Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fullerton Water Wars Part 3: 1901-1905

“Eternal vigilance is said to be the price of liberty, and with equal truthfulness it may be said to be the price of water in Southern California.”

“It has been said that the first irrigation canals were run from the four rivers of paradise, and that Assyria, Nineveh, Egypt, Peru and Mexico owed their beauty and power to the ordered ministration of conducted water.  The loftiest achievements of the human mind and heart had birth in the rainless lands.  Irrigation has always been the religion of the semi-arid lands—the faith which sees in the desert the promise of springtime blades.” 
—from  The Fullerton Tribune (1905)

This summer, I used some of my free time to continue researching the history my hometown of Fullerton, focusing mainly on the Fullerton Tribune newspaper archives.  These papers are not digitized, and the articles are not searchable for content.  Thus, what I had to do was look at microfilm, lots of microfilm.  At first, I was overwhelmed.  What do I focus on?  There is so much content to sift through, from the articles to the advertisements to the illustrations and photographs.  As I read over these hundred-year-old newspapers, for hours and hours, more than once I was confronted with the inner question: What the hell am I doing?  Why does this matter?  Who cares about the history of this medium-sized American city?  Who will want to read this?

And then I thought about the book I’m currently reading, a recommendation from my friend Steve Elkins.  The book is called simply Imperial, and it’s a 1,200-page history of Imperial County, California.  It’s an astonishing book, but I have to believe that it’s author, William T Vollmann, over the course of his research, was probably confronted with similar inner questions: Why am I spending hours and hours looking at old photographs in a Mexicali Municipal Museum?  Why am I reading about the history of alfalfa, watermelon, and date crops?  Who cares?  The book took him ten years to write.  What emerges from his study is a profound meditation on America, Mexico, land, water, and people.  His book turns out to be super insightful in helping us understand some of the problems facing California (and America) today.  All this comes from looking, very carefully, for a very long time, at a single region.

So, I think, it must also be with my (or anyone’s) hometown.  Another inspiring book, for me was D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: a Suburban Memoir, a poetic meditation on the nearby city of Lakewood, one of the first master-planned communities in post-war America. It became a kind of template that was reproduced throughout the southland, and eventually across the U.S.  Understanding the past helps us understand the present.  Often, I’ve discovered that the problems that have arisen here (political, social, environmental) have arisen elsewhere.  In some ways, understanding the history of an American city is a way of understanding the history of America itself.  Cities can become microcosms of the larger society and nation. 

And so, inspired by Vollmann and Waldie, I dive into the microfilm, looking for stories.  For the moment, I’ve decided to focus my gaze on the history of water.  How did a desert region like Southern California in general, and Fullerton in particular, manage to become such a major metropolitan center that uses way more water than is locally/naturally sustainable?  Where has the water come from, and what battles led to us getting all this water from distant places like the Colorado River?  How did we get here, and where are we going, water-wise?

Here are some irrigation ditches in Fullerton in 1902.

The main local water entity in 1901 was the Anaheim Union Water Company (AUWC).  They had water rights to (some of) the Santa Ana River, and shared these rights with other companies like the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company.  These were private companies whose Board of Directors tended to be owners of large, local ranches.  Water rights (also called riparian rights) were a really big deal—water is life, and profits for farmers.  Around 1901, these two water companies met together to bring legal action against a Mr. Fuller, “the Riverside county land-grabber” to prevent his taking water from the Santa Ana River.  This would be one of many ongoing legal battles over local water rights.

In the meetings of the AUWC, there was discussion of purchasing the water rights of James Irvine, the man whose descendants founded the Irvine Company, which now owns the city of Irvine.  In those early days, “maintaining an accurate division of the water [was] difficult if not impossible to devise.”

The local climate was also not conducive to a steady supply of water, specifically from the Santa Ana River.  The AUWC concluded: “The conditions of our climate are such that it is impossible to determine ahead when the water can be turned out of the ditch for any definite time, without danger of loss to our irrigators.”  New sources of water would be needed to irrigate the growing fields of Orange County.

Like any political entity vested with power, the AUWC was occasionally hostile to journalists who were critical of its policies.  In 1903, the Board of Directors passed a resolution excluding reporters from their meetings.  Shortly thereafter, the Tribune got word that an important report had been suppressed, to which Tribune editor Johnson replied:  “The best way would be to permit the reporters to attend the meetings, then the reports and proceedings would not be suppressed.”

