Archive for the 'History' Category

Presidential Fetish

My associate Ted Mills sent this ad from Craigslist the other day which in my mind raises more questions than it answers.

rhode island craigslist
SEX WITH RICHARD NIXON… – m4w
Date: 2005-10-11, 12:31PM EDT

I am a 29 yr old man who for years has been collecting masks of famous past presidents. I have over 40 masks now of our governing forefathers and it is also somewhat of a kink of mine. I am looking for women into roleplay who may have always fantasized about getting banged by a young Richard Nixon.. or perhaps done doggy style by a brash and sexy Abraham Lincoln? How about being tied to my podium and made to “submit” by leather bound and erect Jimmy Carter? The scenarios are endless…and so is my presedential lust….if this sounds like a fantasy you would be excited by…drop me a line…your commander and chief awaits you…

I get the rather creepy image of a fat hirsute guy in a trailer full of rubber masks and bondage gear who really really liked high school history class. He claims to have 40 rubber masks out of 43. What presidents didn’t make the cut? Chester A. Arthur? Zachery Taylor? How many times does he make sexual innuendos out of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “tread softly and carry a big stick” line? Is there a James A. Garfield rubber mask out there? Are they bought exclusively for obscure fetishists? Do they reenact Garfield’s faithful walk to through the Washington train station, reaching climax as James Blaine shouts “What is the Meaning of this?” It all just boggles the mind.

June is National Soul Food Month, Among Others…

June is…

Audiobook Month
Caribbean American Heritage Month
National Flag Month
National Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month
Turkey Lover’s Month
National Dairy Month
National Iced Tea Month
National Papaya Month
National Candy Month
Gay Pride Month
National Hunger Awareness Month
National Seafood Month
&
National Soul Food Month

Summer Palace (2006)

Summer Palace is film I always suspected would get made. The events of Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were so dramatic and cinematic that it naturally captures the imagination of artists. During the protests — starting from Hu Yaobang‘s death on April 15 through to the government’s bloody crackdown on June 4th/5th — youth in China experience a sort of condensed version of the 1960s. Imagine the Free Speech Movement, Woodstock, and Kent State all jammed into six weeks and you get the picture.

Not unlike the American government in the ’80s, the post-Tiananmen Square government distracted its citizens with a heady combination of economic boom times and virulent nationalism. The Chinese government had to as the protests called into question its very legitimacy. Almost 20 years later, most of the main student leaders of the protests are still exiled. Though the romantic sweep of those spring months still command the imagination, talkin about the protests publicly carries grave risks. Director Lou Ye — who graduated from Beijing University in 1989 — was banned from making movies for five years as punishment for making this film.

Summer Palace was screen in competition in Cannes and was hailed not only for its political daring, but also frank sexuality. As J. Hoberman of the Village Voice noted, not only is this movie the most sexually explicit film to come out of China, it’s more explicit than the six runner-ups combined. Though the pairing of sex and politics is a long one in cinema, Lou Ye’s film is not Closely Watched Trains or even The Dreamers. It’s a portrait of a lost generation.

Yu Hong (played by Lei Hao) is a willful sullen lass from the North Korean border who, once she gets to a Beijing university, plunges headlong into the messy abundance of life. This includes exploring her sexuality with (among others) her fellow student Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). At first, the two are insanely happy, stealing away into an empty dorm room for frankly depicted quickies. But as the protests start ramping up in the background, doubt and suspicion seeps into their own private eden. Yu Hong becomes jealous and Zhou Wei starts sleeping with Yu Hong’s erstwhile best friend Li Ti. As the crackdown explodes around them, Yu has a nervous breakdown and flees Beijing, leaving Zhou behind. Up until this point, the film mirrors the youthful energy of the characters with a tone that’s both giddy and nervous. The camera, frequently hand-held, feels voyeuristic.

