Stephen Beachy

Crosses and losses



VISUAL ART "Amish Abstractions," the de Young Museum’s exhibition of 48 quilts made primarily by anonymous Amish girls and women, gains its conceptual interest from the unusual pairing of the words Amish and abstraction.

The collectors of these quilts were initially drawn to them by their similarity to works by 20th century abstract artists. While the attendant monograph asserts this juxtaposition several times, within the show itself you only get a disclaimer by curator Robert Shaw. "Many have compared the abstract geometry of Amish quilts to the works of acclaimed modernist painters such as Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Victor Vasarely," he writes. "Any such comparisons are problematic, however, because they are built on visual coincidence, not on any documented historical connection or known influence in either direction."

The collectors behind "Amish Abstraction," Faith and Stephen Brown, add Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt to such a list. Still, with the exception of Albers, and to a lesser degree Stella and Vasarely, the visual coincidence feels forced. As Shaw points out, it’s a big leap from the ideals of Abstract Expressionism to the ideals of Amish culture: submission to a masculine God, submission to husband and father, humility, community. We are told by the exhibition notes that the quilts are "individual and expressive" and "contradict our preconceptions of Amish society," but there is little exploration of how, why, or where this might be the case within in a culture that restricts both self-expression and self-representation.

Having actually slept under frumpier and more polyester Amish quilts — ones my Amish grandmother and cousins made — I came to this show with low expectations. The quilts, however, are stunning. The concentration of geometric patterns, optical illusions, and bright colors create an energy in the room that feels anything but Amish. The quilts suggest extravagance, hedonism, and the revolt of the body against whatever abstract principle might be crushing it.

It certainly seems that these Amish women might have intuited aspects of Albers’ color theory. Their optical illusions are considerably more restrained than Vasarely’s, and the palette considerably more subdued than Stella’s. Few rainbows here; the Amish women favored black backgrounds and less busy juxtapositions that allow a sense of calm to pervade the constant movement suggsted by the patterns. Yet even the names of some of the patterns are hallucinogenic: Crazy Quilt, Jacob’s Ladder, Crosses and Losses, Old Maid’s Puzzle, Stairway to Heaven, Broken Star, Crazy Star, Sunshine and Shadow.

The radiance and abstraction of the quilts in "Amish Abstractions" suggest transcendence, deep spiritual harmonies, and the pleasures to be found in egolessness. In our own culture, with its pathological celebration of self and merging of personality and advertising, the idea of dispensing with the ego altogether might seem healthy. As Shaw says, "[The quilters] proceed from the place modern artists sought to find, and they reflect the stoic quietude of the Amish — their rich interior world of spiritual calm, shared values, and mutually beneficial self-denial."

The curators do an excellent job of elucidating, in very specific ways, the relationships between Amish and non-Amish communities, and the relationships between quilting patterns and specific local Amish traditions. They discuss the evolution of these specific traditions, but by restricting the quilts on display to the period from 1880 to 1940, they have trapped the Amish in the past, before the widespread use of synthetic fabrics or the "discovery" of Amish quilts by the art market.

Suggesting that historical specificity doesn’t apply to the timeless Amish, the large blow-up photographs throughout the exhibit of Amish children playing and Amish men building barns freeze the Amish in a different past. The photographs date from the 1980s, before the disappearance of affordable farmland sent young Amish men into factories, and before the Amish brand was tainted by meth-fueled megaparties of Amish kids on rumspringa and reality TV shows about corrupting "the innocent."

Since the 1930s, the major function of the Amish, for Americans in general, has been to represent an innocence the rest of us have supposedly lost. America, like the Amish, is imagined to have once been peaceful, rural, white, and untroubled by introspection. But surrounded by the bold colors and intricate stitching of "Amish Abstractions," it is easy to imagine that the Amish women who created them were secret sensualists or feminist mystics. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess they were created by revolutionary cells, possibly lesbians, who drank mushroom tea and let their hair out of their bonnets while their men were out working the fields.

