The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, July 27, 2008
THE LENS WHICH PIERCES TO THE CENTER OF OBJECTS CREATES ITS OWN WORLD: A small group takes an excursion into the woods. One of them records nervous video monologues about the strange creature they may have encountered. The entity itself might be something supernatural, might be someone in disguise, and might be a sign of madness.

It isn't The Blair Witch Project, but the parallels are striking enough to make me wonder if that low-budget horror hit -- nine years old this year! my, how time flies -- was an inspiration, conscious or unconscious, for Antero Alli's The Invisible Forest, in which the group entering the woods is a troupe of actors and the creature they may have contacted is the ghost of the surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud. In The Blair Witch Project, the movie drew much of its power from the suggestion that the story was actually true. The Invisible Forest does the reverse, mixing dreams with forest scenes so surreal that by the end of the picture, you're not sure which moments, if any, were not part of the protagonist's imagination.

Alli's movies almost always include visionary sequences that stand out as the visual peak -- and, sometimes, the dramatic peak -- of the stories that contain them. In this film, improvised without a script, those visually inventive, non-linear scenes nearly take over the movie altogether. I had mixed feelings about this: What may be his most delirious picture to watch is also his most difficult story to follow, and at times the narrative seemed to spiral out of control. On the other hand, the spiral takes us places an ordinary, scripted story might avoid, even when the visual effects cease. In particular, the improvised dialogues between Alli, as the troupe director who believes he has been contacted by Artaud, and Garret Dailey, as his psychiatrist "Philip K. Brodrique," are naturalistic, funny, frightening -- in general, the best acting I've seen in Alli's oeuvre.

A 2008 release, The Invisible Forest is not currently playing in any theaters, but it is available
on DVD.

Update: I forwarded this review to Alli, who I've interviewed a couple of times in the past. From his reply:
Each film I make always carries a deeper subtext -- "what this film is really about" -- that I don't tell the actors or the audience. It's part of what drives me to make each film. With "Forest" I wanted to offer an aesthetically pleasing yet psychologically disturbing experience of getting lost...lost in the dark wood, as it 'twere.

posted by Jesse 4:20 PM
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Thursday, July 24, 2008
SELF-PROMOTION: My interview with Francesca Coppa is now
online. Here's the lede to the intro:
Since the 1970s, an underground subculture has been making and privately screening short films. The artists are fans—and critics—of cult TV shows, from Star Trek to Homicide: Life on the Street. Their movies are music videos, edited from pieces of those programs and other sources into something new: a story, an essay, a mood piece, a love note.

These vidders, as they call themselves, weren't the first filmmakers to re-edit existing footage into new works, but they may have been the first to do it as a self-conscious community, training one another in the art and craft of vidding. They also did it invisibly, shying from the spotlight both to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits and simply to keep the work away from viewers not likely to appreciate the form.

posted by Jesse 3:12 PM
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Monday, July 21, 2008
ONCE YOU WERE TWO, DEAR BIRTHDAY FRIEND, IN SPITE OF PURPLE WEATHER: The sweetest, cutest, cleverest little girl in the world turns three today.

Happy birthday, Maya!

posted by Jesse 1:42 PM
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Wednesday, July 16, 2008
SELF-PROMOTION: I neglected to link to it on Monday, but I participated in another one of The Cinematheque's movie polls. This week's topic: the best films of Howard Hawks. Here's my ballot:

1. The Big Sleep (1946)
2. To Have and Have Not (1944)
3. Rio Bravo (1959)
4. Red River (1948)
5. His Girl Friday (1940)

It was my closest brush with consensus -- not only was my number-one pick the general favorite as well, but four of my selections made the overall top five. You can see
everyone else's votes on the Cinematheque site.

posted by Jesse 11:50 PM
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AT HOME HE FEELS LIKE A JURIST: From an interesting
true-crime tale in The Washington Monthly:
In the previous year, nearly twenty defendants in other Baltimore cases had begun adopting what lawyers in the federal courthouse came to call "the flesh-and-blood defense." The defense, such as it is, boils down to this: As officers of the court, all defense lawyers are really on the government's side, having sworn an oath to uphold a vast, century-old conspiracy to conceal the fact that most aspects of the federal government are illegitimate, including the courts, which have no constitutional authority to bring people to trial. The defendants also believed that a legal distinction could be drawn between their name as written on their indictment and their true identity as a "flesh and blood man."

Judge Davis and his law clerk pored over the case files, which led them to a series of strange Web sites. The flesh and blood defense, they discovered, came from a place far from Baltimore, from people as different from [black defendant] Willie Mitchell as people could possibly be. Its antecedents stretched back decades, involving religious zealots, gun nuts, tax protestors, and violent separatists driven by theories that had fueled delusions of Aryan supremacy and race war in gun-loaded compounds in the wilds of Montana and Idaho.
How were such ideas transmitted from the radical right to the black underclass? The Monthly's writer, Kevin Carey, points to the prison system:
Some collected the documents [the Montana-based separatists] the Freemen filed during their trial and began offering them for sale via advertisements in "America's Bulletin," a newsletter espousing Posse-style anti-government theories that is widely distributed throughout the prison system by white supremacists.

