Sunday, March 7, 2010

Moving Day

Hi all,

Well I did it! I've set myself up on WordPress. Unfortunately, migrating my old posts from here to the new page didn't go so well. So I'll just be not updating here anymore, keeping my back posts as a kind of archive, and then updating regularly at WordPress. Take a visit!

Man Descending on WordPress.

See you soon!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Post-Games Post-Mort Post

Well, they came and went. Here in Vancouver, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games have come to a close after seven long years of planning, hype, advertising, funding announcements, funding concealments, scandals, missteps, successes, and goofy mascots. The city seems to have settled into a collective state of hangover. Just ten minutes ago I walked down Granville Street to find myself a comfy chair, coffee, and Wi-Fi. Not even a week ago, Granville was essentially a massive frat party- air horns, silly costumes, (occasionally) unwarranted cheering and hooting, all set to the soundtrack of pseudo-comprehensible, multi-lingual renditions of “O Canada” (which is now apparently under review…wtf?). By contrast, this morning Granville was virtually deserted, decorated only by stylish downtowners calmly walking to work, and the scraps of celebrations gone by: half-hung “Go Canada Go” banners, the odd patch of confetti stomped into the pavement, and maple leaves scattered along the storefronts.

Mostly I’m grateful for this moment of reprieve, as it’s given me a chance to finally step back and try to survey what the greatest party even thrown meant for this city, how it felt to witness it, and the potential problems and opportunities that came along with it.

Vancouver over the past few weeks has been like no city I’ve ever been to. As an enthusiastic transplant from the prairies, this city has always seemed part magic to me- something about seeing the ocean, the Burrard Inlet, the soaring North Shore mountains, and Vancouver Island all at once while you sip a boutique coffee or chat over a glass of wine is a luxury that has yet to get old for me. Every time I visit the downtown core, I get off the train with a smile on my face. But when the Olympic hype started building, and the city was populated by enthusiastic helpers in snappy blue coats, tourists and observers from around the world, as well as citizens not knowing what to expect, the laid back, cosmopolitan din that usually hangs in the air here was inflated to a definite buzz. An energy even. Conversations about how the weather would factor in, about the potential for protest and social resistance, about the world media training its eye on the uneasy relationship between “have” and “have not” so powerfully articulated by the Downtown East Side, about how Canada would fare in the medal standings, about what this would mean for the arts and cultural industries in BC at a time when provincial arts funding was to be the subject of 90% cutbacks. If anything, the city became a massive discussion forum, with anti- and pro-Games activists clashing online, on the streets, and in the media, and moderates caught in an ambivalent position where the excess of the games and the very real problems of rampant corporatism, social justice cutbacks, and over security were constantly echoing in the back of their minds, but where the foreground was emphatically occupied by the excitement of the here and now. I spoke about the dialogic, innovative opportunities that the games opened up in a post I wrote following the early clashes between riot police and members of protest groups known as the Black Bloc and Olympic Heart Attack, and so I won’t delve too deeply into the issue of media, discourse, and democracy, but needless to say, the conversations bouncing through the social media networks were fiery, often polarized, and an embodiment of precisely what it means to live in a democratic Canadian culture.

A number of anti-games activists have claimed that the concerns outlined above (social justice, homelessness, poverty, arts funding) were glossed over by the wild popularity of the games as a branding exercise and as a global-scale marquee media event. I beg to differ. Never in my life have I witnessed the critical voice take such defiant charge of its own potential for change. On the Downtown East Side, a massive tent city was established for the second half of the games to draw attention to the rampant homelessness that characterizes the neighbourhood. A non-profit Legal Observer program was established for the duration of the Olympics on the second floor of W2 Culture + Media House as a way of guaranteeing that citizens, activists, and artists had access to information regarding their rights in a city under 24/7 video and police surveillance. Legitimate, peaceful protest groups such as the 2010 Welcoming Committee planned months in advance to have their voices of dissent heard by the world as the games opened, drawing immediate attention to pressing issues in this city that simply cannot be ignored. The list of examples goes on. The alternative, activist voice in this city has never had more opportunities to create change than it does now.

