Imaginary Brazilian Revolution

Brazil is a state of carefree serenity. Brazil is attained by forsaking sanity.

Return . . . I will . . . to old . . . Brazil.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Death Penalty Movies

I've been working my way through Krzysztof Kieslowski's series of ten one-hour films called The Decalogue. Last night I watched Decalogue 5. It was about this deplorable scumbag who murders a taxi driver for no reason and is sentenced to death.

Usually when I'm watching movies I assume that the filmmakers are taking a liberal stance on whatever issues they're dealing with, especially when the filmmakers are Europeans. So I expected the film to be an argument against capital punishment. But that wasn't necessarily the case in this film.

One central character, the scumbag's lawyer, does make the case that capital punishment is innefective as a deterrent and he is a sympathetic character, so when he agonizes about his client's impending execution, we agonize along with him. But the murderer is far from sympathetic. We see him commit a brutal murder, which is, to say the least, not endearing, and we also see him before the murder behaving with reckless disregard for the people around him. He drops a rock off of an overpass into traffic for no reason, he pushes down a man while he's urinating in the restroom, he scares an old lady's pidgeons away. Before he's even committed the murder we hate him. At least I did. His character becomes a bit more complicated when, as he is about to be hanged, he tells his lawyer about how he was indirectly responsible for his kid sister's death. He says that maybe things would've turned out differently if his little sister hadn't been killed. But this didn't engender any sympathy on my part. I still hated him and was fine with him being executed.

Dead Man Walking is another death penalty movie that I assumed was supposed to be an argument against capital punishment. The Sean Penn character is similar to the Decalogue murderer in that he is also undeniably a scumbag, although he does commit fewer acts of random evil and director Tim Robbins puts more effort into getting us to feel sympathy for this condemned. He didn't have a daddy; he was poor; he confesses at the last hour and shows remorse. But, again, I couldn't see this guy's death as a tragedy and I didn't see the film as making a coherent case against the death penalty.

So the question I've been asking myself is whether these filmmakers were trying to present an argument against capital punishment and I just don't see it, or if the films are meant more as Rorschach (ink blot) tests in that they want us to react to the executions that we witness and learn about ourselves from our reactions. I think that, whether intended or not, both of these films succeed as Rorschach tests. I learned that I'm totally OK with the execution of murderers. As I watched both of them die I felt no sadness or regret. I wasn't happy, but I was OK with it. The way I see it, if you take an innocent life you automatically forfeit your own right to life.

In the real world I'm somewhat ambivalent about capital punishment because of the very real possibility of people being executed for crimes they didn't commit. But in a film where we know that the condemned is guilty, I can't see his death as lamentable.

I suspect other people had different reactions to these films. To someone adamantly opposed to capital punishment, perhaps the execution scenes (both very well-acted, by the way, especially Penn) do represent a strong anti-capital punishment statement. Maybe they see injustice or barbarism where I don't.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I like Roy Orbison.

I used to be anti-Orbison. I remember growing up seeing those infomercials hawking Roy Orbison collections and being repulsed by his motherly appearance with his big glasses and poofy hair. I also thought his voice was weird. I'd heard some of his songs a million times ("Only the Lonely," "Oh, Pretty Woman," etc.), so it's not like I wasn't giving him a chance just because he was goofy lookin'.

My anti-Orbisonism never mattered much. Nobody I knew was a fan. I never had conversations or arguments about the merits of his music or anything. Over time I've stopped being anti-anything really ('cept Jessica Simpson and the like), but any time Orbison was mentioned I knew I didn't like him.

Then, sometime last year, somebody I like name-checked Orbison. It was Low's Alan Sparhawk on NPR's Fresh Air. He said something to the effect that he was obsessed with the Roy Orbison song structure, where songs just build and build to the end of the song.

