January 2009


Thanks to the good people over at Calabash Music I just enjoyed my lunch while watching this amazing little animated film.

Hungu was conceived and directed by Canadian Nicolas Brault with production assistance from the National Film Board of Canada. The official write-up:

The hungu is an African musical instrument, ancestor of the Brazilian berimbau. Its origins are carried on in an ancient tradition. Inspired by the grace and raw beauty of African rock paintings, Nicolas Brault applies his narrative gifts to a world where humans and nature are subtly linked.

Under the African sun, a child walks in the desert with his kin. Death is prowling, but a mother’s soul resurrected by music will return strength and life to the child when he becomes a man.

The filmmaker combines 2D animation on a graphics tablet with the warmth of sand animation, thus uniting modernity and tradition, Brazil and Africa, music and memory. Sparse in design and humanist in its outlook, Hungu exudes the elegance and suggestive power of a timeless story.

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Gavin 4 Gov?

My power and prestige precede me, which allows access to inside information not intended for you plebes. Just the other day the mayor, Gavin Newsom, sent me a quick e-mail about what he’s been up to. I guess the cat’s been let out of the bag so it’s safe to say that he’s considering a run for governor when Arnold Schwarzenegger gets termed out. There’s an exploratory commission at work, feeling out the mood on the street, seeing what chances our native son has at ascending into the hallowed halls of Sacramento. Newsom himself has been on the move, spending less time at City Hall in lieu of places like Washington DC where he witnessed Barak Obama’s swearing-in (part one) and sat through a two-day Mayors conference. Now he’s in Switzerland and, after a quick four-day stay in Paris with his wife, Newsom has joined the global economic elite at the Davos forum.

Who’s footing the bill for this assessment of gubernatorial aspirations? That’s a good question and according to Chronicle muckrakers Matier & Ross the trip to DC, because of the Mayor’s summit, was a city expense that included whatever accommodations deigned appropriate for Newsom and two staff members, but the tally has yet to be made public. Private funds have sent Newsom and wife abroad, but what work isn’t being done while our mayor rubs elbows with the high profile talking heads of high finance? There’s no accounting for that sort of thing, but it is known that he has a member of SFPD keeping an eye on things overseas. In addition to world-class events Newsom has also be galavanting around the state to shake hands with commoners and possible squeeze dimes from their wallets. This is presumably handled by whatever campaign fund Newsom has already amassed but, as a sitting mayor, he is escorted to many places by our own cash-strapped police department.

But it takes money to make money, as evidenced by my very personal e-mail received from good old Gav. Using his life-altering experience of watching Obama being sworn in as a segue Newsom begins to rattle off his hopes and dreams of what can be done sitting in Sacramento; each bullet point is accompanied by a link asking if you’ll join us. Regardless of whether you’re into universal health care, climate change, schools or the economy the links all direct you to a sign up sheet so you can begin to receive personal pleas for contributions to purchase the sensation of participating in democratic change. That’s what this is all about, he summarized, we have made San Francisco a laboratory for change and he wants to take this experience state-wide. (more…)

Manito (2002)
Written and Directed by Eric Eason
Starring Franky G, Leo Minaya, Manuel Cabral, Hector Gonzalez, Julissa Lopez, Jessica Morales

Can a first time feature film shot entirely on handheld digital video starring a cast of unknowns represent an honest portrayal of inner city life? Eric Eason excels at one thing, imposing a mood on a time and place by offering the viewer little flavors swiped from a well-stocked sampler buffet. Unfortunately his overbearing atmosphere broadcasts the future as subtly as a drunken rhino on a three day binge and his attempts to express fast-paced city life by means of a constantly whirling digital camera drag this little picture down into the gutter of art trash. There’s redeeming qualities if you don’t mind picking through dead pigeons and discarded condoms running along the sidewalk.

Manito 1

Ostensibly a family drama the more fulfilling effect Eason manages is to use the day of a fractured Latino family to explore their community. Manny Moreno (Leo Minaya) is graduating from highscool top honors with a full scholarship to Syracuse. His older brother Junior (Franky G) can barely get it together to put the deposit down on the rental hall in between shouting at his wife (Julissa Lopez), brushing off his kid and looking for the white-out to falsify some documents needed for his contracting work. But this is a big deal and nothing will get in between family, except for their absent father; Manny lives with his charming old-school Grandfather (Hector Gonzalez) who has nothing but obvious pride for his charge.

