Saturday, November 30, 2013

Troublemaking Geniuses

On my last day I watched three movies about troublemaking geniuses.  Sepideh, an aspiring Iranian seventeen year old astronomer, is held back in her wishes to attend the university and study physics; World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali is not allowed to use the name, given him by the Nation of Islam, and prevented from boxing when he refuses the draft to fight in Viet Nam;  and Ai Weiwei is held without charges for 3 months on the suspicion of, variously, subverting the state, pornography and, finally, tax evasion.

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Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars - Nov 29

Sepideh's fails in her attempts to win a free scholarship by making the case that the Tomb of Cyrus was an ancient observatory.  She makes observations about the position of the sun on the equinox 2500 years ago, among other things, but its clear the men taking her application have no idea what she is talking about.  Her father dead, her mother incapable of irrigating their land, her uncle has taken over as patriarch of the family and he disapproves of her spending all night stargazing in the astronomy club.  Even the club's mentor, who recognizes that Sepideh's talent, wants to keep her in the community to inspire other youth to do astronomy, so really no one supports her dream to go the university.  Things turn around for Sepideh only after she writes Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian woman in space, and receives a phone call from her in return.  Then an educated man in the astronomy club proposes to marry her and tells her he will support her dream to study physics, even if it requires her to go abroad.  In the final scene of the movie she is meeting with Ansari in New York.

I can't help but wonder about the influence the documentary filmmaker Berit Madsen also had on Sepideh's life.  The Danish social anthropologist had somehow learned that Iranian youth were trying to build an astronomical observatory in a drought stricken region of Iran, and she seems to have chosen Sepideh as the central character for her ethnography because she highlights the conflict between traditional and contemporary gender roles in Iran.  More women than men finish secondary education, same as in the US, but graduation from universities is less common.  In an early scene the mother reminds her she should learn to cook, and Sepideh retorts that cooking won't get her anywhere.  Her uncle also threatens to kill her if "something happens" on her nightly astronomy adventures with a mix of women and men.  

To be fair to both her uncle and her mother, Sepideh's challenge to norms would not have helped her much, if she weren't smart, driven and very lucky--so they were simply trying to let her down easy, given that they could not afford to pay her way through the university.  We see a grim image of her future in her Astronomy Club mentor, who is refused at every appeal for the funds to finish the observatory and who lives alone with his complaining and very ill mother.  Its not clear that there would be any way for an intelligent young Iranian woman to succeed in the sciences,  unless she were offered assistance by the wealthy Ansari --and perhaps, more indirectly, by the Danish filmmaker.

What makes this film work its magic is the juxtaposition of the barren daytime landscape and the rich sky above at night, sparkling with stars.  The poster depicts Sepideh carrying her huge 14" telescope up the hill under these stars, and that pretty much sums up the story.  That she overcomes the restrictions put upon her by tradition and poverty gives hope for women in Iran, and stands out as pretty much the only "feel good" documentary I watched in this entire festival.

Trials of Muhammad Ali

Not just another Ali movie, Trials focuses on the turbulent period of the late 60s, when the heavyweight joined Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and, at once, refused the draft.  His financial and legal backers in Louisville don't renew his contract when he is forbidden to box, and Ali has to support his family through paid speaking engagements on college campuses.  His audiences have a mixture of sympathy for his conscientious objection and antipathy towards his position against Martin Luther King's civil rights message.  Instead of dreaming that white children and black children would some day play together, the Nation of Islam called white people "devils" and argued for a kind of jim-crow separatism, this time enforced by the crow.

In the Q&A afterwards we learned that both the director Bill Siegel and the producer Gordon Quinn were themselves conscientious objectors and heard Ali speak with conviction against the war in that period. That the world heavyweight boxing champion of the world stood against violence was an irony not lost on anyone, but this made him immune to the accusation of cowardice and, because he had so much financially to lose by objecting, Ali weirdly made an ideal spokesman for the anti-war movement.   Ali argued that he had more in common with the oppressed Vietnamese, and that although he might fight a war for Allah he was unwilling to fight for White America.  Surprisingly, there was legal precedent for his case, because the Jehovah's Witnesses, unlike the Quakers, had won their case for conscientious objection on similar grounds--not pretending to be pacifists, but only willing to go to war for their own specifically religious causes.   The Viet Nam war was so divisive by the early 70s,  that as his case worked its way up the courts of appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Justice System only wanted to keep him out of the war, without setting a bad legal precedent.  In the end his case was resolved on a technicality, because the original courts had denied Ali's sincerity as an objector (suggesting that he was lying, which is different than claiming he was simply not qualified to object) and this somehow preempted judgement against him.  

