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Category Archives: Politics

Marco dell’Utri, of Palermo, long time confident of Silvio Berlusconi

June 30.

Arriving in Italy, as usual, I was  immediately told the latest communal unhappinesses.   For the moment it’s two things: the dell’Utri case, in which a long-term close associate of Sig Berlusconi, President of the Consiglio – to say the top guy here – one Sig dell Utri, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for association or some such with the Mafia.  Of course Berlusconi asserts this is merely another case of the “red” judiciary finding one reason or another to attack him.   This is scarcely Silvio’s only brushing with the mafia, simply the most recent.  Most Italians accept and believe their man has had long associations with the Sicilian brotherhood, securing his first wealth from them, and being indebted since.  Of course, a predecessor, Guilio Andreotti, many times President del Consiglio, was not thought to be connected to the Mafia, but to be perhaps its top man or at minimum the puppet of its cupola.  Berlusconi’s mentor, the Socialist Bettino Craxi, was just plain corrupt and died in exile in Tunisia.   Life as usual in Italia.

Andreotti, Berlusconi, Craxi

The other matter of unhappiness is a law designed to close down reporters (and implicitly others) from spilling the facts on such things as state-sponsored telephone tapping.  This has, typically, brought out the usual (leftists) to the piazza.  And naturally has inflamed the newspaper headlines which normally inflate any modest matter into inch-thick typefaces.  Rhetorical amplification is the standard in all things Italian.  Sempre in crisi, la bella Italia.   These matters of bold type will be supplanted in weeks with new matters of equally cosmic political weight.

Of course, aside from these theatrical matters, Italy is mired in the same economic fix as much of Europe, with high-unemployment, a large deficit, and is facing a grim future of alleged “austerity.”   This is translated in local terms to even more social distrust than is usual in cynical Italy, home of Machiavelli, and the standard operating procedure, “fidarsi bene, non fidarsi meglio” or “to trust is good, not to trust is better.”  So a friend informed it was more necessary than ever to keep a firm hand on a handbag on the street, or that her husband, working at a high level for major corporations, had to now haggle afterward for the contracted pay.  To say, life as customary in Italy, but bumped up a level or two, so that what happened almost always with the plumber or car mechanic, now happens at an executive corporate level.   Of course, this is only to be expected in a culture which has a motto like theirs.  It is ingrained into the soul at an early age and expresses itself in a constant of argumentativeness, a propensity for cheating,  of rhetorical inflation of all things problematic, so that social life, and its political expression, becomes a constant background noise of negativity.  This, for any human, is a appalling situation requiring denial – which I think most Italians adapt as a defensive posture even while they fully participate in it, thinking their tendency to butt in line, stop traffic for talking to a friend, or wangling an advantage by whatever family connection will serve,  etc., is all normal if done by themselves, and only objectionable when done by someone else.  The companion is a theatrical mask of happy sociality as seen in the constant kissy-faced greetings and departures, hugs and tactile contacts to signify bonding where all bonds are suspect.  Deep inside, the person kissing and being kissed awaits the knife in the back.  The fabled mafia “baci di honore.”  Benvenuta a Italia, where this story is ancient and the “lessons learned” have poisoned the culture for millennia.  The later addition, perhaps of necessity, of the Catholic religion’s obsession with “forgiveness” make for a toxic combination in which collectively all confess to being cattivo (bad) and all are given a blanket pardon.  Little wonder in such a world that a blatantly bad soul like Berlusconi rises to the top like cream, as he exemplifies the real Italian character to perfection: a master of deceit, from his hair implants and face-lifts, to his toes playing footsy with teen-aged girls on his private estate in Sardinia – a modern-day Caligula.  And many, if not all, in la bella Italia admire this capacity to wiggle and wangle through the thickets of Italian law and politics, and get to play with the bimba’s to heart’s content.   It makes their line-butting and small-time cheating all the more palatable, while making the priestly taste for small boys rather understandable.

The flip-side is the cultural elevation of saints to untouchable pedestals, where virtue becomes unattainably distant unless you are into real hard-core masochism and would like to have your head, breasts, arms, or legs chopped off, or grilled, or baked in a bronze horse, or be burned at the stake, hung, disemboweled, or otherwise dispatched from this world to the hypothetically better one in the sky.  This cartoon tale is plastered across every church in Italy, of which there are many, albeit in this day the congregations are primarily tourists, shuffling along, gazing at this panoply of torture all (mostly) elegantly framed in the rich colors of Giotto, gold-leaf frames, and other tricks to cover the actual content: the supreme masochist is Christ, who, depending on which era and geography, hangs from his cross, a gorgeous gay hunk (see Michaelangelo’s Christ with Cross in the Chiesa sopra Minerva) or a Mel Gibson-style bloodied corpse further to the South where the baroque takes on an oppressive heaviness absent to the north.

Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Peter

The second tier of this theological drama are the Apostles, to be seen in their various modes of departure according to Christian mythology: St Peter crucified up-side-down; St Paul beheaded, and on through the whole list of the magical 12, to arrive at Judas, the bad luck number 13, who committed suicide.  Only Saint John mythically eluded being dispatched before mother nature beckoned.  After this august list, comes the chorus of myriad lesser saints, each seemingly celebrated not for what they did in life, which often-times remains highly obscure, but rather for the grisly manner in which they exited this life’s stage: trampled, gouged, burned, toasted, chopped, baked, boiled, become pin-cushioned with arrows – in whatever manner one could abuse the animal flesh of man, Italians have dreamed it up (of course they are not alone in this creative thrust.)  The churches of Italy offer a full course of elegant imagery in all of this.  (A jaunt further north, to the images of Grunewald in, gives another more Germanic flavor, and another uncanny glimpse into another culture.)

Depending on your political inclinations, this process continues – if Left, it is St Pasolini, whose body was crushed by a contemporary beast, the automobile, and whose last images confirm as usual his sainted corporal existence.  If Right, there are the martyrs who bombed the nearby, as I write, Bologna train station, in 1982, or of course, Mussolini, whose body was appropriately mangled, and thus given the sign of a certain sainthood.

Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci

I suspect most Italians would laugh at such a correlation of their deep historical roots and their contemporary society.  The laughter would be nervous though, a discomfort with the nature of fate, of it being suggested that their present behavior, as demonstrated in their politics, or in the common everyday practices of their lives, was stamped into their DNA, something inescapable.

[For us, an interlude of 12 days, in Lisbon, Toledo, Madrid, and now resuming for the balance of the summer our Italian sojourn.]

Tiles in bar in Madrid

Yesterday, July 19,  flying in from Madrid in a Ryanair cheapo flight (whose draconian baggage limits caught many and upped the costs of flying 100%) – a flight delayed in Madrid for 2 hours in a nod to the present economic crisis (the Barcelona air-traffic controllers had gone on strike at the fiscal squeeze being placed, just as had the Metro employees in Madrid) – the mostly Italian passengers applauded, as it seems only Italians do, as we landed.  What this burst of applause means must suggest something of Italians.  But what?  In a culture in which the term “sono professionista” (I’m a professional) is often used to block all further discourse and especially questions as to the competence of the person using the phrase, perhaps the applause is for the successful accomplishment of the “professionista” up front, whom all internally doubt to be capable.  In my brief time of working, or attempting to work, in Italy, the assertion “sono professionista” sent cringes through my soul, it being a certain sign of the imminent fuck up.   Or perhaps it is an acknowledgment of the Shakespearean assertion that “all life is a stage” and the Italian operatic sensibility in its current phase of decay takes the simple matter of being an airline pilot as a show-biz role, something warranting a reward of applause on the safe delivery of the airplane’s cargo to its destination.   The same herd of Italians will promptly, once the wheels touch ground, unbuckle, rise to get their luggage, and be told by the staff – which must be accustomed to this behavior pattern with Italians – to sit back down, buckle up, and stay seated until the pilot has finished taxiing to the disembarkation point and announces so, turning off the little buckle-up sign right in front of their eyes.  These days this behavior is also accompanied by the mass turning on of cell phones, and the admonition to keep electronic instruments OFF until notified its OK.  Few listen or obey.   Perhaps the applause is for the luck of having arrived at all despite the chronic violation of these various rules by those applauding?

Approaching almost anywhere, globalized graffiti, Inc., in this case Rome

And today, July 22, we were to depart Bologna for Roma and then swiftly on towards Matera, in Basilicata.  Gone to the family car held by sister Chiara, to be borrowed the coming month, a turn of the key betrayed a dead battery of a car unused the last month or two.  Waving down, with battery cables in hand, a car, we got help which shortly soured: the key/anti-theft mechanism seemed to not work, of which a later word indicated this quirk had been on-going the last year.  The “trick” to by-pass it didn’t work, and our journey turned into a 4 hour car-side vigil for Marcella (windows downed on the last juice of the batteries, the key trapped in the vehicle, and luggage, cameras, valuables therein, and sister’s key having been slipped under the doorway, we were trapped.)  A later walk, talk, tow-truck, and luckily nearby car mechanic resulted in a typical Italian prognosis: 12 days until the item would arrive, 400 Euros in cost to replace the malfunctioning key mechanism (sure to escalate in both time and money), and Marcella and I were Bologna’haid another day.  (In Seoul I am sure this would have been resolved in a few hours, at far less cost.)  And the summer’s plans were skewed, as the cost of a rental car for 5 weeks is excessive for me (1200 Euro + gas, etc), and now we scramble to alter the summer’s plans – where to go, how, a little existential crisis to spice the summer heat.

Since I was a child, landing on a primitive airway in Rome in 1951, and then taken on a train ride to Trieste in which Italians shared what little they had in that time of post-war poverty, I have been in love with Italy.  Like many kinds of love, it has inverted, become a love/hate.  In more recent times the hate has predominated, as I and most certainly Italy have changed, in ways antithetical.  Italy, in the face of things modern, seems to have lost touch with itself, defacing the abundant beauties which almost every town holds, the centro perhaps almost intact, but the surrounding areas encrusted with squalid ill-thought modern buildings,  highways, and further out American-style suburban sprawl eating into the country-side.  Within the centro the tackiness of our globalized world has intruded in the form of the usual corporate branding logos and the now near-universal graffiti, here defacing a heritage of extraordinary architecture and urban design.  This is not the desolate world of the Bronx, circa 1978 or so, when graffiti represented a flush of creative life in the face of urban death, but rather now a knee-jerk genuflection of gangsta alienation whether in Toulouse, Madrid, Copenhagen, Moscow or Rome.  The periferia’s have invaded, bringing with them their tracings of gangland aesthetics.  The past is utterly disrespected, but its erstwhile replacement has none of the cultural weight which gives the old its heft.  Instead a unity of universal ignorance washes over everything, a Simpsonite dog-piss assertion of “I own this,” however wrong and false, sprayed on a wall built 500 or 1800 years ago, by Michaelangelo or Giulio Cesare.   The alienated scrawl reeks of the New York of crack-heads but incorporated by Nike, the globalized claim “just do it – this is mine” writ large and in a dull uniformity lacking all originality.  A McDonalds of the mind blankets the landscape, its fraudulent branding of individual personhood enriching the spray-paint makers and reducing the local to cartoon universality.  In keeping with the source, the way is often littered with needles and discarded condoms.

