Archive for December, 2008


Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on December 2, 2008 by tzaniello

1. Condensation: Five Video Works

Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph, 2002, 22 mins.
Factory, 2003, 30 mins.
Bade Area, 2005, 30 mins.
On Going, 2006, 30 mins.
The Route, 2006, 14 mins.

2002-2006, 126 mins
Director: Chen Chieh-jen

Chen is a former still photographer and installation artist who turned to filming performance art in these five pieces that are really mock documentaries: he stages non-actors in industrial and similar landscapes in Taiwan and creates abbreviated and almost frustratingly interrupted narratives about important social, economic, and political issues. He chronicles in effect the end of the industrial metropolis and the creation of the faceless megalopolis.

“Factory” is an ambitious interpretation of the end of industrial labor. Chen recruited former workers from an immense but abandoned textile factory and staged re-enactments of their work and artful variations of same. In one shot they are seated at their sewing machines as if the disappearance of their work over the last seven years had not happened. In a related shot they are face down on their sewing machine tables all covered with the same blanket as if they were taking naps or passing over collectively to some unknown dreamland.

The women workers were of course the victims of globalization: although low-wage Taiwan was the center of the global textile industry form the 1960s through the 1990s, other countries, especially China and other East Asian neighbors, undercut Taiwan’s production costs and the work migrated. For the film the workers first located then handled for the camera the paraphernalia of their old workstations left behind when the factory closed, but with some surprise they also picked up their old loudspeakers and posters they had created to protest the plant’s closing.

The most recent film, “The Route,” documents world-wide port workers’ union protests and demonstrations held in solidarity for fellow port workers; ironically none of these demos took place in Taiwan, but Chen nonetheless has Taiwanese laborers acting out the other demos.

Two other films also document abandoned labor centers: “On Going” cuts between a worker at a new office building and an abandoned factory, while “Bade Area” follows squatters at still another abandoned factory in the town of Bade. All of these factories have a stark, minimalist beauty to them, a beauty that in the hands of a different artist (the late Robert Smithson, for example, photographer of abandoned industrial cities of Northern New Jersey, among his other accomplishments) does not always reach the pitch of protest that seems inherent in Chen’s work.

The fifth is the only non-industrial piece,–“Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph”–about a famous 1904 photograph of the execution of a man under the torture known as “death by a thousand cuts.” The scene is eerily re-staged by Chen (himself the “victim”) as a tribute to what he calls his resistance of the “state of amnesia” in the Taiwanese “fast forgetting” culture. In this sequence, reminiscent of the exquisite torture of actress Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), Chen moves the end of the history of metropolis into the cinematic zone of eternal image-making.


Death By A Thousand Cuts – Taiwanese Video Art, At Sequences from Factory and Lingchi.

Other Websites: Sequences from all five “Condensation” works.

For Further Reference:

Smith, Roberta. “Figures Moving as if in a Trance Across an Isolated, Lawless Island.” “New York Times,” 25 July 2007. Chen “makes his country feel like a lawless place suffused with corruption, paralysis and isolation” when he tries to make art of Taiwan’s history “without paralyzing the viewer.”

2. Diamonds From Sierra Leone

2005, 6 mins. B & W, USA
Producer: Kanye West
Online Musical Film (

In this black and white music video Kanye West was one of the first rap artists to expose the world of blood diamonds; it begins with the text of his words: “Little is known of Sierra Leone and how it connects with the diamonds we own.” He inspired the the rappers’ mission for the film “Bling: A Planet Rock” mission to Sierra Leone to investigate abuses in the diamond industry.

The video opens in black and white documentary fashion in an underground (non-diamond?) mine where we see adults panning baskets and children wielding pickaxes. “We are the children of blood diamonds,” sings West, just before we cut to a diamond appraiser.

We follow West through what looks like a Middle European cityscape just before the camera cuts to a young white couple: he’s on his knees putting a diamond ring on her hand that begins to run blood with blood. West drives his DeLoreran through the streets until he is joined by the child miners in their loincloths. He crashes his car into a jewelry store, escaping with the children down the street: “Please purchase conflict-free diamonds” flashes across the screen after a remarkable montage of a statue of Christ with a sword, West playing two pianos at the church altar, and the children rushing down the center aisle.

West uses the lyrics from the title song (by Shirley Bassey) of the James Bond film, “Diamonds are Forever,” as an ironic counterpoint to the images of the child laborers.

