The things they said that day

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A letter from a free man in the dungeons of Egypt: I am #NotANumber

Austin G. Mackell:

I rarely Reblog… but this is pretty special.

Originally posted on bayareaintifada:

By: Hatem AlyJihad Abaza

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I find going to the prosecutor’s office enjoyable. They take me from my prison cell at 9 am and return me at 1 am the next day. Like a young child, I stand in the police van looking from behind the bars of the small window into the streets, cars, shops and people. I meet lots of detained comrades on the way. Each one of us tells the story of how and when he was detained, and we joke and laugh until we reach the prosecution.

This time, when my turn came, I entered the prosecutor’s office with my lawyer. The prosecutor began interrogating me and accusing me of funny charges that made me feel like the most dangerous man in Egypt. As if I were the one responsible for all our failures and shortcomings, like I was the reason Egypt does not…

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When Frank Killed Zoe – Patrick, Kenny and I review House of Cards s2e1 [WARNING - SPOILERS]

Some of you might already be aware of the keen interest Patrick Galey and I have taken in the new Netflix series staring Kevin Spacey, House of Cards.  The launch of the second season has only intensified this, leading to our email exchange (below) and a VOIP chat (above) about it in which our good friend Kenny Laurie also participated.

Patrick

to:

Austin

Date: Fri, Feb 14, 2014 at 10:17 PM

Subject: HOC se2e1

We need to talk.

Austin

Yeah holy shit.

I watched it twice.

Patrick

So there’s no point avoiding the episode’s (and quite possibly the series’) biggest moment. You wrote at the end of season one how you weren’t convinced by the opening scene, where Congressman Frank Underwood kills a dog. Where do you wanna start with him killing Zoe?

Austin

I liked it is the short answer.

I was slightly disappointed because I thought the writers had actually started to address the issues we discussed about their treatment of her character in the previous series, specifically, that she was presented as a sex object, and that her work as a journalist mostly seemed to revolve around trading sexual favours for scoops. This might seem strange as the first scene after the credits is her as she is lying passively, getting fucked from behind by her boyfriend and would-be defender. After this however (and I know there was much more to the that scene than just sex – but let’s leave it for now…) she seems to start to kick into gear. This is marred for me by her breaching journalistic protocol by lying to the manager of the restaurant where Rachel worked, about who she was and what she was doing.

This reminded me of the scene in the first season where she recorded her boss “the Hammer” without telling him. To secretly record conversations with colleagues, even during a dispute, would be something that would be thrown back at her in a way that never happened. Zoe is meant to be at least a little bit smart right?

This is also an issue regarding (and ok ok i’ll cut to the chase) the scene where Frank kills her. It does seem a little stupid of her to go to him without even informing her colleagues, and then over to the only part of the platform where he could conceivably pull it off.

It can be made partially believable if one accepts that Zoe just couldn’t imagine Frank (or whoever might have been behind him in those shadows) doing a thing like it, but hey, I did.

That might have been because you mentioned a non-specific Big Twist to look forward to. Despite this and the other reservations I mentioned above, I think it was a nice way to up the stakes, and the shooting (of the whole episode) was done in a way that created a real sense of suspense for me throughout.

I think my favourite part was the pig kill monologue in the BBQ place… I jumped when he slammed the table.

You?

Patrick

It’s not often you get a genuine mouth-on-the-floor moment from any series – or at least not so soon into a season. Think of all the suspense and anticipation that’d been brewing for months before the mood of ep1 (as you say, that “created a real sense of suspense throughout”) had even been established. We’ve been going over various permutations in our heads and – myself especially – all those permutations involved Frank and Zoe in some capacity.

I was all geared up for a real sort of Woodward and Bernstein investigation all the way to the White House and I was very interested in how Zoe’s proximity to Frank would either accelerate or allay that. That’s all gone now. We have to reevaluate the whole paradigm of the series. But, yes, you’re right, some things remain the same or even more uneven, most notably the treatment of the female press corps.

