It rained really hard on the 5 boroughs Wednesday night. I got stuck in DUMBO just before a magnificent thunderstorm moved across the river from Manhattan. Without many options for cover -far out DUMBO is still desolate after dark- I thought I would be drenched in moments, but fate had another plan for me. Just as the rain drops started to fall fat and heavy, I spotted a light in the distance. I ran (carefully?) across the wet cobblestones and ducked I to one of the many old warehouse style buildings, this one on a corner across from the developing waterfront park under the bridge. A steep cement staircase, soft lights and plants sprouting from burlap sacks hanging over the metal rails- that’s what I first saw when I walked into Smack Mellon gallery.
The locally sourced and brewed beer tasting was just wrapping up and the folks gathered around began to seat themselves for a discussion about a subject not previously talked about in art galleries, I’m sure…food. Political issues surrounding food sourcing was the topic of the artist/farmer panel dubbed FOODprint. As the dark clouds moved over towards downtown Brooklyn, followed by over an hour of torrential rain and clashing thunder and lightening, a group of farmer artists talked about the way urban communities can source the food they buy more sustainably. They also opened up the discussion to talk about why this needed to happen. According to both activist lawyer (farmer, artist), Jennifer Grossman and Fishkill Farms Good Eggs entrepreneur, Josh Morgenthau, urban sites are attracting more people than ever and the urbanites require more nutritional resources than ever before.
Where is the food coming from? The answer is mostly very far away. By Grossman’s numbers, over 5,000 acres of public land are vacant in New York City. Why aren’t more of our groceries coming from unused, fertile lands in the city itself? What is the cost of developing farms for communities rather than having to (in more than one sense) import goods from far-off lands? The Brooklyn Grange farmers have made it their mission to develop rooftop gardens that grow fresh, season, local produce for people in NYC. Farmers markets, while being close to their market sites, are a great place to learn about seasonal produce, but also to better understand where foods come from and what environment they grow in. We must learn where our food comes from and how to use foods properly, as artist and solo farmer Tattfoo Tan put it during the panel discussion. After all, what could render us more independent and free than choosing what and when to feed oneself
Oscar Grant was shot by a policeman at Fruitvale Station in Oakland just after midnight on January 1st, 2009. He was unarmed and had not been charged with any form of misconduct. Grant was shot in the back by an officer who later had his charges reduced because he explained that he mistook his gun for his taser in the heat of the moment. On screen, the events of Oscar’s last day of life play out like many other tragedies in that we’re guided through the softest events, pleasures, and joy alongside the hardship of the living before that sadness sets in. Oscar lost his job because he was late a lot. He’s irresponsible, but clearly underprivileged ok many ways, causing him to consider selling dope. He’s immature, but how can you reasonably grow up when you’ve got no money and no backup? Magic? Time? Everyone needs a hand, especially parents, and Oscar Grant was a father. A young girl misses him every day.
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler did his utmost to provide contrasting visions of Grant, to complicate him, as viewers imagine they themselves are deep down: unsure, afraid to be without those we love, proud, insecure, angry- so we understand. By the time Oscar is shot, he’s been portrayed as a pedlar of ideas; the idea we can all feel entitled, regardless of out station in life. We shout, rightfully, when we are wronged. We miss our children when we leave them. They tell us to stay because they love us, because they can’t imagine us gone: if we leave, we might not come back, because we are adults. Oscar helps people without any struggle: accounts of a pregnant couple, his friends when there’s a fight, his girlfriend when she’s sad. In these visions, he is kind but impatient for change and prosperity. With one gunshot placed properly to kill, his hopes and ideas are finalized into nothingness, because that is what death does. Such is the story of Oscar Grant as it has been told to us by Ryan Coogles, through a superbly sensitive, yet fiery portrayal by actor Michael B. Jordan.
Public defenders uphold the constitutional right of an accused citizen to have defense under the presumption of the court that they are innocent until proven guilty. They exist as the line between the for profit prison system and the constitution itself. The state’s defender (otherwise known as a prosecutor) seeks to prove guilt, which is a vital part of a game known as justice.
Justice is, very unfortunately in the case of the legal system, opposed by a system run by dollars. If not for the money, it might be easier to jail criminals and free innocent people, but the concept of bail alone clarifies that this is all about money over flesh and blood. Paying for freedom puts currency in the spotlight, no?
And so it is that justice is defended by the people who hold this profession of public defense. They work long hours for meager pay in sometimes dangerous conditions in the name of innocence, and not the innocence of their defendants, necessarily -they know this is not always possible- but the concept of innocence itself. The right of citizens to a fair trial is theirs to uphold, and so their function is absolutely vital to justice in this country.
What “Gideon’s Army” does is show viewers what the devotion to innocence looks like under extremely difficult, heartbreaking circumstances. “This is all I can do for you” is a common phrase. If a boy’s mom can’t come up with the cash to free him, he can’t leave jail- he might never leave, anyway. If they had the cash, they might not need a public defender- can we just consider for a moment how impossible that kind of chance is when presented? No money gets you free defense, but it also gets you jail, because the only way out is to suddenly have a rather large sum of money in hand to give not to your landlord or school or investment, but to be free. On that occasion, which is experienced by thousands of people across the country each day, this all seems like a useless set of rights, under the worst circumstances. A trick for someone else’s purposes. And yet the defenders defend 120 to 180 people at a time, hoping to use their knowledge of the system to give as many unfortunate defendants back their lives as possible. Their trials and issues amount to making the difference of one life at a time, and what good the free person does with the time they’ve repurchased.