But I do know better. My Amish grandmother was a young woman in Ohio during the 1930s, and so it is possible, although not likely, that she had a hand in one or two of the quilts on display. She left behind a written record of her life, condensed from diaries, a litany marked by births, weddings, and deaths, barns struck by lightning ("There was nothing to do but let it burn …"), accidents and near-accidents, bedbugs and prayer, dead children and epidemics of diptheria, influenza, whooping cough, measles, and delirium. This record is more than 100 pages long, and at times incredibly detailed about trips taken, people visited, and beets canned. Yet three years pass in a single paragraph which begins, "In the summer of 1945 I had a nervous breakdown." My father remembered little about his mother’s "nervous breakdown," but he thought she had probably been given some tranquilizers.

For the Amish, what a person might feel or want is never removed from what the community demands, from the work to be done, and from theological doctrine. Whether this constitutes spiritual calm and mutually beneficial self-denial or deeply oppressive self-abnegation is another question.


Through June 6, 2010

de Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

Golden Gate Park, SF

(415) 750-3600

Drunk on words



1. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, 1973. When jazz singer Anita O’Day found herself stuck with an odd group of musicians who weren’t drinking alcohol or smoking anything between sets — they were reading books — she considered such behavior the other side of life. A very Pynchonian phrase. I know more people (two) who claim to have read this novel on acid than any other — the writer Kevin Killian and the poet Joshua Clover.

2. The Soft Machine, William Burroughs, 1962. A whole cosmology, and an antidote to the hideous language virus from outer space.

3. Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick, 1974. In a future where manufactured drugs bend the parameters of space and time, our characters are still also dropping mescaline.

4. How I Became a Nun, César Aira, 1993. Poisonous ice cream is the agent that instigates a trip coextensive with the mysteriously-gendered childhood of poor little César Aira. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Genet.

5. Any book by Wilson Harris. Really. They all blur together. Staring at most any page of Harris is like staring at a painting by Rufino Tamayo, Anselm Kiefer, Charles Burchfield, or Wilfredo Lam.

6. The Book of Lazarus, Richard Grossman, 1978. Dropped into the middle of this collage-novel, with its sophomoric poetry, cartoons of crossing guards, and plot about kidnapping a mobster’s daughter, is a fragment from an eternal sentence. Seventy single-spaced pages of psychedelic cartoon as cosmically weird as Tamala 2010.

7. Guide, Dennis Cooper, 1998. Once, when I was 19 and tripping, I wandered into a room full of cadavers. Whoa, I said. Later that night, I glimpsed the secret structure of the universe. Guide is kind of like that. "Dennis" struggles to convey the unpleasant insights from a bad trip.

8. Ice, Anna Kavan, 1967. Born Helen Ferguson, Kavan named herself after one of her own fictional characters. In and out of mental institutions. On and off heroin. Devoted to gay men. Found dead with lots of heroin and lipstick in her room. In this novel the world is freezing over and a poor thin girl is always getting tormented. Or is she?

9. Gone Tomorrow, Gary Indiana, 1993. For just one scene — a gay sex acid trip at Dachau. Burroughsian flesh-melds, fairy tales bubbling into reality, and the discovery that the Holocaust has been reduced to kitsch.

10. Dream Jungle, Jessica Hagedorn, 2003. Another one-scene wonder — an acid trip on a Manila-bound airplane. Yikes.

11. Already Dead, Denis Johnson, 1998. Starring a toad whose secretions contain DMT.

12. On Heroes and Tombs, Ernesto Sabato, 1961. Three-quarters of this is just okay, but "The Report on the Blind" makes it worth the price of admission. A paranoid misanthrope explores the sect of the blind which he believes secretly rules the world. Does for the visually impaired what The Orphan does for foreign adoptees.


1. Cool For You, Eileen Myles, 2000. Introducing his latest, prescription drug-addicted memoir The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott writes that "… only a fool mistakes memory for fact." Chris Kraus, as quoted by Myles: "Because capitalism’s insincere, it demands sincerity from its art."

2. Mama Black Widow, Iceberg Slim, 1969. "Under the crazy hypnosis of pills and alcohol I had the strange feeling I was in a fantastic flower garden, hearing the hum and buzz of insects …" Sounds like a sentence from —

3. Discovery of the World, Clarice Lispector, 1984. Except Clarice wouldn’t mention the pills and alcohol. It’s all subtext. Who’d have guessed she was addicted to sleeping pills the whole time?

