ways they each push the other away at the same time that a yearning for intimacy seems to develop between the two of them. The scenes of their day together are spliced with scenes from their imagination as well as flashbacks to previous relationships.

Dustin Hoffman plays John, and his physical attraction to Mary, played by Mia Farrow, is palpable. Mary, however, seems cold and baiting, and I never felt that she really liked him. Her personality was kind of prickly and enigmatic, and I didn't find her very likable.

In fact, what I thought was good about the movie was the way it was exploring how people *don't* connect. At one point toward the end Dustin Hoffman says that it isn't working, it doesn't seem right; it's got to seem right. And that's when John and Mary clicked the most for me. However, it ends up with him chasing her and them deciding that they are going to be together (it is implied that she will be moving in). I found that forced and I didn't feel happy, as I never felt particularly invested in them getting together. So that was disappointing.

One thing I loved: seeing all the footage of New York from 1969. John's apartment was literally around the corner from where I grew up.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tony Towle

I saw Tony Towle read at Sidewalk last night!

He's one of my favorite poets, and it was such a treat to see him read. He read a selection of prose pieces, all delivered with wry intelligence. It was a great reading.

Dead Man Walking

Yesterday I watched Dead Man Walking, a controversial movie that is, unbelievably, now 15 years old.

Although tackling a huge subject(capital punishment), the movie tells a very small story about a Louisiana nun who becomes the spiritual adviser of a man on death row. The drama engages all the big issues around the death penalty (victims' rights, weighing "justice", politics, possible wrongful convictions) but does so through the narrative of a developing relationship between the two characters where they both learn to trust and to forgive. It is a very powerful, beautiful, and intelligent film.


I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Deadline, a documentary about the death penalty that focuses on a the clemency decisions Illinois governor Ryan faced in his last days in office (2002 or 2004, I forget which year).

It tells a full story of the death penalty in the United States, and explores many sides of the issues. It is clear, however, that the filmmakers are opposed to capital punishment. Their arguments include the fact that the system is plagued with racial and class inequalities that make punishment unjust, as well as the problem of innocence -- wrongful convictions -- about which there is a tremendous amount of disturbing evidence.

What made this film work for me, however, is the drama of the governor's decision. Even though I knew that he granted blanket clemency to all the 166 offenders on death row, I was deeply moved at his speech. I also found the families of homicide victims against capital punishment to be very moving.

American Drug War: The Last White Hope

American Drug War: The Last White Hope is a frenetic presentation of a multitude of issues surrounding America's drug policies. It is a scathing critique of the war on drugs, and in particular highlights the role of American government in perpetuating, exacerbating, and manufacturing many drug-related problems.

The film explores problematic and destructive substance use, the irrational line between legal and illegal substances, the government involvement in the crack epidemic, the different social patterns of various drugs, the arguments for decriminalization of substances, and medical marijuana, among other topics.

All in all I thought the presentation was rather sensationalized and chaotic and I would have preferred a more restrained and linear narrative.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Super Size Me

I really didn't like Super Size Me. I thought there was something obnoxiously self-congratulatory about it; like the guy (Morgan Spurlock) was patting himself on the back for not being a gross fatty. The tone was rather contemptuous of overweight people, and while the target of his film is really the fast food companies, there is a continual self-righteous voyeurism about people who actually eat fast food on a regular basis.

The premise of the documentary is to record the impact of eating nothing but McDonald's for an entire month. And the filmmaker checks in with a slew of doctors on a regular basis, all who monitor the demise of his health while on the massive Mac-attack.

I just thought that he thought he was so cool. And I don't know what he proved. Yeah, he made the point that the food is very unhealthy; and yeah, he made the point that the corporations only care about the bottom line, not the well-being of their consumers. I suppose this supports regulation of the food industry, which I'm somewhat ambivalent about. Regardless of where you stand on regulation, though, I don't think he needed to resort to these "heroics" to make his argument. The same information could just as forcefully, if not more forcefully, be conveyed in a op-ed piece.

The Farm: Angola USA

The Farm: Angola USA is a documentary following six prisoners in the penitentiary in Angola, LA. It explores the human cost of our current system of mass incarceration and puts a human face on our current injustice system.

This was a very gripping, very sad film. It was difficult to watch because my heart went out to these inmates. In spite of the fact that they had done horrible things (most were murderers), the waste of the decades they spent in prison really hit home. It was very emotional, and one criticism could be that it played on emotions in such a way that it obfuscated the more complicated issues that arise in sentencing and punishment.

The American Injustice System

The American Injustice System provides an analysis of the racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and explores the inequalities that exist in stops and arrests, convictions, and sentencing, making many of the points Jeffrey Reiman makes in his book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, with an added emphasis on racialized social control.

It's a pretty good film. It provides solid content. However, it is visually quite uninteresting