Monday, July 22, 2013

No Tortured Conscience: The Dubious Patriotism of Zero Dark Thirty

In August, 1945, news of the dropping of nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was greeted by Americans with much singing and dancing in the streets. Tens of thousands of innocent people had been obliterated, hundreds of thousands more would have lifetime health complications, and the photos from the home front reflect unrestrained ebullience. In that very summer, my grandfather, having survived the European theater of war, was being redeployed to the Pacific. For him the dropping of the atomic bomb came as a tremendous relief. He warned me not to judge the macabre enthusiasm of celebrants. War was over, obviously at a tremendous physical cost, but the spiritual one, at least to me (born after the fact, true) seemed much harder to qualify.

I thought of that Times Square jubilation when a team of Navy SEALS executed Osama Bin Laden in the spring of 2011. There was the same moral ground compromised-- the US launched a military operation within a sovereign nation, murdering an unarmed man in his pajamas and several others without any kind of due process whatsoever-- leading to a similar burst of spontaneous ecstasy on the streets. Like nearly every American, I loathed Bin Laden, but that didn't mean I didn't think apprehending and trying him in a court of justice was the better tactic, not just on a legal standpoint, but a morally strategic one. And unlike the twin specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his execution did not mean any kind of victory on the war on terror. Fundamentally, so long as our military occupies civilizations hostile to our presence and drone strikes rain death from the skies, there will always be an enemy. Bin Laden had been just a man, a symbolic and very famous one, yes, but not the soul of our boogyman.

For these reasons, I found Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty morally repugnant, not only because it lies to us-- intelligence gleaned from torture did not figure in the locating of Bin Laden's hideout-- but because it seems to condone not only "enhanced interrogation" but American impunity as well. No other country in the world would dream of sending in a special forces unit to assassinate another nation's citizens. Were Pakistani assassins to be airdropped over Dick Cheney's bunker, murdering the old man in his bed with televised masses cheering his execution afterwards, Americans, no matter their low opinion of the former VP would be appropriately disgusted. But this is exactly how US foreign policy manages its agenda-- it can do so because of a crisis of imagination in the American people.

If you read the newspapers not much is needed to describe the plot of Zero Dark Thirty. It begins with distressed audio from 9/11, segueing immediately to a CIA black site where a man is being tortured for information. Immediately then, we know where Bigelow stands on the Hammurabi Code. The scenes are necessarily brutal and any American who believes we should be above such nefarious interrogation methods will feel ashamed. But waterboarding, induced sleeplessness, and sexual humiliation give CIA agent Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain) a lead. The good news is this leads to bin Laden. The bad news is this a lie: Bigelow prefaces her movie declaring the story is "based on actual events," then goes out of her way to endorse the necessary evil of torture with false claims. Even normally reptilian politicians like Diane Feinstein have taken issue with this fictionalization of reality. Acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, has called bullshit on Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal.

Film critics, whose professions require them to suffer one banal blockbuster after another, have mostly praised the film, particularly its "taut" structure and climatic ending. That we already know what happens and that a crew of trained killers shooting an unarmed man in his bed is not exactly climatic is besides the point. There are moments when art veers dangerously into propaganda so that social critic Naomi Wolf's  comparison of Kathryn Bigelow to Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl is apt: "Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture's handmaiden." Overlooking the politics of a politically motivated film is not just absurd but irresponsible. Alas, Zero Dark Thirty, thrilling and competent as it might be, will not age well in a progressive future.

Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and hundreds, if not thousands of other villains are dead. Not to mention tens of thousands of innocent people as a result of destabilization due to our meddling in the region, to say nothing of our own moral compromises with torture, spying, and murder. It would be a true constitutional crisis if more of us cared-- instead we see the jubilance of the crowd fist-pumping our culture of vigilante politics. Zero Dark Thirty is a work of nationalist polemics beholden to the status quo, a state of affairs far removed from core American values. That it was commercially and critically successful, in spite of the efforts of a vocal minority, is immensely disappointing.