Almost no place is immune, though our recent visit to Toledo made an exception.  A long ago visit to Toulouse saw its mostly two-story center converted into a comic book, top to bottom, its lovely architecture no longer readable.  When living 10 years ago in Rome I saw this incremental journey of  defacement shift from the grim walls of Tuscalana and Nomentana, then into Testaccio and San Lorenzo, and then the walls of Trastevere.  Since it has crossed the banks of the river into the heart of the city, now to be seen anywhere, be it on the ancient Roman walls, or the magnificent baroque churches, once sacrosanct and now but another surface to announce another version of “Kilroy was here.”    There is though, now little left to kill.

Bust in the Pincio

Back when I lived in Rome I filmed the busts of the Pincio, a park above Piazza del Popolo, where the 19th century bourgeoisie had memorialized themselves in sculpture – bankers and writers and businessmen juxtaposing themselves to Italy’s greats – Galileo, Dante, Michaelangelo and Marconi and the long illustrious list of others whom history has graced on this lovely land.  Their noses are knocked off, cigarettes dangle from their mouths, and their faces are smeared with paint and nazi swastikas on their foreheads, an ironic commentary on the very short lives we lead and the “respect” we are accorded by the future.  The barbarians have sacked Roma yet again.

Nowadays almost every nook and cranny of the past is reduced into a variant of Disneyland, often in the name of “education.”  The Caravaggio’s of the Chiesa della Francese are adorned with explanatory framing, placards explaining to the herds of tourists their meaning.  Only 15 years ago I could stand solitary for a half-hour at this place, soaking in the images (though needing to plop a coin in the lighting system); today one fights for a place to see as crowds jostle to read the plaques and gaze in unison, fingers pointing out the obvious, murmuring wisdoms to their husbands or others.   The same occurs in almost every place of beauty or exception, the price of cut-rate mass tourism which has seen the floors of the Siena cathedral covered with cheap Masonite boards to protect it from the bus-loads of visitors who disgorge each day, shuffling over the ancient stone patterns, following their guides, who now can offer only a picture of what their presence threatens.   Whether a human artifact, or natural, all our globe is now so diminished, with hiking trails and garbage leading to the peak of Mt Everest, which recently was “conquered” by a 12 year old.  As the most remote is converted into an adventurer’s McDonalds its corollary is the oil smeared across the gulf of Mexico, with 8 billion souls assuring no square inch of our earth has been left untouched by human foot or hand, or the consequences of our occupation.  Italy serves as a cautionary example, its extraordinary history and heritage now perversely acting as an instrument of its destruction.

In the backyard outside where I write this in Bologna, in the darkened evening, the sound of television floats – I went to look and below in the open yard below, the glow of a screen illuminates the family which gathers before this altar, outside, watching.  Doubtless, since he owns and controls almost all of it in Italy, the content is determined by Silvio Berlusconi, broadcasting his view of the world to each home here.  His view of the world is animated by leering older men prancing with scantily clad bouncing breasts, giggling at inanities and off-color jokes.  Of course, one could easily claim this was always so, since the emperors who ruled Rome’s empire, on through the lurid excesses of the Church-led renaissance, and thence to the present.

From my film, Roma, un ritratto

[Now in Matera, where unsolicted, I heard from a barman, serving me up a cappuccino and hearing my English, tell of how he’d lived in Philadelphia 5 years, and had a son legally American, and they’d both like to go back as there is “nothing here” for them. (Good luck on finding a job in the USA these days).  Then in an impromptu meeting with an aunt of Marcella’s she began a lament of how shameful it was to be an Italian these days, and how she and her husband think to move abroad, to France, or somewhere, anywhere.  They are  a comfortably well situated professional couple, retired.  And then a friend of Marcella’s, last night, talking with another friend who lives now in Modena, was saying how she’d like to move back to the area, to be with her boyfriend, from her good job in Venice.  The other friend humorously but seriously admonished her that there was nothing here she could find for work, and suggested she’d do well to hold onto her job in the north.

These sentiments have been repeated in various forms for me over the last 15 or 20 years – laments over a corrupted, stagnant,  futureless Italy, snared in the bellezza of its past.  It’s population is aging, it requires for menial jobs the many immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, South East Asia and India, though increasingly it becomes hostile to them.  Caught in a cross-fire of contradictions – a sumptuous landscape, cuisine and wine, deep-set corruption, a historically rooted lethargy, paralyzed by its own history – Italy is a place of indefinable sadness where youth are alienated and lost, looking towards a life of endless waiting or looking to escape.  At a casual tourists glance you would never imagine it.  But it is so, as Italians are constantly telling themselves, though if a foreigner says it they will rebuff it with a seizure of cultural unity.   Added July 29 2010]

[For a bit of explication and confirmation of my thoughts, see this article from the NY Times, Aug 1, 2010][

Image from my friend, Mark Eifert of Portland Or.

Perhaps it is an unpoetic justice that the residue of ancient life, geologically folded and folded again, once uplifted and verdant, and then thrust downward, submerged, cooked by extreme pressures and heat, and some 18,000 feet beneath sea level off the coasts of Louisiana and Alabama, now, courtesy of the greed-induced hubris of a transnational corporation, British Petroleum, works to destroy the life-forms of the Gulf of Mexico.  Thirty million years old, this oil deposit is, to the measurements presently available, the second largest in the world.  A true bonanza of “black gold.”  In its eagerness to tap this, BP drilled deeper than ever before, to a depth of 5,000+ feet, a mile, to the Gulf’s floor, and then another 13,000 feet to the deposit.  It did so, assuring a corrupted (by BP and other oil industry giants) Minerals Management Service of the US Federal Government, that the chances of any spills were extremely tiny, it’s equipment was cutting edge/state-of-the-art, and that in any event they had the means and expertise to take care of any unforeseen problems.  They obtained, in exchange for some tickets to sports events, some sexual favors, some drugs, and probably some money, a waiver on any environmental impact report.  There wouldn’t be any, so they claimed.  And the corrupted agency consented.

British Petroleum oil coated aviary casualty

As it happened, there was “a problem.”   On the immediate level  the problem was that BP, well known in the industry for problems owing to corner cutting in the pursuit of profits, acted in its normal fashion, economizing, in haste to bring the Deepwater Horizon well on-line, and into profit-making.  A few days before the Deepwater Horizon blow-out a gaggle of BP executives had helicoptered out to the drilling rig to party, celebrating the imminent on-line status of the well and the fat profits to come.  On board though there had been disagreements between the rig owners, Transocean (a company allegedly Swiss, with its central offices there as a tax dodge, but actually Texan, with most of its employees American, and its offices and most of its employees in Houston), about procedures to use, and BP, which was leasing the rig, had the final word.  They’d skip on a process of using “heavy mud” and instead go to thinner sea water, this despite clear signals in the previous days that various things were seriously amiss.  Also they skipped a test of the concrete used to cap the well, a job out-sourced to Halliburton, known in Iraq for many dubious practices.   Leasing a drilling rig costs a half million dollars a day, and as in the old mantra of capitalism, time is money.  Cut it short said the BP supervisor.   Meantime, legally, with the consent of the Federal Government’s porn-watching regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), they’d skipped on a parallel well, standard in other parts of the world as a back-up in case something goes wrong, and they’d skipped on a fail-safe last chance choke valve costing a half million dollars.  After all, for a corporation, profit is king.  Expenses like those they faced here seemed too much, and besides, they were all too sure their technology worked, even if they’d never done so at such depths and the pressures involved.  And they were partying.   The initial price was 11 workers killed on the platform at the time of the blow-out.

As is known in the oil industry, BP has a long history of cutting corners and making messes.  Only recently, in 2005, one of their refineries in Texas City, Texas, with numerous citations for safety violations, blew up at the loss of 15 lives.   Their pipe-line in Alaska, untended for 15 years, rusted and corroded, and with, again, numerous citations against it, ruptured and spilled 6,400 barrels on the delicate tundra of Prudhoe  Bay.

[For updates on the real situation, including a worst-case (beginning to look to be the probable case) scenario, see TheOilDrum. There some oil business people believe the well itself is now compromised and will in due time rupture, and that the entire field which was being drilled will be released, and perhaps the sea-floor will collapse – oily tsunami anyone?]

BP pipeline in Alaska

British Petroleum is the 4th largest corporation in the world (some stats say the 7th), and the 3rd biggest energy corporation – which, logically, makes 2 of the other largest ones also energy corporations.  It made 17 billion dollars in profits last year (Exxon made 19).   Little wonder they are able to buy and corrupt such countries as Nigeria and Ecuador, where reckless practices have poisoned the environment.  Or that they can buy the American Congress, to re-write the law and to let up on regulation and oversight.

Niger DeltaEcuador

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has unfolded, like a dense sheet of oil, slowly, grudgingly being revealed by British Petroleum, apparently with the collusion of United States agencies lending a hand in hiding the larger and uglier truths: assisting in blocking reporters from the media have been the Coast Guard, the Homeland Security Agency, local police agencies – all supposedly in service to the public, but instead acting to protect a giant private corporation.  BP was a major political contributor to both parties in recent past elections, and maintains a powerful lobbying force in Washington.   But as the oils slip not into hidden backwoods bayous along the Louisiana coast, difficult to access except to the locals, but onto the pristine vacation beaches of Alabama and now the Florida panhandle, and as the loop current brings it to Key West, and later up the Atlantic Coast of Florida, it has become  harder and harder for BP and its governmental partners to mask the enormity of their errors.  And a sullen cloud seems to have descended across America, a turgid shock wave of recognition that this catastrophe, the edges of which remain invisible, are intimately connected to economic collapse of 2008.  And that perhaps our government, our “system,” is longer “ours” but has been seized by those economic and corporate interests which produced these traumas.  On both the Right and Left there seems an unsettled sense that control of our fates has passed into the hands of a vague force – the “elites,” the “corporations,” the financial sector, some diabolic confluence of them all tied in with the military-industrial-media complex.  In the political center there seems confusion – all the assumptions of an orderly middle-class world suddenly shattered: the 401K that disappeared; the mortgage that can’t be paid; the job ended; the house lost.   All the comfortable assurances which our social-political-economic world seemed to offer have all suddenly been placed in doubt: what will the health insurance pay?  Will it even be there?  Social Security?  For many it seems as if the rug has been pulled from beneath them and all the parameters by which they measured have been summarily changed,  and for the worse.

As the swell of anger rises, and the apathy of many is shaken by their new economic realities – the loss of job, home, or perhaps only the seeming threat of such as friends and family lose theirs – America will doubtless fragment further as the internal stresses work their way through the body politic.  We can already see it in the curious silence of the Tea-party folks who only months ago were chanting “Drill Baby Drill” and who now seem to have nothing to say.  We can see it in the stalwart anti-government elements of the Right suddenly complaining that government isn’t big enough to instantly plug the BP well-hole, or manage the immense damages being inflicted on the Gulf.  We can see it in the hesitations of the Obama administration, seemingly lost in the on-rush of calamities, sprinting from one to the other while trying to appear calm and under control.  And we can see it in our historical myopia in which we fail to see that for a long time we have constructed this whole system as a trap for ourselves, and as often happens in history, we are sleep-walking our way to the end.

Since World War 2 America got itself hooked on an imaginary vision of itself, something coming out of earlier times when the government opened up new lands (taken by force from the natives) and set up “Land Rushes” with a deal of 40 acres out in Iowa or Nebraska or Oklahoma, if you stayed on the land and built it up.  Just gallop out, stake it out, and it’s yours.  A lot of people got very rich doing so, and others very poor.  Similar government deals made railroad barons, with swaths of land adjacent their tracks similarly rich.  It’s been going on the same way since – with agri-biz, with water, with the military-industrial complex, with oil.

Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in Titusville, and coupled with the already on going matter of industrialization that had kicked in seriously in the early to mid 1800’s, it sent America and the world off on an energy jag that hasn’t let up since, though peak oil is going to force a withdrawal pattern, like it or not.  In America this combo led to “the American Dream” in which one wasn’t a “man” if you didn’t have “wheels” and the promise was you got a house with a patch of lawn around it.  Naturally to have this, you had a job.  So it went, and most Americans bought this dream, got a job, a mortgage, a set of wheels (or more), a house with a two car garage, and along with it all the other accouterments of a nice “middle class” life.  Health and life insurance, Social Security, and all the rest.  Set for life out in the ‘burbs.   This was our collective dream, or so our politicians and cultural pundits told us.

This was our myth, “the American Way of Life,”  and all the other national clichés: Number One, and so on.  It was energized by that good old American individualism, “self-sufficiency,” free enterprise, that “can-do” entrepreneurial instinct (amazing how we wrapped ourselves around that French word), and all the other mental snake-oil of the stories we told ourselves.  Of course it was all like an old frontier “tall story,” a package of whopping lies we liked to think represented us.

US:  less than 5% of the global population consuming about 25% of global resources.

Because of our ingenuity, go-get-’em individualism and all?    Well, maybe a bit.  But a lot more because we grabbed by hook or crook a large part of a whole continent, and more or less wiped out the original inhabitants and then “gave” it to ourselves.   And we used at the outset slave labor to build it up for several hundred years, and when we finally made the slaves “legally” equal we relegated them to a sub-citizen standard, which is still, despite a half-black President and numerous very wealthy sports and entertainment stars of dark skin, still the case.   And early on we tilted the playing deck so that some got very rich, much owing to governmental largesse, as with the railroad barons of the late 1800’s (who, incidentally, used “cheap” Chinese labor for building their lines) who were given large swathes of land, and then oil and mining barons who were given the value of what lay under the land for a pittance of its value, a practice which continues to this oil-soaked day.

Louisiana bayou

But, not content to parcel out the wealth of our part of a continent, we rigged the rules, and with the Monroe doctrine laid claim to some kind of rights south of the border.  Rights usually enforced with military intervention, usually asserted in the name of “national interests,” meaning some American corporation needed some muscle to enforce its exploitative actions on the local natives.  This is on-going, though somewhere around Barbary Pirates times was extended to include the whole globe.  Now, for our “national interests” we are encamped in Iraq, Afghanistan and more places than most Americans can remember or list – countries most never even heard of and certainly the names of which they could not pronounce.

In the name of “the American Way of Life,” which our current President, as all Presidents must, asserts we will not give up or change, we thus now have a military which consumes half the Federal budget, and consumes about half the oil which America uses.  Facing a massive national deficit, however, when it comes time to pruning expenses, our glorious military is virtually never mentioned as a candidate for some real cost cutting.  America spends more annually on its military than all the rest of the world does on its, with much of that other half being of our “allies” and only a small fraction – about a fifth of our expenditures – by our erstwhile potential enemies (China and Russia).

In turn our foreign policy is largely based on securing a supply of oil to feed to our military, a rather circular arrangement in which the wars we indulge in, for whatever fanciful reasons our leaders claim, are, as Alan Greenspan blurted out, really about oil.  Iraq.  Or perhaps other resources.

Besotted by our own myths, we have taken a spiral toward auto-destruction (pun not quite intended), such that our behavior now apes that of another of our old stories, that of the oral folk tales transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris as the Uncle Remus stories.  The one that tells our story is that of Bre’r rabbit and the tar baby.  Whether we, as the rabbit, will be such good cons as to get a chance to be tossed into the briar patch, is looking doubtful.  So far, we’re best at conning ourselves.

For an in-depth story on Deepwater Horizon disaster and the current administration’s part in it, see this article from Rolling Stone. For more on the Gulf situation see Cinemaelectronica.  Or see the Shell PR item for a sense of the scale at which these operations are done.

From US Army Official Website

Each year, officially, acknowledged in the national budget, the United States spends some approximately $700 billion for “defense” – to say weapons, institutions to deploy them.  The balance of the world spends a bit less than that cumulatively.  This number, however, is naturally deceptive (paranoids usually hide their truths) and scarcely tells the whole story.  The 7 hundred billion is the Department of Defense budget.  Included within it, for example, is not the cost of the manufacture and maintenance of our nuclear weapons, which falls under the Department of Energy 28 billion dollar budget.  Nor does the CIA’s massive budget – it comes under “Security.”   Nor the new Homeland Security Agency.  And so on.

FBI counter-terrorism $2.7 billion At least one-third FBI budget.
International Affairs $10.1–$54.2 billion At minimum, foreign arms sales. At most, entire State budget
Energy Department, defense-related $20.9 billion
Veterans Affairs $66.2 billion
Homeland Security $54.7 billion
NASA, satellites $3.4–$8.5 billion Between 20% and 50% of NASA’s total budget
Veterans pensions $58.4 billion
Other defense-related mandatory spending $7.5 billion
Interest on debt incurred in past wars $57.7–$228.1 billion Between 23% and 91% of total interest
Total Spending $1.003–$1.223 trillion


Also one of the nation’s larger money-makers in the export realm is armaments, much of which is not included in the “Defense” budget, though our collective energies are consumed in the making of these exports.  To say the financial cost to American society for its cumulative expenditures on so-called defense is in wildly out of proportion to any supposed threat, as shown in the expenditures which our would-be opponents spend.    America’s culture is deeply distorted by this obsession with “defense,” which in truth is not at all defense, but rather an aggressive, historically grounded, offense.

See this for clarification

Domestically this distortion is shown in the incapacity of the Congress to address the militarization of our society, as exampled in the difficulty of closing military facilities – bases, factories – owing to their role in the economy.   Likewise in cultural terms – as seen in video games, in the production of the major producers of “entertainment,” as seen in our sports – we have become (or perhaps always were?) increasingly violent, finding cathartic “solutions” in simply killing those with whom we disagree.  Our daily lives are littered with the by-product – the numerous rampage killings that fill the headlines, that leads to endless empty philosophising from our erstwhile pundits as to why we have such a consistent pattern of socio-pathological behavior.  To understand why one need only look at our government’s behavior, at our mass media, at our sports mania, and finally at our own collective willful denial.   America is a violent, ugly, destructive society, which wreaks havoc on the world at the drop of a pin, that sucks up the material wealth of the world in wild disproportion to our numbers, all the while claiming rhetorically to be ever the white-hatted good-guy.

F-22 fighterUS Army environmental video training systemUS Marine, Helmand province, Afghanistan

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

James Madison, Political Observations, 1795

Since its inception America has always been at war with itself – though largely suppressed there has always been a minority which rejected and resisted the processes of colonization, who defended the original native population, who fought and denied the legitimacy of slavery, who resisted the wars of expansion (Mexico, Spanish-American), and more recently those incursions and wars in Central America, the Caribbean, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.   But, in the cumulative history of the United States of America, warring has persistently overwhelmed and defeated the tendencies of peacefulness.   The present day is little different.

Obama signs the 2010 638 billion dollar DOD bill, announced as a “cut” but in fact the biggest everSarcophagous, wounded Greek soldier

On Saturday, December 5th, there was a demonstration in Rome, against Silvio Berlusconi, 73, the head of government.  He’s also head of many other things, including the media – both state owned and private – including television and some newspapers and major book publisher Mondadori.  And one wonders what else.  He is also Italy’s richest man.  In the past year he’s been mired in one scandal after another, with his wife, former show-girl/actress, Veronica Lario, 53,  leaving him with acrid comments about his compulsion for younger girls,  for whom he threw parties at his huge villa on Sardinia, inviting teenage girls from around Italy, and bringing them in on state transportation.   The papers had recently found him to be “friends” with a 17 year old Neapolitan girl (at the time they met), Noemi Letizia, which seemed to be the final straw for Veronica.

Veronica Lario, almost ex-wife of Berlusconi

Noemi Letizia, Silvio’s “friend”, now 18

The organizers of the anti-Berlusconi demonstration of yesterday, initiated over Facebook, claimed nearly a million participants; the police said 90,000.  Rather a discrepancy there, and likely somewhere in-between (a large in-between) lies the truth.  Or perhaps we should say that between the lies, perhaps there is the truth.

Gaspare Spatuzza

In the last days a Mafia pentito, Gaspare Spatuzza, in the context of the trial of a Berlusconi associate, Marcello Dell’Utri,  fingered Dell’Utri and Berlusconi as persons abetting the Mafia, who in turn aided Berlusconi politically (Sicily votes heavily for him).  [For those not in the know, Berlusconi has had numerous court dates himself, all so far smudged by the curious nature of Italian law.] Such charges have swirled around Berlusconi for years.  But then they also swirled around former “Socialist” premiere Craxi as well as former “Christian Democrat” Andreotti.  To say it’s an old story.  Currently Berlusconi, a former cruise ship crooner,  is attempting to have a new law passed by his Parliament (with a majority of Popolo delle Libertà, formerly Forza Italia, his own personal party, in collusion with Bossi’s La Lega Nord and Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, formerly the MSI, the surviving fascist party) which would curtail the statute of limitations on laws which might otherwise put Silvio behind bars.  To say the head of the Italian government, in keeping with recent – and ancient  – Italian tradition, is deep in sordid matters.  A reading of Italian history, from the Roman Empire, to the Papacy, to the Renaissance, and modern history all betray the same (old) story, and a passing acquaintance with the language(s) of the peninsula confirm a vibrant and rich vocabulary of insult, anger, hatred, and violence, all of which surface in everyday reality in la bella Italia.   They’ve had 2000 plus years to hone these qualities to perfection.

–    Ehi, testa di cazzo!
–    Che cazzo fai?
–    Tuo cugino è un paraculo
–    Vaffanculo, fai solo cazzate
–    Porca puttana, mi hanno fregato sul resto della spesa
–    Sai dire solo stronzate
–    Quello te l’ha messo in culo
–    Me ne vado. Mi sono rotto il cazzo
–    Lì sono tutti dei coglioni
–    Ma va a cagare, stronzo
–    Quante pippe mentali ti fai!
–    Quella non c’ha le palle per farlo
–    Mi hanno fatto girare i coglioni stamattina
–    Con i tuoi soldi mi ci pulisco il culo!
–    Non mi frega nulla di quello che pensi

Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano

One of my favorite paintings, before which I have spent many hours at the National Gallery in London, as well as making tracings, a failed pastel, and sketched a kind of installation work centered on it.  It is one of a triptych of works, one other being in Firenze at the Uffizi, and the other one in Paris, at the Louvre.  This one is in the best condition, though the top section was lopped off somewhere along the line.  It was made in celebration of a battle which supposedly the Fiorentine forces won, but that is a lie – it was more a tie.  Very Italian that.