You wrote about how all the female journalists in HoC were intent on, to quote Janine “fucking their way to the middle”. Now we have the most dynamic female character – the most enterprising, at least – dead, and the veteran hack scared into the outback of Ithaca. It’s left to Lucas to pull the remaining strings, and I just think that’s less plausible. (He’s a bit of a drip that was counselling caution right up until Zoe was murdered). But it’s early days and I think the success of the first episode will rest on how well it can continue the narrative without its second protagonist.

I do totally take the point of journalistic ethics and Zoe’s relative lack, but I think her subsequent subterfuge is perhaps justifiable, if a little desperate. It was a really high stakes game and I think she didn’t realise (as I too did not) how high they really were. Which makes me wonder: If Frank wanted this story to go away, why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill? Kill a journalist in broad daylight, in public, or off a hooker using Doug Stamper’s curious physical strength in the privacy of a Maryland bedsit?

I’ve moaned before how HoC has virtually no dramatic irony. In casting Spacey as the all knowing character, and, through soliloquy, the omniscient narrator, it never really felt like any development was totally unexpected. FU makes it his business to know everything and anticipate every move. That doesn’t always happen (the lost house vote in season 1 being a good example) but it’s always a collection of eventualities that one feels Frank has at least anticipated. The writers did well I think by doing away with Frank’s soliloquies until the end of the episode with the effect being the production of a real “holy fuck” moment.

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I too liked the pork death dialogue and, as ever in HoC, what appears at first witty interchanges actually become maxims for character behaviour. “The humane way to do it is to do it quick” is something Frank appears to have taken to heart.

So what now? Frank’s still our main character and narrator. Do we hate him? Should we? Who’s side are we on?

Austin

Before we leave the topic of Zoe’s murder, I guess the reason I like it is that it I’m always excited by a TV show that is prepared to make big changes, and this is surely that.

What’s more, I anticipate another one I think you have missed. “why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill?”

I see a fission coming between Frank and his enforcer. I think NAME is in luuurve with the stripper.

Dun dun Darrr…..

Patrick

Doug? Yeah, he’s used a fair bit of his disposable income on her already and has shown excellent taste in take out cuisine. Frank relies hugely on Doug. He’s SEEN stuff. That’s a wrinkle I look forward to.

In terms of TV shows prepared to make big changes, I can’t help but think of The Wire. Killing D’Angelo early on? He had it coming. The death of String? Same. What really gets me more than any of the others on each rewatch is Omar. You really invest in him and think that he (along with Bubs, you’re hoping) might be the one who gets out of this whole rain of shit intact. Not so. As I tweeted last night, Frank killing Zoe would be like McNulty killing Kima in Se2E1. Perhaps it’s more like Avon killing Kima, given they’re on different sides. But even David Simon didn’t kill off Kima.

I admire the gonads, I just fear (and this will become apparent in episodes 2 and 3) that the narrative will have to delve into the world of the implausible to keep up the external threat to Frank. We’ve talked briefly about the internal threat.

Forgive the repeated question, but what do we think of Frank now? It’s not often you have an objectively bad lead guy. Even Walter White did it for the “right reasons”. But Frank. He’s just Macbeth, right?

Austin

I like the way the character has settled into a solid psychopathy (and yeah – my notes contain the word EVIL in big capital letters like that, though that referred to both frank and Claire- [ok sub wow- just wow- we'll get back to it]), I think it (along with the excellent timing you mentioned above) helps make the soliloquies more spooky.

I kind of see the darkness of Frank’s character as a metaphor for The Darkness In Washington, and in that regard like that no punches have been pulled.

A lot of people I know really liked the show the Black Mirror, in particular the episode where the prime-minister fucks a pig on live television.

I actually really didn’t because it failed, I thought, to give an adequate portrait of power, which as far as I can tell mostly gets more and more terrifying the closer you get to it.

I do want a serious protagonist to back, actually, and hope the show provides.

I’m still half praying for a Helen Thomas tribute character to show up and kick everyone’s ass, but might feel cheated if it all ends up being such a tidy morality play.