Manito 6

There’s an early period dedicated to a couple slice-of-life vignettes. Manny takes the train to school and hangs out with his trash-talking friends, hams for the camera and tries to flirt like a street kid but is woefully unable to affect the same brash braggadocio as his peers. There’s an obvious excitement in the air, graduation is only hours away, but what excites Manny more is that his family is throwing him a party afterwards and he would really like Marisol (Jessica Morales) to come. Unfortunately she has to babysit her son.

Manito 2

Across town Junior is frantically running around because his team of Mexicans bailed on a job. What he finds is a squad of laid off busboys begging to drywall in their uniforms. He’s late, there’s no time, so the restaurant staff climb in the back and watch as Junior, with his forged insurance registration, charms his way a townhouse, and then into the upperclass tenant. There’s still the rental hall deposit to be paid, and Junior hauls ass to the check cashing place looking for a certified check. He charms a girl working there as well, and presumably his money order works out fine in the end.

Manito 7

Meanwhile Gramps is legging it through Washington Heights to an unremarkable doorway. He arrives in a brothel where he’s greeted warmly by the madam and all the girls kiss him on the cheek. Smoking his cigar, surrounded by admirers, he opens his case and reveals lingerie and jewelry for sale. But Mr. Moreno (Manuel Cabral), the missing father, has also been busy. Early in the morning he set about crafting the world’s longest sandwich and has it delivered to the place of the party. When Junior finds it there he flies into a rage, bringing the gift back to the bodego his father runs and throws it in his face. Obviously there’s some bad blood in this family. (more…)

Any impression that the Catholic Church is a backward institution run by clueless old men has been obliterated by Pope Benedict XVI’s launching of a Vatican Youtube channel. Now the faithful can use the power of the World Wide Web (his words) to check in daily with their spiritual father, unfettered by the limitations of space and time.

Pope TV

Mind blowing stuff, but it raises an obvious question. Surely the Vatican has the money to deliver these messages of goodwill and hope through their own digital channels, relaying the word of God through high resolution streaming rather than low-grade Youtube clips. Is the Church concerned that no one would check into a dedicated site and hopes instead that viewership will trickle in through the interconnectedness of Youtube? Salvation can be had for millions of midnight Youtube trollers desperate for fulfillment just by stumbling onto a random video. If this is so then it seems strange that The Pope would rely on a social-network model to increase viewers while simultaneously warning against the threat of virtual friendships in lieu of an honest-to-God life.

I’m also a little curious about the way that Pope TV is set up. They don’t allow embedding (which is why trying to watch the video above sends you direct to their channel) and they don’t allow anyone to rate their videos. Even more perplexing is that it seems like commenting is enabled but I’ve yet to see a single comment on any of the videos I’ve looked at. The subject matter seems ripe for lampooning but perhaps the usual assortment of snarky Anonymous lurking throughout the web are a little concerned about their eternal salvation.

The Grifters (1963) Written by Jim Thompson

A shockingly compassionate piece of crime-fiction from the Godfather of amoral tales populated by sociopathic anti-heroes, The Grifters is the closest a Jim Thompson novel comes to a tale of redemption: Can a young man raised by a frequently absent mother who would rather abandon her child, who has found a life as a con-man, break free of the grift? Thompson was masterful at detailing the inner workings of his characters’ minds but often this was to show the inhuman deviousness of cold-blooded killers; here Thompson examines the thoughts of a man questioning, without intending on introspection, the very nature of his being when the distant past comes crashing into the present.

Roy Dillon’s vomiting bile outside a shop where his quick-change con earned him a baseball bat in the gut. The cruising cops take him for an afternoon drunk until they see his credit cards while he rifles through his wallet for his license. They take their leave and Dillon drives off just as soon as he can stop retching. Appearing to be a respectable man, holding down a straight job and living in a modest apartment in an unassuming Los Angeles neighborhood has been the key to his success. Con men find themselves constantly on the move, splitting town as soon as their faces become too recognizable. Dillon has found that he can stick to the short grift working from a central location and spare the expenses of life on the lam.