After the crackdown, the movie speeds past other major Chinese historical milestones — like the Hong Kong handover — before catching up with Zhou and Yu in the present. Zhou lives as an intellectual in Berlin and continues to make unfulfilling love to Li Ti. Yu sports a bad haircut and shacks up with a married guy out of loneliness. Both seem still seem traumatized by these unhealing scars from the past. The parallels between these two wounded ex-lovers and between China and its intellectuals are clear though not overbearing. Thankfully, Lou Ye roots the drama in the characters rather than an allegory. The regret and dull existential panic these Yu and Zhou felt of hitting your 30s and feeling your life slip out of sight is both palpable here and universal. And that’s what lingered in my mind days after watching it.

Summer Palace is not a perfect film. It sometimes veers close to the self-indulgence and the structure gets unwieldy in places. It is, though, a haunting and glorious mess.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Akira Kurosawa’s first post-war film, No Regrets for Our Youth, is a strange uneasy movie. The story, which is loosely based on real life events, details the transformation of Yukie, the daughter of a leftist college professor — played by Japanese film icon Setsuko Hara — from a spoiled brat, to dedicated wife of an anti-war dissident (based on Hotsumi Ozaki who worked with Richard Sorge — of Spy Sorge fame — and was the only Japanese to be hung during the war) to a dutiful hardworking farmer girl.

Though Regrets is not of the same caliber as Kurosawa’s later masterpieces it’s always interesting. The rhythm and pacing of the first half of the movie is restless like youthful energy unsure where to channel itself. The student demonstration montage sequences seem lifted straight from Eisenstein. By the end of the film, the pacing slows to match that of rural life and to match Yukie’s new found maturity.

But what’s really interesting about the film is Kurosawa’s struggle to understand what happened to his country. How could left-thinking intellectuals allow Japan to be hijacked by the military? Of course, the US occupying forces, terrified of a return of the crazed nationalism that pushed Japan into war, was very much encouraging this sort of cultural introspection. (For more on this, I really recommend Embracing Defeat by John Dower) And you argue that this movie is as much a propaganda film as his wartime films Sugata Sanshiro or Most Beautiful. Given Kurosawa’s trademark humanism, as seen in Ikiru and Rashomon, I think that part of this film is a real heartfelt working through of guilt and pain of the past decade.

Perhaps because I have this sort of thing one the brain, Regret reminded me of some of these Iraq war movies that have been coming out (and bombing). They also seem to be working through many of the same issues. Both Regret and movies like Redacted or Stop Loss, seem raw and uneasy. The tone brittle and lacerating, asking how the hell did we get here?

May is National Asparagus Month, Among Others

May is…

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Mental Health Month
New Zealand Music Month
Celebrate Older Adults Month
South Asian Heritage Month
Indian Heritage Month (observed in Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and most Caribbean island-nations)
Haitian Heritage Month
Jewish American Heritage Month
Allergy/Asthma Awareness Month
National Good Car Keeping Month
National Strawberry Month
National Chocolate Custard Month
Foot Health Month
National Physical Fitness and Sports Month
National High Blood Pressure Month
National Hamburger Month
Arthritis Month
Better Sleep Month
Better Speech and Hearing Month
Correct Posture Month
National Salad Month
Older Americans Month
National Barbecue Month
National Bike Month
National Mine Month
National Egg Month
National Morrissey History Month
National Artisan Gelato Month
National Asparagus Month
National Salsa Month
National Share A Story Month
Fibromyalgia Awareness
Stroke Awareness Month
&
Fungal Infection Awareness Month

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

One of the perks of working at my current job is that I get to watch free advanced movie screenings. The other day I watched Erroll MorrisStandard Operating Procedure. While his last film Fog of War, which I think is a masterpiece, examines a failed American war from the point of view of its architect, Robert McNamara, this film looks at one of the most embarrassing moments of this current failed American war — Abu Ghraib. Morris essentially allows the US Servicemen and women involved to give the context (and often rationalization) for each of the famed pictures. In his typical modernist way, Morris gives the viewer few objective handles to judge the interviewees stories.

What worked brilliantly in Fog of War falters here. The music (Danny Elfman channeling Philip Glass) is too bombastic, the graphics (done by my former employer Kyle Cooper) are too slick, and Morris’ trademark reenactments are too beautiful for the subject matter. The pictures are horrific and the servicemen and women are too raw and conflicted to justify such an overblown approach.

