Tag Archives: Movies

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Welcome to the Digital Dark Ages: Movies and Books Get Deleted as Selfies Pile Up

          Historians and archivists call our times the “digital dark ages.” The name evokes the medieval period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, which led to a radical decline in the recorded history of the West for 1000 years. But don’t blame the Visigoths or the Vandals. The culprit is the ephemeral nature of digital recording devices. Remember all the stuff you stored on floppy discs, now lost forever? Over the last 25 years, we’ve seen big 8” floppies replaced by 5.25” medium replaced by little 3.5” floppies, Zip discs and CD-ROMs, external hard drives and now the Cloud — and let’s not forget memory sticks and also-rans like the DAT and Minidisc.

We’ll ignore the data lost in computer crashes.

Each transition has seen the loss of countless zillions of documents and images. The irony is that, even as we’re generating more records than any civilization ever, we’re destroying so much important stuff that future generations will hardly know we ever lived.

Google Vice President Vint Cerf recently mused about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln: “Such a book might not be possible to write about the people living today … the digital content such as emails that an author might need will have evaporated because nobody saved it, or it’s around but it’s not interpretable because it was created by software that’s 100 years old.”

I got to thinking about our civilizational priorities the other day, while managing the photos on my iPhone. Few of us realize it, but the default settings of electronic devices like a smartphone is to keep, rather than erase. Take a photo or video, and Apple wants to send it and save it to all the gadgets on your Apple Store account. If you’re like me (and in this respect, most people are), you take lot more photos than you delete. But even your “deleted” stuff isn’t really deleted — it’s merely moved to a “Deleted Photos” folder. And it lives in the Cloud, like, forever. To really really delete something, you have to double-triple-delete it. Most people don’t bother. So all those mundane iPhone photos — countless pics of your kid at the school concert, boarding passes, the image of the wine you mean to get more of — accumulates.

Partly due to my failure to edit crap like that, some experts a looming data capacity crisis of epic proportions.

Keeping everything is a phenomenon of the digital age. Analog photos were expensive to develop and print. So we took fewer of them. And we didn’t develop them all.

More irony: Even as we’re keeping triplicates of, let’s face it, zillions of documents and images we will never, ever look at again, digitalization is erasing cultural works of epic importance en masse.

Of the 80,000 to 90,000 films considered to be in print on DVD in the United States, only a small fraction have made the leap to streaming. For the most part, this is because companies like Netflix can’t or don’t want to buy the rights for movies whose copyright holders want to get real money. The result is, if you want to see such classics as “The Bicycle Thief” or “Marathon Man,” your only hope is to buy an old used DVD on eBay (assuming you still have a DVD player). Of course, each change of format has left films, many of them important, unavailable to cinephiles. Many great films never made it from VHS to DVD.

Format transitions are also murdering our musical and literary legacies.

When I peruse music streaming services like Apple Music, I’m surprised how many albums by my favorite bands available: sorry, Lords of the New Church. This isn’t new: music geeks hunt down rare 78s for old-timey music that never made it to 33-rpm record. Tons of tunes got lost in the move from vinyl to CD. Maybe it’s the stuff that I like to listen to, but it feels like format loss has been more devastating this time around, as music storage goes from physical to ethereal.

It’s easy to forget how many books aren’t making the jump, especially when corporations sell products like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which lets you read any of 600,000 titles for a fee. Many titles, including some by big-name authors like Philip Roth and John Updike, aren’t there.

In case you were wondering, there were 129 million books in the world as of 2010.

Subscribe to Kindle “Unlimited,” then, and you’ve got access to less than 0.5% of the world’s books. But don’t worry, you’ll always have those photos of the school play.

Until you get a new phone.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net and SkewedNews.net, is the author of “Snowden,” about the NSA whistleblower. His new book “Bernie” about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is now available for pre-order. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

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United Rhapsody: Gag Me with A Pop Culture One Percenter

Culture has always been class-based. Rich people went to the opera; the poor listened to heavy metal. But what we read and watch and listen to is becoming segmented into more striations with wider gaps between them, reflecting income distribution.

