June 2009

Assignment: Sell Out

During a tranquil evening of domestic bliss I first broached the subject of getting into writing. It wasn’t easy for me to discuss, in part because I’m squeamish when it comes to talking about creative projects and in part because this particular project was going to require more help than I’ve ever asked of anyone. Around bites of veggie chili dogs and salad, which Jeni and I both insisted he take, Keith openly shared everything he knew about the wonderful world of online publishing. Then he gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The Raw File blog was taking its fledgling steps into the family of Wired columns and it would be the perfect venue to wear my water wings. I could gain experience while learning the ropes and get credit for my accomplishments in a nationally known and respected publication. People spend years in school just to have the credentials to apply for an internship of this caliber and I had someone holding the backdoor open. The plan was to build up my clippings to prepare me for the future as a freelance hack; this trial by fire would have me ready to seek assignments within a couple of months.

My concerns had been learning how to pitch stories and then write them according to commonly observed standards. The idea of requesting assignments was a foreign, but possibly more beneficial concept. After several pitches of my own devising, which have alternately found their way onto the site, been abandoned or are languishing in purgatory, I’ve now performed my first piece of assigned writing. (more…)


The Diary of a Country Priest

Spiritual decay mirrors the physical decline of an indigent country priest. Stricken with a mysterious malady, facing indifference if not hostility from his parishioners, Beranos’ narrator chronicles his challenges and musings in a diary never intended to be read. The character is remarkably realized, imbued with an empathy and understanding that draws the reader in emotionally. It’s a difficult but compelling novel, where nothing ever happens but every seemingly trivial event sets in motion a spiral of introversion and rumination, philosophical musings and existential questioning.

A young priest, fresh from the seminary, is charged with his first parish. It’s a poor and rural community and the priest sets about his work with excitement and vigor. But the parishioners have little need for him or God, although they send their children to Catechism and greet him as he makes the daily rounds. Mass is poorly attended and he wonders how he can cultivate a strong Catholic community in this backwater. The priest conceives a plan for constructing a youth center, but the only person in town who could hope to fund such an ambitious project represents the local gentry.

So he begins to find himself among the upper crust, crippled with embarrassment over his humble origins and tattered clothes. The squabbles and scandals of the Chateau envelop him as he attempts spiritual counsel with the maid, reconciliation with Madame who has abandoned God after the death of her child, and the surviving daughter who torments him in the village for reasons he cannot comprehend. His lack of understanding of people and his internal struggle to accept them as good while deploring their evil causes great suffering. His neighboring clergy scoff at his methods, questioning his worn clothes and ramshackle home. They, of the stately robes and rings, try to convince him to threaten people with God, loud booming voices, use the fear of mortality. The children of the village mock him in Catechism, spread rumors of his behavior to their parents, deride him in public. Each confrontation leads to despair and hopeless prayer for understanding.

His only friend is a fallen Catholic from school who lives in a nearby city. Although invitations to visit are mentioned in every letter the priest cannot seem to bring himself to make the journey. He admires the town doctor, an avowed and unapologetic atheist who speaks plainly, lives the life of a woodsman and carries on great debates about humankind and nature. The greatest joy the priest has ever known comes from meeting a member of the Legion, a young man riding the back roads on a motorcycle who has seen no evidence of God in the world. The freedom of floating, speeding forward, is tethered by the dark turmoil of losing faith. He finds he can no longer pray, although he lays prostrate through the night seeking guidance. Can there really be any hope for man whose soul is so black, motivations so selfish, capacity for cruelty so great?

