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The photography of No.43

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A series of photographs by Reuters depicting Bush reentering the White House East Room after his final televised press conference.

A series of photographs by Reuters depicting Bush reentering the White House East Room after his final televised press conference. Taken January 15, 2009. (Source: Reuters).

Today, a friend of mine posted a Facebook link to an engrossing article by the renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) from his NY Times blog titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.” Morris interviewed editors from three major news services– Vincent Amalvy of the AFP, Santiago Lyon of the AP, and Jim Bourg of Reuters–and asked them to pick and discuss photographs that embodied the persona of former President George W. Bush. The article provides a fascinating analysis of photos depicting iconic moments during his tenure, such as his proclamation on the end of major combat operations in Iraq (with the infamous ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ banner behind him), his brief survey of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina inside Air Force One, and comforting a firefighter at the World Trade Center site after September 11th, 2001.

All of the editors admit that the Bush administration never missed a moment to stage a photo-op showing the President at his most heroic during moments of crisis. But there are also photographs that reveal a more complicated side of Mr. Bush. Depending on the point of view, the images reflect a pomposity and vulnerability in him. In one photograph, Bush exaggeratedly gapes his mouth open when giving back a crying child to their parents. In another shot, he makes a clown face when unable to open a door at a press conference in Beijing, China. But the most revealing images of the President are a series of snapshots that were taken after his final televised press conference in the White House East Room.  Bush appears to look rattled as he returns to thank his family, members of the press, and other people that were with him for the past eight years. Bourge, photo editor for Reuters, poignantly reflects on the implicit meaning in the photos:

“And I turned to one of my editors — First I said, “Oh, my God.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “You’ve got to see this picture of Bush. This is really stunning.” And I flipped it over to him to process and his first reaction was, “Wow.” And I said, “If he wasn’t just back there behind that door crying, I don’t know what that look on his face is.” Because he just looks absolutely devastated as he comes through this door after essentially ending his eight year presidency. And it’s just really striking. He just looks absolutely devastated (NY Times).”

Events depicting heads of state are often carefully orchestrated to evoke a particular message or meaning. It is no secret that staged photo-ops provide an opportunity for any entity of power to manage and control the flow of public opinion and sentiment of any historical moment. And the photograph, as a medium, is often resorted as a means to affect, shift, and win over our hearts and minds.

But what happens when the details of a photograph reveal another perspective of a historical moment? Take for instance the famous image (taken by Pultzer Prize photographer Nick Ut) of a naked Vietnamese-Canadian girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, running on a street in pain from a napalm attack. It was a photograph that reflected the darker, more horrific side of the Vietnam War to the world, further agitating anti-war movements and human rights groups to press President Richard Nixon for its end.

In his seminal text on photography, CAMERA LUCIDA, the French philosopher Roland Barthes argued that every photograph evokes two distinguishing features: the studium, that expresses a cultural, ideological, and/or linguistic interpretation of the photographic subject/object, and the punctum, which denotes the affective reaction (which Barthes described as a ‘bruise,’ ‘sting,’ or ‘speck’) of seeing a photograph. These elements reveal that the act of seeing any photograph, regardless of context, arouse a reaction, interpretation and reflection on what is depicted and seen.

Of all of the images that I saw in the Morris article, the Reuters photos of Bush’s final press conference posted above are the ones that most affected me. The punctum is undeniably Bush’s exasperated face as he walks to meet the press. It is a singular moment in time that in my eyes define the end of his controversial tenure as President. The following are obvious facts: He seized a moment of great tragedy to wage two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His executive powers, and those of his Vice President, Dick Cheney, have been expanded in ways that will take decades of investigation, declassification, and meditation to fully grasp and understand by future heads of state, historians, filmmakers, cultural critics, and by us. And he leaves his position with some of the lowest final approval ratings ever given to a U.S. President (33% according to Gallup, 22% in a CBS/NY Times poll).

The White House East Room photos are powerfully devastating. They reveal a tiny glimpse of something, someone human in George W. Bush. Behind the facade of buzz words, snapshots, documentaries, video clips, and government endorsed doublespeak that have defined him for two presidential terms, the photographs seem to offer a corrective of sorts, showing a broken, tired shadow of his self generated and media created persona. This is a man who clearly has nothing left to give to his nation, his people, his critics, and his supporters. Nothing but a face to the cameras in the room.

The Morris piece is a terrific photographic essay of the most influential political figure of our young century. Yes, the new commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, has himself become a popular global icon and brand akin to ‘W.’ But above him lies a greater specter, a flesh-and-blood Wizard of Oz, the (un) fortunate son of the United States’ most powerful political family. So it is fitting that in a photograph, lie evident the traces of what George W. Bush has done and what he has left behind.