4. Good Times: Bad Trips, Cliff Hengst and Scott Hewicker, 2007. Lit and art world luminaries describe their experiences, with illustrations.

5. A Voice Through a Cloud, Denton Welch, 1950. Excruciating pain is hallucinatory, and painkillers, too. "I was exquisitely conscious of the texture of things. There was torture in the smooth sheets, in the hair of the mattress and the weight of the blankets …"

6. Valencia, Michelle Tea, 2000. You can call it fiction, but I’ve been involved in illicit transactions with one of the characters.

7. The Peyote Dance, Antonin Artaud, 1976. A French Nobel Prize winner thinks Artaud didn’t even take that trip in the 1930s. Maybe not, but this book still gives me mescaline flashbacks — like the peyote trip in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996).

8. Go Ask Alice, Anonymous, 1971. I haven’t read it, but my partner Jonathan says our teen heroine’s (to quote the cover text) "harrowing descent into the nightmarish world of drugs" — acid trips and gay sex — convinced him to follow her path.

Ghost writer


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REVIEW In the English-speaking press, Roberto Bolaño is widely touted as the hottest novelist to come out of Latin America since Gabriel García Márquez. There are no levitating virgins in the work of Bolaño; he depicts instead a more recognizable if still defamiliarized Western Hemisphere, full of intellectuals, tragic activists, poets, queers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. And Nazis.

Although Bolaño died in 2003, his death hasn’t slowed the rise of his reputation; he is posthumously leading the revolt of a generation of writers and readers who were crushed under the weight of Latin America’s major literary exports, the Boom writers. Bolaño’s idiosyncratic style isn’t magical realist or sentimental about folk traditions, but he isn’t exactly a realist either. Nazi Literature in the Americas (New Directions, 280 pages, $23.95), newly translated into English by Chris Andrews, follows the path of Jorge Luis Borges. It presents brief bios and bibliographies for 30 imaginary right-wing writers from North and South America.

Although Nazi Literature was first published in 1996, it follows its catalog of writers past that date and into the future: Willy Schürholz, for example, born into a mysterious, walled-off community of Germans within Chile, is a solitary poet who sets out "countless variations on the theme of a barbed-wire fence crossing an almost empty space," and eventually publishes a book of children’s stories that idealize "a childhood that was suspiciously aphasic, amnesic, obedient and silent." Its nameless boy protagonist "displaced Papelucho as the emblematic protagonist of children’s and teen fiction in Chile," while Schürholz himself ends up in Africa working as a photographer and guide until his death — in 2029.

Bolaño’s writers interact with recognizable historic and literary worlds; they are wandering Colombians who fight for the fascists in Spain; they are aristocratic Argentines handled by Hitler as infants; they are Beat-influenced North American poets who, after being hit on by Allen Ginsberg, flee to panicked careers filled with homophobic and anti-Semitic invective, becoming enormously successful in the process. They write stories, poems, and novels with titles like Cosmogony of the New Order, I Was Happy with Hitler ("misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike"), and The Children of Jim O’Brady in the American Dawn. In Bolaño’s hands, these biographies are hilarious. At the same time, they are often surprisingly moving and sometimes terrifying.

Throughout Bolaño’s translated work, from By Night in Chile (New Directions, 144 pages, 2003), the monologue of a dying priest, to The Savage Detectives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, 2007), which follows a group of avant-garde poets in Mexico in the ’70s along their downward-spiraling paths, he is concerned with the sometimes surprising intermingling of radical and conservative literary and political realities. If Bolaño’s monsters are occasionally ridiculous and moronic, it is to his credit that they are also always complicated, and sometimes brilliant and romantic. His Nazi writers are not so different from his non-Nazi writers; they are ambitious or derivative or avant-garde in equal measure. They fall tragically in love and develop drinking problems alongside their leftist peers. Bolaño’s clear-sighted examinations of social context underline the insight that literature isn’t innocent — an invigorating insight in our own cultural moment, when the very act of reading or writing is usually considered harmless but inherently ennobling.

