Fresh Take on “Faces Places”

JR Varda

In the film Faces Places, which is now playing in cinemas and on demand in the UK, the legendary French film director Agnes Varda teams up with photographer JR on a road trip through France presenting large scale photographs of people in unique and odd locations.  They drive around in a truck that has a giant photograph of a camera lens that operates as a mobile photo booth and printer. People step inside the truck, take their picture and the print comes out of the side of the truck. The pairing of JR and Varda is a perfect cinematic juxtaposition.  The 33 year old JR is young, hip and always wears his trademark hat and black sunglasses, refusing to take them off as much as Varda pleads with him. Varda, with her two-toned bowl haircut is incredibly petite, as if gravity is trying to pull her 88 year old body into the ground. She is wonderfully eccentric, calm and confident in the knowledge that her time on this planet is certainly nearing its end and embarking on a project that satisfies her.   “JR is fulfilling my greatest desire. To meet new faces and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory” she says.

Though the film is a documentary, it has some nice moments of fancy.  The film begins by showing how the two of them didn’t meet with comical scenes of missed opportunities like Varda dancing in a night club with JR just a few feet away or at a bus stop where an annoyed Varda can’t be bothered to wait the three minutes and decides to walk instead.  The two set off trying to meet people in remote villages of France and try to connect them to each other and the audience through their work. The final result of the first set up is over a dozen portraits connected by a giant baguette.  

Faces-Places-Baguette

One of the things they address is how as technology has improved we are becoming more and more isolated. They photograph one farmer who was able to cut his entire staff because he can do the work of a few people alone with his modern equipment but laments that it has made him anti-social.  They paste a massive portrait of him that takes up his entire barn and saying that they’ll make him the star of the village of 140, to which the man replies he already is.

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One of the film’s most poignant stories features a woman who refuses to leave her childhood home, the last of a row of houses in an old mining village.  They memorialise her by placing her photograph on her entire home which moves the woman to tears.

faces-places-miner daughter

The nature of JR’s work is ephemeral and they paste one of Varda’s cherished photographs of an old friend on a German bunker which fell into the beach and within a day the photo is washed away.  “The sea always has the last word” Varda says. The simple and profound film is also a meditation on death with Varda talking about friends and loved ones who have passed, including her husband the director Jacques Demy.  There is a scene at the end of the film which is so painfully beautiful that I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s something that will certainly stay with me for a very long time. Varda’s eyes tell a story in themselves of a lifetime of hurt, betrayal, tolerance but also joy.  JR is keen to this and ends the film by pasting her eyes on a train saying they will travel to places Varda has never been.

 

Fresh Take on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Much has been written about Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and here are a few things I found striking that haven’t been as widely discussed as the more explosive revelations within it.

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Even though it is squarely about Trump, the book could have been called All The President’s Men (if that title hadn’t already been made famous by Woodward himself). It’s really about the men (with a few exceptions) that surrounded President Trump in his first year in office, and what they did to contain and prevent him from his worst impulses.  Woodward didn’t interview Trump himself, and I doubt much insight would actually be gained from the inclusion of Trump’s words here.  Interviews with Trump are long and rambling and don’t actually provide much insight into the man, besides that he is a compulsive liar and that he can’t focus on anything besides himself.  In a 2016 pre-election interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, who painfully had to try to pin down Trump to interview him for the book, said that Trump’s key characteristic was that “he has no attention span.”  This is something that the characters in Fear not only understand but use to their (and perhaps our) advantage.  Woodward writes about “an administrative coup d’etat” where staffers would either ignore the President’s orders or would go so far as to remove letters from his desk in the Oval Office to prevent the President from signing them.

One much discussed passage in the book is about a furious Trump not understanding why the US spends money to protect foreign countries like South Korea and Taiwan and having to be told that it’s done to prevent World War III.  Another passage which hasn’t been as discussed but is nearly as terrifying recounts Trump’s aides explaining to him that China could retaliate against a trade war by refusing to sell antibiotics to the US (nearly 97% of the US supply comes from China).  