What would be your big hope for the season in the wake of this big black begining?

Patrick

It’s hard to see the series as a playout between pure good and pure evil and I think the writers have been very good in ensuring that any good or bad (morally speaking) move by any character is calibrated entirely by vested interest. The thread I see is what Macbeth calls “vaulting ambition”. Everyone is after aggrandisement and so The Darkness, in Washington, as you put it, is thick, but evenly spread.

That being said, if everyone is kind of a bad guy, that means that we as viewers are more inclined to back characters that do evil for good reason. Jackie Sharp has this down to a tee: she is necessary evil.

I guess I hope to see a rally by the journalists, and I include Janine in this, who I refuse to believe will acquiesce, especially given the lengths the writers went to to show us her professional background. I’d also like to see a return (and this happens a little in eps 2/3) of the lobbyists. Tusk is the obvious one but Remi also. I loved how HoC told it like it is (lobbyists run the place) without putting too fine a point on it in season 1. Remi, remember, offers the sexual frisson with Claire (and I think I dislike Claire more than any other character, save possibly Tusk). I’d be disappointed in the writers if this avenue isn’t explored more – just as I’m still baffled as to why they’d bother including Frank’s homoeroticism in the library without seeing it through. Like Rawls going to the gay bar in The Wire. Never draw your gun unless you intend to use it.

At some point we need to talk about Claire. Where do we place her? Lady Macbeth?

Austin

Actually, Claire opens up interesting possibilities for me.

When she threatens the pregnant former employee’s health insurance, then offers her the company… that might be an expression of what is meant to be the expression of some redeeming quality?

Could frank also be about to save the world or something and it is all pure utilitarianism?

Could that even be pulled off in a way that isn’t cartoonish?

Then again… I didn’t like The Watchmen at first for the same reason (it seemed to endorse an absolute dedication to the principle of the lesser evil, and along the way the idea it’s ok to lie and kill if you Decide it is Right)  but it has stayed with me…

I hope the writers surprise me.

Patrick

The scene that seals it for me is when the news of Zoe’s death is read out on TV and Claire just nonchalantly continues to comb her hair. She knows. Frank knows she knows.

I can’t see any redeeming quality for Claire, I’m afraid. “I am prepared to see your baby wither and die” is the language of a character who is either mean or acting mean and neither really appeal. At the same time, she’s one of the few empowered female characters. At least she has agency. It’s her power (over Francis, over Remi, over Gillian) and it will be fascinating to see what she uses it for.

[this has been cross posted over on Patrick's blog]

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Nader on the “isms”

No Big Thinkers On The Left, says Nader. It’s always been presented to me that the lack of an “ism”, or any big picture systemic vision that could be portrayed as a victory for freedom of thought, with people no longer locked inside these rigid structures. It’s occurred to me since that the discrediting of any ideology (except the dominant and therefore generally un-articulated ones, like capitalism) is actually a way of crippling thought. It’s like how knowing scales and chords and stuff doesn’t make you less free to improvise with music. What Nader says here, about how it was actually the Mcarthyist purges that made people first move away from these systemic, society wide critiques, and into empiricism (he describes his own work focusing on auto-safety as an example), and what he says about the consequences of this, fits very well with my argument. What I fear is that many of Nader’s generation of lefties don’t realise the extent to which they through out the baby with the bathwater… with big picture political movements gone and a generation (the boomers) where both sides were busy singing the praises of the glorious atomized individual, it’s easy for people of my generation to view political action as a hobby,to think of being radical as a consumer lifestyle option that one can pursue without threatening the centers of power. Key to remaining non-threatening to these systems is the endless talk about localization and living small, let us have our little hippy commune on the fringes, Mr Bigshot, and we’ll let you have everything else.

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Stop Pretending To Care About Africans

Nelson Mandela, as you may have heard, is dead. In the midst of the phony-crywank festival, I was struck by the complete absence from people’s discussion of any reflection on the state of South Africa today, and the real legacy of this now much celebrated one time terrorist.