Perhaps Bolaño’s most seductive, fascinating, and terrifying monster is the Chilean poet Carlos Ramírez Hoffman. Bolaño readers will recognize his story as that of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, elaborated in more detail in Bolaño’s second novel to be translated into English, Distant Star (New Directions, 149 pages, 2004). His tale is worth revisiting for those readers, as it functions differently as the conclusion to Nazi Literature. The book suddenly becomes more intimate, more frightening, and more ambiguous, as Bolaño appears for the first time as a character and becomes personally linked to the fate of Ramírez Hoffman. "Bolaño," like the author of the same name, is arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Pinochet dictatorship after the coup in 1973. While Ramírez Hoffman transforms himself into a torturer, a murderer of women, and a skywriter, Bolaño watches the ephemeral poems appear in the sky from the prison yard. The story of the narrator’s obsession with the traces of this enigmatic antihero’s literary career becomes a discomfiting mirror in which some of our dearest romantic myths about literary outlaws are laid bare with startling implications.

In less thoughtful hands, Nazi Literature could be a terrain inhabited largely by "repressed" homosexuals, following the 20th century’s tidy equation of fascism and sublimated male homoeroticism. Whatever sexual desires are repressed or unrepressed by this horde of monsters, they are as varied and bizarre as those of the rest of the human race. Bolaño was the queerest of straight male writers and his sensibility the queerest I know of, period, in all of Latin American literature — notwithstanding José Lezama Lima, José Donoso, Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, and the many closeted contributors to the fussy literature of the Boom.

Bolaño’s descriptions of the experimental and speculative works of his dark doubles allows his own baroque imagination free rein. He dreams up plays in which "the action unfolds in a world inhabited exclusively by Siamese twins, where sadism and masochism are children’s games," and poems in which a 90-year-old Leni Riefenstahl makes love with 100-year-old Ernst Jünger, their jaws creaking, their eyes lighting up, hinting at the lesson that "it is time to put an end to democracy."

The literary references in Nazi Literature are dense and possibly unfamiliar to a North American audience; we may not always know which pompous literary critics actually lived, or which dueling Cuban queens are real and which are imaginary. Bolaño has the most fun with his speculative and science fiction writers, and with those who assume fake identities in order to promote their derivative work. This book is full of rumor, unverifiable reports, and false claims: it fundamentally entwines the false with the true to create a kind of vaporous zone that we immediately recognize as the world we inhabit. At the same time, Bolaño’s writing cracks that world open and charges it with startling electricity. It’s a reminder that writing is life — organic, complicated, sick, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

On the verge


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The title of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary, Terror’s Advocate, evokes Keanu Reeves’s role as Kevin Lomax, a lawyer seduced by Satan (Al Pacino) in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate. Reeves’s character crosses the line into evil when he gets a child molester off on a technicality; next thing you know, he’s living in Manhattan, making big bucks, and being seduced by the lesbian minions of Satan in an elevator while his wife (Charlize Theron) has her womb ripped out. In Terror’s Advocate we follow the equally colorful career of lawyer Jacques Vergès, which begins with ideological and erotic clarity — defending gorgeous Algerian bombers during their struggle for independence from France — but spirals into mystery and monstrosity.

The point where Vergès crosses the line that leads him into relationships with dictators, Nazis, and Carlos the Jackal is less distinct than the line crossed by Reeves’s lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. Schroeder frames Vergès’s story as a mirror of the recent history of terrorism in Europe, with attention to all of the ambiguity that term implies. If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and the term itself a strategy to disparage the warfare of those without governments, it doesn’t follow that every act of terror is ethically equivalent. "There’s a magnificent, heroic heart, which is Algeria," Schroeder has said, discussing the film. "This is the matrix, the place where our lead character finds himself, reveals himself, and experiences the most intense moments of his life…. All of this is something very beautiful, very pure: an ideal."