That being said, Standard Operating Procedure raises some very uncomfortable questions. Primarily, there’s one of guilt. Sure, most of the interviewees are guilty of mistreating prisoners. And their defense is something along the lines of “I was just following orders.” Nuremberg declared that such an argument doesn’t hold water. And while I agree with that in principle, I came away from the film feeling sorry for the poor schmucks, most straight out high school, who were put into a morally gray if not contradictory situation with intentionally vague instructions. (I wonder how my opinion would have changed if the movie interviewed the Iraqi prisoners in those pictures.

All of them draw a line between abuse and standard operating procedure. Making some guy jerk off or piling prisoners in a human pyramid is abuse, while stripping some guy naked, putting panties on his head and handcuffing him in an uncomfortable position is standard operating procedure. It strikes me, as a civilian, that that’s a very subtle and easily crossed distinction.

The film argues that Lynndie England and the others were punished more because they embarrassed the Pentagon that for an crime. One poor guy was sentenced to a year in the brig. Why? Because he appeared in an Abu Ghraib video cutting of the flex cuffs of a prisoner whose hands were turning purple. Though this torture strategy originated at the highest levels of government , no one above Staff Sargent was criminally punished. Guilt, according to the government, is not based on what you do, but whether or not you’re caught. That sort of mindset, that like an amoral seven-year old, has been the standard operating procedure for this administration. And as the years pass, Abu Ghraib might seem quaint compared to the horrors that Bush Co. have for now managed to hide away. That’s the thing about guilt, and nationhood. Just like the German people bare responsibility for Hitler and the Japanese bare (still officially unacknowledged) responsibility for Hirohito’s crimes in China, so does the American people share guilt about Bush’s crimes. And it drives me crazy.

The Garfield Factor: James A. Garfield, 20th president of the US, would have been largely baffled by the modernist sensibilities, finding it too disjointed and morally fuzzy. He would have undoubtedly found the Abu Ghraib pictures unsettling, not for their brutality, Pres. Garfield was a general in the Union army, but for their near pornographic unseemliness. Most likely, we would have poured himself a glass of whiskey and tried to blot the whole thing out of his mind by studying his beloved ancient Greek texts.

Saboteur (1942)

One of my projects as of late is to watch more Hitchcock movies. Hitchcock has always been, like Ingmar Bergman, one of those filmmakers that I know I need to watch more of but never quite seen to find the time to do so. Sure I’ve seen the major works but it’s those B+ films where you really can learn the tricks of a master. So in recent weeks, I’ve watched The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Lifeboat, and Frenzy. Yesterday, I watched Saboteur. Like Lifeboat, it was fraught with anxiety about the war and indeed American society itself. In fact, Saboteur started shooting just weeks after Pearl Harbor. A running plea in both movies is for the labor battles and the class warfare of the 1920s and 30s to be put aside so we Americans can defeat the Nazis. (And with all the subsequent post-Reagan triumphalism about the war aside, the anxiety in these movies reminds us that we came really close to losing WWII. If Hitler where just a little less crazy…)

The plot of Saboteur is typical Hitchcock. An good-hearted average Joe named Barry Kane gets fingered as a saboteur in an airplane factory fire. He flees and encounters a variety of salt-of-the-earth type Americas. All of them believe in the common good and the common goodness of humanity to a level that seems impossibly naive these days. The only people who people that acts with the sort of hard-nosed self interest that is fashionable among economists and Ayn Rand enthusiasts everywhere are the bad guys. In particular, one Charles Tobin played with feline malevalence by Otto Kruger (who was weirdly enough was not only the grand nephew of South African revolutionary Paul Kruger but also born in Toledo, Ohio.)

At the obligatory scene in which the bad guy divulges his motivations, Tobin complains the current government (i.e. FDR’s) is not profitable enough. He argues that a dictatorship is much better for business. While watching this, I was reminded of Prescott Bush. Both Tobin and Bush were Wall Street bluebloods who had clear Nazi sympathies and Bush’s name did come up in the congressional investigation into the alleged coup attempt by the monied class against FDR and the New Deal. Fifty years later, Prescott Bush’s idiot grandson has done more to further the goals of Charles Tobin than any other American. He shredded much of the government oversight brought about during the New Deal and pushed America closer than any president in recent memory to a dictatorship. Like the good citizens of the movie, I think that only thing that save us from these criminals is a return to a belief in the common good.