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Union Water Company and the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company cut a deal to share water rights.  Mr. Sherwood, a sometimes Board Member who liked to write lengthy articles in the Tribune criticizing the AUWC, took issue with the deal.  To which Samuel Armor of the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company replied: “G.W. Sherwood seems to be afflicted with a diarrhea of words accompanied by a costiveness of ideas.  For two years or more he has been filling the papers west of the river with misrepresentations and insinuations against the S.A.V.I. Co. until his followers have come to believe the the people on this side are equipped with hoofs and horns and forked tails.”  To which Sherwood replied: “I have always taken pleasure in setting Armor right, when he gets tangled up in the mazes of his own alleged erudition…With regard to the proposed division of water, Armor’s premises are false and his conclusions are wrong.”

Meanwhile, Fuller, the “Riverside land-grabber” lost in court.  An article gleefully proclaiming FULLER IS NON-SUITED! stated: “The decision sends a thrill of joy through the hearts of the stockholders, as it again establishes their absolute right to the waters flowing in the [Santa Ana] River for lo! these many years.  Encroachers, who may in the future attempt to divert the water from its natural course, will please take warning.  The decision further cements our rights to the life-giving fluid.”

An article from 1904 proclaimed direly: WATER SUPPLY NEED: Volume doesn’t keep pace with our growth: “For many years past we have had, with the exception of last winter, a series of dry years.’  We are now confronted with the possibility of worse than has gone before.  During this period our orchards have grown, new acreage has been set out, and a general development has taken place that renders imperative the development of a greater supply of water to keep pace with the growth of the community.” This question of growth vs. water supply would continue for the next several decades.

As more and more lands were added to be irrigated, it became clear that the Santa Ana River would be insufficient to supply future water needs.  Other water sources were necessary, and the first solution was pumping water from wells, tapping into underground sources.  Pumping would be done from wells by electric motors.  A Tribune article explains: "A 40-horsepower motor should pump up to 150 inches...By this system plants could be multiplied indefinitely…The addition of 1000 inches to our present supply would permit the issue of more of the capital stock of the company, which applied to the payment of the debt would reduce the fixed charges and assessments; and eventually the price of water, its the result that investors and home seekers would find this locality more attractive, and the values of property would be advanced.”  The logic of infinite growth necessitated an infinite water supply.

Remember Mr. Fuller, the infamous "Riverside land-grabber"?  You gotta admire his tenacity and “fuck off” attitude.  He ignored the court order, and just kept using Santa Ana river water: "the waters have never ceased flowing through the ditches constructed for the purposes of such unlawful diversion and the action and its continuance is contempt of court and those responsible are amenable to law.”  Meanwhile, in 1904, the city of Fullerton decided to incorporate as a city.  Local rancher Charles Chapman was elected the fist mayor.

Tensions also existed between AUWC and SAVIC.  In an article entitled “Local Water Shortage,” Johnson writes: “Irrigators in the AUWC district have believed for some time that they were not getting their fair share of water from the Santa Ana River up at Rincon, where it is supposed to be equally divided between the local and Santa Ana companies.  Superintendent Porter and Director Sherwood made a trip to the head of the canal this week to investigate, and state that the SAVIC was getting 1,000 more inches than the AUWC.  The local company will no doubt at once demand an equal division.”

Around this time, an argument arose between a Mr. Zeyn and Mr. Sherwood, who at this time was the engineer of the AUWC.  Zeyn charged Sherwood with incompetence, and Sherwood responded in kind.  It seems that, personal differences aside, these two men represented the interests of different farmers—Zeyn those in Anaheim, and Sherwood those in Fullerton.  Zeyn published his criticisms on the eve of an AUWC election, to which Sherwood replied: “The criticisms of my ability as an engineer would have had more weight had they been made at the meetings of the board instead of in a newspaper a few days before election.”  After answering Zeyn’s criticisms (mainly dealing with poor ditch construction), Sherwood stoops to some classic ad hominem attacks: “The people of Anaheim will have a chance to demonstrate in a few days, whether they are mindful of their interests or are tied to the tail of Zeyn’s kite like so many rags.  His capacity for business is well known.  It is a perennial joke…Will the Anaheim people be the fools of a tool?”