People seemed completely unaware of the degree to which Mandela’s biggest victory – gaining for his people the pretense of political rights –  came through accommodating the powerful business interests that denied their economic rights.

I had a play on this great data tool at the UNDP website, and compared the great man’s legacy with that of more militant, less celebrated, 20th century nationalist leaders like Castro, Ho Chi Min and Khomeini. I used adult female mortality since I figured that’s a measure no one could say was ambiguous or unimportant. He looses. They win. Don’t let that spoil the moment though guys, it’s not like you actually care about Africans.

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::::UPDATE:::: – SAT 7 Dec 13

 

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Where House of Cards Falls Down

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WARNING: Contains Spoilers.

My dear friend and occasional platonic gay lover, Patrick Galey was the last in a long line of recommendations that led me to download the political drama House of Cards. My expectations were quite high, not only is Patrick one of only, perhaps, five other people on earth to love The Wire as much as I do and truly understand the gravitas of its social commentary, but the show starred Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, the democratic party whip and would be king-maker in Washington. He is a captivating and well portrayed character, as is his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. Unfortunately I feel both actors exceptional talents are underplayed by a script featuring far too many shots of Claire gathering her-secretly-emotional-self between steely encounters. We get it. She wants a baby and stuff. The same goes for the shots of Kevin Spacey’s fake smile falling away to deadpan as the suckers turn their backs. These repetitions aside our leading couple, positioned somewhere between the Kennedys and the Sopranos, are as seductive to me as they are to their “I work in the media and have a great body” lovers on the side.

Most of the credit for this has to go to the actors and shooters. As so often with movies and TV of late, the delivery outstrips the quality of the writing it is delivering. This makes sense.

Writing is the master art, the biggest rosebush in the garden, bursting forth from right beneath the rock from whence spring flows. As the flow from this spiritual and intellectual fountainhead of modern genius weakens, it is the first to wither.

The weak points in House of Card’s writing, specifically, come, as is so often the case, at the juncture of personality and sex. Kevin Spacey’s character tossing his lovers iPhone into the glass of water, saying he would buy her a new one, because he’s a big important man and that means you get to ruin other people’s stuff and not say sorry.

This isn’t as bad as the honey-trap-hooker sent to as part of the plan to bring down Senator Peter Russo (Corey Stone) in Episode 10. She says “I get drunk… then I get undressed”. We’re really at “it’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” levels of subtlety and suggestion.

This is also the second time in the series where an immensely powerful and charismatic man, who would have a smorgasbord of sexual options in the real world, gets nervous and jealous like a 13 year old with a crush because a pretty girl flirts with them.

Russo’s relapse generally was – despite a chillingly executed murder scene- overall lazy writing. It was the easiest possible take-down, and, just like the dog Underwood kills in the series’s opening scene, Russo goes down without a real fight. Once again the vagina serves as a deus ex machina. Similarly, the drunken disaster interview goes to absurd lengths, just as with the “vowel movement” scene, it is a case where more is less.

At times, however, the plot’s failures go beyond merely lazy writing and reflect a deep misreading of the political zeitgeist.

When the lobbyist for the teachers union punches the congressman in the face during an argument, as far as the public knew, over collective bargaining, he would have become a cult hero. He would have had his own hashtag, t-shirts and a web-hosted express meme generator.

What’s more, when he needed a picket-line of a few hundred teachers he could have got them, and they would have cared about eating tomorrow as well.

Perhaps most galling was the portrayal of female journalists, one of whom we see, and the other of whom we hear about, using their feminine wiles, rather than investigative grit or even sycophantic “networking”, to get ahead in the industry. While it might be interesting and worthwhile to examine how journalists, especially women, are enticed to prostittute themselves, this is basically all we see of them until more than halfway through the series. Soon after their actual journalistic work becomes the focus, I also noticed, a male colleague turned lover shows up and takes a leadership role. One wonders if the writers have even heard of Helen Thomas, who – despite having a vagina – was known as one of the toughest reporters in Washington for decades.