3. Bordertown

Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava

Border culture throughout the world has more than its share of fascinating cinematic explorations. Director Gregory Nava (whose films include “Selena,” his first collaboration with a very young Jennifer Lopez) offers in “Bordertown” a remarkably daring, disturbing, and to a certain extent plausible story of the murders of (mostly) women workers from the maquiladoras that fuel the pre- and post-NAFTA economics of Mexico and the United States. Official estimates of the murdered and missing, mostly young, women are ridiculously low, as the police try to act as if they are not incompetent or paid off, even coming up at one point (in real life as well as the film) with a suspect, an Arab national, who they say killed them all. An unlikely story, as the toll reaches, by many estimates, more than 400.

Nava’s film is not simplistic politically, although the image of a lawless Mexican society has been standard cinematic fare for generations. Nonetheless, the factories create wealth for their American corporations—in this film, a TV and monitor manufacturer—and graft for the border rough boys; they also require round the clock shifts for the young women, most of whom has been forced from their rural homes because of poverty, crop failures, and forced buyouts of their families’ land.

The film offers one way in which so many youngsters could be kidnapped, raped, murdered, and disappeared: the buses that take the girls from the factories and dump them on the streets of Juarez often in the middle of the night. In a bar, strip club, and generally sleazoid culture, the film makes one bus driver the invisible kidnapper.

Nava packs it in: Jennifer Lopez plays an aspiring Mexican-American reporter for a Chicago newspaper, herself the child of migrant workers who were murdered (for organizing in the fields?). She had started in the business with Antonio Banderas who now runs a crusading newspaper and who is reluctant to help his old girlfriend out when she befriends an Indian worker who literally crawls out of the sandy grave her attackers bury her in. While we would expect the beautiful people (Lopez and Banderas) to get together again, she actually sleeps with a maquiladora director and dandy mainly to get information about one of the possible killers.

A convoluted plot to be sure, but a chillingly beautiful film about the edge cities that are a law unto themselves. The greenish tint over the massive maquiladora factory floor (where announcements like “Lines 1 and 3 are falling behind their quota. Accelerate production” are common) illuminates the streams of workers as the shifts change, while the fire that ravages the young woman’s favela is an inevitable punishment for one of her tormentors who she believes (literally) is the devil.

For Nava corporate greed, unfair NAFTA legislation, and cowardly American editors add up to one of the most disturbing whitewashes of our era. The film ends with one more body found, clothed in her blue factory smock.



Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on December 1, 2008 by tzaniello


60 mins.
TV Documentary
Director: Kenneth Lewis
Producers: New York Times and Discovery Channel

The geeky but jaunty know-it-all-ness of Thomas L. Friedman’s books (such as The World is Flat) comes through in this personal exploration of “geo-green alternatives” to the demon oil of our era. Although Friedman is not as bad as some–buying oil at all = terrorism–Friedman still waves the red flag of Islamo-terorism in our faces a little too often: “Petro-dollars,” Friedman states, “are now funding networks of Islamic militants.” Is that true?!

Nonetheless this is a short but very helpful march through the alternatives, in every instance a minor or major success story. Gas guzzlers like Hummers and even a new Ford pickup truck that looks aluminum-light, are the enemies because of their incredibly bad gas mileage (10 and 12 MPG, respectively). On the heroes’ list, auto-wise for the moment, are such cars as the Prius and the prototype of a car run by a hydrogen fuel cell. Which, of course, has no MPG because it doesn’t use oil. What it also does not have is an infrastructure of corner “gas” stations pumping hydrogen.

Friedman is bullish on hybrid cars, hydrogen as fuel, ethanol, and solar and wind power. In every instance he makes a good case and gamely does the equivalent of taking the alternative power source for a spin around the block. He even takes on the scientifically-supported economics of ethanol (that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it saves) by instead bundling up some switch grass (“five or six foot high prairie grass”) for ethanol production because it has “more energy in it than corn.”

While any screen time given to Gary Bauer, President of American Values, an advocacy “think tank,” is too much, it may be helpful to hear occasionally what a right-winger contributes to the oil debate. “There are evil people,” Bauer intones, “feverishly working on ways to kill us. We are dependent on our energy resources to people that worship death and have drawn a bulls eye on our backs.”

The only thing scarier than peak oil, in my opinion, is the rhetoric of Gary Bauer that has me supporting Osama bin Laden every time I tank up. If only it were that simple.

Transcript/film clip of Thomas Friedman’s Addicted to Oil documentary
Jun 30, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)

YouTube: Addicted to Oil in six parts–


Further Reading:

Mink, Eric. “Drunk on Oil, and a Bad Hangover Looms.” New York Times, 24 June 2006. Finds the program a bit “sloppy” and inconsistent at times, but overall it offers its “principal themes” that only “the most rigid of ideologues” would contest; reviewer misses an effectives critique of corn as the only source of ethanol.


