Category Archives: reviews

Review: “The Island of Lost Islands” by Tim Maly

Tim Maly’s recent book on the afterlives of utopias is in turns interesting, deep, frustrating, indulgent, and in the finest tradition of Borges, nonexistent.

Maly adopts a wistful tone of analysis, and Borges is again a pretty obvious influence on that language. And while Maly’s insights are pretty amazing, I felt like he cherry picked his examples a bit. Let’s be honest– some of the examples that inform us of the nature of dead utopias have sunk to the bottom of the sea, a fact he glosses over. At points I was left saying “Come on Tim, you can do better than that! Dive a little!” while people wondered who I was talking to.

But I don’t want to tear this book down, I want you to imagine yourself reading it. Flaws aside, he recreates a mental landscape of lost dreams that bewilders and excites in turns. The narrative winds its way up mountains and plunges down cliffs in a manner that really does evoke actual nausea, but in a good way. These afterlives deserve the physical act of grief, and Maly lives up to that. (For this reason I recommend no more than 15 pages at a time, and not too close to mealtimes. Also, The Island of Lost Islands doesn’t mix well with Flagyl or other photosensitive antibiotics, which I found out the hard way. Oops.)

That it reaches so high is one of the things that frustrates me about Island, because you’re left always wanting it to reach a little higher. Yes, there’s echos of Collapse, but more as if you were to imagine it as a LARPing manual than a pop-geo-anthropology text.

Close your eyes and read Tim Maly’s Island, let it flow through you, change you, and possibly cleanse you digestively. It will let you see utopia in a new, beautiful, and heartrending way. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy it. Not a word is true.

Sita Sings the Blues: A Funded by You Production

I first came across Sita Sings the Blues because it’s the poster child for free expression in the copyfight crowd. Its creator is Nina Paley, an indie filmmaker, animator, and writer. She created a version of the Ramayana that reflected her own life and political environment. Aubrey Menen did that was well, and made a book I have loved since I was a child. (It’s also the source of one of my favorite quotes: “What we call History is merely Shiva’s procrastination.”)

Sita Sings the Blues, like Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, is just damn good. The Ramayana turns out to make some good culture when ripped off, which is to my mind one of the marks of a quality holy book or myth. That it was a damn good movie which also happens to get screwed by copyright law is what made it such a popular and fine example of the harm over-zealous IP protection can do, not how screwed Paley was in particular.

Much of the media generated in opposition to current copyright regimes is nice politically and all, but it’s terrible artistically. “Honesty,” says Paley, “is where the soul of art comes from.” Not community belonging, or opposition to a legal principle, or even trying to get liked. Paley’s honesty took her to pick up the songs of the long dead Annette Hanshaw and make them the voice of Sita, the wife of the god figure Rama. Hanshaw sings sad and soulful songs of lover’s devotion while getting royally screwed. Sita also gets royally screwed in the tale, a distinctive feminine view of the original, and matching Paley’s own sense of betrayal from her runaway partner, Dave.

It’s obvious when you see the film that simply nothing else could have brought the same quality as Hanshaw. A different movie could have been made, but not Sita Sings the Blues. Hanshaw is just a couple years more recent than the magic 1923 number for public domain, and therefore locked away from use without a license for many years to come. Despite the fact that nobody but Paley seems to have known about her, being publicized in Sita can only generate more interest and sales, the rightholders are strict. It would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 to ever show Sita in a theatre legally.

Some people say it’s not good art unless it pisses someone off. By that score, Sita Sings the Blues is great art. Not only does Paley live with the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in suits over using Hanshaw’s songs, Hindu fundies have threatened to hang her for turning the Ramayana into a feminist yarn in which Rama comes across as kind of a dick.

If you can’t tell, I love Sita Sings the Blues. So much that it’s been nearly impossible to write about it, because every time I try I end up watching it again and just losing my writing time. It survives rewatching easily. It chunks, each little bit works as a short that still adds up to a coherent whole. Don’t just take my unqualified word for it. None other than Roger Ebert himself gushes about it at least as much as I.

One of the most telling criticisms of Paley is that she knew what she was getting into by using Hanshaw’s work. Of course she did, kind of. She knew she had right to clear. She didn’t research it too hard though. She had a movie to make, and she wanted to make her movie, not the movie that would be easy to clear rights for. “If I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost,” she told That she walked down this road is a credit to her as an artist, even if it’s not a credit to her commercial sensibilities.

She acknowledges that her commercial problem is the common problem of remixers these days. “I am taking ideas that have been around for thousands of years, and 80 years, and only a few years… and I synthesize something.” And, like other remixers, this may mean that she can’t ever sell what she’s done. Paley went ahead and released her source files for Sita as well as posting it at Others have started to remix her scenes into new things, some of which she posts on her blog.