The Garfield Factor: President James A. Garfield on one hand would have probably rejected the New Deal as being against his understanding of the Constitution. On the other hand, being a Civil War veteran and a man with a strong sense of right and wrong, he never would have supported any activity that hinted at treason.

James A. Garfield

I’m going to begin this blog in a manner many blogs do: I’m going to talk about James A. Garfield. On July 2, 1881, at around 9:30 am, , the 20th President of the United States of America was shot on a train platform.

The assassin, Charles Guiteau, was upset that he was passed over as the Embassador of France, a failed newspaperman, plagiarizing author and a dubiously credentialed lawyer. He was also probably the only person not to get lucky in the Oneida “free love” Community in upstate New York, leaving the commune with the ignoble nickname of “Charles Gitout.” Guiteau bought the gun, which had an ivory inlaid handle, that killed Garfield specifically because he thought they would look good on display. It was, of course, lost after the shooting.

One bullet grazed the President’s arm and the other lodged in his back. Garfield, who was walking next to his old friend and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, crumpled almost immediately. Blaine exclaimed, using in my opinion preternatural poise, “My God. This man has been assassinated! What is the meaning of this!?”

I love reading about weird historical stories like this, but what struck me most is Blaine’s exclamation. If my dear friend and political rival were shot in front of me, I doubt I’d be able to utter all those syllables. Instead, I’d probably shout something semi-coherent like “What the fuck.” Then again, I gather is the sort of the starched-collar 19th century equivalent of shouting “What the fuck!” This gave me the image of a sneering youth in spats and a top hat, waiting for his hansome cab, typing “WITMOT” into his steam powered cell phone.

This blog will be dedicated to whatever historical strangeness I find, with a special emphasis on America’s most forgotten President.

Kumamoto — Gerogerigegege and the Island Beauty

Hey gang. Yes, I’ve been an errant blogger as of late and to my legions of loyal readers, I bid you a heartfelt apology. Today was clear and not the blazing inferno it has been for much of the week. On Wednesday or so, the temperature here in Kumamoto was the same as Santa Clarita, that high desert suburban armpit where I call home, only Santa Clarita doesn’t have 85% humidity. Just walking from the tram to my office at 9:30 in the morning caused me to sweat through my shirt. Quite unseemly.

Today while eating dinner with R in front of the TV, I saw a show that featured an old man making out with a Boston terrier; a contest that pitted a group of comedians against a sumo wrestler (they lost); a guy who put crabs in his mouth to see what would happen (answer: excruciating pain); a wrestling match between bikini idols; and an Andy Kaufman-like Japanese comedian who was arrested for streaking in Pyongyang. The other day I saw a trivia show that included such morsels of information as very single member of the 1998 Yugoslavian soccer team had a name that ended in “-vic,” that spiders get drunk on coffee, and that if one where to buy every single item in a train station kiosk shop the total price is ¥940,000 (about $75,000). They arrived at that figure by actually going out to a kiosk in Ebisu station and buying every damned thing. The expression of the woman behind the counter was priceless. Sure, Japanese TV is mostly crap, but at least it’s memorable crap.

Anyway, today R and I spent most of the day hanging out with Chakko — R’s cousin. In a family that includes a Communist and a rock star, Chakko stands out as an eccentric. She is one of the few people I’ve met who seems utterly impervious to social expectations. She doesn’t give a wit to fashion, she speaks unselfconsciously in a thick Kyushu accent even though she lives currently in Kyoto and she refers to herself using ore, the coarse masculine word for “I.” She dropped out of art school a while back (she’s a very talented draftsman) and is now taking a stab at filmmaking. Yesterday, she showed us one of her videos, which was a portrait of her friend who makes pictures with his own bodily excretions. It was pretty harrowing to watch, but had a certain style to it. She’d fit right into CalArts. She also told me about a Gerogerigegege concert she witnessed a few years back. I became aware of Gerogerigegege when my friend Ted lent me an album called Tokyo Anal Dynamite — which is either the most God-awful album or the most brilliant album I’ve ever heard. I haven’t figured out which. Anyway, for the concert Gerogerigegege, who is apparently very fat, stood stark naked on stage shouting “Ecstasy” over and over again for a full hour. R, Chakko and I lamented that there this sort of weirdo decadence was hard to find in the states.

