22 April 2008

Guerilla journalism

I finally finished reading Shooting War, a really disgusting comic book--nay graphic novel, this book truly deserves the lofty graphic novel distincing--after putting if off for a long time. When it first came out I had no intention of reading it, and then I started this blog, and it seemed like an interesting piece to use. It was painful to get through. Anthony Lappe's writing is cliche, annoying and at time just plain boring, while Dan Goldman's art is actually hard to look at, and so trenderized it's depressing. A representative panel of both collaborator's shortcomings:

I'm not going to waste my time writing a pseudo academic essay like I have in previous posts, but I'll take a stab at analyzing Shooting War's use of politically relevant material as a device for plot and style after the jump.

Shooting War is set in 2011, when John McCain is president and the war in Iraq has continued with no success or end in sight. The protagonist is Jimmy Burns, a renegade video blogger who has gained a name for shocking stories and footage. His catch phrase: "I have a knack for being in the right place when people are going to die." That line is worthy of Hombre or Fistful of Dollars, but I can only wish that it is meant to be read with at least some degree of irony. The plot of the book is pretty similar, if greatly lacking in originality, cohesiveness and continuity, of those seen in books coming out of the big houses, Marvel and DC, and imitates the edgy style of DC's Vertigo imprint (I am all too familiar with these plots after doing a soul crushing stint in the Marvel editorial department). Perhaps its difficulties with continuity in plot are due to its origination as a serialized web comic, but this does not forgive the confusing and lazy way a relatively straight forward plot is related. Time seems to progress forward randomly. The characters and dialog are extremely flat. I guess I've already told you that this is a bad book.

Apparently Lappe is the executive editor for the Guerrilla News Network's website, which I visited occasionally in high school, but found boring even then. Lappe is a little like Aliza Shvarts, who I discussed last post, in that he is clearly interested in being edgy, but seems unsure of how to do it. The politics of Shooting War aren't exactly ambiguous, but they are certainly incomplete and a bit over the top. In the conclusion, President McCain is so moved by the footage broadcast by Jimmy Burns of Iraqis being tortured that he decides to withdraw American soldiers. It seems like a joke, but the book doesn't end any other way. The combination of trendy liberal politics, trendy graphic art and absurd masculine fantasy, all of which seem incomplete in their conception, makes this work seem like even more of a get noticed quick scheme than Zeitgeist. What is sad is that the creators actually seem earnest in their efforts. But what can you expect from a couple of guys that look like this:
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Avant Garde

I found that this jezebel post, which Elena sent to me last week, while not directly related to the content of this blog, certainly provides a good example of an artist who has used a political message to gain exposure. I won't waste my time explaining the silliness of this "work of art", which involves the supposed remains of several self-induced miscarriages by a Yale University senior, as jezebel has done the job well. What I find interesting is that after Yale released a statement denying the veracity of substance of the miscarriages displayed, the artist, Aliza Shvarts, responded to claim that Yale was wrong. Is it really important for her work, the goal of which she claims is to start a dialog about real issues through art--which apparently doesn't happen--contain the actual blood and tissue of her supposed miscarriages?

It seems to me that if the tissue is real, then her work is not really art, because it is not representational, it is an artifact. Obviously many hot-headed undergraduates would disagree with this definition of "art", and I have no intention of bringing this blog into the distorted realm of that debate, but it's relevant given the question that my blog poses. What about using fake blood, or paint, or some substance other than her own miscarried pregnancy, denies her work it's message? It seems more likely, that while making a painting of a miscarriage is certainly interesting, it has nowhere near the shock value, or potential media interest, as some chick who actually did this to herself. Shvarts claims that her piece is meant to spark public dialog, but it's unclear what she wants that dialog to be about.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this event, which is sort of depressing, is that the modern art world is influenced by shock value. While there are tons of artists creating truly innovative, provocative and impressive works, often it is the more shocking works--see "Piss Christ"--that receive public attention outside of the art world, and thus make a name for those artists, obviously regardless of the real merit of the work. That sucks.

04 April 2008

War Made Easy

How much more desensitized to the torture and disfigurement of non-white bodies can we get? At this point it seems like a prerequisite of the documentary film genre.

