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Monthly Archives: August 2011

My unexpected diversion in May…

Dallas is not a Mecca for the crazed or the destitute, like San Francisco, LA, Miami, or NYC. People here work. Be it the overweight white man or the careworn black lady (to pick a couple of stereotypes), everybody I saw here was dressed for work and going somewhere with a purpose. Even the people loitering in the surprisingly numerous green spaces of the city looked like they were loitering with a purpose – a free afternoon hard-earned.

Dallas, or Texas at all, was the last place, really the last place I expected to be at this time. I knew nothing about Dallas, other than that JFK was assassinated there, and there was oil money. I was far from pleased when Canadian Immigration said they were sending me back there (the point of departure of my last connecting flight) – what on earth was I going to do in Dallas?? But there seemed no point in not making the most of it before my unanticipated journey home.

Texas has its own special colour which I first spotted from the air – sandy brown with shiny bits on. The part 70s, part space-agey Dallas-Fort Worth Airport epitomised this. My flight home not being for another day, Carlos, the exuberantly friendly and helpful hostel manager, hustled me onto a train downtown to explore for the afternoon. He was so enthusiastic that I rushed to catch the train without even stopping to eat some lunch or drink some water, both of which I’d been thinking about the entire journey to the hostel.

Downtown Dallas appeared as the Texan panorama had from the sky: brown, shiny, and huge! There are a remarkable amount of green spaces – plazas and tree-lined boulevards, extravagant fountains of gushing, chlorinated water – amongst the huge, shiny skyscrapers. Everything is incredibly clean. It’s almost to the point of creepiness, like in Mountain View, a bizarre little town we visited in Silicon Valley populated almost exclusively by IT professionals. Or soullessness, as in the dull and utterly untempting streets of Reno… But not quite. Dallas teeters on the edge of those things, but pulls it back with its proud and apparent work ethic, and its strong awareness of and pride in its Texan identity. Somehow it has earned the right to be clean and shiny.

Despite all the things you hear about Texans – their gun-toting ways, their Republican inclinations, the prevalence of obesity and worse, racism – I was more taken by these people than the square, characterless white folks of Reno, or the dead-behind-the-eyes sad souls of Miami. They’ve got spirit here: a culture and a history they’re proud of, and whether it’s to my taste or not, as a Scot, I respect that.

I walked from the ‘historic’ district, which contains some beautiful, antiquated and largely decaying buildings from the pre-skyscraper days but is now principally a transport hub to outlying suburbs and barrios, up to West Village, the ‘college’ district where the ‘kids’ hang out. Whereas the historic district is a sea of black workers making their way home (I sometimes find it uncomfortable to note such distinctions, but the racial divide in the States is palpable), the kids in West Village were a mass of blonde clones clad head-to-toe in labels from the designer boutiques that comprised the area. Fake blondes all with the same straw shade of hair, so sure that they’re well-dressed because they’ve paid exorbitant amounts for each item… To my eye they are utterly styleless.

I went to an upmarket taco place Carlos had recommended which was indeed delicious, despite its clientele of vapid college girls and moneyed Latinos with attitudes. It tasted right out of D.F. and I had terrible pangs of nostalgia and longing for dodgy taquerías and shady tavernas, dancing to bad Latin pop and drinking 50c beers, midnight taxi rides across swathes of dark, unknown city with friends made only an hour before…

Carlos did make me almost sorry later that I wasn’t staying longer. On Thursdays he takes the guests for a Country and Western dance lesson, then for beers and a face-reddening attempt at the mechanical rodeo bull. The Friday night excursion is to the biggest honky-tonk saloon in the world, which contains 23 bars and holds 10 000 people! How unfortunate i was leaving on a Wednesday.

I slept unbelievably soundly that night, though my dreams were not peaceful (they rarely are). I didn’t wake up once, and awoke into a clean morning light that felt like the glow of snow on a Christmas morning…


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A poster hangs blu-tacked upon my bedroom wall. I bought it as a souvenir in Havana, along with a few others which I gave as gifts – hand-printed replicas of original Cuban and Soviet film posters. One, El Arte del Tabaco, a classic and colourful image of a bouffanted Caribbean lady; another, La Muerte de un Burocrata, its juxtaposition of monotone and menacing birds. One was for a Polish film (una película polaca – I forget the name),which I sent to a good friend living in Poland at the time. And another a black-on-white print of the face of Alicia I sent to my fantastic friend of the same name, all the way off in Nebraska.