8 episodes, 2008
Director: Molly Mayock
Producers: National Geographic Channel and Original Productions

Los Angeles is the largest container port in the USA, exemplifying the enormous spread of the megalopolis along the channel.

The episodes are literally all over the place: in one (CSI on the Water), Port Police investigate the alleged rape of a mentally-retarded 21 year. When their crack investigator discovers childish drawings of the woman and her assailant together they conclude they don’t have a case. In another (Missing Man) longshoremen strut their stuff by offloading 4,000 containers from a single ship that had some wobbly engine problems.

The numbers racked up by the Port of Los Angeles are impressive: it has 43 miles of waterfront, 270 berths, and 76 cranes. Twenty-five of its cargo terminals can hold autos, clothing, toys, sporting goods, and electronic products, whose top suppliers in 2007 are, not surprisingly, China (with $119.9 billion) and Japan (with $40.4 billion). Its trade value in Californioa alone is $89.2 billion with an estimated impact on over a million jobs.

Two of the series stars have remarkably different jobs: Mike Rubino, the pilot captain who has to park the 90,000 ton vessels, and Geraldine Katz executive director of the port, who has to combat the fact that the port is “one of the dirtiest sources of contaminated air, carbon emissions anywhere in the region.” (according to the mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the meantime the series’ producers would do well to watch some science fiction films, since the adjoining Port of Long Beach was disrupted by an anthrax hoax during the filming.

YouTube: Excerpts from America’s Port :

Official Site (with video):

Further Reading:

Hale, Mike. “At the Port, Peril is Around Every Corner.” New York Times, 5 April 2008. Although the reviewer knows the jobs at the port of Los Angeles could be dangerous, it bothers him that nothing really scary happens in the season, unlike its sister production of Deadliest Catch (see Cinema of Globalization): he even blames the audience, “living the most comfortable lives this earth has ever afforded to nonroyalty” for a tendency to “festishize danger and risk.”

Megalopolis—Immigrant Cities

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on December 1, 2008 by tzaniello


1993, 94 mins., French with English subtitles
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenplay: Mathieu Kassovitz

Metisse (literally, a mixed race woman), the original title of this comedy, was perhaps more accurate and nasty but less metaphoric and cute: Lola (played by Julie Mauduech) is a creamy brown Parisian from Martinique with two lovers, Felix (played by the director, Mathieu Kassovitz), from a working-class Jewish family, and Jamal (played by Hubert Kounde), the black Muslim son of an African diplomat. Like her forerunner Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), Lola doesn’t like making up her mind but unlike Lola she’s pregnant.

Although the film is filled with anti-black and anti-semitic slurs and jokes, it treats the racial and religious divide in a relatively carefree manner, eventually reconciling the brawling men and transforming competing fathers into domestic pets attending Lola. Although we eventually learn who is the biological father, we never see the baby when she arrives. “What color is the baby?” Felix asks a nurse, who laughs and says that the baby is pink with green stars.

We leave the new happy and unconventional family as a voiceover from racist right-winger politician Le Pen curses at the “bastardized, impoverished race” his fellow citizens are creating.

See Other Films:

La Haine
Crimson Rivers

Further Reading:

Maslin, Janet. “Café Au Lait: Interracial Romance, Leavened by Humor.” New York Times, 19 Aug. 1994. Kassovitz’s film debut “imagines a world where laughter is a formidable weapon, beating out bigotry every time.”


2001, 109 mins., French with English subtitles
Director: Coline Serreau
Screenplay: Coline Serreau

The violence, both physical and spiritual, against Malika, or Noémie, her street name (played by Rachida Brakni) the Algerian woman in this film, is hard to watch; the explicit condemnation of Algerian men both at home and in France is somewhat compensated by the piggishness of the French men we also meet in the film’s other plot motor, that of petit-bourgeoise Helene (played by Catherine Frot).

In order to rescue her sister from the clutches of her father and his oppressive patriarchal culture, Noemie, formerly hooker non grata at home, showers her family with gifts: “With one shitty motorbike,” she tells her sister, “their honor melts along with their religion.”

The film closes with four women sitting on the shore of a lake, having escaped the creepy men in their lives: the eldest, Helene’s mother-in-law, not surprisingly turns out to be the moral center of the film, protecting women and celebrating difference.

Further Reading:

Nesselson, Kisa. “Chaos.” Variety, 19 Oct. 2001. Rave review: “Scripter-helmer [Serreau] has zero patience for the hypocrisy and political correctness that relegates abusive practices to ‘cultural differences.’”