Andrea Della Robbia

Scissors in convent wall, Ravenna

Along with the travails besetting Silvio, in the last weeks there’s also been the case of Amanda Knox, 22,  young American girl caught up in another trial, for murder, in the lovely town of Perugia.  In brief, her roommate, an English girl, Meredith Kercher, 21, was found, throat slit and quite dead, two years ago.  Evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, pointed to a  22 year old Ivory Coast resident in Perugia, Rudy Guede, who fled to Germany, was caught and is already imprisoned following a “fast track” trial at his request.  It also pointed to Amanda’s Italian boyfriend of the time, Raffaele Sollecito, now 25, and Amanda herself.  Attempts of a cover-up, an apparent staged break-in, false accusations, curious behaviors on Amanda’s part, contradictory alibis and DNA samples all went into the mix, along with a scandal-minded Italian press combined to create a fine circus out of this.  This week Amanda was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment, a judgment promptly complained about by the US press and by Senator Cantwell of Washington State from which Amanda hails, which found the Italian legal system wanting by comparison to the American one.

Amanda behind bars

Inside Italy, the past week also saw the former head of RAI, the Italian state television and radio system, and current President of LUISS (Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali), Pier Luigi Celli, publish a letter to his son in the newspaper La Repubblica in which he advised him, following his impending graduation from university, to depart Italy for more fertile grounds for his future.   This naturally begot a mixed response and a week of Italian newspaper and television discourse on the fine art of navel gazing.  There were those who, in typical Italian fashion, complained that the advice was idiotic since Celli was well-placed to find his son a good job – patronage – and he could count on doing well in nice corrupted Italia.  They didn’t say it that way but that’s what they meant.  Others commiserated, lamenting the frozen slow-motion quality of Italian society, where getting ahead is a matter more of who you know than what you know, and where the works are gummed up with low-level corruptions for getting your plumbing fixed, the post-office lines are legendary, and high-level corruption – like Silvio’s – merely amplifies that at the bottom.

Craxi and the crooner, 1984

[Craxi, the head of the Socialist Party and the former Premier, died in exile in Tunisia.  He was the mentor of Silvio Berlusconi, the current Premier.]

Some years ago, in 1993, having moved to Italy on my 50th birthday to carry out a long-time wish to live there, I quickly, through no particular effort on my part – basically going to some parties while riding in the short coat-tails of All the Vermeers in New York – lined up a producer and made a film there.   The producer was Enzo Porcelli, who was well-known as making more adventurous films, having done some with Bertolucci, Godard, and others, so he claimed, as well as B-grade schlock.  His ride at the time was Gianni Amelio, who was then making L’America.  He met me at a party and said, having heard I made films cheaply, he’d like to work with me.  I took the bait, and a few months later we were in production, working my way, unheard of in Italy: no script.  For a week we shot with the crew he suggested – a soundman, his assistant, a production guy.  I was doing camera on Aaton 35mm.  These guys were “pros” so I was told.  That meant they took boxes and boxes of crap to work with, when I just wanted the camera and the tape recorder and mike.  They dumped the stuff in the middle of my sets; they took a break now, a 2 hour lunch then.  After a week I stopped the production and said if we were to continue with these guys, we’d never come in on budget.  I fired the lot of them, including one alleged actress who froze like a deer in headlights as soon as the camera turned on.  Her Calabrian boyfriend came storming to my apartment/production office, pounded on the door, intimidated my production assistant into tears, and stood an inch from my face, announcing “sono Calabrese” which was supposed to send me quivering in fear to the floor.  I don’t recall what I said, but it was something like, “get the fuck outta here”, and he did, and I never heard anything more from our pumped up would-be hood.  His claim to apparent fame was he’d had a small role – virtual extra – in an Antonioni film.

Alberto Sordi, in Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada

The production resumed some months later, with a crew I chose – Theo Eshetu, an Ethiopian who had lived a long time in Rome,  a video-artist, and had never recorded sound.  He was my recordist and did fine.  Some guy who lived in San Francisco and wanted to work with me came over and was assistant (didn’t work out too well has he was hyper PC and found my foul mouth not to his tastes; from my side he basically didn’t know too much what he was doing); my production manager was an American-Italian living in Italy, Eve Silvestri.  Working my way, we cranked out the film fine, editing for the first time electronically for me, on an Avid, quite new in Italy at the time.  I was helped by my friend Edoardo Albinati, a writer now rather well-known, on some scenes where I wrote and he translated, or I suggested what I wanted and he wrote. The film was finished shooting in autumn, 1993, and we went into editing I think in December.  A week later I requested of Porcelli that he fire the editor, or more exactly the chain-smoking Italian Avid technician running the computer to my decisions, because I felt he didn’t really understand how the Avid system worked.  Porcelli declined, and we went on, and finished editing relatively fast, though Amelio’s film kept needing my hard-disk space, as he did endless long takes and hogged more gigabytes than there were at hand.   I tried to get the first take and for the most part that was it.   In February the edit was done, and it was time to mix, and Porcelli’s promise that there was a digital suite in Rome proved false after a visit to Fellini’s favorite sound studio on via Margutta,  where they’d said they’d have it soon.  In Italian that means in a few years if you are lucky.  I then shopped around and found a place in Vienna that could do it – I just needed to get the sound on external HDs and bring along the EDL (Edit Decision List – a computerized notation of all the elements of the film, where they went, and what had or had not been done to them).   We set a mix date, and when it was time to leave for Vienna Porcelli’s editor didn’t know how to generate an EDL or get the sound on the HDs.   In the same manner we missed two other mix-dates at other places in Europe, and I began to lose my patience.  I informed Porcelli (the name means “little pigs”) I’d set up a new date, now in July, and if we missed that, I’d take my name off the film.  Thus, in that month – with a Venice festival deadline looming – I took off for a sound studio in London, with the HDs, and five days scheduled for the mix.  Properly done this should have meant about a half-day loading the whole EDL into their system, and then commencing with the mix.  Instead, courtesy of Porcelli’s dear editor whom I’d asked be fired, we spent 2 and a half days searching for mislabeled sound, synching some places, and patching in lots of missing sounds from an EFX library.  I got 2 days to actually do the mix.  Porcelli complained I was taking too much time, and I exercised my Italian as above.

Photo montage by Theo Eshetu

On delivery of the finished film, I was due my final bit of pay, which in any event was very modest, but which I needed.  Enzo issued what in Italian is called a ricatto, basically a little slice of extortion, and told me he’d give me half my pay then, and then I’d get the other half after the Venice festival if I didn’t say anything bad about him or his production company, Alia film; otherwise he’d give it to a lawyer to sue me.   Playing the Italian film press for PR, he had previously planted stories that there were “problems” during the production, on the old “any PR is good PR” angle.   Arriving in Venice, Porcelli lurked around the edges of things while Eliana Miglio, the lead actress, and I and the others played the publicity game.  At the press conference I was immediately asked about “the problems” in the production, to which I replied that I couldn’t answer any questions because my producer would not pay me if I said anything bad.  End of press conference.

Andrea, Eliana Miglio, Paolo Glisenti (son, mother, husband)

The film played at the festival, and while a few far left critics gave it a nice review, the others were negative to scathing.  The film was called Un a te, uno a me, e uno a Rafaelle,  a line drawn from an early newspaper item at the beginning of the Mani Pulite scandal, in play at the time.  Had the film dealt with dirty doings from higher ups, which is what the scandal was about – corruption in the governing party, kick-backs, etc. –  instead of what I did, dwelling on the little everyday corruptions which make those at the top seem “normal,” I am pretty sure they would have lapped it up.  But I suggested it wasn’t the thugs at the top – Craxi and all – who made Italy dirty, it was Italian life itself that made such corruptions inevitable.  This was all done in a light-handed manner, a kind of comedy of manners, though there was one serious scene in which a character vaguely patterned on Raul Gardini internally presents to himself and the viewer the kinds of arguments that were used by people to justify their behaviors; in a subsequent scene the character shoots himself.  Gardini was a very big, well-known, dashing businessman, who ran an Italian yacht in the America’s Cup, but was deeply mired in the myriad scandals of Mani Pulite.  He committed suicide, which shocked the nation.  Perhaps my glancing intimations of this cut too deeply at the time for many.   Many of those critical were writers who were very pleased with my less-than-happy critiques of my America, but were disturbed when I brought the same eye to bella Italia. They tended to say I didn’t really know Italy well (even if Edoardo had written the most biting of the commentary).  It depends on whose bull is being gored it seems.

Raul Gardini celebrating a yachting victory

On the contractual date that Porcelli was supposed to cough up the balance of my delayed paycheck, nothing was forthcoming – nothing surprising about this in Italy.  I wrote him then and said we had a few choices:  we could go to court, and we’d both be dead before it was resolved; we could go to the press, and he being Italian, and Italy being Italy, he’d win in any such lopsided contest; or I could request that RAI 3 audit his production, which they had been led to believe was budgeted at $750,000 but of which only their $250,000 part,  plus another 30K from my leading star’s husband’s production company had actually been present.  Little Pigs promptly paid up the remaining sum.

I’ve been told in the years since that Uno a te has screened many times on Rai 3, something, so I was told, that doesn’t happen unless the audience figures are high.   A while back I took a look at the banged up DVD copy – from a VHS tape – I have of it, and it’s not a bad film at all.  And all too prescient about Italy today.

Strozzapreti sauce for pasta

One of my original reasons for moving to Italy was that in the US in the 80’s I’d met a good number of young Italians, who had left to try their luck in America.  I was curious how they could leave a place so beautiful, where every handful of kilometers can unveil a lovely small town, crammed with thoughtful architecture and wonderful art.  And the food ! It was hard to see leaving that behind for McDonalds and Burger King, American strip cities, and Las Vegas.  Admittedly New York has its energy, the West its vast and imposing landscapes, and the small town here and there has its charms, and cities like San Francisco or New Orleans their unique flavors.  But still, to leave Italy for more than a vacation seemed at the time a puzzle.   Five years in Rome, living “parallel” to the culture – to say I did what I could to side-step the more obvious unpleasant qualities of the place – helped me understand the compulsion to depart.

As lovely as it is, Italy is ossified, frozen in its corrupted culture, and when young and full of energy it offers little meaningful space for doing things.  Trivial things, yes – you can party, goof off, have “fun” but in an aimless manner; drag out university for years (because there’s no job when you leave), and live with your parents (because there’s no money).  If your sights are aimed elsewhere, what is on offer is a long, and lacking the proper connections, perhaps terminal waiting line.   From the most mundane of things – getting that plumbing problem fixed – to the more demanding, Italy offers an endless compendium of difficulty.  Enough to bludgeon even the most optimistic and cheery into a deadening submission.

The Italian motto is “Fidarsi è bene; non fidarsi è meglio.” To trust is good; not to trust is better.

To live one’s life under such a banner is to consign oneself to a permanent unhappiness, with fear that even a best friend might slip the knife in at some opportune moment.  Et tu, Brute? Unfortunately this motto is all too real in Italy, where nothing is to be trusted, one must keep an eye on everything, payments due must be coerced after a dance of attempted cheating is used almost by instinct and habit.  So while the evening’s ritual passeggiata seems full of social pleasure and joy, greetings with hugs and cheek kisses, in reality it is a social obligation, the daily wasting of an hour or two, mandated lest one be deemed anti-social, a solitario.  In Italy solitude is condemned as a mode of hell and having no friends is tantamount to being exiled from the community.