On Armistice Day in 1945, the French massacred 10,000 to 45,000 Algerians for waving their flags. During the years that followed, Algerian attempts to purge their boorish occupiers would include blowing up European establishments in the African capital. In 1957, Djamila Bouhired was found guilty of placing a bomb in the Milk Bar and condemned to death. She became an international sensation, partially through the inspired efforts of her lawyer — Vergès. He developed what became known as the rupture defense — instead of having his clients apologize or plead for mercy, he provoked the opposition and used the trial to redefine the terms of the debate, calling attention to the French use of torture.

His tactics paid off. Bouhired was pardoned and released from prison, after which she returned to Algeria and married Vergès. But in the ’70s he abandoned her and his children and vanished for eight years under circumstances that remain unclear, despite Terror’s Advocate‘s sometimes tedious examination of that narrative gap. By the time Vergès finally reappeared, the lines had begun to blur — between political action and sociopathic adventuring, between terrorism and foreplay. One of Schroeder’s most inspired subtexts is that organized violence, whether state sponsored or revolutionary, offers an arena for unconventional erotic pleasures, such as rape, torture, or simply rescuing sexy women involved in the deaths of others — like Bouhired or Vergès’s other great love, Magdalena Kopp, girlfriend of Carlos the Jackal.

In Reversal of Fortune (1990), Schroeder fictionalized the relationship between Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who defended him against charges that he’d lethally poisoned his wife. Did von Bülow get away with murder or was he innocent and akin to Frankenstein’s monster at the hands of the lynch mob? Schroeder has always been interested in monsters — his documentary subjects include Idi Amin, Charles Bukowski, and Koko the gorilla — and drawn to moral ambiguity, the seductive power of evil, and the erotic appeal of violence. Combine Before and After (1995), Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) and Murder by Numbers (2002), and you have an oeuvre with more murderous teenage boys than anything this side of William Burroughs. In his Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1994), and Desperate Measures (1997) there is a twinship between monsters and heroes and a surprising sympathy for the violently unhinged. Consistently, Schroeder examines people of conscience who are seduced into doing evil’s bidding, and he lets them speak for themselves. Even Vergès’s defense of Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie is framed as an opportunity to attack French hypocrisy, imperialism, and butchery. Asked if he’d defend Hitler, Vergès says, "I’d even agree to defend [George W.] Bush. But only if he agrees to plead guilty."

Terror’s Advocate is dense with information. Its structure is complex and indirect and requires unfaltering attention. Yet Schroeder succeeds at creating a surprising amount of suspense, especially considering the amount of screen time given over to talking heads. Meanwhile, he quietly explores what must be one of the central enigmas for our tortured planet, the human relationship to violence. Violence and money, violence and sex, violence and political change, senseless violence and goal-oriented violence — Schroeder nimbly navigates all of the above, creating a visceral ethical disquiet. *


Opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters

All that heaven and earth allow


(To read Marke B.’s take on Anselm Kiefer, “Crash and Burn,” click here.)