Nevertheless I'm holding out, hoping that the tide will turn, not from without, but from within. Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Bigelow's heroes are Navy SEALS, but there is probably not a few young talented filmmakers who see something noble in the efforts of someone like Edward Snowden, who is the very definition of a patriot, a man that risks everything, his reputation and his life, because he has high standards for his country and seems to understand the language of the Constitution better than our President. We don't know yet the outcome of this story, but hope that this narrative, once told, involves heroism, nary tragedy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Pals Do in Their Down Time

My friend, Rob, and I have lately got into the habit of addressing and signing various monikers in our correspondence. For instance, I will write an email, beginning "Dear Kevin," and following the body of text, sign off as "Mr. Costner," or something like that. It's rather pointless and there's no existential meaning to these name games, but then there's no reason either to discuss the top musicians of a given name (e.g. "Mick(ey)" in declining significance: Mick Jagger, Mick Jones, Mick Taylor, Mickey Dolenz, Mickey Moonlight), but we do that too.
        Between us, of course, much inner life has been put on the table, tales of love and loss, of best days and worst failures, talking through disasters until perspective is achieved and so is the realization that things will turn out all right in the end. Nevertheless, being friends is not just about sorting through the deeper issues of being alive, but of the smaller ones as well. There are potentially decent banalities, peculiar ones that only certain kindred spirits can parse.
         In this photograph, the scab on his right shoulder is a burn mark. The day before, sometime after midnight, we'd gone block sprinting to see who was fastest, but he'd been smoking a cigarette while high-stepping and paid for it.  It was more than a year ago-- I can't say for sure but I'm pretty sure I won that brief contest. As for Rob, I never asked him specifically, but maybe occasionally glancing in the mirror he recognizes the faint outline of the consequential scar, remembering it had been arguably detrimental sprinting with a lit cigarette, but hell, worth it.      

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Channel Surfing with Ganesh

What's On TV?

There has been a lot of press regarding India's spectacular growth since economic trade was liberalized in the early 1990s. However, outside certain urban enclaves, much of the country remains extraordinarily undeveloped. Mostly, it is a matter of bureaucratic corruption, rather than a failure of civic resourcefulness. Though in America it is now common for every room in the house to have a flat screen TV (not to mention computer, tablet, and cellular entertainment), a television remains a luxury item for the average Indian. If the traveler should happen upon a festival, a fair, or large trading market, it is not uncommon to see a large TV hooked up to enormous, outdated speakers, blaring Hindustani epics like The Ramayana on pirated DVDs to an audience of farmers and pastoralists, who, living on the land mostly as their ancestors have done for centuries, still regard the television as a magical box.
          TV is seen by many (including myself) as a cultural id, generally reflecting national predilections.   Museums elaborate on a nation's past; television showcases the culture's present infatuations. Mostly, whether you're in Italy, Japan, or wherever, this is not a good sign, since most programming is beyond terrible. No anomaly, Indian TV has its share of faults. There might be a hundred channels on cable, but most of them feature spiritual swamis, religious reenactments, cricket matches or recaps, melodramatic soaps, and sturm und drang news programs regarding Pakistan.
          I don't come to India to watch TV, but in recent years I've appreciated it as an instrument for decompression. Engaging with Indian everyday life, navigating its crowded, polluted streets, maneuvering through conversations with endless strangers, takes its toll on the traveler. Like many who come here, I am seeking betterment-- not exactly enlightenment or even an epiphany, but some kind of transformation-- one cannot visit India without returning home with more human empathy and gratitude for the small, good things in life. Nevertheless, there comes times, really long days, where I can no longer write in my journal or make sense of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The television then allows me a short respite. The average Indian wealthy enough to own a television might be anglophone, but among the dozens of channels, usually only HBO and STAR have English language programming. And so last time out, I ended up watching Rocky III, Commando, and Top Gun, three 1980s movies I loved as a kid. I'm more amused by this than embarrassed. Thus, although when it comes to TV I'm more of a detractor than advocate, for all its many faults, it has helped me through the long night.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lakeside Dawdling