I don't know if the film makers did this deliberately, but this documentary follows the genre conventions of the boxing irish priest story.  Tough kid from a tough neighborhood learns to fight not just with his fists for fame, but with his spirit for God.  With the most recognizable name and face on the planet, Ali may have started out trying to overcome the racism of his day, even reflecting it back for a time in the last 60s, but his persecution more closely resembles that of a prophetic leader.  In fact, the Nation of Islam's prophet Elijah Mohammad was sent to jail for refusing the draft--and he died there--whereas Allah seems to intercede with a miracle at each point to keep Mohammad Ali moving forward in his cause.  

In the cold start of the movie we see Ali being interviewed by live satellite from England on an American talk show.  He smiles when introduced but before he can even start the first guest of the host calls him a cowardly two-faced hypocrite, hiding from his patriotic obligations overseas.  Ali's face falls, eyes turned down, but he does not rise to anger.  It is the same face that Parkinson's Disease has left him with, not the characteristic boasting smile we associate with Ali the Boxer.  He wears this fallen face decades later, even when he receives the President's Medal of Honor and lights the Olympic torch, but we don't know what is going on inside.  Although the disease has taken away his control of his muscles, he still controls his mental faculties, and I can't help thinking he is thinking that we are all trying to make up for our own past bad behavior.  

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case

Andreas Johnsen's biopic about Weiwei begins with his release from confinement.  For three months this chinese designer, voted the most important artist in the world, was kept in a tiny low-ceilinged cell, where two guards stood over him--not just outside the cell, but inside with him, one pacing diagonally between the head of the bed and the toilet.  He has this claustrophobic intimidation sculpted from memory in exquisite life-sized detail and the six pieces (Weiwei eats, Weiwei sleeps, etc.) are disassembled, so as to evade censorship in customs, and shipped to the Venice Biennale at the end of the documentary.  

No shrinking wallflower Weiwei speaks frankly about why he must resist the party officials' methods of intimidation, even at the risk of further psychological or physical torture.  The art which has provoked the State censors includes "pornography"--photos of nudes (their genitals and nipples covered by photos of Weiwei himself) and English swear words--"Fuck off!" which translates into Chinese as "Non-cooperative Communicator!"  At most this in America and Europe this would be mildly ironic, punk or deconstructionist and in the west we know Weiwei best for the birds' nest design of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing we all saw on television.  There were no formal charges during the three months he was interrogated, and it is his design company "Fake LTD" that was finally charged (with tax evasion).  

I don't even think that the failures of the Chinese political and legal system are the true focus of Andreas Johnsen, though this failure is taken for granted in the film.  What the film focuses on is the designer's playful means of resisting intimidation.  In one scene he surprises the party agents following him and follows them in his car as they flee the scene.  He also sets up webcams so that his every move can be watched by anyone online (not just the State).  Western visitors are not exempt from his playful trickery either.  An art collector, who wants to market as solid gold coins a series of zodiac heads Weiwei created, is told he should make them out of cheap plastic and sell them for the price of gold but give away the gold ones.  "To take apart the concept of gold," Weiwei says.  The collector can't tell if he is joking or serious and neither can we.  Although he is prevented from speaking freely to western media he offers a journalist to record him taking a shower instead, and Johnsen himself finally shoots this shower (from the waist up) in the final scene with credits.  

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Everyone instinctively roots for a troublemaking genius.  She or he is the child we once were, pushing the envelope of rules our parents once wrapped around us.  Whether it is changing gender roles in Iran, the changing racial and religious politics of the 60s in America, or the changes the Communist Party fears in China, these films remind us how painful change is historically.  If, as Weiwei himself claims, the State would collapse in a month if they allowed free speech on the radio--its no wonder they are paranoid and uses repressive tactics.  Why else would it park 20 police cars in front of Weiwei's compound and then just leave when he comes out and yells at them. 