As of last count the archive alone had 113,259 downloads, plus god knows how many on the torrents and from other sites. Would she have gotten more or less from a commercial release? I have no idea. I don’t know how art house indie films like Sita normally do. I suspect in the long run she will do well out of it, from donations, and a fanbase that would have been totally unreachable from the film festivals Sita would have played in. The people who cared about the copyright aspect did well too, seeing something wonderful and mythic and feminist that doesn’t generally intrude on the IP geeking community. Without her troubles and openness I don’t know that I would have gotten a chance to see Sita, so for my own small selfish part, I’m glad she ran into her copyright troubles. I hope it turns out in the long run it works out well for her too.

The trick ending of Inglourious Basterds (Contains existential spoilers)

The first thing I didn’t expect about Inglourious Basterds is this: it was hilarious. Really just knock down drag out this is damn funny, kind of funny. Maybe not as much if you aren’t familiar with WWII, or with movies about WWII, or movies made during WWII. (though that last category gets over my head) The jokes are subtle a lot of the time. They are references. There’s a scene in Britain complete with a Churchill so drunk he functions as little more than furniture. Churchill isn’t, in fact, a speaking part. From my companion’s perspective, I appeared to be choking from laughter at that.

The second is that it is the most meta film I have ever seen, including Tristam Shandy. I couldn’t help at various points poking my friend and making references to JOI’s The Joke (one for my infsum buddies). Moments of other films didn’t just come up, they were practically pointed at by the actors. The discussions of film theory took up more time than QT’s famous violence. The plot hinged on the history, culture, chemistry and even mechanics of film. This movie played with reality vs fantasy in war movies while the characters talked about how real the character of the war movie in it was.

As people keep noting, it’s a movie that turns the Jews into the Nazis and the Nazis into the Jews and takes great fun doing it. But it doesn’t stop there- the Jews even become suicide bombers, striking a contemporary note. It’s a revenge movie in just about every possible vector. It was an obscene love affair with the warm and powerful hate that revenge can turn into a kind of orgiastic joy- with a price. Unlike Kill Bill, there’s no one Bride. Just about everyone is down to get theirs, and they do. The psychic price for revenge in IG seems to be life, which most characters give willingly and enthusiastically. But it’s not, that’s a red herring. Revenge turns out to be much more expensive.

It wasn’t really a period piece. The 1984 Apple ad made an appearance, along with Austin Powers further back in time, as a general. There were others as well. And something about Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) felt anachronistic from the start, and by the end, I believed that was on purpose. Raine, it is explained repeatedly, is part Apache. He’s called Chief several time, and cites that as his reason for favoring scalping. He was a reference to something older- the American genocide- and something younger- mixed race whites being proud of their blended heritage. Aldo Raine seems quite intentionally in, but not of, this movie.

Only two serious characters in it don’t seem to have any revenge motive- Landa and Raines. They are men that spend the entire movie with smiles on their faces, like they know something the other characters don’t, smiling like they know what’s really going to happen. It’s Raine that bodily reveals the true price of total revenge. It is this: Revenge will make you one flesh. More totally than sex or love or culture or media, it is revenge that will erase the differences. Your blue-eyed Indian children will stalk the Earth, and they may love you, but they won’t know how to tell you and your most hated enemy apart.

It left me shaky and wide eyed, wondering down the empty 2am streets of Boston, walking all the way back to Cambridge with my companion without really noticing the time go by. I don’t know if I believe QT. But, strangely enough, history seems like it might be on his side. Perhaps it’s an idea that is more palatable to me expressed as no cultural identity survives massive conflict- not even the winner’s. We touch each other, we change each other, we start again. QT is not where I expected to find something like this, and it makes me wonder if this is something new for him, or if I should go back and watch the others to see what I missed.

Food, Inc. (So very full of spoilers.)

My problem with Food, Inc. (and Inconvenient Truth, with which it shares some pedigree) isn’t with its negatives. It’s with its positives. The portrayal of agri-business is possibly even too charitable at points, overlooking some issues, admittedly my pet peeves, about land use, soil erosion, the nitrogen cycle, and water and air safety. But for the most part it is honest and I think not overly gruesome look at factory farming. The the cow with a window into its stomach served no real purpose and was a bit of a gross out, but you can kind of see the producers saying “We have to put that bit in! Have to have to have to!” It has a kind of Baron Harkonnen’s pet cow feel to it, but it doesn’t really tell you anything.