But the big controversy of the 1904 AUWC board of directors election was Charles C. Chapman.  When the results of the election were tallied, Chapman had been elected president of the board.  However, upon closer inspection, it was asserted that a Mr. Crowther had in fact been elected.  Whereupon the old board of directors voted to put Crowther in power.  Chapman legally challenged this, and a judge declared that Chapman was, in fact, the president.  These shenanigans remind me of the controversial 2000 presidential election where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore—when the election was decided by the Supreme Court.  Anyway, Chapman was the new president of the AUWC.  

1904 was a big year for Charles C. Chapman—he was elected mayor of Fullerton and president of the AUWC—giving him a great deal of local power.  Under the new Board of Directors, the same questions remained—how to provide enough water for a steadily-growing region.  Most of the “growth” at this point in history had to do with expansion of the local ranchers’ acreage—think business (not population) growth.  They would look underground, to local artesian wells, and the creation of “pumping plants”: “In the vicinity of Anaheim there are upwards of 7,000 inches of water being pumped by power plants.  The acreage which is irrigated with this water produces annually to its owners an income of over $500,000.  The many pumping plants in operation make possible enormous returns upon the acre of big and little ranches alike in this territory.”  Drink that milkshake, drink it up.

In a letter to the editor, an anonymous stockholder wrote:  “Eternal vigilance is said to be the price of liberty, and with equal truthfulness it may be said to be the price of water in Southern California…There is a scheme on foot to smuggle nearly three thousand acres of outside land in the territory of the AUWC, I thought that a few facts in relation to that matter might be of interest to the readers of your valuable paper.”  The writer doesn’t name names, but says that this scheme was to benefit certain ranchers in Fullerton: “The parties that are working this scheme are like moles—shrewd underground workers.  The same influences are behind them that secured the post office appointment in Fullerton.  Of course there is no use to get alarmed.  They will tell you that their intentions are honorable.  It is nothing but a bogie man.  But the bogie man will get you if you don’t watch out.”  Who are these bogie men?

In 1905, Mr. Bradford of the AUWC attended a conference of the California Water and Forestry service, and reported: “Our water problem is of the gravest nature, and conserving the rain and snowfall by planting trees and shrubs, and covering our barren and fire-swept hills and mountains with new vegetation.  The storm waters are thereby retained and allowed to soak down to our underground reservoirs and fill them up instead of the floods sweeping down to the ocean and lost.  When one studies these problems and notes the swiftly lowering water flow in our pumping wells, it is time that we are all active before it is too late.  We are using the water very much faster than it is being stored and some radical measures must be taken by the state and government.  A bill was endorsed, called the Forestry bill, which is needed very much, or something of the kind, as our laws are not strong enough and the foresters have to cover many miles of forest and it is impossible to do this work in a satisfactory manner—there should be double the number of men employed.  But a system of rules, regulations and penalties more severe will have to be put in force before the stock and lumbermen can be compelled to observe them.”  The lumber industry was clearly conflicting with the ranching industry.

Meanwhile, the AUWC continued cementing irrigation ditches, and even building metal pipes, ensuring that water would not be replenishing groundwater sources.  To pay for all this, the water company planned to take on more bond debt. This set off a flurry of editorials in the Tribune—some people for, some against the bond issue.  Reading these debates, one gets the impression that where people fell on the bond issue was determined by three factors: political ideology, self-interest, and whether one lived in Fullerton or Anaheim.  A Mr. Holcomb was vehemently against the bond, saying that it’s unfair to saddle future generations with debt.  He wrote, mockingly: “What has posterity done for us, anyway?”  Ultimately, the bond failed to get enough popular support.

As more water was machine-pumped up from wells, concern arose over not just the Santa Ana river, but also diminishing groundwater supplies.  A Mr. Kroeger wrote: “In 1862 the water in my well was 14 feet from the surface.  From that time it fell steadily up to 1868 to 30 feet below…As our water then got a smell of the graveyard, I had a deep well bored to 105 feet deep, and have not measured the sinking of water until about four months ago, when Mr. Seale found it to be 71 feet below the surface, and today it is 72 feet.  So you see it is sinking very rapidly, and if it is going at that rate in a few years our drinking water will be scarce.  But the underground supply will run as long as there is a drop of water on the surface of the Santa Ana river.  Our government is spending millions of dollars at the present time to increase the water supply, while in this county our authorities try by all means to destroy it.  It is high time this practice was stopped.”

Meanwhile, a Mr. Armour attended a conference in Riverside on this question of diminishing water supplies and concluded: “Ten years ago nearly all the users from the Santa Ana river had plenty of flowing water: today, with the exception of a few prior rights, everybody in San Bernadino and Riverside counties is pumping and each year from a greater depth.”  A solution was discussed to replenish underground reservoirs with excess water that flowed in the winter.