Judging by the rapid social changes since the 60s in America, one can also see why the Grand Ayatollah would fear these changes might come to Iran.  One might reasonably guess most women are not fighting for their right to become astrophysicists, but want the social freedom and consumer conveniences we take for granted in the West: the right to work and move freely, but also to have their hair styled and wear makeup, watch racy movies…Louis Vuitton handbags!  Our consumer culture has gone global and viral and it wins, whenever it goes head to head with the values of traditional society, at least among youth.  How to contain and control this change is one of the basic problems facing tyranny today.  

There is also a problem with all narratives promoting the freedom of special individuals.  Despite what our parents told us, most of us are not very special and exercise our hard-won freedom by playing video games, watching TV, and eating too much.  For the past week I have played no video games, watched TV, nor even ate much--but visiting the Van Gogh museum, photographing tall women on bicycles, and enjoying hand-crafted Indonesian soups are just the high-brow equivalents.  They may be aesthetically more interesting, but psychologically they are still diversions.

In my case, I am taking a break from the pressures of my work and family--but the very nature of vacation takes for granted that you will return to all the same habits, for good or for bad, when you return.  The whole point is to get back enough energy to continue, not to change anything.  This is why vacation is required at work.  It is a prescribed, scheduled freedom because, as industrial psychologists have proved, it improves our productivity.  But what we need is less financial productivity at work and more free productivity at play.

Whether we work for home improvement, future college or retirement savings, or just for more vacation--the money we earn for our day's labor can't possibly be worth what we give up in the process.  Its not our freedom per se, but life itself, the time to experience our children growing up, to continue learning and improving the skills we don't use to make money.  Every day we exchange a little more of our short life span for the less fragile and decidedly more fungible form of real estate.  But the genius of the genius is not to make this devil's bargain.  Although Ali and Weiwei have both profited immensely, and Sepideh may well outstrip the wealthiest landowners in her small town under Ansari's benefaction, these three don't struggle for the right to be more productive, financially, but just to be able to produce, freely.  They want to do and make and learn what they want.

The documentary film makers are also blessed with this freedom, even though they come to IDFA to pitch new films and hope to get distribution for the ones they have already made.  Only a damn fool would try to get rich by going into the business of making documentaries and to devote one's life to producing something with no promise of compensation is a rare and exceptional, maybe even exalted, privilege.  It doesn't even matter if the film fails--I am not saying all artists are geniuses! They give hope to the rest of us, even if they fail.  Like the speck of yeast that leavens the bread, the genius both creates and reveals the structure of the society in which they live-- simply by pushing up against it.  But if you follow the metaphor literally and realize what comes of the yeast colony in the end, the genius also seems to ends in some kind of holocaust.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dangerous Camerawork

More reviews later…playing catchup.  One per day is probably all I will ever manage, given that I have seen three or four per day...Here are my first four reviews:

Farewell to Hollywood - Nov 22

Directed by Henry Corra and Regina Nicholson, but also starring them or, more accurately, lived and died by them, this documentary flirts with disaster like no other film I have ever seen.  At a film festival, Regina asked Henry to make a film about her fight with cancer and he agreed, but we know from the opening scene of the movie that Regina will die.  She does not make it past age 19 and when the movie begins she is 16 or 17--but amazingly, her slow death is not even the hardest part to watch, nor her multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.  The hardest part is watching her try to live, to be a teenager whose lifetime must be compressed into a few short years.

The normal conflicts teens have with parents are exacerbated by the cancer and seem even harder for her mother and father than they are for their daughter: a modern Job who, with a maturity beyond her years, endures her suffering and continues to speak clearly and cogently to the camera.  Among her torments are a mother threatening to shoot herself (which she doesn't) and a father threatening to disown on her 18th birthday (which he does!), so Regina must find her own medical insurance.  