Throughout the days the priest’s health is failing. Sharp pains plague his stomach until he can hardly hold his dinner. Each night he suffers, unable to find solace in sleep. His meals are slowly whittled down to dry crusts of bread soaked in cheap farmer’s wine. Pale, weak, often near fainting, his sickness fuels more sharp tongues behind his back. Villagers whisper about his alcoholism, noting his strange and seemingly erratic behavior. Suggestions to go to the city to see a specialist are frequent, but again the priest can never seem to bring himself to go. (more…)

Pictures of the Iranian uprising remind me of images which escaped Tiananmen. I’m not sure if this is because I lack reference points or because the twentieth anniversary has recently passed, but my thoughts have been on the past as I watch the present unfold. Certainly there are some parallels: both involve people demanding more democratic freedoms; both involve brutal and violent suppression; both have the government scrambling to prevent pictorial evidence from reaching the outside world.

Earlier in the week Nicholas D. Kristoff wrote a quick blurb about Bing, a new search engine and all-around lifestyle centerpiece courtesy of Microsoft. Searches conducted on Bing in simplified Chinese yielded censored results for politically sensitive topics. If this was the case only in China that would make sense– it’s the cost of doing business– but searches in Chinese from any country would only reveal carefully restricted information. Critics immediately attacked Bing’s search results and Microsoft claimed this was nothing more than a bug.

Regardless of whether Microsoft had intended the apparent censorship or not is immaterial– they’re dancing with the devil. Is it really worse for a company to agree to regulate search results in a language instead of just one country? As western companies clamber to capitalize on the Chinese middle class we’re going to see more questionable ethics and poor rationalizations, such as Google’s decision to set up shop. They claim it’s better to offer what services are allowed than no service at all, but they’ll accept every penny of ad revenue entitled to them. Censorship be damned. Falun Gong be damned. Tibet be damned. Environment be damned. Sweatshops be damned. (more…)

There’s a little blue flash that goes off in your head. It’s similar to that which you see after someone’s surprised you with a camera and your eyes squint against the blinding light, but this wasn’t the case. What just happened? Oh yeah, someone just punched me in the face.

I actually caught it at the very edge of my vision and for a moment that lasted less then a second I understood what was about to happen– I even said it to myself. Why can’t the brain react quicker than comprehension? Maybe if I had grown up studying karate or Buddhism my body would have taken over control, but I’m not versed in the Eastern arts.

Daily was screaming, “what the fuck?!?” somewhere on the outer stretches of the universe but I was just standing there staring without seeing. It didn’t hurt but my head felt stuffed with cotton as my brain rattled back and forth through molasses. Thoughts swam slowly to the surface and I reached up to my temple where blood met my fingers. This was confirmed a second later by my friend who magically produced a rag and pressed it to the wound. I looked around and saw no one, certainly not the person who just cold-cocked me. The two kids who had been standing there, ostensibly listening to the manic rantings this act of violence had interrupted, shuffled off in the distance. They seemed to have been caught off guard like me.

People walked up as I stood there holding a rag to my head, blood running down my face. I noticed my tooth wasn’t completely there. Probed with my tongue and it was broken. A stranger walked up asking if I was okay and I said I was alright, grinning– sucks about the tooth tho. Someone else walked up asked if I was alright, there was some screaming in the direction of wherever whoever had disappeared.

The first stranger was talking a million miles an hour, a million miles away. “That guy’s been up and down the street screaming for the last hour. I’m so sorry about your tooth. Are you alright? Can you get home?” Daily was already steering me in that direction, trying to take the six pack from under my arm. How did I not drop that? How did I not drop myself? The stranger was sincere but I wasn’t sure how to deal with him, just wanted him to go away. I assured him I was okay, trying to end this ceaseless chatter; he eventually wandered off in a state of excitement. I guess I’ve seen things happen that have wound me up before, so I couldn’t really wish him ill. He was trying to be nice, to do the right thing.

Daily couldn’t get the gate to open so he handed me his keys and I worked the lock. Up the stairs, into the apartment, put the beer away. Daily got my roommate and his girlfriend out of their room, telling them what had just happened. My other roommate, her boyfriend and their friend got me a clean rag and talked about stitches. I smiled at them with my broken tooth. My roommate’s girlfriend left to get her car and I drained what whiskey was left in my flask. I looked at myself in the mirror, smiled at myself.