REVIEW Recently, in an Amish schoolhouse shooting, five girls were killed and five wounded by a man who was “angry with God” and haunted by thoughts of molestation.
One girl escaped. In the earliest versions of the story, nine-year-old Emma Fisher simply snuck out. It was later said that she misunderstood the shooter’s instructions in English and thought she was supposed to leave. A more recent variation has Emma hearing one of the schoolteachers’ helpers say to her, “Now would be a good time to run,” as the shooter messed with the window blinds. But the helper says she didn’t speak, and some Amish are suggesting the voice was an angel’s.
If that angel’s voice — poised at the edge of bloodshed, salvation narratives, and sociopathic dreams — had instead taken its ephemeral sound waves and rolled them around in clay, lead, ash, burned wood, India ink, and stars, the result would look much like the show “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Kiefer is not interested in salvation, he says, but he wants you to see angels: angels with their wings weighed down with lead, angels in the form of flaming books, angels spiraling up and down between the heavens and earth. Kiefer isn’t angry with God — he wants to identify with a god whose creations and destructions dwarf mere human emotions. His massive works and their equally massive subject matter reveal Kiefer as a size queen in active defiance of the art world’s ongoing love affair with the bonbon. Nobody’s precious obsessions or daily life is represented here, unless it is the daily life of an all-encompassing godhead in the midst of cyclical death and rebirth. Is that interesting? It is gorgeous. Kiefer passes the acid test. His love of texture and pattern creates enough Rorschach blots of darkness and light to keep even the most ADD of us visually interested — never mind the titles, with their names of gods, stars, and emotional states. Osiris and Isis (1985–<\d>87), for example, contains porcelain shards enmeshed in its vast canvas, referencing a myth of fragmentation and a jokey half-assed attempt to cobble together the various parts of the sundered deity with circuitry and wires. Kiefer’s vocabulary is that of alchemy, hermeticism, and gnosticism, with a particular emphasis on the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Although kabbalah has been inseparable from western esotericism for centuries, Kiefer’s investigation takes on an added resonance. A German artist born in 1945, he has throughout his career addressed the wounds left by the 20th century’s most famous sociopaths. With gestures as slight as the introduction of a propeller onto a vast canvas in a work titled The Hierarchy of Angels (1985–<\d>87), Kiefer acknowledges and comments on his nation’s monstrous history. In work addressing the Jewish poet Paul Célan, he acknowledges the degree to which the Nazi dream of molesting the globe efficiently removed not only the mysteries and symbols of a people once integral to German cultural life but the people themselves.
Trafficking in the cosmic raises questions of whether it is necessarily apolitical, ahistorical, or irony free. It isn’t. Novelist Jean Rhys wrote that before she could even read she imagined that God was a book: “Sometimes it was a large book standing upright and half open, and I could see the print inside but it made no sense to me.” Kiefer seems to have shared that fantasy and reproduced it as multiple books: huge circular standing books full of star maps; crumpled, distorted books like crippled angels; charred and flaming books. All are filled with indecipherable but oddly familiar writing of lead, dried plants, clay, or copper wire. Vaporous patterns emerge, like imprints left by the dead, even in the utter blackness of seven burlap books whose hieroglyphics consist of oil, charcoal, and glue in Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen (1975).
The schoolhouse Fisher escaped from was torn down; there is no hopeless memorial there now, just an empty field. Kiefer’s hellish earth is burned, scarred, frozen, scorched — just like ours. Maybe not so much like ours, his blackened ground is fertile and regenerating and has reached the nigredo stage in an alchemical process leading toward something fabulous. Imagining that the destruction of the planet has led or will lead to a kind of regeneration is a kind of mental escape from the sociopaths currently molesting the globe and maybe even a necessary one. On the other hand, maybe now would be a good time to run. Despite his preoccupation with stars, Kiefer isn’t ready to pack up the spaceship yet. Giving the title Faith, Hope, Love (1976) to a dense, dark, entangled work composed of ash, seeds, and ink may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but Kiefer’s humor is rarely human scale. “Wherever you go, there you are” is the angelic message of his Milky Ways and charred landscapes, which are always also internal states.<\!s>SFBG
Through Jan. 21, 2007
Fri.–<\d>Tues., 11 a.m.–<\d>5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–<\d>8:45 p.m.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
$7–<\d>$12.50 (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–<\d>8:45 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000