I was thinking about this while reading that ultimate periodical for, by and about the richest one percent: The Sunday New York Times.

The Times is historically elitist: You get lots of reviews of classical music and fine arts, hardly anything about rock, hip-hop or comics. In Timesworld, a $150 dinner qualifies as a moderately expensive meal. A $650 hotel room is something you might actually consider.

But recently I’ve noticed that the gaps between what the Times prints to try to attract the audience targeted by its advertisers and the interests and tastes of most of its upper-middle-class striver readers are getting more pronounced. Just this weekend, I was tearing through the Sunday edition. (Despite lower page counts, it is still a whale of a paper.) I did it in under an hour.

united rhapsodyThe Times doesn’t have many pieces I want to read anymore.

The paper was always a pretentious publication. Now it’s pretentious and blah. The Times delivers too many puff pieces on corporate executives, too many political horserace articles minus actual politics and way too many dreary profiles of boring authors, musicians, etc.

But the really big change in The Times? It’s the tone of the stuff they print.

Good writing draws you in no matter what the topic. A decade or two ago, you could count on The Times, more so than The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, to print words strung together in a way that would make you care about anything from asparagus cultivation to arbitrage. Now, not so much. Everything in there reads like it was written by a pod person on a triple dose of Prozac.

The Times is all flat-line affect.

Which, in a way, is interesting — interesting in a dull way but still interesting: You see, to make it as a successful journalist in 2015, you have to be able to make videotaped mass beheadings dull.

This is, in a way, a skill. But who has time to read it?

united rhapsody review ted rallSo, today I read The Times in a slow-down-to-check-out-the-car-wreck way. And I came across an item that brought home the widening cultural class divide. Here it is:

Breaking News!  United Airlines has a new in-flight magazine, but it’s only for those who pay top dollar for flights. And it only features the type of literary fiction Timesians like long-time book critic Michiko Kakutani classify as “high-end.”

Good God.

Reports Alexandra Alter:

“As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier , more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose “

united rhapsody review ted rallAlter continues, “There are no airport maps or disheartening lists of in-flight meals and entertainment options in Rhapsody.”

But wait. Rich people don’t need airport maps? How do they navigate airports — teleportation?

“Instead,” she writes, “the magazine has published ruminative first-person travel accounts, cultural dispatches and probing essays about flight by more than 30 literary fiction writers.”

She reports a list of authors that includes “literary stars like Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Amy Bloom, Emma Straub and Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years ago.”

I’m glad I’m in Coach. Every one of those writers bores the shit out of me.

To paraphrase the fictional Nazi in Hanns Johst’s play via Mission of Burma, whenever I hear the phrase “literary fiction” I reach for my revolver. Then I run away screaming.

Fiction is good or bad. There is no such thing as non-literary fiction.

united rhapsody review ted rallPurveyors of literary fiction sometimes wonder aloud why their non-genre genre doesn’t get more attention (from the marketplace). Though I infrequently observe a relationship between quality and sales, I can answer this question: literary fiction is written for an upper crust, very white, well-educated but not-as-smart-as-they-think sliver of the word-consuming public — whose number is too small to create a Stephanie Meyer-scale bestseller.

Ninety years ago, these would be the same people who hate Hemingway.

They hate anyone just for writing non-MFA approved sentences that anyone could read, understand, enjoy — and not notice.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, who argued that any library would be improved simply by the absence of any books by Jane Austen, I will endure United’s cramped coach class more stoically thanks to my awareness that there isn’t a copy of Rhapsody in the seat pocket in front of me.

The Times, again:

A United marketing flack ‘said the quality of the writing in Rhapsody brings a patina of sophistication to its first-class service, along with other opulent touches like mood lighting, soft music and a branded scent.’ “

Gag me with a plastic TSA-approved spoon.