These accounts show the clear danger that Trump presents and how the strategy of containing him could be quite beneficial.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that this is actually just delaying the inevitable and that if there were mass resignations similar to what happened in the Nixon administration during Watergate, the stronger the case for Congress or the voters to do something about it and prevent someone like him from getting elected again.     

Some characters like Senator Lindsey Graham and Steve Bannon come across as political opportunists while others fare better, notably economic adviser Gary Cohn, White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the President’s lawyer John Dowd.  One of the criticisms of the book has been that Woodward’s sources could likely be presenting themselves in a flattering light to him so that history will be kind to them. Woodward has pushed back against this saying that he tries to get as many sources as possible and isn’t relying on just one person’s account.  In interviews he has repeatedly quoted his old editor Ben Bradlee saying that over time “the truth emerges”.  The more that is reported on this the more truth will certainly emerge.

Markets Gone Mad-Amazon edition

Just a quick update on my piece on Apple becoming the most valuable company reaching the $1T market value threshold with news that Amazon briefly hit that same point yesterday.  Amazon’s path to get to that position was quite different from Apple’s, since Amazon is a relatively “young” company.  Whereas Apple went public in 1980, Amazon only did in 1997.  The companies are also wildly different in terms of profitability.  In 2017 Apple’s profits were $48B while Amazon’s was $3B.

A couple of good pieces that cover this news is this piece from the NYTimes and another one from Bloomberg, both of which are cautious about what the future holds for Amazon.

BlacKkKlansmen review

*Warning-this review contains multiple spoilers to the plot and ending of the film*

There’s a scene at the end of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a baptist church, where the segregationist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace is interviewed.  Wallace was quite old and visibly frail at the time (he passed away in 1998, a year after the documentary came out) and he tries to highlight the positive things that he did as governor, including providing free textbooks to African-American schoolchildren who couldn’t afford it.  An African-American man who knew Wallace said that when you were alone with him one-on-one, he was the nicest man you’d ever meet, but when the cameras and the political spotlight was on him, it was a different story. The interview ends with Wallace calling forward his caretaker and aide, an elderly African-American man named Eddie Holcey and while holding his hand repeatedly says that he is his best friend.  Holcey, visibly uncomfortable, stands there holding his hand and then tries to move out of the frame. The scene is incredibly powerful and memorable (after 20 years it’s still burned into my memory), but in a way it feels out of the place in the documentary.  You get the sense that the footage was so good, showing how broken this once-powerful man was, that Lee couldn’t resist including it in the film.  The scene also serves to humanise this racist monster of a man, who was implicit in the deaths of the four little girls that the film is about and so much more.  Wallace is practically pleading to the camera for history to remember him kindly, and even though it won’t, nor should it, you can’t help but feel empathy for him.  There’s a scene at the end of Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansmen that shows a montage of footage from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last August and the violent attack against counter-protestors where a man drove a car through the crowd and killed Heather Heyer.  Similar to the Wallace scene in 4 Little Girls it’s incredibly powerful and visceral but feels even more out of place in this movie.  Lee is trying to draw a line between the fictionalised depictions of the KKK of the 1970s in the movie and what the deadly real-life result is in the end.  The footage is undeniably powerful and Terence Blanchard’s score, beautiful on it’s own-but not quite fitting throughout the movie, is used to great effect during that end sequence.  The movie is problematic because so much of what we see before that end sequence is so sloppily put together.

The plot of the movie is the semi-true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who was the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs.  After suffering through working in the records room and having to deal with a particularly racist cop, Stallworth gets to do some investigative work and is assigned to go undercover at a meeting of the Black Student Union where Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, is speaking.  He meets the president of the student union, a young woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a romantic plotline is built around that.  Stallworth sees an advertisement for the local KKK chapter and decides to call and pretend to be white and interested. A meeting is set up and since Stallworth obviously can’t attend it because of the colour of his skin, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent and pretends to be him.  Their investigation into the KKK leads them to discover a terrorist plot where they are planning on bombing the Black Student Union, and in the process Stallworth manages to become phone buddies with David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand master of the KKK, who comically doesn’t realise he’s discussing white supremacy with an African-American cop.  