Pushkar Lake

Pushkar is a provincial town in central Rajasthan, a half-hour bus ride north of the depot at Ajmer.  As far as inland Indian cities go it is comparatively quiet and beautiful, as the town borders the north shore of a lake and the eastern and western points are crowned by temple hills, dedicated to the Creator God Brahma's wives, Savitri and Gaytri. The lake is holy, and pilgrims, mostly villagers from the Hindu Belt of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, are daily bused in for worship. A lot of hippies continue to make the journey, young and old, and the tea shops and juice stalls being diminutive and crowded, the traveler often winds up in digressive conversation, in which life story details are divulged.
            Not feeling well when I arrived in India in February earlier this year, I'd come straight to Pushkar to convalesce for a few days. It was my fourth time in the town-- I'd spent a few weeks here on several occasions five years before researching and writing a novel set in India. I was creating a path for my characters, and then spending time on it. A lot of that time found me by the lake, which is not just one of my favorite places in India, but in all the world.
            The first thing one must accomplish, if one wants to spend considerable time by the water, is a session of puja with a priest. Doing so, gets you a "Pushkar passport," a saffron-colored string the priest ties around your wrist to let the others know you're respecting the old ways. When I'd first come to Pushkar, I'd been annoyed by this aggressive stance, for after all, I was not a Hindu, and had no need of the ceremony. But now I've come to appreciate the ritual, and make some effort to find the right priest, one that doesn't care so much about my rupees as much as he might concern himself with my spirit and the well being of my family (the chanting involves naming the members of one's intimates).
           When I leave Pushkar, I don't take the string off my wrist. It reminds me of sitting and wandering by the lake, pigeons figure-eighting in the sky, shrieking children running along the ghats, hippies beating drums at sunset, the smell of ganja wafting in the air, itinerant musicians playing village ballads on heirloom fiddles, thoughtful solitude and improvised companionship, and most of all, the invaluable feeling that while the world might be in the throes of one catastrophe after another, the days in Pushkar have been fine.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Suits

Lately, I've been dealing with the dilemma of identity. What this means is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to work as both a writer and photographer, not because I have a preference for one or the other, but due to the rationing of time. The occasional assignment aside, neither endeavor pays very well and success-- never quite so based on superficial metrics of popularity and earnings-- is usually qualified by my personal satisfaction, that such and such story and photo is perhaps uniquely mine. Nevertheless, I find that lately I have less capacity to devote myself to both disciplines. This means making hard choices and the purging of some indulgences. However, between writing and shooting, I don't know if it will ever be possible to choose one over the other.
            Failing that, and because, lately, taking pictures comes more naturally to me than the complex process of constructing either a story's narrative or an essay's thrust, I'm feeling that the best compromise is to put them together. I've already been doing this for several years with my haiku project, but minimalist poetry is one thing, digressive thoughts inspired by a moment in time, another.
            In March, my wife had a birthday and one of the presents I bought for her was a photobook from Danny Lyon called "Memories of Myself." Lyon is probably most famous for riding with and photographing Midwestern biker gangs in the sixties, but this photobook is a collection of images from different times of his life-- the bikers, of course, but also crossdressers in Galveston, Texas, a lover in Knoxville, revolution in Haiti, and prostitutes in Columbia, among others. The photos, already beautiful, had deeper resonance with some context. Lyon once said, "The use of the camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often to get into trouble."
           In the spirit of inspiration, I will try to do the same with my photography here, not exactly saying what a photo is about, but lingering on what the moment meant to me. Not a caption, per se, but a loose elaboration.
           Because most of us don't fit into one suit, but many, or in my case, two.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One Plus One is Three

The Snappp Gang (Tom, Ryan, Ariko, & the author)

This past March, my partner, Ariko Inaoka, and I had the honor of returning to Taiwan for a major exhibition of our work. It was held on the top floor of the Shin-kong Mitsukoshi department store in Downtown Taipei, near the famously tall 101 Building. We were the special guests in what might be the largest exhibition in Taiwan annually. The curators at Mitsukoshi liked our photography, as well as our concept, enigmatically coined by Ariko as "One Plus One Is Three." It was left up to me to describe what exactly that meant:

"Reality is not always what we believe it to be. Most of us tend to think that the world can be understood logically through science and mathematics, and it is true that these disciplines have done their part in civilizing man. However, it’s just as true that even the simplest questions don’t always add up properly. Life is a mystery, now and forever, for no matter how much planning we’ve put into them, our present circumstances are as much a result of accidents as they are choices. Between free will and serendipity is some mysterious element, an invisible hand, guiding our fate.
       It is in this spirit we wish to present our photography in this collection. The pictures are a consequence of our going out with our cameras, though none of the photos herein came out exactly as intended. They are the total of an illogical sum. One plus one is three."