As hard as I am on bella Italia, I am not alone.  Like the young people I met in the 80’s, and others since, many have voted with their feet.  My wife Marcella, from Matera in Basilicata, says she does not wish to return to Italy to live, at least for the moment.  Quite recently her younger sister, Francesca, moved to try her luck in Ireland, having done a 3 month residency there and finding it more to her liking and more open to opportunities than her native land.   And my friends Eliana and Paolo tell me they are thinking of moving to Paris, and they more or less have suggested to Andrea that when his schooling is done (he’s studying acting at the Centro Sperimentale, the Italian national film school) he’d likely do well to move along elsewhere.   And a wonderful musician, Christian Ravaglioli, who we met near Ravenna last summer, visiting New York City in the last months, tells us he’d like to stay, but lacking a work permit must return.  Mr Celli, apparently, is not alone in his glum view of Italy in these days.  All the wonderful cuisine and wine, the sunny skies, the gracious architecture and spectacular art somehow fall short of providing the full needs of life.

As unhappy as it seems I make Italy sound, I think my own country is in far worse straits, as the readers of these pages know.  We are more corrupt and our corruption is more dangerous for our power.  And we are more dispirited as a people, ground under the feet of the corporate powers which now dictate our national life.   And somehow the poisons fed to us have paralyzed us no less than the malaise afflicting Italy has frozen their society.

Una mattina mi son svegliato,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Una mattina mi son svegliato,
e ho trovato l’invasor.
(che è morto per la libertà)

O partigiano, portami via,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
O partigiano, portami via,
ché mi sento di morir.

E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
tu mi devi seppellir.

E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.

Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
Mi diranno «Che bel fior!»
(E poi diranno «Che bel fior!»)

«È questo il fiore del partigiano»,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
«È questo il fiore del partigiano,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
morto per la libertà!»

ferrara cath crpd2

Of human-made landscapes few can compare with the beauties of Italy, from the dramatic lakes and mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy to the rich farmlands and cities of Emilia Romagna, the Marche, Tuscany, Lazio and Compagna.    In these places a mere 50 kilometers separates small cities of extravagant aesthetic qualities – Venezia, Bergamo, Firenze, Lucca, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, Pisa to mention but a few – and then the myriad smaller towns perched on mountain tops, their cubist clusters descending briefly down the slopes to be stopped at a once-defensive wall.  Farms flow neatly in an organic patchwork – olives trees, alfalfa, sunflowers, tomatoes, melons and squash, wheat and barley and corn – tumbling down the hillsides and filling the rich valleys.  In the north and central regions despite the dense pressures of the populations crowding it, there is a sense of civility in the architecture and the socially constructed infrastructure which seems to reflect the sublime orderliness of the cloisters which flank most churches, places of meditative quietude.


Accompanying this feast of deeply humanist urban design is a sumptuous cuisine, a true cornucopia of wine, meat and grains and greens the equal of anything on this earth, all extracted from the alluvial soils of these valleys and the slopes of the Appenine mountains.

italian meal

Simple, rich, varied, and healthy, Italian food is one of the world’s wonders (if only one gets the real thing – the pastiche offered up in most non-Italian places is a pale echo of Italian cooking as found in Italy).

And once upon a time Italy was a volcano of creative energy of all sorts – from Galileo to Michelangelo to Uccello to Veronese to Fibonacci to Caravaggio to Dante to Bramante, Bernini, Brunelleschi, Rossini, Donezetti, Verdi, and…. the list seems endless.  But that time is not now.  Somewhere in the 20th century or before, the energies (with some exceptions, of course) burned out, the broad flame of creativity fluttered and for the most part ceased.   Since World War II, after an initial surge in the late 1940’s and into the 1960’s, Italian culture seemed to collapse with La Dolce Vita.

dolce vita






8_1_2_felliniLa Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, L’Eclisse, Teorema, 8 1/2

A rushed modernity – as in many other places – did not mix well with the deep cultural origins of Italy, and these films seemed to hint of a premonition that the sureties of other times would not withstand the sudden shift from a dominantly tribal and agrarian life to the sudden mechanization of the industrial world.  A fashionable, and prescient, alienation marks these works.    In the confusion came severe reactions, though ones steeped in tradition:


Boccioni’s figure moves swiftly forward, though aesthetically it is essentially baroque and rococo, the flourish of form all too clearly expressive of a time several hundred years earlier but in 1913 advancing under the name of Futurism.


As did Il Duce, who sizing up his time, shifted from radical leftist to Fascist in the post World War I turmoil when all of Europe convulsed under the rapid transformations of industrialization, a process which uprooted not only the mechanical organization of society, but also its social order.  The beliefs of the past crumbled in the face of this assault, and in its stead, fertilized by the uncertainty of the time, arose the authoritarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, Salazar, each utilizing the same appeal to historical verities while overturning the social organization of the past.  Italians love a hero, a strong man, a Caesar, and the spectacle which is the natural partner of the dictator.

mussolini crowd


In the wake of the convulsion of World War 2, Italy, economically prostrate, as with all of Europe, simply struggled to survive.  The late forties and early 50’s saw the neo-realism of Visconti, Di Sica, early Antonioni.  The fifties saw a big shift from bicycles to motorini, the Vespa becoming a symbol of success.  The 60’s saw the motorbike supplanted as status symbol by, of course, the car.   And with it came La Dolce Vita and the celebration of the good life, though in Antonioni’s hands, as Fellini’s, they came with a hang-over.  Something seemed amiss, something spiritual – all the nice things somehow didn’t add up to happiness.

red desert

…must confront her social environment. It’s too simplistic to say – as many people have done – that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention… was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable… The neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.[2]  Antonioni

So said the master, who himself got lost in the labyrinth of his new-found element of color, letting his film meander in a fog of ennui.  It was his last film with Monica Vitti as “a number.”  Breaking up is hard to do, as this maker of stripped down soaps knew well.   Lurking in the lush palette which he used were the signals of a nostalgia for an Italy for which he sensed a clear loss.  And despite the logic articulated above, Antonioni in his films demonstrated his own incapacity to adapt.  So much so that riding his fame he went abroad, to England for Blow Up, and America for Zabriskie Point – both misfired aesthetically, the latter terribly so.   His disorientation in the face of the new world reflected closely that of an Italy which could not face its future or its present.   Following the upheavals of the 60’s, Italy fell into the Anni di Piombo (The Years of Lead).





bolognabomb1Bologna train station, Aug. 1980

Bombarded from left and right, Italy passed through the 70’s and 80’s in a kind of tormented state, a time riddled with mysterious deaths, oscillating politics and an economy, like much of the rest of the world, in an upward rush of frantic consumerism.  Its premiers – Andreotti, 7 times premier from the 1970’s to 90’s and well-known for Mafia connections, Fanfani, Craxi – were all indicted, tried, and most eluded conviction through technicalities – in the ever-glacial  and often corrupted judicial system of Italy the usual exemption would be that the statute of limitations had expired, and hence, whatever the mountains of evidence and proof, one was absolved.   The current head of state, Silvio Berlusconi follows in this tradition, a multiple indictee, now wallowing in sex scandals wherein his second younger wife left him, accusing him of having a taste for even younger morsels, one of whom is all of 17.  Silvio owns all the broadcast systems, and as head of state, controls (or tries to) the 3 major state-run channels.  He also owns a soccer team, newspapers, publishing houses, and in effect has a strangle-hold on the media in Italy.  He is Italy’s richest man as well.  According to the polls, and to friends of mine who live here, Silvio is popular despite (or perhaps because of) his vulgarity, his authoritarian inclinations, his evidently hot sex life, and his chronic evident illegality – whether screwing underage girls or screwing the justice system.  Of course he does run the media, so the country is told what he’d like it to hear, and little more.   I suspect the truth is less that Silvio is popular than that the broad populace long ago surrendered to pure cynicism when it comes to politics Italian style.  I know not a few people who are planning or hoping to leave bella Italia as soon as they can, along with quite a few who left some time ago.


Italy has had a long history of criminality-as-government, back to the Caesars, Caligula, and to the warring city-states, the history of which is written in the grisly terms outlined by Macchiavelli.  Recently someone told us of a visit to a museum of torture in San Gimignano, where one of the choice items was a barrel in which the punished party sat in shit, head held high, to rot slowly in excrement.   Nearby in Siena, what appear to be basketball hoops adorning the corners of many buildings not so long ago sported human heads.   While such is no longer the fashion, the hanging torso of Mussolini makes clear the tendency is not so old nor really worn out.  It takes only the proper occasion to bring out this taste.   A glance at the Italian equivalent of tabloids shows that on lower levels, violence is a standard recourse.

gomorrah_6Gomorrah, film by Matteo Garrone, from book by Roberto Saviano

While we marvel at the extraordinary beauties of the accumulated history of Italy: the massive structures of the Roman empire, the intricate twists and turns of medieval hills towns, the splendid piazzas, architecture and urban planning of the Renaissance, and all the arts which accompanied this long trajectory, we tend to dismiss the underlying  flip-side of a history of astounding violence.  Tourists mill around the statue which marks the place where Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, thinking little of this event while sipping their wine.

bruno 2

We drive easily up to some hill-top town, its flanks graced with walls, a tall observation tower rising up from its center, and we think little of the logic which placed this town in such a difficult site.  The logic being fear and the need to find a defensible refuge from the marauding warfare below, not to mention the disembowelings, hangings, burnings, and exotic tortures in town, or on the outskirts, little civic lessons in how you (better) behave and whose ass you’d best kiss.   So much for romantic Tuscan hill towns.

tuscan hill town anghiari-italy


tuscan hilltown

In Pasolini’s Teorema the businessman played by Terrence Stamp is seen at the film’s conclusion running crazed through a lunar landscape (shot at the top of the volcano Mt. Aetna in Sicily), seemingly having lost his mind.

teoremaTeorema, Pier Paolo Pasolini

If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.    PP Pasolini

In his writings and films, Pasolini pointed to where Italy was going.  He was murdered on Nov 2, 1975, on a patch of sand on the beach near Ostia.   Originally it was said to be a killing from rough trade, the handiwork of Giuseppe Pelosi, a Roman low-class rentboy.  Subsequently, a recantation by Pelosi renewed suspicions that other elements had been in play.  Political ones.  Or perhaps an extortion plot.  Or some thought Pasolini himself orchestrated his own death.

In Ostia there is a new little monument, not quite so awful as the earlier one in front of which I filmed a scene for Uno a te back in 1994.  That one was a squalid piece of  would-be “sculpture” falling apart in the salted acridness of the seaside, ostensibly to honor Italy’s lost poet.   It’s been replaced by this


pasolini dead

morte Pasolini1

“Pasolini was what can be termed a citizen-poet. He was concerned with his homeland and expressed his feelings in his work. Patriotic poetry usually comes out of a right-wing tradition and is nationalistic, but Pasolini’s great originality was to be a citizen-poet of the left… He wept over the ruins of Italy but without a hint of rhetoric. He was a modern who used the classical tradition. Rimbaud, the poet of the Paris Commune, the most revolutionary of poets, remained his greatest influence. In the years after the Mussolini dictatorship, he adhered, like many of his compatriots, to an unorthodox brand of communism, that was both Christian and utopian, and these feelings for the poor and underprivileged motivated his own poetry and films.”–Alberto Moravia


“If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.”

John Updike, following on the heels of Norman Mailer, died recently, leaving a blank space in the New York Review of Books, where until quite recently he ran lovely articles covering art exhibitions and museum visits.  His was an acute eye, and I’ll miss his observations which I always found intelligent and eloquently written.  Rabbit runs no more.