At this point Henry asks Regina for permission to be her medical manager and moves her into her own home in South Pasadena, but even before she had turned 18, its clear from their frequent text messages that the middle aged filmmaker and his teen collaborator have fallen in love.  Henry Corra was in the movie theater, and although he insisted that he did not have sex with Regina, he does not dance around the fact of their intense relationship.  He includes in the film the texts where Regina's parents cut him off because they believed his attentions were inappropriate;  also, during the period when he can't see her, he admits that waiting for her to call or text recalls his own adolescence and that these feelings of anxiety are inappropriate for a man his age.  In one of her better periods, Regina is wearing a blonde wig (because "blondes have more fun") and its clear that she wishes she could be a normal teenager, who dated and had a boyfriend.  She even requests balloons folded into the shape of penises for her last birthday!  Part of the reason I believe Henry, when he says they did not have a sexual relationship, is that he includes so much of Regina's off color humor about her ill-fated virginity.  Henry reports that Regina anticipated the imputation of scandal and told him to say that she was his "dead virgin bride and our film is the love-child of an immaculate conception."

So what else is wrong with this picture: cancer, teen angst, abandonment by parents, Lolita-like love?  They also flirt with disaster with the cinematography, because much of the movie is just Henry holding up a 5D in Regina's face, and quite often while they are driving through rain, or committing misdemeanors: burying her ashes on Catalina island or tagging a sidewalk.  During the tagging incident, Regina hears a helicopter and flees back to Henry waiting in the car, and one is struck with the awkwardness of a middle aged man facilitating a teenager's classic coming-of-age experiences.  Before her last surgery he also takes her on a whirlwind weekend of amusement park rides, as a father might his own daughter. Regina cannot go out alone with other teenagers, so she must take what she can get: this awkward pretend teen-rebellion, accompanied by Canon 5Ds and a man with graying hair.

But in the end the wish they are able to fulfill for each other is real.  At one point, early in the movie, the "make a wish" foundation convinces Kevin Smith to let her play an extra in a funeral scene on the set of Red State.  Her wish was not so much to be an actress as to be a director, and no foundation could ever put in the years Henry Corra devoted to fulfilling this dream before she died.   Five days before she died she was reviewing their rough cut--and she co-directs in the credits.  Its not as clear what Corra's wish was--which is why lurid motives are too easy to imagine--but caring for anybody to the death is frankly more intimate than sex.  No one questions his devotion and generosity--and in Q&A Corra said he still hoped the movie might also be redemptive for the parents, though they have never seen it.  "I have a daughter myself" he tells us, and I wondered briefly if Corra had been estranged from her--because of the pressures of his work, or a divorce--and that Regina gave him the relationship he had not been able to have in his biological family.  This closeness--even if it is a cot next to the bed of a dying loved one--is precious rare in the 21st century and the movie portrays love in an original light I have never seen before.  Henry Corra and Regina Nicholson have created a new type of filmmaking--what he calls without irony "living cinema"--and while no one else may ever be able to pull off something like this again, "Farewell to Hollywood" succeeds.

The Ghosts in Our Machine - Nov 23

If I had to find a common thread among the movies featured at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, it would be "dangerous camerawork."  The Ghosts in Our Machine is a film about radical empathy with animals, who photographer Jo-Anne McArthur documents in fur farms, slaughter houses, dairy farms, and kennels where dogs are bread for medical experimentation.  She takes gorgeous closeups of their fear, with creamy bokeh, and Liz Marshall manages to match this extraordinary technical bravado with her videography as well, exploiting the full dynamic range of newer cameras in low light (I was thinking C500, but there are slow-motion shots as well, so maybe a RED?)  This camerawork is dangerous, not only because the grim reality being documented puts us in an untenable position.  We all benefit from industries that require animals to suffer but we are also capable of an empathy, perhaps not so radical after all.  Empathy is perfectly normal with our pets, who (yes who, not which) we would not treat so badly--and when you put a camera's eye right up next to the eye of a beagle, fox, cow, horse, pig, goat, sheep, even a chicken, something truly dangerous happensYou care.

The filmmaker also takes monkey wrench gang risks, breaking into and entering a fox farm in the UK, with spotters on the road and walkie talkies to signal in time for them to escape.  And because Liz Marshall documents her photographer's attempts to publish, we see clearly the risk for her editors as well, particularly those that agree with her.  Caring might drive away advertising revenue, alienate political allies on other radical fronts, etc.  And then there is just the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Jo-Anne McArthur admits she herself suffers from.  I myself came out of the theater a little short of breath, and couldn't get out of my head the images of an old chimp, to whom her book "We Animals" is dedicated, and who has endured countless experiments in his life.  

