Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

10 Apr 2008

A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging.

Into this unstable fray, a world where law and order don’t mix as much as mitigate each others’ existence, comes the Vipassana, a rigorous 10 day course of meditation and self discovery. It’s one of the toughest disciplines in all of enlightenment. For the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in the very rural South, the chance to apply the teachings of Buddha provides some optimism for their otherwise hopeless lives. For the residents surrounding the imposing facility, including the conservative Christian community, such Eastern promise smacks of leniency - something these convicts don’t require.

An intriguing film about the practice from three first time documentarians, The Dhamma Brothers, delves deep into the battle of wills between hardened criminals, a reluctant administration, an uncaring society, and a pair of wide-eyed teachers whose only desire is to see men change through individual illumination. In some ways, the story is simple. We quickly learn that the secret of Vipassana is the acceptance of personal responsibility. During the ordeal, where for nine days the prisoners cannot speak to or communicate with each other, their crimes and catastrophic past become burdens they have to acknowledge and manage through quiet contemplation and chanting.

For the basic bleeding heart, it’s a humane way of dealing with the long considered barely human. For the jingoistic jail proponent, it’s all part of the “fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality of inmate con jobbing. There’s an incredible sequence about a third of the way in where locals are given a chance to comment on the prison’s decision. One calls Buddhism “witchcraft”, while another stresses that these men lost any chance at compassion when they killed/robbed/raped who they did. It’s both sides of a single compelling argument, one that The Dhamma Brothers never fully addresses, or puts to rest. 

This is especially true when the mandatory denouement occurs. It’s not a case of recidivism or criminal chicanery. Instead, the State of Alabama listens to the pleas of several concerned religious organizations, and determines that the Vipassana, as well as the ability for these inmates to meet on a daily basis for medication, constitutes a “preaching” of a particular belief system. As such, it violates the long established “Go with Jesus” gerrymander. It’s a stupid sentiment, but it works. By the time the program returns four years later, its original removal is chalked up to politics played as usual.

While the personal angle really sells the film, these outer issues really are important to understanding The Dhamma Brothers’ dilemma. We see that the process really does provide some manner of rehabilitation for even the most unapologetic lifer, but to argue that it violates religious freedom when the Courts have constantly held such a preference quasi-Constitutional paints Alabama in a bad light. At least the directors - Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein - don’t demonize the prison staff. Everyone, from the warden to the guards, is given a chance to question the practice…and then offer their indirect apologies when the convicts disprove their apprehension. 

Still, what many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men. Grady Bankhead, inside for murder, tells of how his mother took he and his brother to an abandoned farmhouse when they were very young, kissed them on the forehead, told them to be good, and simply left them there to die. It’s a astonishing revelation, as are many of the personal stories and memories offered. Perhaps even more stunning is how open and honest these men eventually become. Vipassana has forced them to confront their darkest fears and recollections. The act of mental attrition, of drawing into oneself and meditating on the horrors within, has emboldened each and every one.

It’s a feeling that flows even through the more stereotypical aspects of the narrative. As a talking heads piece, the actual Buddhist rituals requiring isolation (and therefore, no filming) to be effective, we get little insight into the process. It would be nice to see some hidden camera footage of the men interacting, of how a typical day plays out for them. Much of the Vipassana is left unexplained, as if the teachers want the technique protected out of reverence - or maybe something more mercenary. Yet it’s hard to imply anything truly sinister to what we see here. There is so much good being done that finding fault is next to impossible.

The Dhamma Brothers does, however, lack one element that’s mandatory for a great documentary. Call it an entertainment epiphany, or a moment of cinematic transcendence, but we never feel lifted outside the experience at Donaldson to see a bigger cosmic, or karmic, picture. Instead, stories play out, men learn from the experience, and while some slip, others like Bankhead or confirmed convert Rick Smith successfully pitch and preach. In the end, we recognize the value and vital importance of such a program, and we wonder why other institutions haven’t employed the technique instead of simply using captivity for their collection of ‘animals’.