There is of course much to be said for the show’s thrust at Washington’s dark heart, but it seems to me their angle is slightly off.

Perhaps the second thrust will hit the mark. Season 2 begins early 2014. I’ll be watching.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs Sex.

I recently saw Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, or the first hour of it or something.

I immediately despised the main character. An “anti-hero” is how my friend, who had recommended the film, described him. Even this seems too grand a term. He is a lump of semi-pubescent nothing.

He strikes me as a younger, less creative and interesting version of Woody Allen, and I hate Woody Allen.

This adorably ineffectual stick of nothing that looks like he would get a hard on once every three days, is an extreme example of a new breed of male lead increasingly offered up in films, apart, of course, from the action hero cliche that has by now become self referential and tongue in cheek even in its most mainstream incarnations.

The fight-scenes, which are perhaps the best examples of the movies truly innovative visual style, suck any sense of danger or anger out and clearly intend to do so. They are, quite literally, made to look like video games. Consequence free visual dances, whose outcomes are forgone conclusions, a matter of time.

I’m reminded of what Dam Savage said, about extra marital affairs, how in the pre-feminist era, there was an assumption that men would be having affairs outside of the marriage. What happened with the growing levels of egalitarianism inside marriages, he argues is that men lost the freedom to have these liaisons, which had been assumed, rather than women gaining it.

For men it has been easier to enslave themselves than free women.

This dynamic goes far beyond sex, and affects especially men’s diminishing capacity to express violent, hateful, aggressive urges, either through communication or action, even when the alternative – inaction and acquiescence- represents a cowardice, a callousness, that is itself far more vicious and selfish.

They’ve done something like this with the female characters, too, replacing our leading ladies with ten year old boys with tits, or worse.

The leading lady in Scot Pilgrim is worse. The point at which what I didn’t like about the movie crystallized for me was when she dyed her hair and the male lead, Scott Pilgrim, freaked out over it.  The T-shirt slogan “Emo: Because homosexual wasn’t gay enough”, jumped to mind at this stage, as in others during the movie.

The girl’s hair is highly evocative of the Harijuku girls of japan, or even the manga and anime cartoons which predate this meat-space incarnation.  In the Japanese context the whole thing has overtly pedophilic overtones. Tiny Asian schoolgirls with big cartoonish eyes and an aura of immense vulnerability and innocence. Theirs is a selfish, vampiric empathy that promises to enjoy the dominant sadist male’s own pleasure more than he does himself.

Of course this is not who we get for a female lead, she is a much more stumpy character in terms of both manner and appearance,  pushing her shoulders forward crowding out her boobs which could actually be the one interesting feature if she had the gonads (a word referring to the reproductive glands of either a man or a woman) to stick them out a little.

She’s taller than him, and stronger, and more present and accountable and in general has every one of the positive traits associated with masculinity in greater abundance than him. Overall though, she is deeply androgynous.  Not in the way of a transvestite, oozing both masculinity and femininity in copiously competing qualities. She is cardboard, just like him. They are two perfectly bland little suburban nothings. We are meant to be captivated. Many of us are.

Her Asian schoolgirl hair seems meant to break this monotony, like bright red roses in a sterile white hospital room, like an icon, referencing a hungry, intense, concentrated sexuality – located elsewhere.

This is made stranger by the fact he leaves the Asian school girl he is seeing at the start of the movie to be with her.

The imitation is better than the real thing.

I am reminded of a photograph I once saw depicting a young Muslim Lebanese girl wearing a headscarf which had sewn into the forehead a patch depicting an unveiled Barbie Doll.

The reference to a desired object elsewhere, evoked through obvious but unacknowledged symbols, is so much more comfortable than the real thing.

We are always experiencing things at as many levels of remove as is necessary to prevent them from rupturing the comforting mundanity of our lives, but still desiring to experience them.

Grow a set. Be here, now, with me, as yourself, fearlessly. Even if it is only for a moment.

Without that we have nothing.

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