The invitation itself, however, was no mystery. In 2011, we had collaborated with Snappp-- a photo magazine outfit based in Taiwan-- on an exhibition to highlight our collaboration on a photo book called “Wanderlust.” We’d gotten on very well with Ryan, the chief editor, and Tom, the art director, who have a passion for quality photography (as well as analog cameras), and whose agenda for showcasing emerging talent led us to stay in touch. I am lucky to count among my friends many talented people, whom I later referred to Ryan and Tom. We’ve known them since nearly the founding of their magazine (my work was featured in their second issue) and it’s nice to see how far they’ve come along. It doesn’t hurt either that Ryan and Tom, as well as their editors and volunteers, are immensely likeable. They presented our work to Mituskoshi, who selected us to be their show’s guest artists.

Taipei, especially around the Downtown City Hall area, has a prosperous atmosphere. Amid the towering hotels, office towers and high-end boutiques, is the sound of construction teams expanding Taipei’s skyline. While Japan is suffering a demographic crisis, Taiwan seems like a young country, and I gathered that the Taiwanese are optimistic, rather than moribund, about personal as well as national prospects. They seem to be moving forward, rather than simply moving.

We were notified of developments in January. When things come together, they usually do so quickly. Because I was scheduled to spend most of February in India, within a ten-day period, we put together the show’s concept, selected photographs to be featured, made darkroom C-prints, and scanned them at high-resolution. There were forty prints in all, twenty from each of us, the exhibition prints produced by Epson and framed by Mitsukoshi (who also sponsored our flights between Taiwan and Japan). A catalog was published and some of our photos were printed on notebook covers, film rolls, and handbags.

For a photographer, it is exhilarating to see your work on the wall. Besides publishing in books or magazines, this is the occupational point of our endeavor. What is so gratifying is knowing that others believe in your vision. It’s not just the financial investment, but the man-hours, legwork, and various considerations that make such an event possible.

One half of our space

On the day of the opening, I donned a rare necktie and put a boutonniere in my suit’s lapel. Ariko and I made a welcoming speech for the press, sponsors, and special guests. There were at least a dozen journalists and a TV crew. Along with the Taiwan CEOs of Mitsukoshi, Pentax, and Epson, we cut the tape with large scissors, officially opening the exhibition. Later on, we did a seminar (on the conception and execution of long-term photo projects).

The seminar with our interpreter and Ryan

Ryan and Tom are gracious hosts. We dined often and thoroughly, and were often sharing drinks. In our prior visit, our big night was karaoke, but this time out we went bowling. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to befriend your collaborators, but it’s all the more worthwhile when camaraderie does indeed develop.

Knocking down literal pins is not a natural talent

Daily feasting

Plenty of toasting

Needless to say, such time spent passes all too quickly and within a week we returned to our “normal” lives in Kyoto. That I would have an audience for my work in Taiwan was not something I expected while developing my aesthetic. That my photographs should be celebrated along with my partner's compounds the pleasure. It’s important to appreciate the strange, unexpected course in which life occasionally moves us.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fiction Needs to Be Read

Writers are often a masochistic bunch and not always good at saying, "Hey, you have some time? Look at this." But the writer needs the reader, symbiotically, in order that his work mean something beyond the agony of composing a beautiful sentence. That being the case, he has a responsibility to the work, to make it known. Thus, I urge you to take a moment to read two recently published stories of mine.

A short flash fiction piece, That's Some Good Tea was recently published in The Molotov Cocktail. I also placed Our Treasured Future with The Adirondack Review.  It's about parenthood, punks, and a panda. This is my zoo story.

I've just returned from three weeks in India photographing tribes, nomads, and gypsies in the far west frontier of India's Kutch region, near the south Pakistani border. It was a challenging journey but worth it. Still I'm glad to be home...