If there is a second theme to this documentary festival, it is this darkness, but in Ghosts there is also an attempt to brighten the picture with visits to a farm sanctuary that takes animals who have been abandoned by industry.  One audience member even objected to this upbeat tendency in the second half of the film, because it reminded him of children's programming--but the director pointed out that they do hope to screen this film to young people, a naturally empathetic audience ripe for radicalizing.  In Canada, it received an over-14 rating (their PG-13), and we see the faces of many teenagers watching the documentary in the documentary itself.  Self-assured, relentless, convinced and convicted, Marshall and McArthur may be the world's best diplomats persuading us to recognize animal sentience, though they can't mitigate the horror of their subject matter enough by over-saturating the green lawns, where old cattle retire.

First to Fall - Nov 24

I have seen three or four films each day, and I might have also reviewed Dirty Wars (about how American power is projected overseas) or the Return to Hom (about rebels in Syria) also in the category of war documentary.  Instead I chose First to Fall because it was neither against nor for the warriors depicted in the film.  With a kind of adventurous glee, perhaps more appropriate to a summer tramping around Germany, we watch Hamid and Tarek join the resistance against Muammar Gaddafi, learn to fire rocket propelled grenades and 50mm mounted machine guns and, finally, become injured in the war.   

There is a lot of riding out in the back of light Toyota and Mazda trucks, and peering over walls full of bullet holes at dry scrubby smoking fields.  A band of young men with videocameras--one of whom is Hamid until he just sticks to his gun--shoot from the hip while the shrapnel flies, rifling corpses for munitions and joking with each other cheerfully.  This must be how it is--I can just feel it--a sort of make-believe soldiering becomes the real thing so smoothly that no one involved can mark the moment bravado is replaced with bombed-out eyes.  There is also a lot of sitting around in living rooms watching TV and youtube, and talking on cell phones, and weirdly, one senses the fear in these young men's eyes more during R&R than riding in those Japanese pickups.

After Tarek, who was never as gung ho as Hamid, is paralyzed by a gunshot wound to his lower spine, he is no longer having fun anymore--but its not clear he ever was.  Hamid maybe, but his is the despair of victory: after Gaddafi is dead, we see him seated in the former dictator's bombed out palace, wondering what he is to do next.  The rebel heroes have been rebranded dangerous militias, and the filmmaker told the audience after her film that just last week one of these militias shot dead 30 or so in Tripoli, after demonstrators demanded that they disarm and join the civilian political process.  

The director Rachel Beth Anderson was such a perky all-American young woman (in her early 20s?), with a warm tan and only a hint of hazel in her eyes suggesting she might have some North African muslim ancestry--the audience could not put her in her own picture.  "You are lucky not to have been hurt,"  an older woman next to me in the theater said, stammering to confirm that the young woman was literally out there with those guys--and it was all guys, except for one scene, where women with their heads covered and their children posed with AK-47s , pointing them at each other carelessly and wishing they could fight alongside the men.  "Were you holding the camera…at the front lines?"  Anderson evaded directly answering the question, by graciously thanking the many young Libyans with videocameras who helped document the battles, but she was there for 7 months straight during the revolution!  It was clear that the audience wanted to see the making-of this movie.  War photography is so dangerous many of us have simply been wondering how this film, and the others about violence in the festival, were ever made.  I suppose, you just go.

Narco Cultura - Nov 26

This film documents the drug war in Juarez, where over 3000 murders (or is it 10K?) occurred last year, by riding shotgun with a crime scene investigator named Richard Soto, who finds mutilated bodies abandoned here and there across the city.  This was the only movie I have seen where we were not able to ask questions of the filmmaker.  Director Shaul Schwartz was not killed in the making of the doc, though I am not sure why not because he interviews mexican police, a gang member in prison, and border patrol chiefs on both sides of the border. He even attends a party hosted by the drug lords themselves, though there faces were shadowed, and its not a pretty picture.  

We already knew that the entire criminal justice system is complicit in the drug war, but getting the authorities and gang members themselves to say this on camera is unprecedented, according to a dutch anthropologist, who spoke to the audience after the film.  This man has written a book on Juarez, visiting it 15 times over the past decade, but said he was never allowed to directly quote with attribution any police or gang members, much less record their faces and frank testimony or visit their homes.  Perhaps Schwartz gained access because his unusual angle is to document the culture surrounding the drug war: the song lyrics, TV soaps, teen idolatry, and even children's toys that celebrate the violence so sensationally.