To hell with the world


One question that has swirled around Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is whether it is too soon to make a film about the WTC attacks. Survivors have compared their experiences to Bruce Willis movies, The Planet of the Apes, and The Towering Inferno, and the rest of us only ever experienced the event as representation anyway — is it too soon to turn a disaster film into a disaster film? Or is it too soon to turn the deaths of more than 2,700 people into entertainment?
Perhaps fearing such criticism, Stone doesn’t entertain; instead, he’s created one of the most plodding disaster flicks ever made. By focusing on two Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble, Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Stone tries to form a heavily underlined allegory about passing through hell to make it to the light.
There is an oft-repeated urban legend about an actress — Pia Zadora, usually — who is so awful in a theatrical production of The Diary of Anne Frank that during the second act, as the Nazis are searching the house, somebody in the audience calls out, “They’re in the attic!” Cage approaches that level of performance here. He usually conveys “befuddled” and “dopey” with a kind of genius, but Stone highlights his regular-guy qualities and removes humor and irony to create a caricature of virtuous and inarticulate American masculinity. Cage’s failed attempt to act against type combined with Stone’s blaring sentimentality might easily lead audiences to hope against hope that the next crumbling building will drop a girder just so and end this tortured performance for good.
The sappy music and fuzzy domestic scenes that Stone relies on to convince us we should care about his characters only suggest instead that Americans, in our relationship to technology, have stopped being human. Stone, at least, seems to believe that we wouldn’t know what to feel about death and salvation without an orchestra drowning out our ability to feel anything but contrived replicas of grief and hope. Cute and heartwarming moments usually serve to negate the reality of death. More profound cinematic journeys into hell, such as Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, with its creepy Hello Kitty bags, and Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, with its badass fuzzy heroine, face death, complexify reality, and transform cute into its opposite; Hotel Rwanda never uses the “heartwarming” survival of its heroes to look away from the deaths of thousands. Turning historical events into heartwarming allegories is a problem generally, because it creates meaning at the expense of complexity; it’s also a problem specifically, because America didn’t actually pass through hell on Sept. 11 but settled in and began vigorously exporting hell.
If you expected Stone to give voice to the conspiracy theories that serve as a dreamworld underbelly to the official story, you’ll be disappointed. You want to feel the deep cosmic sadness that such mass death and terror deserve? Sorry. As a historian, Stone has made a career out of distorting our collective mythologies. He waited almost 20 years to make the Doors pompous and boring (The Doors, 1991), about 30 to take the fun out of “Who shot JFK?” conspiracy theories (JFK, 1991), and millennia to make Greek imperialism trite and campy (Alexander, 2004). Instead of the Native Americans who often pop up in Stone’s films to deliver wise and mystical sentences, there is an apocalyptic Christian ex-Marine, Dave Karnes, (Michael Shannon) saying things like, “God put this curtain of smoke here to hide something we aren’t yet ready to see.”
Or at least something horrible and complicated that Stone isn’t ready to show us. Jimeno has his own visions of Christ with a water bottle, and Karnes goes off at film’s end to Iraq to avenge the attack. Stone might like to hide his reactionary focus on vengeance and family values behind the screen of a true story, but his waving flags, footage of President Bush, Christian imagery, and use of the word evil are choices that convey obvious political messages. Although many were too distracted by Colin Farrell’s silly blond wig to notice, Stone already revealed his secret affection for imperial military adventures in Alexander. Even worse, World Trade Center doesn’t have any silly blond wigs to distract us and keep us from pondering the political message of making an apocalyptic catastrophe as boring as hell. (Stephen Beachy)

Torture Inc.


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The Road to Guantánamo is the true story of three British citizens who were held without charges for two years at the American detention camps in Guantánamo Bay. Director Michael Winterbottom’s film combines documentary with dramatization in a way that is slightly confusing in the beginning, as we quickly cut between the men who were actually detained (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Rhuhel Ahmed) and the actors who play them (Rizwan Ahmed, Arfan Usman, and Farhud Harun). The performances are first-rate, however, and the illusion of reality is created with harrowing enough detail that the gap between reportage and acting, or between documentary footage and reenactment, quickly seems irrelevant.
The worst thing a film like this can do is leave its audience feeling manipulated into believing something it was inclined to believe anyway. But The Road to Guantánamo consistently lets the story do its own work, and dumps us into the basic situation without too much backstory; it doesn’t make its protagonists overly heroic, paste any love stories over the narrative, or overwhelm its audience with music that tells us what we should be feeling.
For a film loaded with war casualties and torture, it’s disarmingly entertaining. What begins as a buddy-flick road movie quickly becomes a journey into hell. Three friends leave Britain for Pakistan, where a bride is waiting for one of them. A naive side trip to Afghanistan, just as the US bombing is getting under way, quickly carries them beyond the typical budget travel annoyances of gastrointestinal illness and makeshift restrooms and into a war-torn landscape full of the mutilated citizens of a country being indiscriminately bombed. Their final circle, however, is that abyss located both at the center of the American psyche and in Cuba. Rounded up with a batch of suspected Taliban fighters, our heroes come face-to-face with the Bush administration’s love affair with torture, humiliation, and endless detention without charge.
“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” the American interrogators ask their clueless victims, a question so ridiculous it is comic. The Americans are so perfectly American and so perfectly piggy that it’s easy to forget these scenes are being acted. Even in other recent films that package their torture as political critique, like Syriana and V for Vendetta, the subjects and objects of the verb “to torture” have been muddled; we’ve watched only white Americans and Brits enduring the worst, at the hands of Muslims, cartoon characters, or — in movies like Hostel, in which the torture is pure entertainment — East European whores and Germanic S-M fags. As in dreams, audiences probably understand that the roles are confused, and that Americans should actually be the ones wielding the clubs and attack dogs. Finally, however, we’ve been presented with a more accurate grammar: The Americans and British are torturing and the Muslims are tortured. For that reason alone, The Road to Guantánamo is an important and necessary film. SFBG