My first trip to the Rubin Museum was with a group of acerbically-minded third graders. I immediately felt comforted in the quiet, deep-gray and gilded red space. The low chanting in the galleries and the soft faces of many Buddhas struck me as a warm greeting: kind and impersonal.
The kids gravitated almost immediately to the happy belly of the earthy stone Ganesh. Maybe it was the recognizable value he had- the cash at his feet, in his trunk, tucked into his palms and balancing on his round thighs. The rest inspired them to solemnity. They were downright cautious. This was a huge shift from their usual giddy, openly judgmental way of assessing the world around them. I was fascinated by their collective transformation and wondered how long it would last. Medicine Buddha and Guhyasamaja forms had them staring, quiet and thoughtful but unsure of what to ask. They were no longer assessing. This new world had them doing something single digit aged people usually don’t have the chance to do, which is to reassess what they know.
The most notable moment of reassessment was when we went to sit in the temple room. The tour guide asked who had questions. The bluntest student in the class said “Why is the room so scary? Why are there monsters?” Good question. The guide answered as though this was a common question: “those are some scary faces, yes. But they are guardians, not monsters. You see, in Buddhism, the monsters in a prayer room are there to protect the spirits of the people who live in the house or temple. They are supposed to scare away the bad thoughts.” The kids were still scared, but it’s that kind of reversal of symbols that forms healthy perceptions and even an individual’s ability to perceive meanings with flexibility.
If I had gone by myself into the prayer room, I would’ve gotten half as much out of it as I did by sitting there with the kids, who felt unsettled enough by the darkness, the cluttered Buddha’s, and, of course, the painted monsters to question their existence: why would anyone pray with these things around them? I’m scared of other kinds of monsters. We all have monsters to explain to outsiders. The lesson is to always see the other side to move deeper into and inform your own.
The most sinful behavior -if ever there was anything we could truly consider a “sin” about human nature- is that which grows outward like a weed from the belief of entitlement. Sometimes I think that the purpose of society for the last century or so has been to blanket communities under the belief that every individual is entitled to certain things it has to offer. The blanket I’ll call Entitlement covers the sky, the horizon, and nothing but human creatures can crawl under it. When something bad happens, when the blanket gets heavier, somehow, when it feels cold and damp and dreary under it (almost like repression?), we start looking for the sun again- we’ll even take the moon, if only to breath in our own strength again. Because being under entitlement, we grow weak. With all that reminds us of our connectedness to the world, we suffer. Wondering why, when we were supposedly born to have and have and have things (never mind the quality), we still suffer, it becomes clear, to the lucky ones, that the materials that mark is as subjects of a humane society actually mean next to nothing when it comes to our existence. They blind the points we must reach to feel whole. We do what we must to get housing, to clothe and feed ourselves and our loved ones. Recently (in history, that is), governing forces started stating that education was something we humans are entitled to. And so we go to school, some of us. By the time the damp and cold -the illness, the sadness, the hamster-on-a-wheel feeling sets in, we might need something extraordinary to remind us why we feel like puzzle pieces. In a society that has been abused with rules that don’t suit them by outside forces since before anyone can remember, entitlement theory consists of a thread-bare blanket. The people, exhausted, sun scorched, with limbs barely usable…they are at the end. Not death, but the end of the cycle of abuse, and the ones who can still move stand- superhuman. And the ones who think they can’t stand hold their fellows up, and that is what revolution is about. That is what The Square was about. And the majority of this entry is about how western thinkers might most sensibly relate to such an uprising. Perhaps if we saw our nature more readily, we would not just see the revolutionaries as brave, but as very human, as we are.
I started doing these portraits of women who have made history. They have nourished me with the memory of the ways they thrived, suffered, and truly desired to live. Long live these memories.
"The Act of Killing"
The way viewers react to Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” comes down to the way each viewer is able to expand their notion of the act of killing. In the liberal, privileged and mono-cultured West, we vaguely, yet virulently, understand murder (especially mass murder) as an unforgivable crime. Abstractly, we judge such crimes harshly; the openness of our understanding immediately shutters- and of this strong reaction, we are proud. We fancy ourselves a world away from such acts, though some members of American society have taken to shooting their fellow citizens in premeditated attacks in public spaces like schools, movie theaters, and shopping centers. Aside from our difficulty in reconciling mass killings here or there or anywhere, one thing is certain: we abhor it all. We consider the concept of the act of killing other humans resolutely inhuman.