As the Tribune continued to do its job of reporting on water issues, suggesting that that Charles Chapman was using his position on the AUWC board to advance his own interests, Chapman began to take issue with this, and revoked his agreement to publish AUWC notices in the Tribune.  Those in power have, historically, had an adversarial relationship with the press.   To which Tribune editor Johnson responded with a nickname that he would use for Chapman in the coming years, Czar Chapman.

In an article entitled “Interesting Facts About Irrigation” (which offers few facts, but lots of ideology), Johnson basically gives a manifesto on the goodness of irrigation, perhaps in light of recent concerns about dwindling water in the Santa Ana river and local groundwater.  Here are some excerpts from his treatise, which seems fairly representative of the ideology of the time.  I wonder what Johnson would think if he could see these lands today—the logical end-game of the doctrine of infinite growth:

“Few people realize that there is more land developed under irrigation than under rainfall.  It has been said that the first irrigation canals were run from the four rivers of paradise, ad that Assyria, Nineveh, Egypt, Peru, and Mexico owed their beauty and power to the ordered ministration of conducted water.  The loftiest achievements of the human mind and heart had birth in the rainless lands.  Irrigation has always been the religion of the semi-arid lands—the faith which sees in the desert the promise of springtime blades.

The western world was to furnish yet more magnificent proofs of the transcendent value of irrigation as the foundation of nation building…Homes will rise above crumbling ruins…now new life invades the solitudes…the Midas touch which turns the desert sands to gold is the presence of water…the transplanted eastern farmer could not at first comprehend that cactus-covered, alkaline, sage brush land could be made to blossom like the rose.  And now he is learning the science of irrigation in America…irrigation of the semi-arid regions is the greatest question of public internal policy in the development of the United States…the reclamation of profitless desert by development…

Irrigation beckons to the man who is not needed to go where he is needed.  It offers him a clean sweet home where his children can learn the language of Shakespeare and the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence.  Here will be no idling loiterers under a tropical breadfruit tree, but irrigated gardens in the temperate zone, where the desire to labor creates its own reward.  Irrigation brings the ‘landless man to the manless land.’  It leads the congested hoards of cities to the sane and simple methods of living in nature’s bounteous land, where they may be inspired by uplifting peaks and turquoise skies.”

Faced with the same problem of diminishing water, Los Angeles began to consider purchasing land/water rights in the Owens Valley. In an article entitled “Water May Be Scarce,” the Tribune writes: “Through the Los Angeles papers we are informed of a very important and large deal which that city is contemplating, the buying up of all the Owens river country and bring all water of Owens river to Los Angeles.”  Ultimately, this is exactly what happened, much to the detriment of the Owens Valley, and allegations of misconduct.

Meanwhile, closer to home, on a smaller scale, the ever-controversial Mr. Sherwood pointed out a bit of local profiteering on the part of the engineer and superintendent of the AUWC, who made personal profits through water deals and land sales.  Those accused denied these allegations, of course.

There also arose, around this time, the question of who should own Fullerton’s water system and supply.  At this time, it was in private hands.  An article in the Tribune written by an anonymous “taxpayer” suggested that it would be a good idea for the city to own its own water system and supply.  This raises the larger question: should public utilities like water be government-run or privately-run?  What are the costs and benefits of each situation?  Stay tuned for Fullerton Water Wars Part 4: 1906-1010, coming soon!

Advertisement from 1905 Fullerton Tribune.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Steve Elkins' Summer Tour of American Cinema

For the past few years, my friend Steve Elkins and I have been hosting a weekly film series at Hibbleton Gallery.  We've explored the cinema of countries like Mongolia, Iran, the Czech Republic, Mali, Tunisia, and other places around the world.  We've also focused on important directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard, to just name a few.  This summer, we decided to turn our gaze to the cinema of America.  Steve curated a four-month cinematic tour of the United States, focusing on films set in different regions and time periods.  Here are all the films we've shown (complete with posters and insightful descriptions by Elkins), and also the lineup for our final month of American films, screening every Monday night this September, starting this Monday!  All screenings begin at 8pm, and are FREE and open to the public.  A discussion will follow each screening...