Whose cheatin’ Heart?


Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things is the preposterous story, once widely imagined to be true, of the childhood of Jeremiah “JT” LeRoy, as he bounces between the custody of his foster parents, his prostitute mother, and his sadistic, fundamentalist grandparents. Now that we’ve been divested of the cherished illusion that JT was a homeless, HIV-positive child prostitute, we are free to watch Heart not as poignant and painfully honest autobiography but as what the story always has been: a punk-inflected fantasy about “white trash.” We can finally concede that the character of JT’s mother Sarah, as played by Argento herself, bears no resemblance to anyone you might actually meet at a West Virginia truck stop, but only to the fictive characters on which she’d always been based, characters in other films played by the likes of Laura Dern, Juliette Lewis, and Reese Witherspoon.

Although Jimmy Bennett, who plays the seven-year-old JT, is a fine little actor, bringing an appropriate confusion and blankness to the role, he has the unhappy task of acting alongside Heart’s director, who seems always to have wandered in from a radically different movie. While we’re accustomed to suspending our disbelief in the face of, say, white trash child-beaters with Hollywood abs, or country-and-western truck drivers with Hollywood tattoos, it is impossible to watch Argento without remembering that we are watching Argento. With that amazing face, she could be a Pasolini character, or the type of dame traditionally played by Anna Magnani, an Italian immigrant stuck in a bad American marriage. In her attempt to channel Courtney Love, she also seems to be approaching, but never quite arriving at, the outrageous camp of early John Waters. She’d play well next to Edith Massey or Divine, certainly. The primary pleasure of this film is watching the obvious relish Argento takes in doing endless varieties of white trash drag.

By the middle of the film, however, when we’ve tired of guessing what floozy outfit she will show up in next, it would be nice to have some sense of the troubled tenderness of this mother-child bond. There is little narrative tension in the film, which treats much of Jeremiah’s childhood like a punk rock acid flashback, a technique that doesn’t serve to create the mental landscape of the boy himself. The film relies on Sonic Youth instead of its actors to create its emotional tone. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s anger and dread are appropriately apocalyptic but don’t fill in the blankness of the older JT, played by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse. Beyond casting twins to play a fragmented child, Argento has one other inspired conceit: hiring herself as the young Jeremiah for the scene in which he seduces his mother’s boyfriend. This technique both conveys the complex identity issues that form the only interesting context for the film and saves the story from veering into the realm of kiddie porn, where it always seems poised to go.

Argento is not the first director to send her white trash protagonists adrift in a hallucinogenic fun house. Thankfully less ambitious than Oliver Stone in her attempts at social commentary and less silly and deep than David Lynch in her attempts to create an American gothic landscape as dreamworld underbelly, she also has considerably less sense of forward drive. Watching children get abused (and waiting for the next scene of abuse) is a narrative pleasure only for sadists and is illuminating only if we discover a trajectory, no matter how deluded the causality. In Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s childhood encounters with her mother’s promiscuity contribute to her adult career as a kleptomaniac. In Sybil the abuse is the answer to the mystery of what dark secrets lie at the heart of the fragmented personality and its missing chunks of time. The message that child abuse isn’t necessarily interesting or meaningful is probably a valuable one, but as a concept it can’t carry the film any more than the brief cameos by Peter Fonda as the evil fundamentalist grandpa, Marilyn Manson as one of Sarah’s polymorphously perverse boyfriends, or the surprise appearance of the convicted shoplifter movie star who once claimed the earliest JT sighting ever