If anything, Vipassana suggests that, once a man gets to truly know himself, and has the opportunity to regularly explore such a domain, he’ll find his place within the civilized social order. It may not forgive him for what he’s done, and oddly enough, few feel the need for such clemency. Instead, all they want is the chance to investigate themselves further, to use the techniques taught to moderate internally what they couldn’t while out in the world. The sooner the penal system accepts that, the quicker collections like The Dhamma Brothers can spring up around the country. It seems like the only sensible solution in a realm replete with tired old tendencies - and abject failures.

by Bill Gibron

10 Apr 2008

By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.

When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.

There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.

It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.

In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.

A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.

Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.

Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.

by Roman Kuebler

10 Apr 2008

Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry

Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry

Under Mics with the Oranges Band

PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part three…
Jon Langmead

 

On Overdubs

I feel like when we play live or rehearse, the songs we are playing are always subject to the performance and the instruments and the room and the energy. That is, clearly, what makes a live performance unique. It is also sometimes why the song itself must take a back seat to that energy and performance. Over the years, we’ve all heard about those incredible live bands that can’t seem to translate their talents into a recording, right? I always heard that about the Poster Children… maybe Jesus Lizard, too. I never much agreed with it because I was a huge fan of both band’s records and maybe, because I came across the albums before I saw them live, I had an appreciation for both the recorded and live dynamic. Their records are so great.

Anyways, this is just to say that in conceiving this album we approached the tracking as a live band in order to get a, sort of, natural feel. But the idea was never to make a “live” album because we still want to be able to highlight the songs so the next step was to begin the overdubbing process. It’s, ideally, a best-of-both-worlds scenario that will hopefully allow the songs to develop and focus outside of the mayhem of the practice room… but not too much. Get it?

Roman and Adam setting up for the overdub.

Roman and Adam setting up for the overdub.

Dave, the Oranges Band’s all-time drummer, has both the easiest and the hardest job in the band. He has to put up with me in the practice room trying to describe how I think a song should feel in this sort of broken drummer language that consists of me trying to mimic bass and snare drums with my mouth and by beating on my chest and stuff. We should get Doug E. Fresh to be a translator. The other part of his job that is really difficult is tracking. Drums, in my opinion, can not really be overdubbed… not without sounding like it at least.

So in going for the live takes, Dave pretty much had to nail each one. Not easy. Guitars and basses, even when meant to be live can be “fixed” without too much evidence but the drums have got to be there. BUT… once Dave gets through the songs, his work is mostly done, that’s the easy part. He gets to soak in a job well done while we try so earnestly not to ruin his hard work. And there has been more than one occasion when we’ve had some really awesome basic tracks that didn’t make it through the rest of the process. I guess that’s a lame part of his job, too.

Doug lighting it up, pt. 1.

Doug lighting it up, pt. 1.

OK, so Dave is done and Pat, the youthful bass player of the group, comes in to “dial in” his parts. There are a lot of recording terms for the process that describe fixing up the things you screwed up while tracking like “dial in” and “tweak” and “tighten up” and maybe, more so in Pat’s case, “caress”. Anyways, it was funny because we made a big production of getting Pat into the studio at a certain time that worked for everyone involved and having the equipment available only to realize that his parts were all tight as is. The stuff we thought needed the fixes were other people’s mistakes… mostly mine, of course. Well, we had fun listening to the tracks at least!

This is an interesting stage in the recording because you pretty much have your basics covered. Bass and drums are good to go. The guitars are present and accounted for, at least in their “live” state. So now you have to determine what to add to make the song better. Problem is, the world is available to you at this stage but, as is the real challenge of making an album, you must restrict yourself in some way. Luckily for us, we have budget restrictions and really no access to an orchestra so the process, at least, begins to come into focus. Rule #1-There will be NO orchestra on this record. Rule #2- This will not be “Chinese Democracy II”.

Doug lighting it up, pt 2.

Doug lighting it up, pt 2.