One of the main problems of the movie is that the filmmakers take such liberties with the actual facts of the story that most of the plotline feels completely implausible.  In real life Stallworth did speak to the KKK and Duke on the phone, while his partner pretended to be him in person but in the film the two actors sound almost nothing alike.  Flip’s character has none of the charisma that Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth has which makes them pretending to be the same person even more implausible.  The depiction of the klansmen are almost all played for laughs and most of them are presented as painfully stupid or at the very least inept. This depiction of them strangely serves to render them harmless.  The characters are saying the most vile racist things and planning out terrorist attacks, but because they’re presented as so comically inept, their sense of danger is removed.  As the climax approaches with the attempted bombing, the stakes are surprisingly low because you don’t think these fools can actually pull it off (and of course they don’t, some of the more vile KKK characters end up getting killed and another is arrested).  

Topher Grace’s performance of David Duke is a great light-hearted mockery of the man and there is something to be said for stripping a dangerous person of his power by making him slightly buffoonish, but it’s then quite striking when you see footage of the real David Duke at the end of the film.  The real Duke is dangerously charismatic (you don’t climb the ranks of an organisation like that without a real sense of charisma) but to see the juxtaposition of the real Duke and Topher Grace’s version of him is quite jarring. Imagine if Chaplin showed actual footage of Hitler at the end of The Great Dictator?

The biggest problem of the movie is that it plays directly to the liberal audience that’s watching it and doesn’t challenge them at all.  There is a scene in the middle of the film where a white police officer is telling Stallworth how David Duke is trying to change the perception of the KKK to normalise it so that eventually they will have someone sympathetic to their cause as the President of the United States.  Stallworth says that will never happen and the other officer chastises him and tells him to wake up. The scene is played for cheap laughs given the current occupant of the Oval Office but it feels completely out of place in the film. Are we to believe that a black man in 1970s America doesn’t think that America could produce a racist president?  These events are taking place while Richard Nixon is the sitting president after deploying the “Southern Strategy” to gin up support by appealing to racism against African-Americans like Stallworth.  The scene isn’t meant to make logical sense and is so ham-fisted that it wouldn’t be out of place if the characters turned to the camera and winked to the audience.  There is also a subplot of a token “bad cop” named Andy Landers, (Frederick Weller) that doesn’t seem fully thought-out. Landers seems to take pleasure out of roughing up African-Americans and in one scene he goes so far as to feel up Patrice after he pulls her over.  Stallworth asks his colleagues why they don’t report Landers and Flip says they’re a family and they protect their own. True enough, but then inexplicably towards the end of the film there is a scene when the cops, Flip included, set up Landers and take him down. When Stallworth shows up to work the next day, he struts down the hallway and his fellow cops are giving him high-fives.  Are we to believe that there is only a single truly racist cop in a Colorado Springs police department in the 1970s and the only African-American officer takes him down and is treated like a hero? This scene and so much of the movie completely lets the audience off the hook. A liberal audience member (the only people that would likely see the movie to begin with) watches that scene and can be happy that the one “bad apple” cop has rightfully received his comeuppance.  

The movie is meant to be an homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and the liberties taken with the story and presenting Stallworth as an unparalleled hero fit that but the more heavy-handed connections to present day America are what make this movie so problematic.  America, and so much of the world, is clearly going through a racial crisis at the moment and Spike Lee could be the perfect artist to address this, but unfortunately he fails spectacularly with this movie. The visceral montage of the Charlottesville rally at the end of the film highlights what a missed opportunity the film that came before it represents.  Similar to what he achieved with 4 Little Girls or his documentaries about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise), if Lee used his skills as a documentary filmmaker instead it might result in a more focused artistic effort tackling the same issues head-on.

Changing the Model

As audio platforms like podcasts become mainstream, best-selling authors are moving into it and other new spaces to reach a wider audience, but the impact they’re having in relation to legacy book publishing and sales is yet to be seen.