Speaking of the NYRB, while I seldom read books (really – though I’m presently picking slowly through John McPhee’s massive collection Annals of the Former World ) I have been addicted to this journal for now 40 years or so, reading it cover to cover, regardless of my interest in any given article.  And the “personals” which  seem to demonstrate that its readership began back then and has sat firmly still since, so that the median age of those posting  has shifted from the late 20’s back then, to something around 60-70 now.  Though the sales spiels have remained pretty much the same – literary, often pretentious, “cultured”, generally well-off “left.”   For sure most of them would assert they are into ecology and whatnot, though their travels and second homes make clear it’s a certain kind of wealthy pathology.


salad in brazil

The kind of salad an NYRB person might eat (this one is from Brazil)

26 yr olds Travis Gay and wife Stephie

Travis B. Gay and his wife Stephanie, from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, all of 26 years old, proud owners of the above house, or at least its mortgage, pickup, SUV, and so it was said, big new plasma screen TV, are miffed that a program which they signed onto which would “forgive” the $100,000 hole they bought into in order to go to college is no longer functioning.  The State borrowed the money for the program to cover its own holes.   What ever happened to the American dream?  What – at 26 I don’t deserve a large house, couple of gas guzzlers, big TV to watch, and I have to pay my education bills?  WTF!   I would bet 10 to 1 Travis and his wife are Republicans too, staunch believers in The Market Economy model of how to structure a society, and think public medical programs are Socialist !   But if the lining goes in their wallet, that’s another story.  Just ask the subsidised farmers, arms makers and others who also think social welfare is a communist plot.


Thunder-thighs of Wichita

The young women above are praying at the site of the murdered doctor in Kansas who performed legal surgeries to which some of our citizenry object.  Statistically it seems most of those objecting, who label themselves “pro-life,” also support the death penalty.   Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in the church he attended, provoking much radio talk-show heavy-breathing.

I’m an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
          but not afraid
                    to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
                    because not only my lonesomeness
                                it’s Ours, all over America,
                                                     O tender fellows–
                                & spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
                                in the moon 100 years ago or in
                                          the middle of Kansas now.
It’s not the vast plains mute our mouths
                                that fill at midnite with ecstatic language
                     when our trembling bodies hold each other
                                breast to breast on a matress–
            Not the empty sky that hides
                                           the feeling from our faces
            nor our skirts and trousers that conceal
                     the bodylove emanating in a glow of beloved skin,
                                white smooth abdomen down to the hair
                                                                between our legs,
            It’s not a God that bore us that forbid
                     our Being, like a sunny rose
                                          all red with naked joy
                     between our eyes & bellies, yes
All we do is for this frightened thing
                     we call Love, want and lack–
            fear that we aren’t the one whose body could be
                     beloved of all the brides of Kansas City,
                     kissed all over by every boy of Wichita–
            O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me–
                     On the bridge over the Republican River
                                almost in tears to know
                                           how to speak the right language–
                     on the frosty broad road
                                uphill between highway embankments
                     I search for the language
                                          that is also yours–
                                almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Radio antennae high tension
           wires ranging from Junction City across the plains–
           highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow
                                lanes curving past Abilene
                                          to Denver filled with old
                                                               heroes of love–
                                to Wichita where McClure’s mind
                                          burst into animal beauty
                                          drunk, getting laid in a car
                                                     in a neon misted street
                                                               15 years ago–
           to Independence where the old man’s still alive
           who loosed the bomb that’s slaved all human consciousness
                             and made the body universe a place of fear–
Now, speeding along the empty plain,
                      no giant demon machine
                                visible on the horizon
           but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky’s edge
                      I claim my birthright!
                                reborn forever as long as Man
                                          in Kansas or other universe–Joy
                      reborn after the vast sadness of War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear,
                      imaging the throng of Selves
                                 that make this nation one body of Prophecy
                                          languaged by Declaration as
I call all Powers of imagination
           to my side in this auto to make Prophecy,
all Lords
                      of human kingdoms to come
Shambu Bharti Baba naked covered with ash
                      Khaki Baba fat-bellied mad with the dogs
Dehorahava Baba who moans Oh how wounded, How wounded
           Sitaram Onkar Das Thakur who commands
                                                       give up your desire
Satyananda who raises two thumbs in tranquility
           Kali Pada Guha Roy whose yoga drops before the void
                       Shivananda who touches the breast and says OM
Srimata Krishnaji of Brindaban who says take for your guru
           William Blake the invisible father of English visions
            Sri Ramakrishna master of ecstasy eyes
                       half closed who only cries for his mother
Chaitanya arms upraised singing & dancing his own praise
            merciful Chango judging our bodies
                       Durga-Ma covered with blood
                                    destroyer of battlefield illusions
                       million-faced Tathagata gone past suffering
            Preserver Harekrishna returning in the age of pain
Sacred Heart my Christ acceptable
                       Allah the Compassionate One
                                           Jahweh Righteous One
                                     all Knowledge-Princes of Earth-man, all
            ancient Seraphim of heavenly Desire, Devas, yogis
                                     & holymen I chant to–
                                            Come to my lone presence
                                                    into this Vortex named Kansas,
I lift my voice aloud,
            make Mantra of American language now,
                             I here declare the end of the War!
                                         Ancient days’ Illusion!
                     and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
            let the Nation weep,
                       let Congress legislate it own delight
                                  let the President execute his own desire–
this Act done by my own voice,
                                          nameless Mystery–
published to my own senses,
                               blissfully received by my own form
            approved with pleasure by my sensations
                       manifestation of my very thought
                       accomplished in my own imagination
                               all realms within my consciousness fulfilled
            60 miles from Wichita
                                          near El Dorado,
                                                     The Golden One,
in chill earthly mist
            houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
                                                                        in every direction
one midwinter afternoon Sunday called the day of the Lord–
            Pure Spring Water gathered in one tower
                                  where Florence is
                                                        set on a hill,
                                  stop for tea & gas

Wichita Vortex Sutra, Allen Ginsberg, 1966

abortionist killer mugshot

Scott Roeder, killer of Dr. Tiller

wichita tiller

Father & Son of Sgt. John M. Russell who killed 4 fellow GIs in Iraq

Father and son of Sgt. John M. Russell, who after 3 tours of duty, killed 4 fellow GI’s in Iraq

To wrap up, Errol Morris has a very nice, long and interesting essay piece in the NY Times, springing from an examination of the dubious forgeries of Van Meegeren of Vermeer.



twomblyat chi art inst

Cy Twombly at Chicago Art Institute new Renzo Piano wing

The average American household is saddled with nearly $8,400 of credit card and other revolving debt, according to analysis of government data.

roughing it with a camping espresso maker

Espresso maker for campers

ss-090508-wildfire-jc-01.ss_fullpalms on fire

Near Montecito, Ca.

mayalin waves1Maya Lin “Waves” installation, Storm King, NY

Calatrava model ny station wtc

Model of Ground Zero train station by Calatrava


Robert Capa  rolls discovered in Mexico

explorer scouts playExplorer Scouts Play Terrorist Killers


Harmony Korine sells Liberty Mutual Insurance to red-necks


Obama Moves to Bar Release of Detainee Abuse Photos
Roubini: Dollar’s Demise

Pension Inquiry Reveals a Power Broker’s Web

Obama Urges Rules on Investments Tied to Crisis

And Tex Avery goes self-referential

Foreclosure sale, NYC

Profiting from another’s misery is, of course, an old story.  Read the spam you get sent.   In the news of late have been some interesting stories on how America ” works.”  One of them is about Penny Mac, a new company which has arisen out of the ashes of an older one, Countrywide.   The latter did mortgages, and was one of the instigators of the present housing bubble crash.  Executives from it have managed to borrow a mess of money and are now buying up defaults cheap, refinancing, and, well, making more money based on the mess they produced and from which they profited earlier, though leaving others to hold the empty bag.  Now that is capitalism!!

“In an insane world, the person who is rational has the problem. Money is as addictive as cocaine.” — Andrew Lo, a professor of financial engineering.

For some decades now, in the economics departments across the academic landscape, it has been the “Chicago School,” (Milton Friedman, most famously) which has ridden high in the saddle, espousing the kind of economics that has landed us in this mess.  These are those of “the short sharp shock” of  Thatcherism.  Leave it to Ivory Tower “thinkers” to get very detached from reality and in due time have their theories, brought into practice in the big real world, bring ruin to all.   Back in the 60’s it was the Best and Brightest (aka Robert McNamara et al) who ushered in the Viet Nam war, sure they knew better than everyone how to manage with up to date methods the nasty matter of war.  More recently Mr. “Stuff Happens” Rumsfeld followed precisely in the same footprints.  So now, as the unfolding economic debacle reveals the hollowness of theory, and these economists (Greenspan, Paulson, etc.) scamper to lay blame anywhere but at their own feet, doubtless we will be treated to arcane new theories and numbers which won’t, of course, do a damn thing for those recently booted from their houses thanks to the glories of plain old fashioned socially and politically encouraged greed in the form of con-men high and low issuing sucker loans and mortgages, and credit card issuers jacking up their %, all to a deliberately dumbed-down and now numbed-out unterclass, which bought into the slick promotions that promised everything for nothing down and a little tiny print about something later.

Economists seem in general not to be into morals.  And their practitioners – businessmen – seem not to be into ethics.  Every man for himself.  Darwinian blah blah.   He who dies with the most toys wins, says the bumper sticker.

Calvin Coolidge

“The business of America is business.”

And you can trust assured that for Republicans, this statement is the god-almighty truth, and they make sure they practice it as a religion.  In fact, as many recent mega-church pastors have said, sort of following in the statement of a recent Chinese communist premier (Deng Xiaoping) who said “To get rich is glorious,”  being filthy rich is a sign that God loves you and you are doing right.  Indeed.

Robert Schuyler’s Crystal Cathedral, Orange County Ca.

Meantime back in the numbers racket, this:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Freddie Mac, one of the two main U.S. mortgage companies that the U.S. government is depending on to help stabilize the housing market, said on Wednesday it needs $30.8 billion from the Treasury to survive after a massive fourth-quarter loss.

Interestingly, in the NYT article saying this they fail to actually mention how much money old Freddie Mac has already gobbled up in US taxpayer largesse:  $284 billion to 150 billion, split between Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (don’t you love these folksy names) – I can’t find an actual figure for Freddie in a quick Google search.  So Joe Public coughs up another 30.8 billion or Freddie goes under.  Where, to whom, why, how all this money goes remains a matter of opaqueness, along with the other estimated 3-9 trillion bucks being used to prop up our glorious system, pride of the nation, or at least of the 1% of the filthy rich part.   The rest are being played, as usual, for suckers.

Ah, but Mr. Schuyler will be happy to pray for you up there on his television monitor while you sit in the sun-splashed SoCal pews, and, deep in Orange County, surely vote Republican.

The national news meme for our two permitted slightly different political parties is that Republicans, The Grand Old Party, are the guardian of thrift, of small government, of national security, etc.  Re the matter of national security – on just whose watch, and given ample forewarning of imminent threat, did the 9/11 attack occur?  And of the former items, see the below.

natl_debt_chart_2004Thanx to Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

For more on this, see cinemaelectronica.