OK, so without an orchestra, or a string section, or a grand (or even baby grand or even upright) piano we begin the overdubs with what else… MORE GUITARS! My personal approach to overdubbing guitars has always been a bit of a shotgun styled attack. Plug the guitar in, turn the tape on start playing and see what sticks. In some cases this has yielded some pretty cool lead lines. They have been sort of one note melody lines that just kind of boost up the chord structure… at least that is how I think of them. The approach to my guitar overdubs on this album, though, is rather different. I have to say that while overdubbing lead guitars is fun and I think I have had reasonable success, I am NO lead guitar player. See when our previous lead guitar player left the group, he did so… mysteriously. I mean, it wasn’t clear that it was happening and we had shows scheduled. Now I am too proud and altogether too stubborn to cancel shows so the show goes on, right?

Well, we did go on as a three-piece for a little while. And then as a three piece with an occasional fourth guitar and backing vocalist and then kind of back to the three piece. We struggled with line-up fluctuations for most of the year last year. We were trying to figure out how to present ourselves live while we were putting together our next group of songs and figuring out how they would be recorded. It was a pain the ass and I learned a very important lesson… that I am NO lead guitar player and that I needed help!

Doug checking the goods, pt. 1

Doug checking the goods, pt. 1

The other thing that I was reasonably sure of, in the context of the recording, was that I was really looking for another player who could influence how these songs sounded and affect their outcome as recorded pieces. So, what does this have to do with my guitar overdubs? It means that I didn’t really want to do any… or very little at least. I wanted to crank out my rhythm guitars, add to them in the context of the rhythm only and let Doug open up on the leads and second guitar. So my guitar overdubs took about a day, I think, and consisted of me just peppering in a little rhythmic addition here or there, an acoustic guitar that mimics my electric and oh yeah, the “guitar takeover”.

Wha? Listen, I will let you in on a secret technique that I have devised called the “guitar takeover”. I am perfecting the style and approach but, what you need to know is that while the band is playing a microphone marches across the room focusing on a guitar and as it gets closer to the speaker, that particular guitar engulfs the entire song like an avalanche. That’s all I can say for now… be prepared.

Doug checking the goods, pt. 2

Doug checking the goods, pt. 2

When Doug Gillard came down from New York to join us for our first practice back in January, we had a show scheduled for the next night. It was cutting it a bit close but I certainly wasn’t worried about it not working out. See, we had traded some tapes and I got a sense of what kind of ideas he had and also, he and I had practiced in New York the week before. There I got a sense, not that he was completely ready and decided about what he wanted to do, but that could learn the songs without problem and that he definitely had ideas and could execute them. You know, I’d also seen him play with Guided By Voices on no less than 30 occasions and in those 30 shows I must have seen him play 100 different GBV songs.

As far as job interviews go, those shows were pretty convincing. So we are gathering to practice and the other guys in the band must have been a little apprehensive… I mean to play a show with someone they’d practiced with one time? It’s a little nerve racking. Well, about one minute into our first song at practice, everyone is all smiles and it’s pretty much like, “Yes, I am the genius that I suspected I might be!” A very smart person will come up with a way to do something themselves, but a genius will be smart enough to get someone who is better at it to do it for them.

Guitar Takeover.

This is all to say that in doing guitar overdubs, Doug was the man and had everything in place. I will admit to you that I actually slept through at least some of his takes. It was so awesome because I think I was working hard at my day job at the time and would be tired when we were in the studio… so I’d kind of doze off and when I woke up there would be this great guitar part that wasn’t there before. Pennies from Heaven! This is why I can only claim CO-producer credit on this album… it’s because I slept through part of the recording. This is also why I don’t have a lot of details about his overdubbing. I was sleeping or getting coffee or something while Adam (engineer) and Doug turned it out. Two days later and Doug had polished off all nine songs.

Now with pretty much all the instruments in place, I really have to concentrate on writing a few lyrics and we’ll start tracking vocals… next episode.

Roman Kuebler

Doug working out the parts for “When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”

by PopMatters Staff

10 Apr 2008

backpack-picnic

This week: This hospital needs new doctors, or at least someone to spell check the medical forms that patients sing. Er, sign. When helpless patients, charismatic doctors and spelling errors on procedural documents are this common, it’s easy to see why you might need a brain transplant, right?