Written by elcuzcatleco

01/27/2009 at 5:14 am

Posted in media, photography, politics

Welcome Mr. President.

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2wnthfp

Today marks a historical moment that will take a long time to contextualize, to reflect upon. But there is no doubt of what has come before us. Barack Hussein Obama II is now the first biracial President of the United States of America.

Written by elcuzcatleco

01/20/2009 at 10:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

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marriage is so much fun.

spousal fighting can be so much fun.

Sam Mendes’ REVOLUTIONARY ROAD has gotten a lot of attention for reuniting Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. And like TITANIC, once again, the narrative is focused on two doomed lovers.  April (Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo) Wheeler are a young couple, living in a post-WWII Conneticut suburban town, struggling with their marriage. They fight, cheat, argue, and are emotionally insulated from each other.

The film makes a point that they are two naive young Americans who married too soon, and never really deserved a marriage, let alone each other. They are good people with good intentions, but can never love. With this critique as the focal point, the film works. But Mendes’ takes a little too much time to propel the story forward (it catches a bit a momentum near the end, where Mendes’ flourishes are carefully muted). There is something too clinical and mechanical about the plot that reeks of weak melodrama (this is Justin Haythe’s second screenplay) . Douglas Sirk mined this territory well several decades ago with WRITTEN IN THE WIND (a film that deals with the same themes as RR and is more effective) and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and frankly, REVOLUTIONARY seems too familiar in its attempt to deconstruct the realities of suburban life in 1950s America. The script itself is full of recurring patterns that get tiresome. April and Frank fight. They kiss and make up. They fight again, so on and so forth. And every moment of shock is telegraphed. Nothing is a surprise. And the pity we’re supposed to feel for these two people is simply made too removed, too distant. The tragic ending is undercut by several flimsy editing choices (what’s the point of having Frank just run after leaving the hospital?).

While I enjoyed the gorgious Thomas Newman score, it was used far too often, overwhelming the visual drama taking place. Almost every tender moment is supplemented by the score. It manipulated feelings too often for me, when it shouldn’t have. It reminded me a lot of watching NOTES ON A SCANDAL, with a Phillip Glass score that was so sharp, so overwhelming, that it didn’t allow me a moment for breath whenever Judi Dench’s obsessiveness morphed into outrageousness.

Fortunately, some of the acting overcomes the limitation of the script. Leonardo DiCaprio, in the nearly ten years after TITANIC, has (refreshingly) grown as an actor. Gone are the almost irritating cocky characters he’s been associated with in the past (TITANIC, THE AVIATOR, and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN being notable examples). His role in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is very complex. Frank evokes a different facet of masculinity. He feigns anger and confidence in his work, home, and relationships. What is revealed is a sensitive, shaken young man who is not ready to be a husband.  DiCaprio does an amazing job of making us realize that we shouldn’t feel bad for Frank lacking what it takes to be a strong ‘breadwinner,’ a proper ‘man of the house.’ What we should feel is pity for his ill-prepareness for marital responsibility. Instead of being supportive to April, he tries to overwhelm her. He doesn’t listen to her, nor own up to his selfishness. DiCaprio needs to stop producing films about the environment (the dreadful documentary 11TH HOUR) and pick jucier roles like this.

For all of the award buzz surrounding Kate Winslet’s performance (as of this writing, she has won a Golden Globe for this performance, and is rumored to be a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination), I was some what disappointed with her take on the character. Sam Mendes has admitted that he wanted to correct the role of April from the source material (a Richard Yates novel) by giving her a little more flesh, and free her from the restraints of the typical American suburban wife that is a common trope in drama. But I’m not convinced by it. The role of April seems too underwritten…her character arc, while on the surface more tragic than Frank’s, didn’t affect me. Her confrontations with Frank seemed too calculated, rote, delving into soap. And Winslet, unlike DiCaprio, didn’t seem to own her role…some traits of April seemed too familiar (I felt I was seeing Rose from TITANIC again). She has demonstrated a wider range in other films (HEAVENLY CREATURES, HIDEOUS KINKY, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND etc) and its disappointing to see her retread to a character than has been made too much a caricature in melodrama (the long suffering domestic wife). She was good, but her character was too insular, and maybe that was the point. But I wasn’t affected by her story as much as Frank’s. April was simply too underwritten by Justin Haythe’s script and underserved by Winslet’s performance.

Some high points: Michael Shannon, respected stage actor, is the ticking time bomb of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. I must follow what most film critics have said as giving a firecracker of a performance as the electro-shocked son who gives the Wheelers the honest truth about their unhappiness, perhaps a little too honestly. I wished he would have appeared in more scenes. And kudos must be given to character actor David Harbour, playing the neighbor Shep Campbell. He gives what could have been a throway character (the rival neighbor) into one we really care about. Shep is an unhappy man, just as unhappy as Frank, but more deserving of a better marriage with a better partner.