Many popular authors have recently made the jump from traditional formats such as newspaper/magazine columns and books to new models like podcasts and audio originals on Audible.com.  A high profile case of this is Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink) who has a popular podcast, Revisionist History.  Gladwell has sold millions of books but said that he decided to venture into podcasts to more easily reach his audience. Speaking with the New Yorker editor David Remnick, Gladwell sees podcasts as a means to get to a younger audience but also to keep his current readers engaged in between books in an environment where their attention is in high demand.  In an interview with Adweek Gladwell sums it up by saying, “if you’re going to be relevant…you have to try to reach people in more than one way because these worlds are getting quite fragmented.”

The best-selling author Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Moneyball, Flash Boys) had a column for Vanity Fair but he recently made the switch to audio originals for Audible.  Similar to Gladwell, Lewis is doing this as a means to expand his audience.  No doubt Lewis will find new “readers” through Audible but I wonder how many of his existing fans will follow him to that space.  Audible is mainly a subscription service and for £7.99 a month you can download one audiobook or Audible original a month. You can also get audio books without a subscription and you can buy Michael Lewis’s latest audio original, The Coming Storm for £5.49.  So for roughly the equivalent of a quarter-year’s-long subscription to Vanity Fair (annual price is currently £24) you could buy a single story that otherwise would have been a magazine column.  

Another author who has done this in one way or another is Robert Caro, famous for his landmark biographies of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and his ongoing series on US President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson).  Caro is an old-school writer in almost every sense of the definition (Caro is famous for handwriting his drafts), but even he has made an Audible original with his latest work, a short memoir-esque piece only available on that platform.  Caro has long talked about writing a memoir once he’s finished with the LBJ project, but considering he is 82 years old some of his fans understandably fear that he will never get to it.  The Audible original could be a means to start getting that information out there in a quicker-to-market format than the usual process to get a book published. In an interview Caro said that he did it as a way to get some of his speeches saved for posterity.  

Some popular podcasters are going in the other direction though.  The comedian Marc Maron, who was an early pioneer of the podcast format published a collection of excerpts of the conversations he’s had on his popular podcast, WTF as a book.  Switching to this new model could prove lucrative and Amazon with its deep pockets is trying to court popular authors and likely looking to become the Netflix of audiobooks and colonise that space. The more popular the author, the likelier it is that some of their fans will follow them to the new platform but it remains to be seen how successful it will be for up and coming authors.  The filmmakers behind Crazy Rich Asians were pursued by Netflix and turned down their lucrative offers because they felt the movie being a success in the old-fashioned model was more important.  In an interview on Vulture, the film’s director Jon Chu said, “If it came down to money, what are we actually trying to do here?…Taking it to the theater, it’s a symbol that a Hollywood studio system thinks it has value…It put us emotionally all in and upped the stakes…Without that, we wouldn’t be doing this marketing push. It would just be on the front page of Netflix or wherever it could end up.”

There is certainly a large market for these new models (the comedian Joe Rogan recently said he gets 30 million downloads of his show a month) but it’s not being discussed in the same way, and this accounts for the decision to release Crazy Rich Asians theatrically.  Gladwell’s books are discussed widely and a few of the main concepts that he’s struck upon (“The 10,000 hour rule”, David & Goliath) seem to have broken into the mainstream.  Gladwell has some thought-provoking concepts in his podcasts as well but it is difficult to find the audience that discusses those ideas and critiques them in an engaging way.  For the most part podcasts aren’t reviewed the same way that books are, and this could be a sign of the struggles of old media trying to keep up with new media. In the interview with Remnick, Gladwell actually points to this as part of the appeal of podcasts, saying that there is no “critical infrastructure” that exists to tell people which podcasts to listen to, similar to what happens in books.  

The power of the book was expressed recently with the news that the legendary journalist Bob Woodward was coming out with a book about the Trump presidency.  Until recently the book was kept under wraps and considering how much is written about the administration and the constant daily turmoil, the fact that Woodward was able to do this on the sly was news on its own.  Woodward, famous for his reporting on the events that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment, represents a dying breed of journalists. Even though he’s a working reporter who is occasionally on TV and has columns published, just the announcement of the book coming out became news in and of itself which could be a sign of the power of the old paradigm of book publishing.  Even authors who have embraced the new models aren’t giving up on books with Michael Lewis releasing a new book this fall and Malcolm Gladwell working on one as well.