In the past brief month and a half there was a US Presidential inauguration, a handful of skittering little political scandals, a wave of panic over the collapsing global economy, and a constant drumbeat of negative fiscal news.  Some million plus Americans lost their jobs in those 6 weeks; surely millions of others gave up hopes of finding work.   The official unemployment stands around 7%, though most officials understand these figures are unreal, the method of measurement having been jiggled way back in Jimmy Carter’s day, in order to help mask the unhappier truth.   Real unemployment is something closer to 15%, and in places like California edging on 20%.   To say, we’re in a most predictable pickle, though our experts, as usual, missed this one by a mile.  Of course, those experts – like Paulson and current Treasury Secretary Geithner had certain self-interests helping them miss the signs of trouble coming up the track – they were making tens of millions with the system gamed as it was.

But, of course, behind every darkening cloud, there’s a silver lining for someone.

Suddenly it seems as if everyone is going to the movies, with ticket sales this year up 17.5 percent, to $1.7 billion, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking company.

And it is not just because ticket prices are higher. Attendance has also jumped, by nearly 16 percent. If that pace continues through the year, it would amount to the biggest box-office surge in at least two decades.

Americans, for the moment, just want to hide in a very dark place, said Martin Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”

Of course the films of choice do not wrestle with the real problems these audiences are trying to escape; quite the opposite.  Slumdog Millionaire (which I have not seen), contrives to paint a rosy scenario out of the depths of Mumbai poverty.  [My friend Dennis Grunes reports that to add insult to injury, the film’s co-director, Loveleen Tandon, an Indian woman who clearly had a major hand in directing the Indian children, showing a touch ever lacking in Mr Boyle’s work, was totally excluded from the Oscar recognition, showing perhaps the impacted colonialist mentality that still quivers in the English (Scots in this case) heart.]  It’s been suggested that this film became a hit owing to its unintended timely resonance with today’s financial realities.  Which is to say that while Americans supposedly voted for “change you can believe in” when confronted with the reality of the cumulative effects of their own behavior – running up credit card, student loan, mortgage debts so high they’ll never pay them off, while accepting the quantum leap equivalent in the stock market (don’t wanna look too hard at how those gazillions are being made…) – they show that deep down inside they really want to keep things like their imagined normal:  get lucky at Vegas or on American Idol and for minimum input come out a billionaire with no effort.   So Hollywood profits by merely sucking up the psychological consequences of its own socially derelict product, the dream factory rolls on cranking out more delusions, more future troubles, playing out its role as a metaphor for everything wrong about American culture.  Of course it is one of the country’s most lucrative exports, along with arms and corporately farmed food stuffs.

By coincidence the other night, around 4 am, Marcella jabbed a deep-in-sleep me in the ribs, exclaiming, “look at this!”   She was watching a film on her notebook, Penn’s Into the Wild.   The occasion for pulling me out of my slumbers was to point at the name Alenka Pavlin floating by in the tail credits.  Alenka and I lived together way back in 1985-7.  She moved down to LA from San Francisco long ago, following her interests in sound recording.  She was boom operator for Penn on this one, getting travels all over for 6 months.  Lucky her.

Of course, like more or less all those who trundled stylishly dressed to the dais to receive their golden dildo, as well as those who sat splendorously to watch them, they all land somewhere on the upper levels of the income charts of the US, if not among the exclusive club of mostly financial-corporate CEO souls whose wealth is measured in mere billions.   Hollywood stars are amply rewarded though, enough to push them to the top percentile or so in earnings.  Meanwhile Joe Blow has seen this:

Thanx to Len Hart, the Existentialist Cowboy

Or, as the recent unemployment figures underline, they are dropping precipitously far lower than this graph suggests.  Of course this graph lies, like graphs often do, by failing to tell just what this ascending Gross Domestic Product was composed of – what was America busy making?  As mentioned, we were cranking out food, and movies, and weapons, though not as this graph would suggest in such accelerating amounts.  Nope.  What we were busy manufacturing during these years, under the philosophical guidance of the Bush administration in which regulation, oversight, or just following-the-laws, were brushed aside in the interests of globalization and “the Free Market” and other such shibboleths, so that we could make “financial instruments” like derivatives and bundled debts and the entire Wall Street lexicon of fiscal mumbo-jumbo which has all proved to spell something like P-O-N-Z-I.   Though on a scale which makes that name origin look like chump change.   So in fact our “product” actually reflected not the top line on the above graph, but the bottom one: we were just chuggin’ along at make-do level.  With one major problem – most were doing it just like the guys on the top were doing it, on imaginary money, running up credit card debt of one kind or another, charging it to their expanding home “value,”  and other such bookkeeping sleights-of-hand.  But now the piper is calling and everyone is showing empty pockets.  And, as we are seeing, the Reaganite trickle-down is coming as an apocalyptic deluge, but in negatives:  the Wall Street hot shots cut back on the $5 latte and there goes the local barrista to the unemployment line, along with the aspiring actor cum waiter, and the myriad other members of our supposedly new “service industry” economy.   The fabulously wealthy scamsters of the corporate world are suddenly bust, and along with them goes all the “servicing,”  classy call-girl blow-jobs and all.   The spiral down is now an avalanche, as in the fabled (and false) explanation of how the World Trade Center fell – one floor pancaking to the next in a vertical domino effect, but here it’s fiscal entities heading at gravitational speed to terra firma.

For the record, again, I feel certain that 9/11 is so full of fishy aspects that it must have been some kind of inside job.  The image of Mr Bush reading My Pet Goat (upsidedown – what an example to the kids…) smacks of a rich kid who just did something real nasty and just found out about it:


Mr Bush, who has seemingly vanished from the world, was quoted before he departed as pondering, in a kind of poor-little-me manner, “why did it (the economic melt-down) have to happen on my watch?”   Indeed.  It must not have had anything to do with his policies, enforcement of existing law, example of brazen law-breaking himself, or the rampant corruption at all levels which characterized his administration.  Just a coincidence, of course.

So while the nation and the world took a deep breath of hopeful release as Obama took up the keys to the national vehicle, the clatter of ever-worse news has muffled the sighs of content.   Certainly it appears that he’s a can-do kind of guy, and has surrounded himself with like-minded help, but one senses it all may be – despite the astounding numbers tossed about  (700 billion here, 1.3 trillion there, 7 trillion cumulatively over there ….  our eyes glaze over in incomprehension at these can’t-imagine digits)  too little way too late.   Nor can we, or those bandying them about, really gauge just what they might do aside from burning up the Treasury printing presses.   As they themselves seem to say, they’re doing it because they have to, “to save the system.”

And indeed that seems to be the fundamental problem – an incapacity to let go of what is transparently a rotten system, in which these crises are cyclical and predictable, having to do with some of the basic rules of that system.  Like its arch-rival, “communism” (whichever label one puts on it, in America anything that hints of some gentle mode of “socialism” is deemed irredeemable on utterance), capitalism comes out of the womb with a built in sure-fire Achille’s Heel.  With communism the problem is actually the same as with capitalism, with just the shifting of a few words which have proven to be interchangeable.  Capitalism posits that “the economic market” will sort out all values, deliver the most efficient delivery of things to ever happier souls, and make for a little paradise here on earth.  It does this by economic competition, in which the strong/better etc. survive and are well-rewarded for their services to humanity.  That this system seems to repeatedly result in skewed income charts, booms and busts, not to mention a broader rampage of damage on the environment, social relations, and the human psyche is thought to be irrelevant to those fundamentalists of the Market.  As Mr Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush are inclined to respond to those who point out these problems – “So what?”   Indeed.    Communism makes similar promises, if only for a temporary time we place dictatorial power in well-intentioned hands for a short term in order to build a workers’ paradise on earth.   We’ve seen what happened with that one in China, the old USSR, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and elsewhere.  Somehow the honey of this power attracts a certain kind of personality, and the shift to an anarchic non-government of happy collectives is ever delayed, while Mao orchestrates his Great Leaps and plays with his concubines, or Pol Pot plows his killing fields.

In both ideologies something is fundamentally amiss, something so obvious and self-evident that it is hard to think that grown-ups actually believe them.  Especially since for the most part myths and fables and the collective wisdom of the ages all say pretty much the same thing and we’ve attempted (always failing) to build social restraints to minimize these things.  Left to their own devices, humans are pretty selfish and greedy; surrounded with a system, like a capitalist one which celebrates wealth, and hence greed, a lot of people will not hesitate to trample over the next person to get whatever there is to be gotten first.   Along the way they and their cohorts will of course construct a social and psychological framework to support this and all its consequent results.   They will be celebrated, churches will bless them, and so on.   Communism does the same thing, except shifts “power” into play instead of “wealth” (though in practice those in power in communist cultures were always the wealthiest as well, duh…).   Boiled down to essences there are probably certain percentages of any populace of people who are either genetically and/or socially predisposed to seek and have power – for the psychological pleasure of it.   In either capitalist or communist systems these people are funneled to their appropriate place on top of the heap, and they then indulge their inner selves to their needs.  Hello Mr Stalin, Lenin, Mao, or though carrying a differing banner but espousing essentially the same things, hello Mr Schicklegruber, a.k.a. Hitler.  And there are people who like to follow authoritarian leaders, so a perfect mix.

One would think with the plethora of example before us, we’d figure it out and see that the basic flaw in these “systems” is staring us in the mirror.  All that capitalism and communism do, precisely because they are systems, is to amplify this human constant of greed and power-hunger.

So as this crisis hits the US, as well as the rest of the world, rather than, as Mr Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggests one should do and turn a crisis into a moment of opportunity, we find all the powers that be directed toward “saving the system.”   They’ll modify this and that, make it environmentally a bit more sane, try to ameliorate the vast income disparities, trim back the military a touch, and basically do a lot of cosmetics aimed to resuscitate a failed system.   We hear Obama assert in his Inaugural Address that “we will not apologize for our way of life” – without noting that “our way of life”  is that 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of its energy; that a tiny fraction of that 5% owns some obscene chunk of the world’s wealth, and so on.  We don’t hear that were the entire globe to live in the manner Americans live (even those gliding along on that bottom line on the chart), we could kiss our asses communally good-bye in short order.

What we need to do, for ourselves, and for this little hospitable site we live on, is to question the entire system, question our entire set of values and priorities, and commence with some profound changes in how we all live.  But it is a characteristic of systems like “capitalism” or “communism” that they cannot do such things as question themselves in such a manner.  Just like religious fundamentalists cannot do so.  Instead it seems, despite ample historical examples to give us cautionary lessons, we must drive ourselves over a cliff, into a real hard inescapable catastrophe before we are willing to adjust our behavior in any significant manner.   At the moment we’re in the prelude, likely with a major depression building around us, with all its attendant probable social-political ramifications (wars, famines, the usual company of such tragedies), and rather than confront this impending matter, we prefer to make some minor adjustments hoping it will all just go away and allow us to resume a few years hence in a manner something just like we were doing.

In which case it is somewhat more likely we’ll be looking like the pair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I recently finally finished reading.  For the most part a compelling book though I felt it was a bit redundant (hard not to be when the world has been stripped down to almost nothing), and that the ending was a tad too upbeat.  I’ll be curious to see how the film copes with it – almost guaranteed to be a big box office loser, especially in these depression bound times when most would prefer a frothy musical to lose a few hours in.


For me it’s back to classes this coming week.  Two a week, one being the Visual Directing kind of foundation here’s-what-DV-can-be course, and the other this time around being make-a-feature-with-Jon.  Meaning we have to crank out a new feature in the coming 4 months, using students as help, actors, sources for places, settings, ideas.  I have not given it a thought, wanting to have it be generated from whatever we can piece together in the first few weeks.  I’m completely open.