So, what happens when we watch a film which documents the glorification of retired mass murderers? We may just freeze up for the first few minutes. Why are watching? We are stuck between walking away and keeping our minds open to the words, the sounds, the visions, and, in the case of Oppenheimer’s latest feature, the plotting…the reenactment of murders long buried. Difficult as it is to swallow, there’s another side to act of killing. Not a captured serial killer’s demented final testimony or the weeping, barely coherent statements of a criminal of passion. This professional, calculated and perhaps above all, government-sanctioned kind of killing of thousands of people for political purposes is in fact a necessary piece of the puzzle of what humans are capable of on a larger, less judged and more active scale. Recognizing a human who is speaking of having committed crimes we never thought there were questions about is necessary to understanding things like war from the level of the gangsters who act as contracted killers for bigger fish.
All that said, and from the same perspective I’ve just laid flat, I’ll be blunt: there is nothing sympathetic about the men who own the screen in this documentary. Their current cluelessness about the world beyond their sphere of brutality doesn’t make up for the brutality. Their smiles make them human, but the crimes they describe with wit and boyish energy maintain their cold-heartenedness. That part seems without a doubt, that they are missing something that makes other cringe at the sight of a crying child, a face in pain, straining muscles and veins, too much blood. These men -gangsters, they say- are free in a society in which people speak carefully, quietly, and have only popular open opinions, if any at all. They would have viewers believe that their freedom was born of some innate treasure chest of deservedness. They were special, in spite of being born into poverty. In fact, they became “free men”, gangsters, by virtue of their absolute lack of empathy.
In a conversation between one of the main characters in this vivid retelling, Anwar, and his old world cronies discuss a scene they planned in which the big boss Anwar gets covered in gory prosthetic flesh and plays one of his victims. He says he feels like one of them, that being in the position of having no dignity, even knowing that it is unreal, is like truly having none. Just as Anwar used glorious, hyper-masculine visions of Elvis Presley and the stars of the Western genre to lead his gangsters to kill over 1,000 so-called Communists during the 1960’s rebellion on foreigners, minorities, and unionized workers, Anwar’s feeling for acting and embodying a character is summoned up in the flow of energy- ever-violent and awful, no matter the side he chooses to take in it.
In a scene where the gangsters lay siege upon a village, massacring anyone they meet, the child actors -in some cases the sons and daughters of the gangsters- sob uncontrollably long after the cameras stop recording the reenactment. In other moments, the crowds cheer and laugh as women and children pretend to be victims of events that not only actually took place, but occurred at the hands of the men playing the murderers, and in many cases on the same grounds. They do so out of a fear bred into them by powerlessness against gangsters who lack the empathy that prevents men from shedding blood. The men speak of feeling haunted, but they do not have mercy. They refuse to repent.
So, “layers upon layers of disturbing” doesn’t begin to describe the fathomless depths of absurdity and horror that this kind of action portrays. And yet, it is a film. And it is a successful documentary about history.
Does watching “The Act of Killing” make an American college student view murder differently? The my referee? It will probably not have that effect- bloodshed is abhorrent to normal people. But the shameless absurdity that unfolds in the reenactment sheds light on what it takes to kill on a massive scale, and it isn’t exactly hatred, greed, for power- no. It’s the sanction of those who control things and the summoning of a collective coldness of heart that make it happen: the ability to believe that some people can die without negative consequence, without deserving guilt to ride on the killer’s back.
Frances, O, Frances, where are you? Brooklyn, in the era of Hipsters and post-feminist feminists, in which no twenty-something without a trust-fund can get by on just one job, one gig, or one talent. Not if she pays her own rent and wants to live. That’s where. The words “But I should save money… so I can pay rent” are nothing like poverty, but not many parents understand why recent college grad’s need multiple roommates to pay for such tiny (and not exactly adorable) apartments. This is a somewhat cramped and more expensive version of bohemian luxury, and we wouldn’t need it if we would just move. But this is Brooklyn, New York. We walk and fall and get back up on the tight rope all day: walking is like flying, falling sucks, but getting back up again means we belong here.
To the movie, though- Frances wanders through a New York life, stubborn against the idea of giving in to any daily grind that isn’t her passion and admittedly “always so tired”- a realistic portrait of how thousands of Frances’ are existing right now within a five mile radius of where I sit typing at this moment. The charming realism is impressive, by which I mean that the script is very good.
For better and for worse, a large population can relate to the words, the looks, the views that Frances, Sophie, Lev, and all live out in the film. Many more sat yearning to have that realism be theirs for as long as they could survive it. There you have the market- a great grasp on an elusive subject.
Script, check. Market, check. Vision- spectacular. The film, beyond my very personal understanding of the subject matter, needs to be on did many more New New York films. I write this having heard just hours ago that Pearl Paint has been shuttered, and am coming to terms with the fact that life blood here in this grungy city must be renewed.
The new city must mean something close to what Frances knows- how she survives. I don’t mean running up debts on a pre-approved credit card at the age of 27 or avoiding a day job only to become an RA at your alma mater…no. I mean the conclusion, when she starts to reach forward with open arms, to use the available space to create with what time she has between surviving and resting. Making New York her own is how she ends up, and that isn’t a dead-end, it highlights that a universal purpose can and should be experienced in this city of sleepless nights, jerkfaced gangster landlords, ever-absurd expectations, and still more random beauty…don’t miss it if it’s what you’ve been surviving for.