But wait, there’s more …

‘We’re not going to have someone write about joining the mile-high club,’ said Jordan Heller, the editor in chief of Rhapsody. ‘Despite those restrictions, we’ve managed to come up with a lot of high-minded literary content.’”

Listen. There was a time, not long ago, during my own young adulthood, back when upper middle class and upper class people read the same books and magazines. The former aspired to the latter; the latter imagined themselves in touch with the former.

Now there’s literary fiction, a category designed as an exclusion.

In music, this is jazz. In movies, it’s documentaries and art films. It’s NPR and The Times and the Democratic Party.

Today, the rich live in gated communities of the mind. Every house and every person inside them look and talk exactly the same. No weeds on the perfectly manicured lawns.

Just boring, bland, flat bullshit.

As much as they work to keep us out, I know what keeps the cultural one percenters awake at night: Their very real fear that we don’t want to get it.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Schools Should Teach Nowology

Everyone has a strong opinion about education. But the controversies are always about the same topic: testing, teachers unions, funding, merit pay, vouchers/school choice, charter schools. Is college a smart investment? Is affirmative action fair? Has political correctness supplanted the basics?

I keep waiting for someone to bring up Now. As in the study of now — what’s currently going on in the fields of politics, history, literature, mathematics, science — everything.

Can we call it Nowology?

From K through 12 through senior year of college, American education focuses obsessively on the past. No matter what you study, the topics either relate to the past or the knowledge is dated.

Since I was a history major in college, I’ll focus on that.

I’ve never understood why history is taught chronologically. A book’s opening is crucial; either you get hooked straight away, or you get bored and turn blasé. So how is it that textbook publishers think it makes sense to start a fourth-grade history textbook with prehistoric humans who lived 10,000 years ago? It’s tough enough for me, at age 50, to relate to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. How can a typical American 9-year-old, who lives in the suburbs, connect intellectually to people who foraged for food (not in the fridge)?

Another problem with teaching history chronologically is that teachers rarely make it to the relevant, interesting history students might actually care about — what’s going on now. From junior through senior high, my high school teachers got bogged down in the battlefields of the Civil War. We never once made it as far as Reconstruction (which is actually fascinating), much less to the controversies of my childhood (Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis).

TV, radio and newspapers — that’s where what mattered was discussed. My classmates and I had fathers who served in Vietnam. We had neighbors who’d dodged the draft, whose faces stared at us from wanted posters at the post office. We argued over Nixon and Ford and Carter, but all that stuff — the controversy, the drama, the Now — took place outside school.

The not-so-subliminal message soon sunk in: school is where you learn about old stuff. Now stuff is everywhere else.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how we choose to teach ourselves.

Example: pop culture, like movies and music. No one’s musical education begins with recordings of recreations of primitive music, simple claps or banging objects together. Most children start out listening to contemporary music — whatever they hear on Pandora, Spotify, the radio, TV, etc. Those who decide to dig further usually work backward. They listen to older works by their favorite artists. They hear a musician talk about the bands that influenced them, and they check them out.

(When I was a kid, friends were surprised that Paul McCartney had been in some other band before Wings.) They might wind up getting into ragtime or Bach. Last. Not first.

Ditto for movies. No one starts out watching silent films.

There is some discussion of teaching history in reverse chronological order in other countries. Writing in the UK Prospect last year, Christopher Fear of the University of Exeter argues: “We should begin by showing children how to scratch the surface to find the recent pasts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — pasts which they can talk about together.” But the British too continue to teach history the boring/chronological way.

We’re constantly worrying about whether our schools are preparing children to compete in the global marketplace. To support their calls for reform, activists (mostly, but not exclusively, on the political right) point to surveys that show that Americans are woefully ignorant about basic facts such as evolution, essential geographic knowledge as the location of the country where U.S. troops have been fighting, killing and dying for a decade and a half, and even heliocentricity.