June 6: “KOYAANISQATSI” (Godfrey Reggio, 1983). The debut film of a former New Mexico monk whose preparation for filmmaking was a life of silence, fasting and prayer, co-founding an organization to aid juveniles in Santa Fe street gangs, and working with the ACLU to combat governmental invasions of privacy and the use of technology to control behavior. Using no words, plot, or characters (“not for lack of love of language…but because our language no longer describes the world in which we live”), Koyaanisqatsi is a visionary experience that changed how film could be used to illuminate the invisible interconnectedness of the globe prior to the internet. Named after the Hopi word for “a state of life that calls for another way of living,” the film is the first part of a trilogy which chronicles the global transformation of life from prehistoric geological time to the arrival of digital technologies dedicated to surveilling people, engaging them in meaningless communication, selling them an endless supply of products, distracting them with spectacles, and facilitating their violence against one another. “These films have never been about the effect of technology on people,” says the director, “it’s that everyone…exists within the host of technology. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology.”

June 13: “THE STRAIGHT STORY” (David Lynch, 1999)
Based on the true story of Alvin Straight who, unable to get a drivers license due to poor eyesight at the age of 73, drove his 30-year old lawnmower 240 miles across Iowa and Wisconsin (a six week journey at 5 miles per hour) to make amends with his estranged brother who had just suffered a stroke. A few years later, David Lynch (director of “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks”), made this film about the journey on the exact route Straight traveled. One of the least known (and very best) films Lynch made, later released by Disney, it features the final (Oscar nominated) performance of Richard Farnsworth, who was dying of bone cancer during filming, but took the role out of admiration for the quiet compassion of Alvin Straight.

June 20: “THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Incredibly, the only film the great actor Charles Laughton ever directed, “The Night Of The Hunter” poetically depicts the changing consciousness of two West Virginia children as they are expelled from the Eden of their childhood into a world of uniquely American dualisms, in which the forces of Good include a marriage of religion and guns. A bizarre film which seems miraculously unaware of how sophisticatedly hilarious it is, how drool-inducingly gorgeous it looks, or how deeply it captures the tortured consciousness of a particular American mythos. Written by James Agee, author of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941), whose experiences living amongst impoverished Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression inspired an opera from Aaron Copland and even the recent television show “The Wire.”

June 27: “MODERN TIMES” (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
“Modern Times” was partially inspired by a conversation between Charlie Chaplin and Gandhi during Chaplin’s 16-month world tour of his 1931 film “City Lights,” which took him as far as Sri Lanka, China, and Bali; a journey which revealed Chaplin’s popularity in third world slums as much as in the homes of the global elite who hosted him: Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, the British Prime Minister, and Japan’s president (who was assassinated while Chaplin was visiting…Chaplin later learned that he had also been a target). Chaplin asked Gandhi: “I should like to know why you’re opposed to machinery. After all, it’s the natural outcome of man’s genius and is part of his evolutionary progress. It is here to free him from the bondage of slavery, to help him to leisure and a higher culture. I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great deal of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity, that consideration transcending everything else, should be a help and benefit to mankind.” Gandhi countered, “I wish to make our people independent of industry, which weapon the Western world holds over us. When they discover that there is no profit in exploiting India, they will leave it to us. Therefore, we must be independent of your industry.” Chaplin began studying global finance and socioeconomics, and returned to Hollywood with a new social consciousness that “the different countries I visited, embroiled in unrest, seem brewing a new epoch – theistic, sociological, and economical – unprecedented in the history of civilization.” Modern Times was his response.

July 11: “HARLAN COUNTY USA” (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
Consistently cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County USA” (filmed while Kopple was under threat of death by US coal companies, who had placed a hit on her) captures the frontlines of the Harlan County War in southeast Kentucky, which began when U.S. coal companies expanded national dependency on their fuel by denying coal miners livable wages, survivable conditions, or the right to protest (so they could sell below cost). Enforced by the occupation of state and federal troops, Kentucky’s coal miners saw no choice but to begin an armed struggle that pitted grenades, car bombs and pistols against machine guns and armed company “strike breakers.” Barbara Kopple focuses on the courageous women fighting on the frontlines with billyclubs and pistols in their bras, and the heartbreaking folk music that emerged from their communities to place the viewer in the center of a struggle that began in the 1930s and continues in new forms into the present day.