War Made Easy, which recently ended its run at the Quad Cinema in New York—in my growing theme of tardiness I actually missed the screening by one day and had to watch it on my computer, which at least simulated the experience of watching Zeitgeist to a certain degree—was everything that Zeitgeist, Loose Change, and their ilk are not. The film is too careful in its deconstruction of modern media, and often boring. It provides an almost too perfect counterpoint to my piece on Zeitgeist. The filmmakers, Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, do not attempt to draw conclusions about the collusion of top government officials and the corporate heads of new media outlets, instead suggesting that the media is basically scared to disagree with government policy during wartime, for fear of bad ratings.

While it does make serious indictments of presidents and the Pentagon for lying to the American people, I find it hard not to draw the conclusion that it is really the fault of the American people, who are deaf to critical reporting and commentary, if that is what the poor ratings reflect. Sure the media is gutless, spineless and lacking in balls, as are the senators and congressman that continually refuse to stand up to war presidents when it really counts, but it seems that the American people make it impossible to do anything else. If the members of congress who voted for the Tonkin Resolution of President Lyndon Johnson fear for their jobs and their constituency, how much can you really blame them? Surely plenty of scuzbags with law degrees are willing and ready to take the place of any representative who falls out of favor. And it’s certainly believable that the one congresswoman who was opposed a military response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, being from California, did not fear her constituency turning against her. It is the duty of the government and the media to truthfully inform the public, but the public also has to be willing to listen.

I'm not trying to say that this is my actual stance on the issue, but the only one I can draw from the case made in the film. War Made Easy intends to prove that government is lying to the public with the aid, or at least without the hindrance, of the modern news media, but it never goes far enough to suggest the reason. Oil money? Power? Or maybe war is what the American people actually want, at least until it starts going badly.

Then there’s the case of Phil Donahue, one of the more salient ones made in the film. Donahue’s show, which apparently had the best ratings on the channel (this claim is actually untrue, at least according to CNN.com, Donahue’s show started with poor ratings that only got worse, getting around 15% the number of viewers as Bill O’Reilly, who Donahue was slated to be the liberal counterweight to), was suddenly cancelled by MSNBC three weeks before the beginning of the war in Iraq. The film cites a memo leaked from MSNBC saying that Donahue’s insistently anti-war commentary was not what American’s needed at that time.

There are a few examples of Maverick anti-war politicians, who, combined with the Donahue story, depict just how uncommon it is for anyone to oppose war when a war is actually starting. With ubiquitous “Support our troops” type rhetoric at these times, any candidate or pundit it seems would be committing career suicide to do so. The film does not completely analyze the power of that rhetoric, but suggests the collective desire of a nation to retaliate against attacks, or perceived attacks, is inexorable. Thus presidents who seek preemptive war must falsify these attacks, or in the case of Iraq, invent the threat of danger. It’s only a step away from a conspiracy theory a la Zeitgeist, but it’s not quite there. Why do presidents want to start preemptive wars? That question is not answered.

War Made Easy is extremely well edited and uses stock footage as well as any documentary I have seen, but lacks credibility due to the singularity of its source. The film is based on a book of the same name, written by Norman Solomon, a leftist journalist, media critic and anti-war activist. Ignoring Solomon’s apparent lack of credibility—he does not have more than a high school degree, having dropped out of Reed College, and none of his dozen books, including “Made Love, Got War”, or other writings have been published by a mainstream press, newspaper or magazine—the film is hurt by the fact that his is virtually the only commentator. Though it is narrated by a big name, Sean Penn, the voice we hear for the majority of the film is Solomon’s. Of course, the film is based on his book, so we would expect to see quite a bit of him, but, in the interest of journalistic integrity, it would be nice to get some other viewpoints. It’s the first political documentary I’ve seen, other than those directed by Michael Moore, which features a single perspective on a subject over multiple voices, usually in different areas of expertise and experience. It does not help that Solomon appears just a little bit crazy, staring intently to the left of the camera with wide eyes set deep in his face. So, despite having a well researched, well presented, and modestly accurate view on a particular phenomenon of American politics, the understanding of which could possibly aid the prevention of future ill-conceived and falsely instigated military conflicts, War Made Easy is difficult to take any more seriously than the grossly fictional conspiracy films that I have previously discussed, and is less entertaining. Like a lot of sociologically based non-fiction, War Made Easy sets out to prove something that most of its viewers would have already sort of figured themselves, but fails to delve further.