So while the problems persist, and the questions remain largely unanswered (well…some of them. The provincial budget was just released this week, slashing provincial arts funding by an astonishing 50%, down from initial estimates of 90%, conveniently painting the Liberal government as generous in tough economic times), now more than ever is the time where we may find answers and collaborative paths forward. Activating true dialogue, as the games have done, is the first step toward concrete social progress.

Beyond these fascinating developments in community discourse, the Games were also an amazing party. Canadian musicians like Hey Ocean!, Said the Whale, Hey Rosetta, Mother Mother, Dan Mangan, We Are the City, Broken Social Scene, Jill Barber, Kathleen Edwards, The Arkells, and Sam Roberts were among the must-see acts not just for local music fans, but for visitors from around the globe. Having made it to a few of these shows, I can personally attest to how ridiculously fun it is to experience live music for free with thousands of incredibly diverse and enthusiastic guests. I had the immense privilege of being downtown to watch Jennifer Heil medal in moguls, the Hamelins recover from their initial devastating loss with back-to-back golds, Canada play every single hockey game (including the total bummer loss to the US in the second round), and probably most memorable of all, me and a crew of out of town friends staked out a spot at a pub on Granville at 8:30 in the morning last Sunday to watch Canada play for the gold in men’s hockey. When Sidney Crosby scored that game-winning goal in overtime, I kid you not, you could feel the ground in the city rumble. Friends across False Creek from downtown told me that they could hear the cheers explode out of the core the second the puck hit the net. We celebrated with hugs and cheers in the bar, and then spilled out onto the street to celebrate with thousands of others. We weren’t just celebrating that final game, though. We were celebrating a country and a city ignited by Canadian pride, and the ability to finally be a Canadian without feeling the need to blush. We were celebrating the very ability to celebrate, and the apparent growing-out of our bashful national adolescence. It was thrilling, and a story I’m proud to tell. Mind you, I couldn’t tell it for a few days, seeing as how I had absolutely no voice by the end of it. But the magic of the Internet disavows my irresponsibility.

Granville and Robson about 10 minutes after Canada took gold in men's hockey

Granville Street celebrating hockey gold

I don’t think I would have rather been anywhere else in the world than Vancouver during the Olympics. Our city remains locked in intense social justice debates swirling around unresolved questions of power, inequity, and poverty. But for a couple weeks, I saw all of these issues championed and enthusiastically discussed alongside (and as a part of) a national celebration of our identity as a particular people with our own very unique set of characteristics. The games were expensive, challenging, exciting, and problematic, as any major event usually is. Where we struck it lucky, though, is that Canadians seem totally willing to address these issues head-on, and have the discussions that matter when they matter most. Also, they know how to party. In a big way.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Whoa. Whoa.

Biggest two weeks in the history of everything ever. Taking some time downtown tomorrow to catch up on this blogging business. Expect new content soon! Also, I think I'm moving over to WordPress. My friend (find her blog in my "Good Folks" section- Remix our Lives) just made the move and is loving it. So we'll see how ambitious I'm feeling tech-wise come tomorrow morning.

In other news, I am seeing the delightful, marvelous, and always inspiring Basia Bulat live tonight for the very first time! I've been waiting to see her for close to three years now, and couldn't be more excited. Especially when I see things like this:

And this:

I miss the blogosphere! Maybe now that the Olympics are over and I'm not hung over for the first time in 3 weeks, I will be able to make this thing count again.

ALSO: If you tweet, follow me! I'll return the favor! You can track me down under the name Man_Descending. If you don't tweet, it's friends off.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Big Days Coming Up!

Alright friends, I know I have some followers and readers from lands far, far away (read Ontario), however, there's too much cool stuff happening in Vancouver in the next few nights not to mention:

1. Friday Night (Tonight): Head to the Surrey Celebration site this afternoon before 5 PM to catch Peak Performance Project winners We are the City open up an amazing night of music from The Arkells, Sam Roberts, and Dan Mangan (!). I've seen We are the City, and they are unreal! And of course, my love for Dan is old hat at this point. OR if you're not in the Surrey mood this evening, head down to Robson Square to catch Said the Whale and Hey Ocean! for free behind the Vancouver Art Gallery.

2. Saturday: Always the best night to be downtown to watch the games. Gather around the TVs at CTV's broadcast booth on Robson between Burrard and Hornby, head over to Robson Square to watch the massive projection on the side of the Sears building, or get downtown early to snatch a seat at one of the bars or pubs on Granville. Celebrate!