On Friday, a huge typhoon blasted through. Friday was also my final day working at BIG, which is ironic because my first day at BIG also had a huge typhoon rolling through town. It was a teary-eyed departure filled with promises to stay in touch and to work with each other again. Actually, Horita liked my work so much that I am the official head of the BIG Los Angeles office. I doubt this is going to lead to much actual work, but who knows. The night before there was a big blow-out party on my behalf at a recently opened hip nightspot build in a refurnished traditional house. Hereâs a picture of the gathering below:

The lanky white guy in middle is me. Going clock-wise, the guy in the greenish shirt is Fukushima-san. He’s a producer and was out for most of the day, so I really didn’t know him all that well. The guy with the glasses giving the requisite peace sign to the camera is Miyazaki-san. He’s the guy who I dragged all over hither and yon for my shoot and who likes to eat grilled tripe. Next is Oshima-san who was my producer for my Yamaga shoot, and finally there’s Horita-san’s wife Naomi who is in some convoluted way related to R’s dad.

Anyway, several pitchers of beer and several plates of sushi later they presented be with a going-away gift — the entire set of manga called Monster by a manga artist that Miyazaki and I both like. Then Horita-san ordered a local shochu made from potatoes called Island Beauty.

“You might not like it,” he warned, “it kinda stinks.” Indeed, it did have a strong though not unpleasant odor and did taste a bit like natto. That was the first cup, of course. By the fourth or fifth cup, I wouldn’t have cared if it tasted like Tom DeLay‘s jockey shorts.

Here’s a shot of Horita after two or three glasses of the stuff. Around this time, he said (translating roughly), “Y’know Jon, you have a really serious face and when I first met you I thought you were this real straight arrow guy who likes to study a lot. But somewhere along the lines, I realized that you’re a really weird American.” He then said that my Japanese was really cute and sometimes really funny. I found this a little disconcerting because most of the time I wasn’t really trying to be funny. As the night progressed, Oshima and Miyazaki made fun of the size of Horita’s head. Miyazaki and I complained about George Bush and the idiots in government on both sides of the Pacific.

And of course, lots and lots of silly and rather embarrassing pictures were taken with the company digital camera. Friday morning, most members of the BIG crew were staggering around in a post-Island Beauty haze.

Kumamoto — Shooting, Editing, and Drinking with Models.

It’s noisy here in the Sumi residence in the morning. Around five or six in the morning, these mutant-sized crows start cackling at each other. Then some other bird — R told me the name in Japanese but I haven’t a clue what’s it called in English — starts making this weird whooping sound. And then the lions, tigers and bear in the adjacent zoo start roaring and growling. In response, the dogs in the neighborhood start barking. And finally, just as I begin to adjust to the rising noise level and return to a fitful sleep, the cicadas kick in. One of these bugs makes quite a racket; a swarm of them creates a deafening wail that is routinely used in Japanese movies to depict homicidal insanity. While half-asleep this morning, I had the distinct sense this insect cry was actually the sound of my own brain being grilled over a hibachi.

I guess such gruesome imagery is fitting cuz it’s wicked hot here. Yesterday, I managed to prod Miyazaki-san into helping me with a shoot of my own. Anyone familiar with my films Tokai or Beautiful People will probably gather what I was shooting this go around — static pictures of creepily banal architecture. It also gave me the chance to play with R’s sexy new Panasonic DVX-100. For those of you who don’t wax poetic about lines of resolution or image compression, I spare you the details. But the DVX-100 is a pretty cool camera.