If the investigator is the main character in Juarez, it is the lead singer of a narco-worshiping band named Edgar Quintero who is the main character on the El Paso side of the border.  The singer anxiously begs his wife and manager to let him cross the border for a couple months, so he can meet the narcos and get the slang right.  Eventually he gets his wish, traveling as far south as a meth lab outside of Mexico city, where the son of the cook is wearing one of his band's T-shirts, and it is here, after a show, that a drug lord invites him to sing at his private Quinta, with babes lying around the black bottom pool and piles of weapons on the kitchen table.  I am wondering what the lord said, when he answered the door and found Schwartz, an Israeli previously honored for his war journalism in the Middle East, pointing his camera at him.  Was the sound man asked to wait outside in the open grave? Did he ask them to sign releases?

Alongside the anthropologist, there was also a Dutch music critic who tried to do damage control on gangster rap after the film.  His angle was that this music doesn't incite violence but merely reflects the reality on the street, but at the same time he pointed out that no one minded when they found out the American rapper Rick Ross was actually a prison guard with no street cred at all.  No doubt the drug lords like the music of this singer who flatters the Narco lifestyle, even though they know he is just a kid fromTexas.  But if the reality justifies the rap, how couldn't it matter when the rapper is a phony? I wanted to ask why Dutch people would like Gangster rap, given the absurdly low crime rate (at least compared to the US?) Even in Amsterdam--where drugs, prostitution, and millions of tourists co-mingle--women walk around until late at night, and elderly hobble along from the train station through the red light district on their way home.  In this virtual utopia of civil society, there must be something other than a "reflection of reality" inspiring the fans.

Perhaps the more pointed question would be about the Nacthwacht: Rembrandt's famous painting of the floppy-hatted nightwatch guards who are sculpted in life-sized metal outside my hotel on the Rembrandtplein.  These home boyz are brandishing blunderbusses and swords--all men with the right to bear arms used to go about their daily life prepared for a fight--and they must have also been feared.  They had blood on their hands (and those floppy high-heeled boots too) yet not just the Dutch, all tourists fantasize that the Nachtwacht were simply protecting us with their power to do violence.  Is it so different from the mexican youth of Juarez, who fantasize about the powerful men who run the protection racket in Narco culture?  

Dutch and European history more generally is rife with historical periods much more bloody than the drug war in Juarez Mexico.  In the Golden Age the Dutch invented central banking, the stock market and the first multinational corporation, with their East India Corporation--and it was no walk in the park to be pressed into service on a vessel, or colonized in Indonesia, to say nothing of the religious wars, rebellion against Spain, naval wars with the Portuguese, etc..  How did Holland ever turn itself into such a peace-loving, coalition-building, well-regulated society?  Couldn't Mexico?

Right now the options are bad.  Better to live two years as a man, than twenty years as a donkey…this was the translation of a mexican saying the dutch anthropologist quoted to explain why they would rather do coke, fuck bitches and kill with impunity than work for almost nothing in the NAFTA sweatshops down there. Who wouldn't?

Friday, November 22, 2013

No time now to review the films I have seen today, so just some passing observations from the street in Amsterdam.

Probably because everyone rides bicycles, the winter coats tend to be very top heavy.  No long coats, which might catch puddle splashes or get caught in the rear tire, but all kinds of byronesque frocks and furs, with elaborate scarves or hoods, that taper to the waist, and only flare out briefly around a bicycle seat.  And big fur or knit caps, when big hair isn't doing the same work to protect against the weather.  Young men have big foreheads with frizzy Einstein fros and women have hair up in wound braids, with complementary colors in the footwear: yellow leather high-healed boots, dark red flange-healed pumps, and so on.  The effect is a bit like the costume of elves, if they were ever depicted in winter.

Just walking a couple blocks is pretty dangerous without enough sleep and jet lagged, because there are speedy trams, cross traffic of bikes and lambretta-like scooters, flotillas of 3 or 4 people almost skipping across the bridges, and even tiny cleaning cars, like those in the movie Brazil.  Its amazing that it all works, there are so many people, but because they all use a sweet bell to signal it all somehow happens without accident.