Markets Gone Mad

Apple achieved an incredible financial milestone two weeks ago, reaching a market value of over $1 Trillion and that continues to rise.  The NY Times has a really good article about what this means for the economy in terms of income inequality and the consolidation of a significant amount of money in a small handful of companies.  Below are some of the more astonishing excerpts from the story:

This year, five tech companies — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google’s parent, Alphabet — have delivered roughly half of the gains achieved by the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Apple is the only company with a $1 trillion market value, but Amazon this year has been nipping at its heels. It is currently valued at more than $880 billion.

Apple and Google combined now provide the software for 99 percent of all smartphones. Facebook and Google take 59 cents of every dollar spent on online advertising in the United States. Amazon exerts utter dominance over online shopping and is getting bigger, fast, in areas like streaming of music and videos.

But the trend is not confined to technology.

Today, almost half of all the assets in the American financial system are controlled by five banks. In the late 1990s, the top five banks controlled a little more than one-fifth of the market. Over the past decade, six of the largest United States airlines merged into three. Four companies now control 98 percent of the American wireless market, and that number could fall to three if T-Mobile and Sprint are allowed to merge.

This time two years ago, Apple’s market value was as “low” as $520B. At the time, they were still the most valuable company, but in just two years they have nearly doubled their value.  The last time Apple wasn’t the biggest company was in the 2nd quarter of 2013 when Apple was beat by ExxonMobil for just that one quarter. To show how significantly the landscape has changed, ExxonMobil’s current position is now in 10th place.  To really emphasise how much of the market is contained within a single company, the NYTimes also has a neat interactive feature that shows if you combine the value of 111 S&P 500 companies they would come close to matching Apple.

What are the limits of this incredibly bullish market?  As we’ve seen with Facebook’s market value dropping by $120 Billion in a single day, the problem with these companies having such a lion’s share of the economy is that when they fall, the effects are massive.  One interesting thing that has been noted about Facebook’s drop is that even though the company lost as much money in a single day as some major companies like Nike are worth in total, there were few calls for their CEO or any top executives to step down.  In any other era if a company lost that much money there would be immediate consequences but that isn’t the case today.

Sideshow Act or Actual News?

Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien has a good opinion piece in Bloomberg about the Omarosa story that is currently dominating the news cycle.  O’Brien calls Omarosa and Trump “kindred spirits” and that while he was interviewing Trump for his book “Trumpland” he seemed to be endlessly fascinated by Omarosa, particularly her “self-absorption and nastiness”.

Of the barrage of daily news stories regarding this administration it’s difficult to choose which ones to stay focused on and a lot the time events that seem to not have much merit surprisingly turn into important stories.  At first glance everything about Omarosa’s story seems to be something that could and should be ignored, until it’s not of course. Thinking like that is entirely missing the point. The Omarosa story is the new Stormy Daniels story or Michael Cohen or the endless other ones that are demanding our attention by their sheer absurdity.  O’Brien theorizes that “Trump tweets relentlessly when he feels cornered or obsessed” and by all accounts Trump is definitely obsessed with Omarosa. Trump refuted Omarosa’s claim that he used the n-word during a taping of “The Apprentice” and said that Mark Burnett called to tell him the tapes she alludes to don’t exist.  Then a day later Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she can’t guarantee Trump didn’t say it.  Omarosa said that the Apprentice tape was discussed during the 2016 campaign on a call but his aides denied that ever took place.  The next day Omarosa released a recording of that meeting causing Trump’s aides to walk back their original statements.  Frank Bruni writes that Omarosa’s tapes reflect Trump’s long history of recording or threatening to record conversations, “Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the cleverest kind of revenge.”  Politico reports that there are some similarities between the fear of Trump’s staff worried about what will come out in subsequent recordings to the fears Hillary Clinton’s staff had during the Wikileaks daily release of John Podesta’s emails.  A key difference was spelled out by Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, “Nobody had to be worried that there was an email where Hillary used the N-word.”

Time will tell how long this story will dominate the news cycle and whether it actually does anything to impact change.  That people are yet again openly wondering what Trump’s views are on race and how it is that he has such a terrible track record of hiring people like Omarosa in the first place is a dialogue worth continuing to have.