PopMatters offers exclusive early looks at new episodes of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

by Rob Horning

10 Apr 2008

At the NYT site, Stanley Fish recently posted this essay in response to Francois Cusset’s new postmortem, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Having recently re-read 1984, the discussion had extra salience for me, as most discussions of theory eventually get around to the attempt to control thought and reality through language, as Orwell illustrated with Newspeak.

Walter Benjamin argued that “the only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Orwell in 1984 was implying the same thing. The Party obliterates the past and makes its hope inaccessible. Was deconstruction doing the same thing?

French theory is usually taken as an assault on Enlightenment thought, and therefore a threat to liberal society as we know it. Fish modifies this slightly:

what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.
The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project, believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.

This is what Fish calls the Baconian dream, the Enlightment project of an airtight scientific explanation of all observable phenomena, which replaces the need for God as an explanation. Secular folk generally take this sort of thing for granted nowadays, and we tend to have a blind faith in the benevolence of science.

Summing up the general thrust of deconstructive theory, Fish invokes this quote of Hobbes’s: “True and false are attributes of speech, not of things.” In other words, truth is manufactured in discourse and is malleable. 1984, which is preoccupied with the totalitarian implications of a Berkeleyesque idealism (wherein there is no reality outside the mind), takes the absence of a 100 percent verifiable real truth outside of human minds and runs with it. In the novel, the Party must eradicate once and for all the fantasy of independent, noncontingent truth to reduce everything to power, which they monopolize. This supplants what Fish calls the Baconian dream in providing “the final word” on nature. The Party is the final word on everything in 1984, and it utters that final word in whatever form suits them as the unknowable Real moves on. The novel makes clear that science is at the mercy of politics, and serves political ends, not objective, neutral ones.

But Fish is right to say that deconstruction, which sets out to expose the political agenda of seemingly objective practices like scentific method, is itself apolitical. As he explains,

No normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one.

But though some academics harped on social construction of gender and the canon to try to expose and unsettle established “natural” hierarchies, most others realized that the deconstruction game was a never-ending spiral that pulls down all authority if pursued to its logical conclusion. It’s not a very useful tool in and of itself, since it can be used only to make one argument—there are no given truths. But the inescapability of this conclusion led ultimately to an enhanced interest in “historicity” among academics in American English departments—in the absence of absolutes, various socially constructed phenomena (i.e. everything) could be compared and critiqued after being “situated” in a historical moment through close reading “texts” (i.e. everything). And various discourses regarding said phenomena could be surveyed and a dignified role for literature asserted—it’s constructing historical reality! You can then bypass more-tedious research and its decidedly undramatic conclusions for intuitive leaps of insight derived by sensitive readings of novels and tracing patterns of tropes. This means that you don’t have to do much more than parse the rhetoric in a text to draw historical conclusions from it and start making a transhistorical case for the “invention” of this or that ontological category. Then you can write books discovering the invention of the fact, the invention of shopping, the invention of woman, the invention of basically everything. Better yet, these categories are constantly reinvented because they have no firm universal basis.

The problem with French theory is less its assault on truth, but its assault on clear straightforward expression. Its jargon is an even more recondite Newspeak than that spoken by Enlightenment rationalists, with their zeal for coining words to categorize everything. The near-incomprehensible discourse in your average text by Lacan or Derrida became a convenient tactic for professionalizing academics to adopt in order to demonstrate that what they were doing was over their philistine critics’ heads. It also made for a useful test of graduate students’ willingness to play by the rules (will they write in this putrid style to keep enemies at bay?) and doggedly attempt to follow absurdly nuanced trains of thought, which make needless distinctions apparently designed to confuse and alienate the less learned, who can’t even begin to contextualize what is at stake in such dithering. One night with Kristeva or Spivak quickly weeds out the nonbelievers.

But deconstruction—the idea that ideology is constructed and malleable—has mainly been a boon to advertising, supplying a working model for undoing prejudices against, say, wasteful spending or frivolous identity-making. Deconstruction immediately opens the possibility of ongoing, perpetually incomplete (and perpetually profitable) reconstruction. Hence women are always “becoming” women and men, men, and so on.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

// Announcements

"PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

READ the article