Written by elcuzcatleco

01/14/2009 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

R.I.P. to the L.A. Weekly

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Once the titan of alternative weeklies, the L.A. Weekly has become a shadow of itsself.

Once the titan of alternative weeklies, the L.A. Weekly has become a shadow of itself.

As major newspapers and weeklies are slashing jobs left and right in a troublesome U.S. economy, the dark days of journalism are upon us.

Marc Cooper, former writer for the LA WEEKLY, goes down fighting with an insightful, passionate, and unfiltered critique on the demise of (what use to be) one of the best weeklies in the nation.

I used to be an avid reader of both the LA Weekly, and the former New Times LA.  Full of terrific local reporting on city politics, film and art reviews, and great special edition issues (BEST OF LA, etc), the Weekly was an excellent addendum to the LA Times and the LA Daily News.

But as Cooper attests, the tentacles of media consolidation have led to the slow death of what was once known as the ‘alt-weekly’ (Seattle’s The Stranger and the San Francisco Bay Guardian being the small exceptions), and after being bought out by Village Voice Media (which controls the Village Voice, and holds a monopoly on most local weeklies around the nation), the LA Weekly has become a mere cheap copy of the titan it once was.

And this is not only happening in the weeklies.  Newspapers are being affected as well. The New York Times, pressured by U.S. economical woes and low readership, has resorted to putting ads for CBS programming, ON ITS FRONT PAGE. The wonderful Los Angeles online news watchdog, LA Observed, has recently posted a series of disheartening briefs on layoffs in the Weekly and LA Times, which include the wonderful Al Martinez (who has been writing for the Times for ages), the movie critic Ella Taylor (who has worked for the Village Voice and LA Weekly), and the long respected theater critic Steven Leigh Morris, who was told by Village Voice Media that they can’t afford having him anymore.

It’s disheartening to feel the effects of media consolidation, especially where I’ve grown up. Los Angeles, next to New York, is a major hub of media, and its frustrating to see how diluted its has become. Coming home this past Christmas, I was slightly appalled by the smaller LA Times dropped to my parents’ home daily. Ads cover large sections of the national news, business, and local news sections. Most of the writing has been pushed to their online edition (which is good, but demonstrative of the dramatic effects on the internet on print publishing), and what remains is a newspaper that is slowly vanishing in readership and relevance.

Last week, I saw on THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART an interesting interview with Michael Wolff, who recently released an extensive biography on arguably the most powerful man in media: Rupert Murdoch.  He sarcastically mentioned how Murdoch cares very little about the hundreds of media properties he owns (when asked by Stewart, Wolff said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen a movie put by his studios in years…or a TV show [sic]), and is merely a ‘newspaper man.’  Say what you will about Mr. Murdoch, but like Wolff suggests, we cannot ignore what may be the last true media mongol of his kind, and his time. I wonder what he thinks about the floundering industry that he has helped shaped and destroy over the past twenty years. Does he see the death of the newspaper? Or is he simply aloof in his megachair of doom, oblivious to the reality of journalism today? At least he detests Bill O’ Reilly.

But there are encouraging trends. There is something promising about the rise of immediate, news logging and blogging on the web, such as the wave of Tumblr updates during last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which forced lagging television news organizations such as CNN to directly lift material from the social software to stay current. But there is as arguably much junk like DRUDGE REPORT (and to a lesser extent, the ‘left’ version, THE HUFFINGTON POST) to contend with for getting informed on what’s going on in our neighborhoods, and in our world.

Marc Cooper’s article is brave for articulating a disturbing trend in media organizations, where short term, immediate ‘events’ and ‘trends’ are given favor over intelligent, well-research investigative reporting. Journalism is a dirty, ugly, dehumanizing job, and good journalists are not given enough credit (DEMOCRACY NOW‘s Amy Goodman is still fighting the good fight), pay, or respect for the work they do. They are involved in an industry that still has the power to shake the powerful. So it’s a shame to see journalism suffer like it has in the LA Weekly and LA Times.

Written by elcuzcatleco

01/12/2009 at 1:38 pm

thoughts on ‘lifecasting’ and sociability on the web

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Webcam still of a police officer checking over Abraham Briggs, a 19 year old college student who lifecasted his death through Justin.tv in November.

Webcam still of a police officer checking over Abraham Briggs, a 19 year old college student who lifecasted his death through Justin.tv in November.

Over at GOOD, there was an interesting article by David Pescovitz on the problems that have been associated with the rise of ‘lifecasting,’ what is defined (by Wikipedia) as a continual broadcast of events in a person’s life through digital media. Lifecasting has caught on as a natural facet of the increasingly social ‘web.’ People are now in the habit of regularly posting videos on sites such as  youtube, dailymotion, and justin.tv that are operate as confessionals, full of personal insights, opinions, and self-reflexive insights on what it means to be “___.”