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The one I kept was for Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), a joint Soviet-Cuban production of 1964. It shows an abstract head – stark, surreal, in the style of the time – in bold colours, giving the impression of a being strong but complex and conflicted (the intended imagery, no doubt). I hadn’t seen nor heard of the film, but fancied myself as sympathising with the Lady Cubaportrayed in the image.

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Of course I intended at some point after return to seek out this film (and the others) and watch them. I still haven’t. Having been away and returned again, I rediscovered the poster just the other week in my parents’ attic, brought it down and put it on the wall. Something made me look at it tonight and feel compelled to look it up.

The film was not considered a success at the time. In Cuba it was criticised as perpetuating stereotypes; in the USSR as naïve, unremarkable, not quite communist enough. And of course it was never seen by Western audiences. It was only after an obscure screening in the early 90s that the film came to light again, and was picked up on by directors such as Martin Scorsese (who lent his name to the re-release) and Francis Ford Coppola. The film was an example of some of the most innovative cinematography of its time (and ever, in fact).

After reading of a tracking shot where the camera begins at street level, slowly swoops a few storeys up, travels through a building and out the other side following a funeral procession, I had to see it. The shot begins after the bells toll, at around 1.40:

In 2005 a Brazilian director made a film documenting the making of Soy Cuba, in which the technical processes required to make a shot like this in 1964 are revealed, involving attaching a camera to a camera man, and attaching him to a hook attached to a series of pulleys and cables and complex mechanical things. Absolutely incredible.

Watching this non-stop shot put me in mind of another I had seen recently and been astounded by in Children of Men. Funnily enough, this scene popped up in YouTube’s suggestions to the right. The first time I watched this film was around the winter of 2006-7, when I was consumed with all kinds of morosities about post-apocalyptic societies and whatnot. I was really struck by it at the time but for this aspect, I was oblivious to the cinematography.

Back on the Island a few months ago, I entered my then boyfriend’s house and he was watching it, quite near the end. I was more-or-less in time for this scene. It went on for a couple of minutes and I thought, wait a minute, this hasn’t cut yet. And then it went on and on and on and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, when is this going to end? This is amazing.’ Even when some (presumably fake) blood splatters the lens the director keeps the shot going and it only adds to the tension-build, taking nothing away:

Even more funnily, there are some comments about how a Muse track should be put to this scene, and, again in the suggestions bar, somebody has done just that to a track from their most recent album. Back in that winter of ‘06-‘07, I was listening to Black Holes and Revelations which was contributing massively to my doomful state of mind…

This article includes the ‘Uprising’scene in a list of five similarly miraculously long tracking shots. Though of course they are all undoubtedly masterful accomplishments of cinematography, especially number one on the list – a 7:50 take from the opening of The Player (what a feat of co-ordination!), I think the technique really lends itself to the dark, intense nature of the scenes in Children of Men, Atonement, and Soy Cuba. The absence of dialogue and the resulting concentration on the visual create such intense atmosphere and a wonder in the viewer that I think can be missed in the scenes broken up with dialogue.

As an aside, I also came across this website, an anthology of independent / alternative / avant-garde directors and film (what made me think of Soy Cuba tonight in the first place). There’s so much, I have no idea where to even begin looking at this stuff…

Oh time, sometimes you love me, sometimes you don’t…

A few weeks ago I sat with a couple of friends, flippantly contemplating the future of society as we know it, how it could be End of Days after all. Not by some biblical, supernatural cataclysm, but that it could be the end of the current political and economic order. We debated how this might come about – internal governmental collapse, economic ruin, the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse… I favoured an uprising by the people at the bottom, not in some Marxist class-war glory but base and brutish, violence and destruction en masse until total lawlessness ruled.

I didn’t expect it quite so soon…

London and now numerous other English cities are being plagued by night-time riots after the shooting dead of a young black man, Mark Duggan, in a North London district last week. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday has descended into a chaos where all initial meaning has been lost and it has become an excuse for gangs of ‘youths’ (I’m loathe to use such a loaded term) to rampage, loot, and destroy.

Of course the Tory government rhetoric is full of lingo like ‘criminality’ and ‘disrespect to property’. What about disrespect to community, morality, humanity? And what are the causes underlying this uncondonable behaviour?