3. Sunday: Canada takes on the United States in men's hockey for the first time in this Olympics! Downtown is sure to be manic, so Commercial might be your best bet to get a seat by a TV and an active beer tap. But if we should win, you're only a few blocks from the train that will get you into the heart of the celebration downtown.

4. Monday: W2 Culture + Media House at 112 West Hastings is hosting the Fresh Media Olympics Conference from 1-7 PM on Monday February 22. This conference will address the question "how has social media changed the Olympics story?" Featuring keynotes and panels led by leading thinkers on the issue of social media and sport, such as Andy Miah, the day promises to be exciting, interactive, and extremely productive. For all those who didn't take a look at my last entry, W2 is a gallery space on the Downtown Eastside that, for the duration of the Olympics, has been transformed into the media centre for unaccredited and citizen journalists who have come to Vancouver to provide a non-commercial, alternative perspective on the games. It's an amazing site, and the Fresh Media conference will be a great showcase of all the amazing work that's happening there. Visit the EventBrite page to reserve your spot!

After you're done at W2, run over to LiveCity Yaletown to catch Canadian jazz songstress Jill Barber, and prepare to swoon over her sweet voice as it curls around her neo-vintage love songs. Followed up by Colin James, and the whole event is, as expected, free!

Hope to see some Blogger friends out and about this weekend. Comment me and tell me where you'll be!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lighting a Different Flame: Media, Discourse, and Democracy at the Games

I have never been more proud to be a Canadian than I am today.

I'm not proud because of our elaborate opening ceremony, nor because of our ability to throw a great global party.

I'm not proud because of the corporate sponsorship or the torch.

I'm proud because today, I truly realize that I live in a democracy. Not just a democracy, but one that people will defend, fight, utilize, question, and protect at a moment's notice.

Some exposition: since September of last year, I have been involved with a community organization in Vancouver, formerly known as W2 Woodwards. Located in the Downtown Eastside, W2 serves as the fulcrum around which Vancouver's media arts and activism scene turns, using the intersection of community, media, creativity, and a spirit of innovation to create positive social change and support activist concerns throughout the city. In anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, W2 took on a new role. Through tireless planning, promotions, and organizing, this 4-floor gallery space has been transformed into and officially recognized as W2 Culture + Media House. W2 now serves as a media and broadcast centre for unaccredited and citizen journalists who have come to the city to provide and alternative, critical, or celebratory perspective on the games, from beyond the frame of corporate journalism.

I have the immense luxury and privilege to work part time out of a small office at W2, and spend some time with some of the globe's leading independent media innovators. As such, the past two days of my online, mediated life have been explosive. When I arrived at work yesterday and fired up my TweetDeck, I truly felt that something had shifted in the way that we discuss and communicate in this country, and perhaps around the world. And I believe that shift has been for the better.

When the tragic news of the death of Georgian Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Whistler Sliding Centre broke yesterday morning, the social media networks caught fire. They were on the front lines of the story as it developed throughout the day, and following the initial frenzy, they were among the first to raise concerns over the use of the video as spectacle in mainstream news broadcasts. Even now, I'm receiving updates from critical media watchdogs questioning CTVs gratuitous use of the footage in last night's programming.

In the lead up to the games, social networking platforms such as Twitter and its activist toolkits were used extensively by anti-games protesters to organize demonstrations and pressure action throughout the city. When these protests turned violent this morning on Robson Street, once again, the independent, non-commercial media were the first to catch the story, and the first to turn it over to citizens for comment and discussion.

This is democracy incarnate.

The journalists, bloggers, activists, and critics based at W2, and stationed around the city, on the front lines of breaking stories, have not simply taken it upon themselves to challenge the authority of traditional modes of media distribution, but have also taken what they gather in the field, and turned it over to the population through Flickr pools, blog posts, and a flurry of tweets, where questions are constantly being raised and debates are constantly evolving based on new information pouring in, free of the filter and bureaucratic infrastructure of big media production.