Sure, it would be nice if more Americans cracked open a newspaper (or its online edition) now and then. On the other hand, a lot of this material ought to be taught in schools — and it isn’t. Day one of American history class should begin with Obama, Congressional paralysis, the early jockeying for the 2016 presidential campaign, America’s clash with Russia over Ukraine, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these subjects naturally require digging deeper, back in time, to explain why and how what’s going on now is happening.

And it’s not just history. Studying physics at Columbia in the 1980s, no one taught us about the latest advances in cosmology and quantum mechanics — some of which, ironically, were being discovered in labs in the same buildings by the same professors who were filling our heads with obsolete material.

Nowology: better late than never.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: “Captain Phillips” is a Beautiful Lie

“Cinéma Vérité” as Political Propaganda

Paul Greengrass is a gifted director who specializes in historical reenactments, a once marginal genre that in recent years hits the sweet spot, earning critical plaudits as well as bringing in bank (Greengrass’ “United 93,” Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” about Hitler’s final days in his bunker). Greengrass’ latest entry in this field is “Captain Phillips,” a retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars in the title role.

Watching this film left me with an uneasy feeling, like I’d digested a delicious meal devoid of nutrition. It was a fun drama. But I didn’t learn anything. Why not?

This is solid Hollywood filmmaking. Tight scripting, sharp editing and unpretentious cinematography deliver a story that keeps you in your seat long after you began having to pee. Hanks delivers one of his finest performances, driving a stake into his rep as an always-playing-himself actor; Barkhad Abdi is a sensational revelation as pirate leader Abduwali Muse.

But what does this film mean? What message does Greengrass convey to his audience?

In random order, here are the takeaways: leadership is tough. Bravery exacts a high cost. In an interconnected world — we watch Phillips email his wife after the pirates’ first attempt to board the Maersk Alabama — it’s nevertheless possible to be alone, isolated and vulnerable. Intermodal transport, an industry in which vast ships carrying thousands of tons of goods are piloted by an unarmed skeleton crew, is surreal. If nothing else, “Capitain Phillips” is worth watching because it opens a window into the lonely lives of the men and women responsible for keeping our store shelves stocked.

Pull out of the multiplex parking lot, however, and you quickly realize the real revelation: “Phillips” is pro-government propaganda.

Greengrass has created the most frightening kind of propaganda — so effective that for most people it will become the definitive historical account of an event. Unlike the hilariously shrill propaganda flicks of the past, from “Triumph of the Will” to Cold War-era artifacts like “Rambo” and “Red Dawn,” the new breed pretends not to editorialize. Affecting a quiet, Zoloft-inflected tone and economical, apparently straightforward scriptwriting, this movie plays it close to the vest, coming off as deadly fair and serious. Which makes it easy to miss what is left out.

This new cinéma non-vérité uses high art to sanitize history in order to elevate the imperialist, militarist geopolitical agenda of the U.S. government in its post-9/11 war on terror.

            Kathryn Bigelow never scratches the surface of Osama bin Laden’s motivations in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He’s just a target, a cipher in a beard, so we don’t care when he dies. Her film is thrilling yet vacuous.

It is far from settled history that United Flight 93 was brought down by the passenger revolt — the 9/11 Commission Report leaves open the possibility that it was shot down. But that would prompt uncomfortable questions. Greengrass’ film, which unquestioningly accepts the “let’s roll” scenario, all but sets it in stone for posterity.

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is devoid of political context, especially the historical basis for the Iranian revolutionaries’ contempt for the United States. Best not to mention the coup, the shah, corruption or torture.

American movies are about choices. Will the protagonist choose right or wrong (and which is which)? In “Captain Phillips,” however, the ethical quandaries rest not on Hanks’ character, who handles his ordeal as courageously and competently as you could expect, but on Abdi’s shoulders. It’s more than a little odd.

“We are just fisherman,” Abdi explains after seizing control of the vessel. Fortunes reverse after crewmen hidden in the engine room capture him and trade him for their captain, who offers them $30,000 in cash and a lifeboat to leave the ship. Disgusted that the Somalis won’t settle for less than “millions” and physically brutalized, Hanks spits “you are not a fisherman!” at Abdi an hour later into the movie.