The broken

This should not have been unforeseen. The factors that caused me to make my prediction only weeks earlier are there for the seeing: a failing economy, high unemployment, public services feeling the axe of austerity, disillusionment with ineffective and aloof government – these are the immediate factors which always contribute to social unrest. However what was also apparent was the deeper, long-term issues that affect this society – and what differentiates these riots to those of previous generations: the disintegration of community, the hegemony of greed and consumerism, the increasingly egotistical and un-empathetic youth, and the alarming arrival of violent crime for pleasure rather than gain.

Of course these ‘youths’ are responsible for their own actions – many are amoral, violent, self-interested, or at the very least susceptible to the herding of those that are. The acts being seen at the moment are displays of blatant thievery, thuggery, thrill of destruction, and ignorance with absolutely no political message in mind. But these young people have turned out like this for a reason. Why weren’t the rioters of previous generations making such displays of greed? Because only now are we seeing the culmination of successive decades of capitalism-over-community governance, beginning, of course, with (that lady who I tend to lazily pin all of society’s woes on) Thatcher, perpetuated by Blair and his desecration of Labour party values, the baton now picked up by rubbery-faced (it seems to be some sort of Eton affliction) Cameron.

Capitalism FAIL

Three decades of materialistic, consumerist culture shoved at us from all angles has created a generation fundamentally defined by ‘stuff’ and the ownership of it. This is pervasive in pop culture – music videos full of stuff, songs about having stuff or wanting stuff, whole TV series – reality and otherwise – about people who have tons of stuff. The want-and-have mentality fostered by the banks throwing credit at people in the late 90s and early 2000s; the transition from Generation X to Generation YWhy can’t I have it now? All, of course, beginning with the greed-is-good ethos promoted in the 80s. As one of the (fierce and admirable) young men appearing on the Newsnight debate last night (see 15min>) said, where are the role models? When people look up and see corporate bankers still raking in millions, having ruined homes and whole countries, and going unpunished, how can we expect those at the bottom to uphold the morals those at the top do not? It is a serious symptom of the spectacular failings of neoliberalism. When ownership and greed are the tenets of society, we cannot expect people to grow up with values pertaining to anything other than self-interest.

Cameron, you and your kin have created this monster, this ‘feral youth’ as you like to call them – now YOU have to live with the consequences.

No race necessary

It does concern me that some of the foreign (and probably domestic) Leftist/alternative media are marking this as some sort of uprising of the oppressed and a revolutionary landmark in the class/race/equality struggle. They need to take off their idealist’s spectacles because that is not what’s happening. I am staunchly of the Left but there is need for realism here. The best we can hope for out of this mobbery is that there will be a realisation of the issues facing British youth (and I say British. The riots may only have been in England but being Scottish and smug about this is kidding ourselves – we suffer the same issues here).

I fully await, however, an out-spewing of vehemence and dogmatic rage, calls for punishment, etc, etc, in the mainstream media which the majority of the public will dogmatically fall in with, jiggling in their armchairs, brandishing their fists over breakfast, not having learned anything about the questionable morality of their news sources from the only-the-other-week phone-hacking scandal. And unfortunately the Tories look set to highjack the moral/community aspect as a means to nag on about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ hypocrisy and their backward, traditionalist ‘family’ values.

Another worrying possibility is that right wing factions within the Conservative party, the (quite ridiculous) UKIP, and, more potently, the BNP and EDL, will use this is a platform to pedal their anti-immigration/racist bilge. Though long-running police harassment of Black and Asian youth, and the death of Mr Duggan, have been factors in fuelling the rage on the streets, these cannot possibly be defined as ‘race riots’. Those of all colours have been caught out joining with the mob: it is the mob against the establishment, no race necessary.

Hope or death?

There may be hope. Like I say, we might begin to take more notice of the issues that have broken our communities and brutalised our young, and accept that money has to be spent on social programs to even begin to heal this. Read this excellent article by youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh, who tells the story from the ground and outlines the issues so much more expertly than I can. Reading about a 22 year-old rapper with a strong grasp of the issues taking his message to both the street and to Downing Street, and watching those young men stand their ground against a fat old bigot and a ragey mother on Newsnight, fills me with pride.

End of Days? Let us dare to place hope in the young…