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by Rob Horning

1 Jul 2007

A few weeks ago, Nicolas Carr, who’s generally a reliable source of technoskepticism, had a column in the Guardian about the capability we now have to record every aspect of our own lives—“life logging”, as it was called in a recent New Yorker article Carr links to. Carr points out that this trend is likely only to intensify as technology improves and companies become more aggressive about marketing it:

As surprising as it may seem, we’re probably only in the early stages of this phenomenon. Big companies like Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Google, as well as many internet startups, are working hard to give us new and even more powerful tools for recording our lives. They want to make self-recording automatic, as natural as breathing. Their goal isn’t just to sell us more computers and cameras; they know that the more details of our existence that we encode and send over the internet, the more they’ll learn about who we are, how we act, what products we’ll buy and what advertisements will catch our eyes. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more attractive we become as targets for marketers.

That’s a pretty grim prognosis; our narcissism will allow advertisers to target us in real time, and we’ll probably be flattered by this, that we are known personally to these large transnational institutions. The more personalized the ads aimed at us become—the personalized recommendations on Amazon, etc.—the more intense our narcissism may grow, as our expectations will adjust to having everything tailored for us. We may grow intolerant of one-size-fits-all offerings and choose to channel more of our existence through virtual reality, where more personalization and customization can be blended in seamlessly. Of course other people will be annoyed that they can’t escape from themselves, that their environment always seems to anticipate just who they are and doesn’t permit them the fantasy of becoming a different sort of person with different desires.

But because we can record every aspect of our lives, does that mean we must? And what do we sacrifice for all this self-mediation? By attending so much to recording our lives, are we putting ourselves at one remove from the life we are supposed to be living and recording?

What exactly is behind our rage to document the minutiae of our daily existence? That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just another manifestation of modern-day narcissism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of our media-saturated culture, with its sense that nothing’s real until it’s been recorded and broadcast. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. In striving to preserve the moments of our lives, to immortalise them, might we simply be expressing our fear of death?
As for Socrates, it’s hard to imagine that he’d be pleased with any of this. We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the real point.

So the real point is that we are using technology to reject the prospect of an examined life, of considering more deeply what it is we are actually doing? Instinctually I want to agree with this. I recently got a digital camera, and I took it on a trip I made recently to the California desert. I took some pictures while I was there:

And I was pretty happy with how they turned out. But I spent most of the time I was out on the dunes thinking about taking pictures rather than the vast nothingness I had hoped would be meditative, would take me away from the world I would share the pictures with. The camera became a tie, holding me to a conceptual place where the photos would reside and be shared.

But at the same time the camera gave me a way of focusing, a way of taking the time to really look at the landscape around me. It made me ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask. Like, who is receiving mail here?

This was in the wasteland that rings the Salton Sea, one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been. Amid the scary shacks like the one above are brand new McMansion looking houses but they are detatched from their natural environment in planned developments and are out here where nothing apears planned. These three-garage houses will have port-a-potties in the front “yard” (strange to call it a yard because nothing grows) because there aren’t any sewage lines out there. Anyway, having a camera made my meandering through this forbidding landscape much more interesting and compelling. It didn’t feel like self-recording at the time. The idea that you’re recording could have the effect of making one choose more interesting things to do or work harder to make things seem more interesting in the way they are recorded. But such a life, artificially heightened, would probably become exhausting, crowding out the time when one could replenish one’s capabilities to take things in and process them at a more-than-superficial level. What permanent recording deprives us of most of all is that contemplative “dead” time in which we restore ourselves—the sort of time Wordworth describes in “Tintern Abbey”:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

If Carr is write about the future, the very idea of an unremembered pleasure will become impossible; the phrase will become an oxymoron.

by Matt Mazur

30 Jun 2007

Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.

Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.

Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)—all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.

This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February—Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.

The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.

Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket - she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving—there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.

Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.

Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.

The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.

That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality—her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.

Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?

The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.

Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.

Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.

Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.

Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes—even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.

by Daniel Ferm

30 Jun 2007

Revered film director, Martin Scorsese produces provocative and innovative films for contemporary cinema. Unlike the uplifting tales of Spielberg, Scorsese’s films depict bleak settings and morally depraved characters. Because of this degeneration, his films leave audiences guessing where the film will go next, but at the same time his movies contain a tight narrative/structure, used to create more tumult in his fictional worlds. Scorsese’s striking style earns him honor and praise from critics and keeps audiences wanting more. 

Interview with SILVERDOCS:

by J. Peder Zane [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

30 Jun 2007

Claws were bared and tongues were wagging last week as a “catfight” took center stage in the presidential race.

The confrontation began Tuesday when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, confronted conservative provocateur Ann Coulter on the MSNBC program “Hardball.” Portraying herself as incensed over Coulter’s personal attacks against her husband, Edwards demanded that the blond bomb-thrower stop “debas(ing) the political dialogue.”

Coulter accused the Edwardses of attacking her as a stunt to bring attention and money to their campaign.

It is tempting to write off this dustup as a blip on the political radar. But analysts say this prime-time showdown reflects broader forces - especially talk radio, 24/7 cable news and the Internet - that have reshaped American culture and politics in the past 20 years.

by tjmHolden

30 Jun 2007

The hard part about life is extracting enough novelty from it to keep it interesting, but not so much as to make it intolerably, unbearably, unmanageably, unliveable.

Which is why we have heuristics. Or other simplifying devices like codifications and formulas, recipes and examples, parables and analogies, metaphors and portents.

(Oh, and travel blogs and people like me!)

You know: intellectual tools that help present life as it is: unique,  yet, at the same time, compact and fathomable; and not so overwhelming as to tap us over like so many ten pins standing helpless, in muted anticipation, in some inert line we have been fitting into.

Which (believe it or not) is one reason that I’m about to talk about Iraq, but only as a prelude to talking about my guitar-playing son. And it is also why, along the way, I’ll probably take a detour through Oedipus Rex. Maybe as a means of verifying that this is a travelblog – which is another way of observing that just about everything we think or do has detours and rivulets and tributaries and ultimately feeds into and contributes to the execution of the great journey of life.


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