Except he’s dying, and doesn’t even know it. Internal hemorrhaging has him writhing in bed, unable to eat or sleep, and even a visit from Moira Langtry can’t dispel the nagging suspicion that something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t so much that they had a relationship as they had an understanding– she was an independent woman who didn’t need to be tied down, he was a swindler who couldn’t afford to be exposed. They speak mostly from discarded B-movie scripts, using a refusal to communicate to constantly challenge one another.

It takes a surprise visit from Lilly Dillon, his estranged mother, or the closest thing he had to one. She had come up the hard way, marrying young to escape the backwoods poverty and deprivation of her childhood, only to subject her son to a more urban variety of neglect as she elbowed her way through the seedy underbelly of Baltimore. In town on business, working the west coast tracks for an east coast mob, she mixes business with pleasure by tempering Roy’s long-standing and carefully metered resentment by saving his life.

And of course Lilly and Moira take an instant dislike towards one another. They’re roughly the same age and they’ve both graduated from the school of hard-knocks. No one’s an angel except for the Jewish immigrant Carol Roberg, a struggling nurse, who becomes a pawn for Lilly to block Moira’s grip on Roy, insisting on his staying with mom during an extended period of recuperation with a pretty young nurse around all day to feed him ice-cream. So he lays in bed torn between a sense of morality and desire, ruminating on his past and the cold war years between mother and son, wondering what exactly Moira wants from him, and how soon he can shake everyone off and return to the grift. (more…)

An amazing opportunity is afforded to a bright young man living in the small coastal village of Andhra, India. Although his father is a traditional healer and he is expected to follow in the family footsteps the local school administration, recognizing his academic talents, have the boy fill out some forms. Soon he was sitting through his grade examinations and, after having passed, was granted admission to the Navodaya Vidyalaya, a national network of schools set aside for talented youth who would otherwise be stuck in underfunded and underachieving institutions.

A Navodaya Vidyalaya is a school which is staffed by carefully screened instructors and populated by high scoring and intelligent students. It is a free service which provides room and board, supplies and stipends for travel by bus and rail. There’s just over 550 such academies spread throughout almost every state of India and have been operating since the mid-80’s; three-quarters of all admissions are reserved for children being brought in from rural conditions to afford them the opportunities they could never find back home.

Presumably this system of advanced education is funded by the government, which is probably why Shantanu Dutta of Around and About finds reason to praise India for this achievement. For such a troubled country with massive poverty, racial strife, an incredible economic gap, wide-spread corruption and temperamental utilities he wonders why anyone would bother paying taxes and finds some solace in this unique branch of the national education system. A part of me shares his enthusiasm– of course it’s great that some kid from the sticks who shows promise can be catch a lucky break and land placement in a good school. However, another part of me wonders what happens to a school when you strip the best students to be raised in isolation, and save the best teachers for these high-performing institutions.

One of the mission statements of the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti is to prepare and then encourage their rural students to return to their homelands and make what improvements they can with the benefit of their superior education. I wonder how the kids left behind, growing up under hardship with little of the amenities granted their more learned peers, feel when the prodigal sons and daughters return to try and revolutionize the home village. Is it at all fair to abandon the hopeless slow-learners to their fate and rescue the bright bulbs, teaching them privately how to shine for the future good? Obviously with the investment in these specialty schools there resources not going to the standard regional schools and those making the sacrifice, the students left behind, suffer the most for their former classmates success. (more…)

One of the people I wanted to interview for my Guardian series was the former botanist and broadcaster David Bellamy, who has made a number of wildly misleading statements about global warming. He refused, but Channel 4 has made the film of our memorable battle in 2005 available.

George Monbiot vs. David Bellamy

Not as stylized as his previous videos, this is borrowed from a Channel 4 broadcast. It’s important to attack false scientific claims and it seems rarely done, so Monbiot pushes on in his lonely crusade. If we only had a fleet of environmentalists to tackle every industry or political action committee, every lobbyist and every seated senator, perhaps things could actually change. As always click on the picture to be taken to a page where you can watch the video.

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