More later.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 21 I am still in San Francisco...

Observations at Ritual Coffee Roaster - 7 am

Two men, thick glasses, chinless, identical blue black chinos but very different footwear (cowboy boots v. Chacos) are bouncing their babies in strapped-to-belly packs, waiting for their lattes.  Cocteau Twins is bringing back the 80s in my mind, as I start on my own first coffee of the day.  A woman in the corner with a briefcase full of paperwork (realtor, lawyer, small business owner?) negotiates with a man, and is interrupted by a phone call which she takes in mid-sentence.  "No.  Wait 4 minutes."  She places the phone face down, without hanging up, on the coffee table between them.  As the dads are served they leave together, so for a moment I wonder if they are a couple, though this was not my expectation before.  Chacos walks briskly down the sidewalk and cowboy boots climbs into a maroon 4-door Prius, carefully loading his baby into the backseat, and removing the empty coffee cup s/he (black and white stripes indicate no gender clues) has been chewing to pieces for the past 10 minutes.

In front of Afterlife/Blue Fig, on the walk back to Brock's - 7:30 am

A sidewalk garden juts out into a parking space, so that with my elbows on the "bar" and looking left down Valencia I stare through tulle-like bamboo shoots at an oncoming moving van.  There are planter boxes full of mossy Japanese garden ground cover, and a symmetrically wispy tiny tree centered perfectly under a metal arch in a perfect semi-circle.  A man bounds down the stairs from an upstairs apartment, with his 5 year old, unlocks and rapidly assembles a beautiful cruiser modded into a bicycle built for two, all baby blue.  Father and son shoot off towards pre-school/kindergarden. 

Brock drives me from Raquel and Cassidy's to the Airport - 11am

Although he was trying to follow me, he got a mile or so behind on 280.  I didn't hear the accident but only the sirens and when I call Brock he tells me he just made it off an exit at Hillcrest, and went around the stopped traffic by taking a frontage road.  I wonder what would have happened, if I hadn't chosen someone so quick on his feet to drive me?  We had time to spare, and I could have just driven myself and left my car at long-term parking for 9 days, but it is much better to leave my car on the street at Raquel and Cassidy's.  He catches up with me at Ralston, and helps me move my bags into his car, which has no front feet for a passenger.  This is weirdly like limo service, because seated in th back seat I can stretch my legs out, and still keep my big bag in front of me, with my small bag to my side (behind Brock.)  We can only stop briefly to talk to Raquel, who will keep my cell phone and keys until Saturday the 30th when I return.

Checking into KLM at SFO - 12am

The airport is as empty as I have ever seen it, but when I clumsily check in my big bag at the counter I discover that a lot of old tickets and baggage claims are in the side pocket of my Camera bag.  Before security I throw these away (I have to rip up a receipt from Borrowlenses with my driver's license on it) and manage to lose my boarding pass.  I rummage through the trash can, thinking it inadvertantly went with the old passes.  I rifle through all my bags, my pockets.  I even leave said bags unattended for 10 seconds in order to run over to the bench where I first removed all the old paperwork to be thrown away, but in my rush don't find the boarding pass. I reach the point where I am going to go BACK to the KLM officer who issued my boarding pass and explain that in less than 3 minutes I lost it, when I notice a boarding pass it is just sitting in the middle of the floor near the thread of passengers heading towards security.  I sweep it up and confirm that is mine, suddenly nonchalant as if I had never been stressed about the loss. I'm a total fucking idiot.

A discovery in the hour before my departure - 1:30 pm

Not sure why but I find it so reassuring to find my airplane already parked at the end of the skyway two hours before departure.  I am writing in view of the bright white-and-blue  KLM logo (unchanged even though it merged with Airfrance, since I last flew KLM in 2000.)  I google the airplane's name "Florence Nightingale" and learn that itis the last gasp of the McDonnell Douglas fleet, with a top-heavy triple engine design and steep fuel costs.  Every airline but KLM has abandoned the tin cans for passengers, either selling them for scrap or keeping them in the fleet only for freight!   But supposedly passengers like them…supposedly they're spacious.  They're not actually as old as they look, just quick-aging. Remind me to never google an airplane again.