Regardless of what one thinks of the riots this morning, the fact that I am actively engaged in discussions about their legitimacy with people both inside and outside Vancouver, around the globe, pro-Olympic, anti-Olympic, and indifferent is truly one of the most astonishing, invigorating experiences I've had in recent memory. Today has demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that we live in a nation where dissent is the norm, where challenge is almost mundane, and fiery conversation is the hallmark of the every day. The Robson protesters have exercised their right to challenge dominant messages and ideological systems. The people who have critiqued the Robson protesters and their actions have done the same. In no way do I celebrate the acts of violence and vandalism themselves, nor do I subscribe the hurtful, ignorant, reductive slurs being thrown at them by games supporters. What I value and celebrate today is the fact that it happened, and the fact that it has ignited a city and a nation, forcing us into a direct confrontation with our assumptions about how and where we live. This is a revolution that has been bred by passionate individuals utilizing networks of support and innovative approaches to technology that put the power of speech back in the hands of those who value it most- citizens.

This is not an over-statement. This is a change. This is coal-fired discourse.

As the games wear on, I suspect the protests will subside, or at the very least, become more civil, and as the excitement over medal counts, global rivalries, and the amazing cultural events happening throughout the city heats up, the focus of the media coverage of these Olympics may shift. But I will remember today. Today our city changed, and today we have a rare and unique opportunity to step back, and become staggeringly aware of all that we truly have to be proud of.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

One More Reason to go Amish

Logic boards are for chumps, anyways! Hey friends, it's been a while, and I am writing from a rather grimy looking rental computer that has allegedly made the rounds on the DJ circuit, and so I'm likely clacking away through layers of vodka, Red Bull, and sweat, but I soldier on.

I hope your New Years treated you spectacularly well and that you weren't quite so immobilizingly hung over as I was the next morning. I have returned to school to start an 8-month work term as a media educator, working with secondary school students in workshops to raise awareness of media issues, and I cannot wait to get going on it. I couldn't create a more perfect job for myself if I tried.

I just wanted to update a bit, seeing as how I've been quite absent for a while, and leave you with a couple things that might make you smile, such as my new favorite podcast, Popcorn Mafia, an utterly insane hour-and-something program filled with curse words and off-colour jokes, reviewing the newest films in theatres. It's a riot, and you should definitely check it out here and follow them on twitter at popcornmafia. You won't regret it.

Other than that, the sun is shining, the skies are blue, and there's a new decade yawning out before us. Let's make the best of it!

Monday, December 21, 2009


It's very likely that the last thing anyone wants to read at the moment is another "Best of the Decade" list, but I've been itching to write one. There's no way in hell I could do a decade list for music, but I think I can do it for films, so I'm going to take a crack at it. Like I said, for many, list fatigue is setting in, and so I forgive you if you entirely skip over this. We're still friends, for realsies. Anyhow, here are my Top 10 (potentially 11) films from the past 10 years. I might even try to rank them. I'm feeling gutsy.

10. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles, 2005

I feel that this is one of the more overlooked films of the past decade. It really is a tremendous piece of work, with leads Ralph Fiennes and Rachael Weisz delivering powerful, and oftentimes heartstopping performances throughout. Meirelles treats the sweeping, overwhelming vistas of Africa simultaneously with respect, refusing to give into tropes of slum representation, while still making every frame read as something of an abstract composition. I'm still haunted by the image of the overturned jeep on a muddy, salt-crusted lake shore. The story itself is urgent, and unabashedly engages with some of the most pressing issues we face today regarding first world treatment, and oftentimes, devastating abuse, of third world resources, both material and human. Yet at the same time, the details of the mystery are left vague enough that the script dodges the bullet of becoming moralistic didacticism, and echoes in a deeply unsettling way how little we actually know about how money, power, and wellbeing are traded in a globalized economy. I really do love this film, and maybe it's because it seems so effortlessly excellent that it doesn't stick out as particularly challenging, or something like that, but the script, the images, and the performances, taken together, create a pulsating, disturbing, and emotionally engaging brew that shouldn't be missed.

9. Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman, 2002

On the poster pictured above, this film by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is described as both hysterical and devastating, and I'm inclined to agree, but perhaps not at the most obvious level. It's hysterical because it's devastating; it makes us laugh out of self defense. And it is devastating because it is hysterical; when we laugh, we realize how staggeringly flawed our perceptions (as Westerners) of the Middle East truly are. Divine Intervention is sort of like American Beauty set within a Palestinian encampment in Israel. Suleiman constant plays with mediatized images of Palestinians as violent, destructive, and dangerous, and then turns them on their heads, swinging us wildly between horror and humor, and in the wake of the transition, a bit of shame and embarassment for having been mislead. Suleiman himself plays the film's central figure, a silent, almost Buster Keaton-type figure who somewhat listlessly shuffles about, never seeming any real threat, yet he constantly opens doors, through hilarious and surrealist slapstick, to legitimate discussions of who defines whom in the Middle East, and to what effect.

8. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000*

I love the Coen Brothers. They could make almost any movie as well or as poorly as they wanted, and I'd probably love it, but this one holds a particularly special place in my heart as it was my introduction to their work. George Clooney has never been funnier or more bearable than he is as the fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill, and his superb comedic timing throughout literally always leaves me laughing out loud in a pretty embarassing manner. The barn sequence, coupled with the repeated line "Damn, we're in a tight spot!" is one of my favorite comedy moments of the decade. The film, further, looks absolutely stunning. The Coens capture, in vibrant, vivid strokes, everything from pastoral beauty and picturesque agrarian vistas, to almost operatic and theatrical images of depression-era devastation and poverty, and press them all through a warm, dusty colour palate that makes the whole thing at once stunning and gritty. Many of my favorite scenes and shots of the decade come from this film, such as the Siren Song/River sequence, the Baptism sequence, and an early scene in which a blind, railcar-hopping soothsayer foretells the troubles in Everett's future. If you haven't seen Oh Brother, I really suggest that you do, and if you have, watch it again. I'm almost sure you'll be surprised how hard you fall in love with it all over again.

*Tied for this spot is Guillermo del Toro's amazing fascist fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth from 2006. Dark but lush, terrifying but still heartfelt, this film is easily one of the most ambitious and successful experiments in genre, style, and representation in recent memory, and refuses to leave you for a long while after leaving the theatre, if it ever does leave you. Also, can you recall a more terrifying image in the past 10 years than the eyeless Pale Man sitting at his sumptuous banquet, deathly still? I think not.

7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007

Anyone's who's seen this film knows why it's on this list. Stunningly acted by all parties, even Mathieu Almaric who, for the vast majority of the film has mobility only in his left eyelid; Poetically and elegantly photographed by Schnabel; and absolutely beautifully scripted in a way that captures both the frustration of paralysis, and the faint glimmers of hope we find within despair. Diving Bell is just beautiful. I don't have much to say about this film in an academic or analytical mode, because I just love it as it is. Really, it's a classic trope about excess, suffering, and redemption, but Schnabel executes this narrative with such subtelty, honesty, and emotive power, that it's hard to do anything but love it.

6. Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008

Even if this film weren't emotionally engaging, socially relevant, and superbly voiced (which it is), it would deserve at least honorable mention on this list for its absolutely stunning animation style and genre-bending approach to documentary convention. Ostensibly a documentary, but framed through fantasy, memory, and surrealist dream sequences, Folman brings to the screen, through his incredible non-rotoscope animation style (that is somehow 3D and 2D at once), an intensely personal, idiosyncratic, subjective examination of his own role in facilitating the devastating Sabra and Shatila massacres of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. Folman has been criticized by a number of people for refusing to engage with the lager trauma of the war as a whole by languishing in his own fantasies and memories, and some have even claimed that the film operates as an attempt to absolve Israel of its brutality in the conflict. To be certain, there's problematic elements here, such as the curious choice to not subtitle the Palestinian figures in the film, yet I can't help but think that these critiques expect something of Folman that he never attempts to explore, in the first place- after all, what authority does he really have to act as the voice of a suffering Palestinian refugee? He has his own voice, and explores it as his own truth, and never makes an attempt to extrapolate it out into some broad assertion of Israeli innocence. I see Waltz With Bashir as an emphatically personal story, and an innovative, arresting one, at that.

5. Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004 (German Release)/2005 (American Release)

For very obvious reasons, the centrepiece of this film is Bruno Ganz's heart stopping performance as Adolph Hitler in the final 12 days of the Third Reich, as his paranoia, physical health, and mental stability collapse upon him within his Berlin bunker. It really is one of the best performances ever put to film, in my opinion. But in a broader sense, Downfall takes a defiantly innovative approach to the WWII film, shirking sweeping vistas, exploding forests, and tales of individual heroism. Rather, we find a focus upon cramped spaces, the devastation of insularity, and the transformation of the war from something deeply disturbing and visceral into something totally abstracted and distant. Near the end of the film, as the Red Army marches on Berlin, we catch our first glimpses of actual combat. For the vast majority of the running time, however, the war is nothing but distant explosions, the drone of airplane engines, and flickering lights. Nonetheless, the tension within the bunker is almost unbearable, with every character caught between their unwavering faith in Hitler, and a complete awareness that their project has failed, and that they now stare death in face for their crimes. The brutality of this circumstance is fleshed out in exquisite detail by Hirschbiegel, particularly in the heartbreaking sequence in which the wife of Himmler chooses death for her children, as opposed to life in a world without Naziism. A staggering, haunting portrait of self-conscious guilt, and the impossibility of delusion in the moments before the collapse, Downfall is truly one of the most memorable films of the decade, and likely one of the best war films of all time.

4. No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007

Those rascally Coen brothers, taking up two spots on my list. No Country seems to be pretty divisive, with audiences split between abject hatred and boredom, and visceral adoration. I place myself in the latter category, quite obviously. Without being too crass, yes, this film does indeed make a haunting assertion about the omnipotence of terror and the reproduction of oppression over time in contemporary society, but mostly, I felt No Country in my bones. I was literally white-knuckling my armrest throughout the movie, particularly in the scene where Josh Brolin sits alone in a dark hotel room, staring at the sliver of light sliding under his door, knowing that Javier Bardem's terrifying (if slightly unfashionable) villain is only steps behind. This sequence, alongside the gas station/coin flip scene earlier in the film, at once acts as a philosophical fulcrum around which the whole message of the film pivots, as well as a breathless, haunting atmospheric piece that functions almost as a stripped down and terrifying ballet. I find it hard to re-watch this movie, because it affected me at such a gut, base level on first viewing, but one viewing is really all it took for No Country For Old Men to become etched into my memory for what will hopefully be decades to come.

3. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

I love dystopia films. I'm obsessed with possible futures and apocalyptic finales to life as we know it, and Cuaron, in his 2006 film, Children of Men takes a unique approach to the dystopia trope that realigns the conventions of the genre to respond to more contemporary anxieties rooted in the body and the natural world. Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other classics of the genre are obsessed with the breakdown in the boundary between man and machine, yet in Children of Men, the body itself is the enemy, with the film set in 2027, 18 years after all women on earth mysteriously became sterile. Cuaron depicts a rapidly decaying urban London, marked sporadically by new, but conceivable technologies such as video billboards and animated bus ads. Outside of these advertising-based technologies, the only new innovations we see in the film are highly sophisticated, but still cubicle-bound computers, and the slightly more fantastic video newspaper. However, these flashy technologies are hardly the norm in Cuaron’s world. He portrays them as superfluous and mundane decorations amid the anonymous, concrete housing projects, the dreary filth of urban waste, and caged hordes of “illegal immigrants” on street corners. Against this stark and hopeless visual world, though, is a tiny glimmer of hope in the form of a young, pregnant immigrant, Ki, who must be smuggled to the coast to keep her out of the hands of a corrupt government. The ending of the film is often criticized for being vague and unsatisfying, but I really like it. It asks a question of the audience, instead of slipping into the precautionary finger-wagging so common in science fiction. It gives us hope by asserting that the capacity for change and progress lies within our own bodies, but leaves it up to us to make the leap to actually use that capacity.