Also, over the past couple of years I've become more interested in pop songwriting. I used to kind of limit myself to relatively weird music (Radiohead, Bjork). I kind of (but not completely) shunned conventional pop music just because it was conventional. Then I fell in love with Wilco's A Ghost is Born. That album had some of the weird-ish stuff that I love, but it also had some great straight forward pop songs. Wilco songs like "Hummingbird" and "The Late Greats" reminded me of the pleasure of the pop hook and of a well-constructed pop song, no matter how conventional. Since then I've been enjoying a lot relatively conventional pop stuff like a lot of Wilco songs, Elliott Smith, The New Pornographers, the Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, et. al., and appreciating well-written pop songs.

Anyways, last week I up and decided to get some Orbison songs after someone at Kulturblog called him a national treasure or something like that. On Friday while I was driving around doing my gas checking thing I listened to "Only the Lonely," "Leah," "Dream Baby," "Running Scared," and a few others. And I liked it. Some songs, like "Leah" and "Running Scared," I liked quite a lot. I'm not crazy about the oldie aesthetic of some of the recordings, but the songs themselves are great.

This story has some lessons: 1) I am impressionable. If my opinion of someone can change just because someone I like likes them, I can't have any confidence in my ability to identify good music. 2) Sometimes were looking for a certain thing in music and just because a given artist doesn't provide that thing doesn't mean that they're no good and it doesn't mean that they won't do something for you later.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fear of Prosperity

I'm probably never going to be more than middle class or upper middle class. But relative to how I grew up that's rich. My family wasn't super poor. We never went hungry and we always had our home. Also, fortunately, we lived in a suburb with quality public schools and no crime or violence to speak of. So it's not like I've had huge obstacles to overcome on my way to an advanced degree (if I ever finish). But my parents struggled. I remember government cheese, food stamps, and not wanting to ask for new shoes because of the stress that the extra $15 expense would be. So I'm gonna feel pretty wealthy if I ever become financially secure. And that's what has motivated me to work hard. I fear poverty. But I also find that I fear wealth.

Something somebody said somewhere has me thinking about the downsides to wealth. I don't know for sure since I've never been wealthy but it seems to me that wealth can be downright pernicious. It can put people's moral compass completely out of whack so that they end up doing crazy things like wasting money that could be used to do good. Some of the things that some rich people do just make my head spin.

It's easy to point up at rich people and accuse them of immorally using their money, but then I, a poor student supporting a family with a stipend and student loans, think about the completely unnecessary things that I do with money (DSL, cable, golf, Netflix) and wonder if I'm any better than the rich guy who spends hundreds of dollars on things as ephemeral as 750 ml of a beverage and fish eggs. Probably not. Same sin, different magnitude.

So I guess I don't need to fear wealth because it would make me use money in irresponsible, immoral ways. I already do that. The bad thing is that I don't really want to stop. I don't feel to badly about it. Maybe I should.

I tell myself, and I really believe, that if I ever have extra money I won't use it in silly ways. I'll make sure my family is secure and then look outward to do the most good I can do. I won't buy ridiculous cars or expensive jewelry etc. But who knows? Maybe I would indulge in that kind of stuff.

But that's not what I fear the most. I fear wealth less for its effect on me than on my kids. I don't want them to feel entitled to anything. I want them to have to work for what they get, to learn to go without, to suffer a little bit. I want this because that's the experience that I had and I'm grateful for it, even if it was a bit painful at the time.

There may also be a shade of classism in my fear of wealth. I'm trying not to indulge these feelings because I think they're prideful and destructive, but I find that I hold people's wealth against them. As if their prosperity has robbed them of the character-building experiences that I and other less priviledged people had. My classist tendencies also manifest themselves in the pride that I take in being the son of a janitor. Why do I think this stuff matters? And why do I fear that my kids' growing up relatively priviledged would be to their detriment?