Meantime on our trip to Singapore-Malacca-Kuala Lumpur (see cinemaelectronica) some possible future options seem to open up – a perhaps teaching job in S’pore and maybe later on setting up a kind of school in Malaysia.  We should know more of these soon.   While on journey we got an urgent email from Yonsei, urging me to sign contract for the coming year.  This was a bit uncharacteristic as last year they’d waited late in the game to indicate they’d be wanting me back.  Word must have drifted.


Jostled by Pope Gregory in 1582, we shall not, this year of 2009, following the dictum

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year,

be leaping.  Rather we will trudge, trailing in our wake the dismal offal of the millennium’s inauspicious beginning, from the fraudulent if costly alarums of WK2, wherein doomsday was imagined in the errant programming of myriad computers, and on to the equally fraudulent election in the USA of George W. Bush, ensconced on the throne of alleged democratic power by a Supreme Court intervention of a decidedly undemocratic kind, thus turning the Presidency over to the man who secured fewer popular votes than the losing party, and fouling the political waters for the coming years.   Hot on the heels of this ascension the mystic numbers 911 arrived, no irony intended that it is the usual emergency telephone shortcut in America, and whatever one’s intuition’s about just how this occurred (mine conclude it was in some manner a distinctly inside job, the investigation of which thus far has left far too many oddities for mere coincidence) this in turn led rapidly to an ideological hysteria which permitted the American Right to cram, or attempt to do so,  its values into every nook and cranny of the social-political-economic and ethical landscape.    In the name of the victory of so-called Western values over those of Communism, summarized by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a triumphalist America pigged out, convinced that the Wall Street Way of uber-capitalism, out-sourcing, globalizing, and all the other buzzwords of the corporate masters was indeed the wave of the future.  Neo-cons, tucked away in their “think tanks” theorized away, imagining a veritable epoch of American hegemony, uncontested by any other parties, a time in which so-called American values could be imposed globally – American hamburgers, democracy, and economic models dished out, of course in the classic American manner, for the good of the recipients (whether they liked it or not).   Evangelicals, courted for their electoral clout, tagged along, dreaming of imposing a reign of their mode of Christianity across the national spectrum.   911 emboldened this view as the world quickly, if briefly, lined up in sympathy, and to the Yankee ear the logic of necessity rang clear:  we gotta ‘tack them there before they ‘tack us here, went the Bushian mantra.  Along with the other fanciful think-tank palliatives like “democracies never go to war with each other,” and “trading parties never go to war with each other.”  It was America uber alles because it was good for us, and if it was good for us it was good for them.

And so, following W‘s lead, we twisted the evidence where needed, and marched gloriously off to war, without the usual annoyances of a draft or the raising of taxes.  All that was required of us was “go shopping,” run up the credit card, submit to a cyclical fear-amperage boost and forget about war crimes.




Shop and be afraid.

For a while Americans, or some Americans, even a majority of them, were taken with this new American Imperial vision in which GI’s would traipse around the world’s bad nabes, and do in the bad guys over there while we all partied over here.   Even when the hidden bodies began to return home, and the Mission Accomplished soured, and the deal of having the war paid for by Iraqi oil, and all the other think-tank pipe dreams began to curdle in smoke, there was still the booming housing market to buoy things along, and run up the credit card a bit longer.   And W won his next lost election, scamming his way to another four years on the claims of being a heroic cod-pieced War President smokin’ ’em out. Back in 2004 his popularity rating was still in the 60% range, the economy was seemingly cooking, and Katrina had not yet arrived to show that the show was, well, all show, and that bin Laden, the bad guy, might or might not be alive and laughing.

Here Sam Mendes, of the UK, not US, stands with his wife Ms Winslet, preparing a shot for Revolutionary Road, based on a dyspeptic novel of the 1950’s of the same title, taking to critical task the imaginary Nirvana of upper-end suburbia.  Reviews suggest the film has “high production values/classy set design” and some good acting, though there doesn’t seem to be any accord that it is actually a good film.   One look at this production still, not really greatly different from most production stills, shows the fundamental problem, which reverberates down through the fraudulent sets of Hollywood, on through the multiplex and right across the nation to settle in the dual cesspools of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Wash., DC.   The problem is an essential fakeness of such insidious qualities that more or less all involved don’t see that everything around them, as well as the image in the mirror, is indeed fake.  Fraudulent.  Phony.

Above, as Mr Mendes counsels Kate about the next shot, we see a crew standing about, holding an umbrella to keep the actual sun from searing our starlet’s blond tints.   The lackey, doubtless making $500 or more a day, stands in spotless sneakers, as spotless as the never-worn-but-on-the-set costume of Ms Winslet, all in pristine unsmudged whites, lacking any evident rumples of life.  Around them the scrims and diffusion screens and high wattage lights, on a perfectly fine looking sunny day, belie the core falsity of Hollywood, just as do the costumes and the movie-biz pay scales.  The trades say the film cost (“a relatively low-budget”) $45,000,000 so we may assume that Mr Mendes and wife picked up a handy 5-10 million between them, while the other stars perhaps got less than their usual, and all the regular Hollywood sorts from DOP to grips got their customary $500-$5,000 a day, plus out-of-town housing, per diem, etc., for their ever so specialized labors.   For sure none of the parties involved felt the slightest sense of hypocrisy while the two leads tore at each other acting out the dismal story-line.   Rather they doubtless felt they were engaged in a serious piece of socio-critical art, with a “serious” director, and that whatever the critiques laid out for Connecticut suburbia circa 1955,  they applied not at all to these denizens of Beverley Hills, Santa Monica or whichever hip enclave in New York, London or Santa Barbara they all call home.  Revolutionary Road is but one rather minor film in the parade of equally morally squalid “product” which spills out from Hollywood, never mind the massive toilet of television.  Of course, this business is all considered perfectly normal, part of the cultural swirl which is America.  In this particular world, we’re all American Idols.

However fraudulent, in the last decades has come the complaint from Hollywood that the money-changers have taken over the biz, that bean-counters have replaced those enamored of the movies, and it’s been a downhill skid ever since.  This was said as Wall Street souls had entered the inner sanctums of the studios, buying up (along with Sony) the fabled MGM, Warner Brothers, and Paramount.  Filthy numbers had replaced the less tangible matters of art, and the good old Hwd had been bought like a whore.  Laughable as this lament may have been, indeed the hyperized pressures of the new capitalism have in fact left a lot less space for the quirky emergence of anything like art, and have replaced them with a quasi-scientific attempt to quantify every aspect of this most commercial of businesses.  But, the numbers did indeed shoot up, and the cost of making, marketing and exhibiting a film have leapt, along with the pay-scales of nearly all attached to the enterprise.   Alas, this ballooning scarcely measures next to that of Wall Street, where CEO’s whose names fail to register on any marquee, are accorded payment which dwarfs that of any hot Hollywood star, or even the entire budget of a carefully calculated mega-monster BO buster.   Compared to their brethren in New York, the moguls of LA are decidedly minor league.

(Enter Henry “Hank” Paulson, stage Right)

In the autumn of 2008, as the cumulative fraud of the United States’ economy unveiled itself as an Enron scam exponentially beyond any recognition, Henry Paulson, US Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs (where he picked up a mere $700 million for his labors – to say for his involvement in the development of those exotic fiscal Ponzi schemes called “derivatives,” – not to mention his extra departing bonuses as he moved on to Federal service) announced that despite his not so long ago assurances (January 2008) that “the fundamentals of the US economy were sound,” that instead he was Chicken Little and The Sky Was Falling.   He demanded that he be given a mere $700 billion to pass out to his errant banking buddies, and that under no circumstances should there be any accounting or even any manner in which to account for this, otherwise he sagely said, The Sky Will Fall.  After some modest negotiation with an ectoplasmic Congress, this deal was cut and he was duly given his $700 billion, to pass out ostensibly to grease the fiscal system to loan again, though in fact this did not occur.  Instead the systemic freeze on loaning money remained gelid, and at least $350 billion went somewhere, unaccounted, into the vaults of – would you have ever guessed? – Goldman Sachs, and other banks and fiscal entities such as American International General, all of which had Ponzi’ed themselves into a deep accounting negative, playing mostly with the vaunted “derivatives” – debt sold as a positive value – which had not panned out.  Pity the poor bankers.  Being who they were they didn’t imagine that holding half-million dollar parties with the Federal bailout funds while “folks” were being evicted from their foreclosed homes would be anything but normal, and hardly could they imagine any shame attached to such behavior.  So party they did.   Now some months have passed, and while billions have been printed and shoved in the hands of those who provoked this crisis, little has changed (well, except that the banks refilled their coffers and party funds, and some million or so lost their jobs, and some 100,000’s  lost their homes, and….) and the sky has not yet fallen, though it threatens to do so any moment.  Those august persons in authority again admonish us:

Shop and be afraid.

As the house of cards which is America begins to shudder in the breeze, there is a sudden arrival of accounting.  The pundits of the press and the television talking heads all rush in to analyze the problems besetting us, each and every one side-stepping their role in setting up exactly those problems.   Those who cheered on a tax-cut and a draftless war (more or less all of them) now lament a lazy you-want-something-for-nothing public which fell for this line.  Not them, of course.  No, their public wisdoms are meant to evaporate with the morning dew, each day providing a virgin canvas for new visions never accountable to the thoughts of the past.  Thomas Friedman is an exemplary of this tendency, who having energetically cheered on the illegal invasion/occupation/war in Iraq, was a major Bush booster,  then went on to applaud globalization and all its effects (outsourcing, down-sizing), now stridently insists we need to re-boot America – the economy, our politics, our morals, ethics, etc. etc. – as if he had had nothing whatsoever to do with our slurping in the troughs of corruptions of all kinds.   He represents the tonier end of such sentiments, but has many with whom he shares company.

And so America, having preached the virtues of honesty, democracy, and proper ethics, etc. to those abroad – even if we never practiced it at home – has now fallen into the depravity of the worst of corruptions of all kinds – political, economic, ethical, moral.  We are a nation of torturers, of thieves in pin-stripes (or surely some other costume these days), of Elmer Gantry’s who preach and wantonly fuck, and of ordinary people who think glamor is properly rewarded with millions and only lament that they are not in on the take.   We trundle to Vegas thinking it our due that the wheel of fortune should shine on us, even if we have done nothing whatsoever to deserve it outside putting a chip on red or black.  We send our sons and daughters to universities of costly kinds and expect they should get an A across the board even if they have only narcissistically filled their Facebook with imaginary friends and never learned how to spell or count.   We partake of a thoroughly corrupted system and cannot imagine that we ourselves are stained.   We are “the good Americans” and now, as Bush prepares to take his leave, Obama will absolve us all, and everything will magically be OK.

But it won’t.

The fraud of our culture is reflected in the films of Hollywood, in its phony light which we have long acknowledged as “the dream factory,” and its output, if vaguely accurate, shows that our dreams are a tawdry kind, devoid of our reality even when, as in Revolutionary Road, imagining to be deeply rooted in it, just as it is reflected in our politics, in which those who survive its system are as plastic as the costumes of Hollywood.  And those who accept this, and vote for it, compliant and submissive, are as plastic as their “wealth.”  Which in these days has proven to be illusory.