My problem is the lack of examination into the heros of the story. Many of its suggestions are likely to be ineffective, and in same cases so easy to game they are likely to make the situation worse. Most of their answers require a middle class or better income, which also attracts corruption. We are told to buy organic. We are never told why organic is better, or what the organic standard is. In fact, it’s not always better, and you can slide in under the wire with the standard while violating the spirit utterly. Free range chickens and eggs can basically mean there’s a catdoor-like thing the chickens never use. Organic farming can be more destructive in some cases than conventional farming, but it varies by crop, location, climate conditions… etc. It’s nuanced and complex and doesn’t fit into a sound bite or slogan.

We are told to buy local. This is a tremendously dubious claim. Economies of scale can be better for the environment and our health, when food is produced where it wants to grow and then shipped. I once found a grown in California banana – whatever you have to do to grow a banana in California cannot be good for anyone. Buying local is something that should go with buying in season- you have to know the foods, and do it when it makes sense to do it. Again, nuanced, and not a general prescription for saving anything.

While Food, Inc. didn’t come out and say GMO = bad it certainly implied it. GMO, once again, equals complex. Not all genetic modifications are equal, and Round Up Ready soy beans is a far cry from Golden Rice- a strain engineered with enhanced vitamin A and iron for poor populations where deficiencies are a blight. GMO crops are something that should be examined rather than accepted wholesale or rejected outright. They may have the greatest potential to save the environment in the end. Is that the way current genetic engineering in food is going? Hell no. It’s largely being misused in ways that abuse human rights as well as potentially make food more poisonous. But it’s a technology, and technologies are inherently neutral. We figure out what to make of them.

We are shown meat washed with ammonia, but not told why that is bad. We are shown terrible labor conditions for undocumented workers in meat packing, but not the terrible conditions for fruit pickers, whether the farms are organic or not. We are introduced to Stonyfield Farms as an organic business that proves better methods can make money, but we’re never told what those better methods are, or what makes them better. We are simply left to trust CEO Gary Hirshberg while he goes on at length about how great their product is, and how responsible you are for buying it, even at Walmart.

It gets to be a bit of an ad for a while, but like most ads, it’s largely free of substance. But it’s great exposure, so much that Stonyfield is marketing the movie heavily on their own.

Food, Inc. lacks journalistic investigations of its own answers- it doesn’t ask those questions. Perhaps this is because when you do, the simple actions you can take listed at the end of the movie stop being so simple. None of them are wholly wrong, but none of them are wholly right either, with the possible exception of telling your congress person to pay more attention to food safety legislation. I can’t really see a problem with that. As for Kevin’s law, I hate laws named for dead children. They make me suspicious that someone is trying to short circuit my ability to reason. And that doesn’t entirely fail to work on me only makes me more suspicious.

Nevertheless, I do want to show this movie to a lot of people. Despite its flaws and omissions it at least opens a conversation about food people aren’t having. We do need to understand our foods better and make more informed choices- and this is a first step. At the very least I could use this to explain part of why I am vegetarian. I dislike its easy answers, but I love to hear people talking about the subject. While possibly sinfully incomplete, it doesn’t seem to be actually wrong very much.

One more pet peeve: the film claimed it was carbon neutral because of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are generally an indulgence sold to people to let them feel better about doing things they are going to do anyway. It’s a system totally without certification based on things like planting monocultures of trees- not exactly helpful. We don’t know how much the trees will sequester, we don’t know how much they will put back into the environment when they die. Alternate energy production as a carbon offset is also plagued with problems. It needs to hit a market and take the place of carbon based fuel, which is not as straight forward as you might think.

Mostly I am just being the bearer of the bad news that the world is complex. Food, Inc. is a movie with very discrete good guys and bad guys and a list of simple things you can do to save [insert cause here]. Most of the easy things in this world have been done, and good guys and bad guys almost never turn out to stay safely in their black and white boxes when you look closer. Go see Food, Inc. But caveat spectator.

Plastic surgery as art: choices and alienation

I attended the opening reception of an art gallery exhibition on plastic and reconstructive surgery called I Am Art.

There were two ethos of surgery on display, the first involved rectifying gross disfigurement and injury, and the second was about perfectibility. I think, after the fact, that the curators and gallery had tried very hard to get rid of that distinction and it was we, the viewers, who insisted on dividing up the room and clumping the procedures. Two videos ran in loop- one of an infant getting cleft palette surgery and the other of a particularly nauseating rhinoplasty, more so (for me at least) because of the shaky cam than the pulling back of the skin. Both of them were difficult watching and showed off the craft of surgery well, but one was heart rendingly sympathetic and the other was a nose job. Cosmetic was interwoven with and displayed similarly to reconstructive, but we all picked out the ones we thought were of choice, which patients were brave, which patients were vain. We based those inevitable assessments on nothing more than the blanket presentation of imagery. They lacked stories or personal statements about how these people came to be art under the knives of their surgeons. In that way, it was a mere mug shot gallery of physical change.