I don't know. But I think it's worth fighting these thoughts.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Gas Music

One Friday a month I drive all around the Baltimore area writing down gas prices for a survey company in California. You may be familiar with my work. When CNN reports that gas prices have gone up or down or whatever they usually cite the survey to which I contribute, the Lundberg Survey. So that's why I'm special. But that's not the point. I like these Fridays because, although I'm in the car for about six hours and my butt gets sore and my knees get achy because my little Corolla wasn't built for well-nourished, genetically superior Americans, I get to listen to a lot of music very loudly. I don't have these opportunities often. My commute to the lab is only 15 to 20 min. so I don't spend a lot of time in the car alone. I listen to the iPod in the lab, but I have to turn it down a bit so that I'm not too anti-social. When I'm driving with the wife and kids it has to be nice music and not too loud. I usually get two or three new albums to listen to and then I listen to a bunch of other stuff. Here's what I listened to yesterday:

Six Organs of Admittance--School of the Flower (2005)

This is the first time I had heard this album. I didn't quite absorb it all, but I'm intrigued. It's light, kind of ambient/droney folkish stuff. I checked this album out because it was on the "Listeners Also Bought" list at the iTunes Akron/Family page. Have I mentioned that I love Akron/Family? Well I do.

Vetiver--Vetiver (2004)

Another new (to me) psych-alt-freak folk type thing. Devendra Banhart (who I don't like much) plays guitar. Nice, mellow acoustic folk.

The Magnetic Fields--i (2004)

I was dozing so I had to pull over and snooze a bit while this was playing so I didn't get a good listen but what I heard I liked. It wasn't the music that made me drowsy, by the way. It was a late night and early morning.

The Flaming Lips--At War With the Mystics (2006)

Annoying. Also brilliant. Also annoying. I think I'll write a proper review of this one.

Sufjan Stevens--Greetings From Michigan (2003)

Good. Not as good as the awesome Illinois. The songs here just kind of blend together. The sound is great, though.

Neko Case--Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)

Good stuff. Her voice is great and the music is outstanding. I think Calexico is the backing band for several of the tracks and they add quite a lot.

Beth Orton--Comfort of Strangers (2006)

Good songs. She has a compelling voice and sings expressively. The album may be a bit long. Maybe a bit bland.

Cat Power--The Greatest (2006)

Kind of ditto Beth Orton. A prettier voice, but not too much energy.

Talking Heads--77 (1977)

I needed something spunky after all the controlled niceness. 77 did the trick. "No Compassion" and "Psycho Killer" are just awesome. The rest of the album is good too. I haven't decided on a favorite early Talking Heads album, but this one rivals Fear of Music and More Songs About Buildings and Food.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Road Home

This is a beautiful, simple love story directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, etc.) and starring Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, etc.). It tells in one long flashback the story of a young woman in a poor Chinese village who becomes enchanted with the city gentleman who comes to help build a new schoolhouse and teach the children of the village. She takes every chance she can to observe the teacher and come close to him. Every day she waits on a hill by the path that he walks just to observe him from a distance; she walks the extra distance to the well by the schoolhouse, passing up a closer well, just so she can hear his voice as he teaches the children. When you think about it, her behavior is almost obsessive, but Ziyi is so enchanting and believable that everything she does seems natural and true. Besides, I think we all tend to get a little obsessive when we're in love/infatuated.

The film begins and ends with the teacher's son and widow making preparations for his funeral. These portions of the film are shot in black and white while the flashback which constitutes the majority of the film is in vivid color, which I found to be very effective at invoking the pervasive melancholy that accompanies death, especially as it is contrasted with the beauty and hope of the new love. The Road Home ends with a scene that made me think of that beautiful ending to It's a Wonderful Life where all the people who have been touched by George Bailey come together to give a little back. The deceased school teacher had touched so many lives so profoundly that these people felt compelled to express their appreciation with a simple, subdued, collective act of tribute, carrying and accompanying his casket on the titular road home so that he wouldn't forget his way. We regard this act of tribute from afar, as if it is so sacred and private that our immediate presence would be an intrusion.

This is a slow film. If you're not in the right mindset it might become boring. But I was captivated, first of all by Ziyi Zhang's always enchanting presence, and second by the truth and beauty illustrated on the screen.

A Call to Action

Tyler has officially taken over as the sole administrator of "Imaginary Brazilian Revolution." Without my efforts recently, this blog would be obsolete. At least we have the mental explorations of a madman to keep us afloat, unreciprocated as they might be.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM!!! POST NEW STUFF ALREADY! If you can't make time for imaginary brazil's, what can you make time for? We're a family! Where's the communication? Let's do this! Enlighten me!