In October 2004, a prisoner named Michael Burpee arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in downtown Baltimore. Burpee had recently been convicted in Florida of trafficking PCP to Maryland. Hoping for leniency, he pled guilty, only to receive a twenty seven-year prison sentence dictated by harsh federal sentencing guidelines. Desperate for a way out, he began listening to someone--presumably a fellow prisoner--who explained how the charges were all part of a secret government conspiracy against him. Then Burpee was brought up on new federal drug charges in Maryland, and shipped north. He carried with him a pile of documents that were remarkably similar to those that had been filed by the Montana Freemen....

Like the Midwestern farmers before them, the Baltimore inmates were susceptible to the notion that the federal government was engaged in a massive, historic plot to deprive them of life, liberty, and property. Such suspicions are prevalent in certain pockets of the black community--that year, a study from the Rand Corporation found that over 25 percent of African Americans surveyed believed the AIDS virus was developed by the government, and 12 percent thought it was released into the population by the CIA. And black separatist groups like the Nation of Islam--also fond of conspiracy theories--have long cultivated members through the prison system; some of these groups have explicitly adopted the language of constitutional fundamentalists. Given these developments, Levitas told me, "I'm surprised this didn't happen sooner."
That's a fascinating conveyer belt. I'm not sure it was the only one. This is not the first time conspiracy theories identified with far-right groups, including white supremacists, have found their way into black America. I've heard similar ideas, for example, from some offshoots of the Moorish Science Temple. And while that was recent enough to have possibly been influenced by Burpee, it isn't my only enounter of that kind.

In the late '90s, when I was writing a lot about pirate radio, I met several black radicals who defended their right to operate unlicensed stations using "sovereign citizen" arguments that I had seen, in almost identical form, in the right-wing fringes of the libertarian movement. Still earlier in the '90s, I stumbled on the curious cultural zone where black militants intersected with the militia milieu, which I then described in an article for Chronicles. (Unfortunately, the only copy of that story that I can find online is a garbled version someone posted to a UFO list, with all the paragraph breaks missing, the last line removed, and who knows how many other screwups in the transcription.) I've seen evidence suggesting that similar ideas were traveling from white populists to black populists -- or, if you prefer, being adapted and reconfigured by black populists -- even earlier.

The really interesting thing about the Monthly story is that when Mitchell tried to use those ludicrous homebrewed legal theories, they may have...worked. Sort of.
None of these arguments had a prayer of overturning the charges. But they had an impact nonetheless. They made a long, complex trial longer and more complex still. Seeking the death penalty is rightfully arduous--it requires legal justifications for the penalty itself, enhanced scrutiny over jury selection, an additional penalty phase after a conviction, and so on. Conspiracy charges create further legal burdens. And the way Mitchell et al chose to deal with their attorneys--not dismissing them outright, but asking them to sign a peculiar "contract" that would essentially prohibit them from mounting a defense--created more problems. If the defendants weren't dealt with carefully, they might be able to appeal by claiming that they had been inadequately represented....

By mid-2007, the federal prosecutors were starting to run low on a vital resource: time. As years go by, memories fade, police officers retire or transfer, informants change their mind, and juries wonder why, if the case is so straightforward, it took so long to make. On September 6, 2007, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty for all four defendants.
[Via Matt Kaune.]

(cross-posted at Hit & Run)

posted by Jesse 1:14 PM
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Thursday, July 10, 2008
BRUCE CONNER, RIP: The great beatnik filmmaker Bruce Conner has
died at age 74. No director has surpassed Conner's ability to assemble preexisting found footage into something entirely new; in experimental movies ranging from his Zapruder-meets-Owsley short Television Assassination to his Devo video Mongoloid to his haunting dream-film Valse Triste, he laid the groundwork for the current explosion of remixes and mash-ups.

Other filmmakers have done it before. But mainly in a comic sort of way. I'd seen a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho said to Harpo, "There's a revolution going on. We need help." Harpo goes out and pins a "Help Wanted" sign on the door. Suddenly you see tanks and airplanes and soldiers and elephants all coming to their aid. After that I started thinking...I became aware that putting in an image from a totally different movie you could make it more complex. Like taking the soundtrack from one film that was made in 1932 and put it on top of images from a movie made in 1948, and inter-cutting other images together with it. I had this tremendous, fantastic movie going in my head made up of all the scenes I'd seen...a three-hour spectacular. --Bruce Conner, 1974
He didn't just do this with film. He created weird, witty, sometimes Ernstian collages. And he made grotesque but transfixing assemblages -- sculptures, sort of -- out of stretched stockings, faded photos, beads, hair, and a host of found objects, from a suitcase to a high chair, a crucifix to a bicycle wheel. In some ways these resembled Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, but they had a messier, more organic quality, as though they had been left in a garage rather than carefully preserved on a shelf.