It’s a puzzling narrative choice. Not only is Abdi’s a supporting role, we don’t see much deliberation. Muse is in it for the big bucks all along. So are his colleagues.

Passing up the obvious chance to use this mother of all culture clashes as a means to discuss race and class, Greengrass has nevertheless succumbed to the hoary colonial instinct to ask, almost out loud, why $30,000 isn’t enough to sate a gang of starvation-thin guys from one of the world’s poorest countries. The closest we get to an answer is a tossed-off aside by Abdi that the fish “left” Somali waters.

The background, mentioned only obliquely in this movie about Somali piracy, is that Somalia’s fishing industry had been decimated. After Somalia collapsed into the sectarian civil conflict in the early 1990s, the absence of a strong central government — coupled with the indifference of the international community — opened a vacuum for opportunists. Foreign trawlers and other vessels dump industrial waste, toxins and even nuclear waste — including uranium — off the Somali coast. Foreign fishing ships use drift nets to steal the fish that survive.

Time magazine reported in 2009 that Somalis turned to piracy after Western ships made it impossible to fish: “A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international ‘free for all,’ with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year.”

Desperate Somali fishermen formed vigilante flotillas to go after foreign fishing vessels. Some robbed the poachers at gunpoint. This turned out to be much more lucrative than fishing. Piracy became a $50 million a year industry.

If Abduwali Muse isn’t really a fisherman, he didn’t have that option to begin with.

Postscript: Somalis who still try to fish are harassed, questioned and detained by American warships assigned to the Horn of Africa to deter pirates. (In “Captain Phillips,” this Navy practice is whitewashed.)

Two or three additional lines of dialogue would have enlightened American movie audiences about the complexity of the piracy issue. Exposing the antagonists’ motivations would have made “Captain Phillips” a smarter movie, a tragedy in which opposing forces, neither side evil, are forced into a clash in which at least one side must die. Greengrass gives us all the moral nuance of cowboy-versus-Injun movie.

“Capitain Phillips” is the triumph of suburban schlubs and high-tech military hardware over hollow-eyed black men in rags, horribly unfamiliar with basic oral hygiene.

By the way, if some of the Maersk Alabama’s crewmen are to be believed, Phillips was a lousy captain who imperiled them by skirting too close to the Somali coast. Deborah Waters, an attorney representing 11 crewmen who are suing Maersk, said: “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”

Maybe, maybe not. Only those who were there know for sure.

Making films is also about choice.

When you make a film based on history, it’s impossible to include every detail. Nor should you try.

Still, basic background facts are crucial to understanding the event being depicted. Omitting or spinning issues (why Somalis resorted to piracy) strips them of context. Deploying a matter-of-fact tone makes these cinematic lies (because the Somalis are poor and greedy) credible.

It is unforgivable to promote America’s we’re-the-good-guys party line at the expense of the victims of the system. (Muse, politically voiceless in this film, is serving 33 years in federal prison.) Dressing up a perversion of truth in pretty lighting, and stuffing tainted dialogue into the mouths of great actors, results in an affront to art as well as history.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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Memory Content is CIA King

The US government argues that it possesses “absolute control” over the memories of Guantánamo torture victims because what happened to them was classified — yet it released those “CIA memories” to Hollywood filmmakers. Sure, it’s like something from a Philip K. Dick story. But don’t complain. Content is king again!

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Ideas for Reducing Prison Overcrowding

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).

This week: California’s progress in relieving its teeming prisons has slowed so much that it probably won’t comply with a court-ordered population reduction, and judges have raised the prospect of letting some inmates out early.

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The First Rule of Fight Nation

American drone planes have killed thousands of people. Drone attacks have been widely reported. And, now members of Congress are invited to the White House to view drone snuff films. So why is the drone program classified “secret”?

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