A woman who befriended me near the tummy tuck and boob job display said of the tucking and boobing surgeon, “He likes to cut up women.” There was a cut up quality to his choices of pictures- all headless and legless torsos, each with a scar that looked like the curve of a valley on a far horizon stretching between their hips, where the pouches they had carried their children in had been cut away. When he made his women into art, he made it so they had no heads to think or express, or legs to run. But he clearly made his women as Perfected as he could, as his canvas would allow. He made saggy breasts cartoonish in their constructed opposition to gravity, and pulled the skin back from their belly buttons aggressively. It reminded me of Hello Kitty, iconically and algorithmically pleasing, and mouthless.

In one case, a double radical mastectomy, He had constructed whole new breasts from the pregnancy pouch. I stared at those images for a while, wondering at this strange incarnation and adaptation of motherhood. I wished I could have seen her face. I wanted to know how her synthetic breasts did.  Did they make riding on the subway easier or harder? Did anyone reject her? Did they save her marriage? Give her the courage to leave it? I had nothing but torsos to go on.

I also found myself shopping. No matter how you feel about your body, you start remaking it a bit looking at this kind of surgery photography. It’s a little like how you begin to mentally redecorate your house when reading a certain type of magazine. You just do.

There were a few gaggles of Surgically Perfected Women in attendance, something like how I pictured the daughter in David Foster Wallace’s Tri-Stan. They had an otherness to them that I realized was demographic, the same way body modders must look a bit alien to people that aren’t me. Their surgical choices were not inscrutable to me, but the obvious effort they made on make-up was. The sacrifice and pain of surgery I get, the daily drudgery and expense of heavy and meticulous make-up confounds me. I tried to get into conversations with them a couple times, but failed. Perhaps a tired looking t-shirt and sneakers wearing girl with scraggly hair, too many bags and no make-up at all was as demographically alien to them and they were to me. The women who talked to me largely criticized them, calling them Stepford and worse; the men stayed silent. For the evening, it seemed, I was put on a team in a fight I didn’t know existed and was probably ideologically opposed to. I felt as well that something New York was happening, and I was far too Californian to understand it, and therefore far too likely to suggest hugging as an answer to have anyone want to explain it to me.

I can say for sure, despite the criticisms of team imPerfect, the Surgically Perfected Woman were not spineless and compliant creatures. They strutted, proud of what they were, showing off the breasts and lips doctors had created for them with no shame. And it made sense, why work so hard on your appearance only to be ashamed? I could admire them as having taken a stand to inhabit a cultural norm with as much fury and conscious determination as the extreme modders with their facial tattoos, horns, and metal studs had taken their stand to reject it.

My new friend’s animus was more complex than this. When she was 12 her parents, people who had terribly feared losing their looks,  went to the plastic surgeon and gotten faces lifts together. I had a tender image of them sitting together in that doctor’s office holding hands, keeping each other company and working up the courage, but for her it had been horrifying. They’d returned with huge swollen heads, medicated for pain and bandaged. Here she mimed them with her own hands far out to the sides of her head, bouncing back and forth like a bobble. She had been terrified, but also couldn’t look away. What they had done to themselves they had done to her. As is the way of parents, they were too far from the egocentric enmeshment of childhood to see that they were doing it to her. She had spent 17 years slowly writing a musical about the experience.

I mentioned that my mom had gotten into body piecing when I was a teenager. “That is not ok!” she announced vigorously, “It is not ok for parents to be cooler than their child!” I told her I was always fine with it, that my mother never felt like she was threatening to outcool me. The same thing, this same quality of parent’s actions washing out into the lives of child had happened to me as well, but gone the other way. I happily realized that I could get pierced or tattooed and it wouldn’t be a rebellion- I had a license no one else had, and I liked it. I didn’t use it, I wouldn’t get modified for many years, but I liked that if I did, my mother would already understand it. The same thing that had horrified and alienated her had given me choices.

The exhibit was about a complex topic, more so than I think the people that did it understood. It needed to explain the relationships and the choices, to talk about who the people were. It didn’t rise to the challenge. Looking back, I feel like this talk of our parents, all while surrounded by pictures and videos of graphic surgeries, before and after mug shots,  and cliques of post surgical women added the context the exhibition so needed. We were all stepping in and out of alienation, wearing our choices on our faces.