Not all of Conner's art was assembled from preexisting material. Leafing through 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, I see drawings, paintings, photograms, and forms I'm not sure I could describe with a single word. He also made some films the old-fashioned way, photographing them himself rather than compiling them from other people's images. (The best of those is probably Looking for Mushrooms, a mesmerizing movie shot in Mexico and California.) He seemed eager to try his hand at every conceivable medium -- he even spent a spell doing light shows for rock bands.

Now that you can pass off a prank as "conceptual art," I should probably mention that Conner was a great prankster as well. (He has his own chapter in the classic Re/Search anthology Pranks!) He loved to play with identity, and once plotted to present an exhibition of new collages that he would inaccurately attribute to Dennis Hopper. (The actor was a friend, and Conner was an informal consultant on Easy Rider. He made the collages, which are stunning, but the larger plan never came off.) In 1967 he ran a jape campaign for San Francisco City Supervisor, at one point giving a speech that consisted entirely of a long list of desserts. And as the San Francisco Chronicle's obituary reports,
Mr. Conner announced his own death erroneously on two occasions, once sending an obituary to a national art magazine, and later writing a self-description for the biographical encyclopedia Who Was Who in America.
I'd like to believe he's still alive this time too, sharing a beer somewhere with Andy Kaufman and chuckling at the gullible media.

(cross-posted at Hit & Run)

posted by Jesse 8:30 AM
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REBELS ON THE GROUND: I contributed a chapter to
Red State Rebels, a new anthology edited by Joshua Frank of Dissident Voice and Jeffrey St. Clair of CounterPunch. The book features a long list of leftist and/or libertarian writers describing anti-corporate and/or anti-government fights in the American heartland. My contribution is a slightly revised version of a Reason piece about the desert anarchists of the New Mexico Mesa.

An excerpt from the introduction should give you the flavor:
Frank grew up on the wheated plains of eastern Montana. St. Clair hails from the humid cornfields of central Indiana. These states span the glaciated heart of the continent, a region carved and ground-smooth by the weight of ice. From a distance, the terrain of the Great Plains appears homogenous.

From a distance so do its politics and demographics. You must look closer to discover the diversity, the radical nuances.

Even the Republicanism of Indiana, sired as it was by the rigid Lutheranism of German immigrants, is wildly different from the libertarian, anti-government Republicanism of Montana and the Rocky Mountain Front. They are not one. Except on the two-color map of American politics, or Barack Obama’s electoral playbook, which writes off this vast region almost completely.

Neither of us fit in the geo-ideological matrix contrived by the mainstream political establishment. Neither do thousands of others, left, right and anarcho-libertarians, who reside in the forgotten midsection of the nation.

And not all of us are children of Ken Kesey and Ed Abbey. Some follow in the footsteps of David Koresh, Reies Tijerina, Randy Weaver, Elvira Arellano or Mary Dann.
I disagree with part of that: To judge from his recent campaign stops, Obama isn't writing off the region, to his credit. I have my disagreements, as you'd expect, with other portions of the book as well. I could do without the interview with Ward Churchill, for example, in which the radical ex-prof defends himself against the charges that got him fired from his university job. I didn't follow the Churchill case closely enough to have an educated opinion of how good his defense is, but when he turns to a topic I did follow closely -- the case of Michael Bellesiles, disgraced author of the firmly refuted tome Arming America -- he mangles the facts so wildly that I have a hard time trusting the other things he says.

But there's a lot of good stuff here too: Alan Bock on Ruby Ridge, Dean Kuipers on Rainbow Farm, David Underhill on Veterans for Peace, Kirkpatrick Sale on secession, Brenda Norrell on resistance to property seizures along the border. There are reports from the South, from the Rockies, from the desert states, from the Midwestern flatlands, from Indian country. Even the essays I don't agree with deal with important stories that for the most part haven't penetrated the mainstream media. The book is worth a look.

Speaking of the red states -- and speaking of self-promotion -- I wrote an obit of sorts for Jesse Helms at the Reason site. Here's an excerpt:
If you asked the average liberal about Helms in 1995, there were two things he was likely to tell you: that the senator was a racist and that the senator was a censor. The evidence for the first charge, if you cared to ask, would be a TV ad he ran in his 1990 campaign, in which a white man crumples a job application after a racial quota keeps him from finding work. The evidence for the second charge would be Helms' crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal program that funded material he considered obscene.

In other words, the typical Helms-bashers were actually prettifying the picture. The man was a Jim Crow nostalgist who wanted to obliterate the line between church and state, and they were whining about his run-of-the-mill conservative stances on affirmative action and Robert Mapplethorpe. You'd think Helms was just another Republican, notable only for his accent and his ties to the tobacco industry. But he was much more than that. You needn't favor racial preferences or federal art subsidies to find Jesse Helms objectionable.
And then I get into the details. The article was denounced on Stormfront, so I must be doing something right.

posted by Jesse 12:08 AM
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