A lot of this has been cited as evidence of an increased form of narcissism that is symptomatic of what is wrong with some facets of social networking. This year, a University of Oregon study proposed the thesis that social networking sites such as Facebook can reveal whether one is inclined to be a narcissist, or engage in narcissistic behavior. And just last month, a 19 year old man in Florida suffering from a combination of physiological problems, Abraham Briggs, broadcast his suicide on justin.tv.

Pescovitz’s article raises a provocative question on the potentially toxic elements of engaging in too much ‘lifecasting’ behavior (“could the negative side effects of lifecasting, microblogging, and oversharing online be worse than just an increase in narcissistic behavior?”). For now, it is too early to say if the negative side effects of online interactions could lead to streaming web ‘deaths’ like the Briggs case.

But I am concerned at how these discussions could be used a means to generalize the behavior of people who have adapted, incorporated, and supplemented their daily lives with social networking. I can already read a consensus formed by certain entities claiming that young people (who are often cited as primary ‘lifecasters’) are spending too much time blogging, vlogging, and posting videos on their lives to a degree that its making them less social, less human, evidence of a growing apathy and antisocial behavior. To a degree, those concerns do carry some weight. It is a bit worrisome to see people devote extraordinary time to broadcasting their personal lives on such a regular basis. Glancing through any page on Facebook, Twitter, etc. is a revelatory experience on lifecasting.  What we glimpse are samples of a growing visual archive of instantaneous human feelings and ideas. One minute, user X is declaring his love for a television show (“Last night’s Gossip Girl was really good”), while at the same instance, user Y has announced their social status (‘single’ to ‘being in a relationship’ being a common example) to every one of their friends, and friends of those friends.

On the flipside, there are some encouraging signs that lifecasting is simply another element of the increasingly sociability of the internet. Researchers such as UC Berkeley’s Danah Boyd have published work that demonstrate how social networking, particularly with teenagers,  is being used for a positive means. Young people are not so disaffected by their use of new media. On the contrary, they are (arguably) being more active with vibrant ‘networked publics’ of contact and psycho-social engagement.

The web, however, is very porous. Is it a matrix that simutaneously streams life, death, hate, love, desire, consumption, production, whether we like it or not. A search engine will easily pull up a multitude of digital copies of Briggs’ digital death, just as much a human birth. This contradictory, bipolar nature of the world wide web will only raise more questions about lifecasting than answers.

Written by elcuzcatleco

12/15/2008 at 11:33 pm

Posted in lifecasting, new media

musings on a network for media making peers

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Getting sick a week ago was probably the best thing that has happened to me in two months. After dealing with two consecutive days of phelgm coming out of my inflamed nostrils, I woke up the following morning with a feeling of such clarity. It was like my entire body had undergone a restart. I don’t know how long this good feeling will last, but I’ll ride it as far as I can.

After seeing projects from the Saturday design class I’m an ‘teaching assistant’ for, I felt very encouraged by the prospects of creating a network of media makers in my program. It’s been an idea that has been simmering in my head for nearly a year, but it somewhat caught fire after this weekend. I’ve seen a lot of work from my peers that I feel is excellent…and I’ve always wanted to organize a ‘free media’ group/network of some sort where we can keep tabs on each other projects, both on and off-site, offer/exchange/support resources (equipment, time, other brave souls), and propagate our work (both singular and collective) though the fastest, most immediate means possible (world wide web, duh). I would like to have the group be small at first, and then expand it as far as it can go. There are a few people that I have in mind to pitch this project, and I’m going to send out an email this week to see (if any) interest emerges.

Written by elcuzcatleco

12/15/2008 at 9:53 pm

Posted in media makers, new media

gazing IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA

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still from the film, "In the City of Sylvia

Still from the film, "In the City of Sylvia."

After reading a review on the VILLAGE VOICE, I thought I’d go see  José Luis Guerín‘s IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA,  a hypnotic and visually dazzling meditation on male gazing, missed opportunities, and lost love. Most of the film takes place in real-time, following a young man (Xavier Lafitte, who looks kinda like Gael Garcia Bernal) looking at several women ouside a cafe, and making sketches of some of them. He catches a glimpse of a woman inside (Pilar López de Ayala) who becomes the locus of his obssessive gaze, proceeding to following her around the city until he finally talks to her (“Sylvia, do you remember me?”) during a bus ride. What follows subverts the typical trope of a ‘brief encounter’ between two characters, and shifts into a essay on the illusory nature of perception…a perception that encourages and directs a scopophic experience for every participating spectator of a film.

Written by elcuzcatleco

12/15/2008 at 5:01 am

Posted in film