Perhaps it was the omnipresent whine of the cicadas that reminded me of my own cooking brain or maybe it was the fact that the back of my neck had turned beet red but two hours into the shoot I went out and bought a ¥500 hat. I don’t wear many hats. I’m not a “hat person.” But I dig this hat. One could say that the hat makes me look remarkably like Jean-Luc Goddard during his cameo in Breathless. One could also that the hat makes me look uncannily like my grandfather Crow who wore a similar hat while gardening. Whatever, the hat protected my head and looked pretty good doing it.

The shoot itself proved to be less than successful, thanks to the heat coupled with some less than satisfactory light. Basically, Miyazaki and I shot for a couple hours then cooled off for a bit, usually at one of Kumamoto’s fine eating establishments. First we stopped by Mister Donuts (which was in an American-sized mall called You Me Town where incidentally I also bought my cool new hat); later we ate soba at a local noodle shop; then around three or so we ate at Mos Burger, which is probably the tastiest fast food joint I’ve ever eaten at; and then finally weary and sunburned, we ate yakiniku in one of Miyazaki favorite haunts which was packed full for some reason with spastic toddlers.

Basically, yakuniku is a platter of raw meat that you grill yourself. Miyazaki, who I think goes to this place something like every week, didn’t even look at the menu when he ordered for the two of us. Soon after, plate upon plate of meat arrived at our table, each more gruesome-looking than the last. When a plate full of raw tripe, intestines, kidneys, and livers arrived, I was dreading that next plate might have nothing but eyeballs and testicles. Though Miyazaki gently mocked my American culinary prudery, I was too tired to rise to the challenge. I stuck with the cuts of meat found on the exterior of the cow and ordered another beer as he merrily munched on charred tripe.

Anyway, most of the week was spent edited that promo for Yamaga. I managed to dredge up some taiko music that not only perfectly fit the length of the piece but also gave it a sense of drama and mystery. Once the timing was set, which took some doing, I had a blast trying out all these effects and techniques I’ve never had reason to use before. I’ll spare the grizzly details, but by Thursday I felt I had edited together a pretty hip little piece. Of course, on Friday after three days of editing, Oshima finally managed to get a hold of the TV station that was going to air the promo and was told that the promo had to be 42 seconds and not 45 as we were originally told. After uttering a number of curses in two languages, I rearranged some shots, tossed a few more and managed to pull something together that was pretty good but not as kick-ass as the 45-second directors cut.

You can see the director’s cut here:

Fortunately, the day ended with me pleasantly inebriated and chatting with models. Yamano-san, who was the cameraman for a shoot I was on in June, was throwing his famous annual summer festival party and all attendants were required to sport festival wear — either yukatas or happi coats. Oshima, who was the other representative for BIG, managed to dig up a shockingly gaudy happi for me to wear — it looked more like a soccer uniform than a piece of traditional Japanese garb. As we were driving to the party, she told me that Yamano’s wife was a hairdresser so I would be able rub elbows with both film and fashion related people. Basically, the beautiful people of Kumamoto, as such. Oshima and Yamano whisked me around and introduced me to lots people including a commercial director who lived in Australia and who spoke pretty good English, a film enthusiast with a moustache whose name I never really caught, and a pair of models named Misa and Maki. Unlike their American counterparts, these models weren’t tall, gaunt or hollow-cheeked. Instead, they looked like Japanese versions of the girl-next-door albeit with preternaturally good skin. They both thought it was cool that I lived in Los Angeles (compared to the blank stares I got when I said I was from Ohio eight years ago in Ibaraki) and they complained about modeling in Kyushu. I hoped that they would dish out about a seedy-side of Kumamoto filled with drugs, violence and red velour but sadly none was forth coming. Later, I talked to local TV reporter about New York City. She later proceeded to get rip-roarin’ drunk and talk on and on to Yamano-san’s wife about hair care tips. Of course, I was enjoying a bit of the drink myself. Eager to rid myself of the day’s stresses and annoyances, I made a beeline for the beer tap and made several return visits while stuffing myself with yakitori, grilled shrimp and edamame. Yamano soon started filling my glass with Shoju – a rice alcohol somewhere between sake and kerosene. Around midnight, when I spotted Oshima looking bored — she doesn’t drink because of migraines — I bayed the models and all farewell and went home in my happi coat.


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