2. The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

At its core, this film is really about isolation, and the pain of sacrificing pity, love, emotion, and care to the demands of a rationalized, heavily policed state- both for those it polices, and those who do the policing. But just as many of the films on this list do, The Lives of Others resists schmaltz or hamfisted moralizing. Ulrich Muhe steals the film in the role of Gerd Wiesler, a cold, calculating, expert interrogator for the Stasi, the East German state police. However, when he is assigned to monitor and observe the actions of stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland and her party-friendly playwright boyfriend, Georg Dreyman, he finds himself drawn to their intoxicating passion, artistic vigor, and honest love for one another, and so is suddenly caught between the relentlessly pragmatic and brutal authority of the East German state, and his own crippling isolation from all meaningful human contact. Muhe performs the role to perfection, displaying at all times microscopic suggestions of doubt and guilt, making the audience feel deeply for his personal circumstance, but never leaving us to languish in the idiosyncratic realm. Our pity for Wiesler is quickly expanded into a sweeping condemnation of the brutality of the East German state, and totalitarian governments, in general. Above all, though, I think I like the scripting best in this film. Tiny suggestions established early in the film (which, despite being quite personal and intimate, really does feel sprawling and powerful) are quietly built up over the course of the running time, and then elegantly tied back together in the conclusion with tremendous emotional power. The dialogue is expertly crafted, and every nuance of the story seems to have been considered in detail, giving powerful insight into the personal experience of isolation, love, and life under a totalitarian regime. This is an excellent film that, in every way, deserved its Academy Award in 2007.

1. Caché, Michael Haneke, 2005

For lack of a better term, Austrian director Michael Haneke has long been known as something of a shit disturber. Films such as Benny's Video and The Piano Teacher earned Haneke, early in his career, a reputation for subjecting his characters to staggering brutality, denying his audience any sense of narrative satisfaction, and exposing violence in film for what it really is- horrifying. Haneke has commented extensively upon this habit, calling it a negative aesthetic, a cinema of insistent questions as opposed to a cinema of easy answers (read Hollywood), a cinema that forces us to witness the horror of death and violence rather than making it exciting, thrilling, and consumable. Haneke's films, then, are deeply politicized from the outset, especially when it comes to violence. His negative aesthetic reached its apex with the release of Funny Games in 1997 (which he followed in 2007 with a shot-for-shot English remake starring Naomi Watts), which is all but unwatchable. With Caché, however, and his recent follow-up, The White Ribbon, Haneke seems to have turned a bit of a corner, still focusing upon violence, brutality, and horror, but in a much more subtle manner, exploring how the subjects of surveillance and ideological oppression internalize the forces that control them, and become themselves objects of symbolic, historical, and ideological violence. Caché mobilizes these themes in a manner that makes the film seem absolutely urgent, even five years after its release.

The film’s ostensible “subject” is a contemporary French bourgeois family made up of Georges Laurent, his wife Anne, and their young son, Pierrot. The family lives in a stylish, well-designed Paris flat. Georges hosts a popular television program about literature while Anne works at a publishing house and Pierrot assumes the role of the media-savvy but emotionally-disengaged teenager. The pleasant mundanity of this life is rocked when a tape of the family’s home appears, unmarked and apparently unmotivated, on the Laurent’s doorstep. Anne and Georges initially approach the tape with a sense of bewilderment; venturing guesses that it may be an innocuous prank pulled by one of Pierrot’s friends. As more tapes appear, though, they become increasingly invasive and unsettling. Eventually, frightening drawings of disturbing scenes begin to accompany the tapes; among them, crude renderings of a young boy vomiting blood, and a decapitated bird. As the tapes delve deeper into Georges' history, Haneke expertly draws out and re-inscribes within out contemporary culture of digital images (where the line between private and public has become increasingly fluid), a hidden French history of colonial rule and oppression.

One of the cornerstone events of French-Algerian history and Georges’ own narrative is the Paris Massacre of 1961. Despite the estimated 200 Algerians this event left dead, in the decades following, it received almost no attention in the mainstream French media, and remains a largely ignored part of French history. To finally fix this buried legacy of Algerian oppression to video, then, to draw it into a public and transnational media culture and out of the repressive realm of personal memory is, in some ways, the fundamental crux of Caché as a whole. In Haneke’s imagining, the culture of digital images has the capacity to confront those parts of history and ourselves that have been packaged and restructured by historical media discourses as innocuous or insignificant. Caché confronts the hidden legacy of French colonialism by turning repressed personal memories inside out, and exposing them through cinema as embodiments of an entire history ignored and forgotten through silent negotiation.

Political, thrilling, challenging, and tense beyond measure, Caché is a marvel of contemporary cinema, and gives me a deep sense of hope that the grand artistic gesture isn't dead; that there's someone out there making film that they think will matter, films they think can change the world.