Clustered in the gateway waiting for the car one of the local hard luck cases came up, hand outstretched, asking how our evening was going. I smiled at her, blood smeared down my face, and told her I’d had better nights. She looked at me incomprehensibly, hand still out, and lingered for another moment until it became obvious no one was gonna give her anything. My ride showed up and we went to the ER. (more…)

The Real Sell Out

Once again the kind people at Wired allowed themselves to be victimized by multiple drafts, lazily checked facts and unfortunate attachment to complex sentences. This piece is about the 25th anniversary of a Russian automatic camera that has grown into a cult fascination with the young and hip, the Lomo LC-A. Sorry it took me over a month to repeat publication but it’s been a bumpy several weeks.

The biggest problem remains that I know fuck all about photography. I chased one thing that turned into a sprawling mess with lots of potential but more than I can handle right now. My editor Keith wants it fast and hard and I was milking a possible feature; back-burner it and move on. Caught wind of another interesting topic, this one about an African news agency that uses cellphones and folding keyboards to record and upload stories. The appeal was their program to train young journalists in the field but the photographic angle didn’t hold up– the kids all record videos on their cell phones. After a rousing defeat I sniffed around Indymedia hoping for a similar idea but walked away with nothing. My friend and former conspirator Pete suggested I interview a local photographer which I have done but the transcript is pretty mind-boggling and I’ve been staring at it with no clues for quite some time. (more…)

Strange Circus (2005)
Written & Directed by Sion Sono

Starring: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahasi, Hiroshi Ohguchi

Since barreling into the international eye with 2002’s Suicide Club Japanese auteur Sion Sono has walked a fine line between exploitation and serious studies of human darkness. His films have generated controversy for attacking social decay with over-the-top, horror movie style and twisted acid-trip narratives, and movies such as Strange Circus inspire debate that finds half the room offended by the other half’s declarations of “genius”.

Strange Circus 1

There is no safe way to approach the subject of incest. No attempt to explore domestic abuse will be free from criticism. These are risks every filmmaker takes when traveling into the dangerous corners of the human mind and Sono’s response to the challenge is garish settings, incomprehensible events and an almost celebratory fetishization of degradation. What Strange Circus achieves is calling attention to the viewer’s enjoyment of a movie that only the most jaded fan of cinema could dismiss as less than shocking.

Strange Circus 5

Mitsuko’s (the older is played by Mai Takahasi, the younger by Rie Kuwana) life ends when her father Gozo’s (Hiroshi Oguchi) voracious sexuality begins to consume her, first by being hidden in a cello case to watch her parents in bed, then inevitably by direct violence. She responds to these violations by reshaping her identity into a dual existence with her mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) who, upon discovering what’s going on, reverts to an animalistic and brutal competition with Mitsuko. There’s no escape for either the victim or her failed protector– school provides no solace as Gozo is the principal who addresses the classes every morning via closed circuit broadcasts. The situation finds bleak resolution when mother and daughter struggle at the top of the stairs.

Strange Circus 2

Resolution might be the wrong word. Taeko (also Miyazaki) is a writer notorious for her pornographic and violent novels. Her publisher is eagerly anticipating the latest money-maker, another book about the suffering of a young girl. She’s difficult to work with, but takes an interest in a new assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) who has long been enthralled by her work. Taeko is a mystery: are her novels based on life experiences or the product of a sick but fertile imagination; are rumours of her sexual appetite true? Yuji makes a brothel lobby deal to investigate the woman behind the pen as the novel nears completion.

Although these two fragments are stylistically distant they will eventually converge. This is not to say that questions will be answered so much as you will find the questions you had are replaced by more pressing matters of identity, reality, the fragility of the mind and the scope of inhumanity. This is not a passive viewing experience but a thrown gauntlet, which is Sono’s saving grace. Without forcing the viewer’s complicity and, ultimately, confrontation with the film it may as well be porn.

Strange Circus 3