July 18: “ANNIE HALL” (Woody Allen, 1977)
Named the funniest screenplay of all time by the Writers Guild of America, and the second greatest romantic comedy by the American Film Institute, “Annie Hall” is “just about everyone’s favorite Woody Allen movie” (Roger Ebert). It was also a major turning point for Allen, a conscious decision to abandon the safety of mainstream comedy and conventional narrative, to “produce a film of deeper meaning” that proved romance films could be pushed far beyond predictable cliches into something deeply intelligent and groundbreaking. Inspired by Federico Fellini’s “8½,” the film explores existential questions, Jewish identity, the complexities of sex, and Allen’s adoration of New York City in a way that embraces everyones’ inner and outer awkwardness. Winner of the 1977 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress (Diane Keaton).

July 25: “RETURN TO OZ” (Walter Murch, 1985)
William S. Burroughs will rant and rave and shoot guns around his Kansas home as an introduction (via celluloid) to Walt Disney’s supremely fucked up (i.e. amazing) “Return To Oz,” in which Dorothy receives electro-shock therapy, befriends a flying couch with a talking taxidermy head, is imprisoned by the Wicked Witch of the North and her hallway of screaming heads, faces the demon army of the Nome King, and generally finds Oz in ruins under the control of characters that could have been cast in a Hellraiser film. Written and directed by Walter Murch, the legendary editor and sound designer of “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather” trilogy (not to mention co-writer of George Lucas’s pre-Star Wars cult classic “THX-1138”), “Return To Oz” remains the most bizarre thing ever released by Disney, which terrified an entire generation of children, and is far more accurate to the actual content of the fourteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum between 1900 and 1920 than the famous Judy Garland film of 1939.

August 1: “WISE BLOOD” (John Huston, 1979)
One of America’s most legendary directors, John Huston, made countless classics ranging from “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) to “Annie” (1982), but lesser known is his magnificent adaptation of Flannery’ O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood,” about the crisscrossing paths of a guy in a gorilla suit, a mummified dwarf, and a prophet starting the “Church Without Christ.” O’Connor’s surreal novels about her home state of Georgia were inspired by the sacramental Thomist notion that the created world is charged with God. A kind of literary precursor to David Lynch, she wrote grotesque allegories about deceptively backward Southern characters (usually fundamentalist Protestants), who undergo transformations of character through ludicrous behavior that, to her thinking, brought them closer to the Catholic mind.

August 8: “HAROLD AND MAUDE” (Hal Ashby, 1971).
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a poster this good, who needs any further description. Score by Yusef Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens).

August 15: “STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE” (Errol Morris, 2008).
A landmark documentary on official U.S. terrorism in Muslim countries. When photographs were leaked in 2004 revealing U.S. forces were engaged in a widespread standardized practice of physically and sexually abusing Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, including sodomy, torture, raping of children, stoning, live abortions, forcing Muslim women to parade nude smeared in feces, dragging them around on dog leashes, riding them like wild animals, and murder, the Bush administration attempted to portray the abuses as isolated incidents, not indicative of general U.S. policy. This was proven false after multiple investigations by international humanitarian organizations, as well as the subsequent release of the “Torture Memos,” in which the U.S. government authorized such treatment of Muslims even before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite global condemnation of these acts as state-sponsored crimes against humanity, vice-president Dick Cheney and the U.S. Department of Justice justified these practices by arguing that international humanitarian laws, such as the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to American interrogators overseas. In “Standard Operating Procedure,” Errol Morris amazingly manages to interview almost all of the U.S. soldiers and Iraqi prisoners involved in the most notorious publicized account of such atrocities, Abu Ghraib, to uncover how this can become totally normal behavior committed by people who consider themselves “the good guys,” and ask: does this encourage terrorism against us in return?

August 22: “THE LAST PICTURE SHOW” (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
Possibly the most praised American film between “Gone With The Wind” and “The Godfather,” earning 8 Oscar nominations and declared “the most impressive work by a young American director since Citizen Kane,” “The Last Picture Show” is a flagship film of the 1970s revitalization of American cinema that began when a B-movie actor named Jack Nicholson co-wrote the script for a silly film about invented rock band The Monkees called “Head” (1968), co-starring Frank Zappa and Dennis Hopper, which in turn led to the production of Hopper’s legendary countercultural coup “Easy Rider” (1969). Inspired as much by the French New Wave as America’s dharma bums, Hopper announced in an unpublished 1965 manifesto: “What we need are good old American—and that’s not to be confused with European—Art Films…The whole damn country’s one big real place to utilize and film, and God’s a great gaffer!”

A new generation of filmmakers hell-bent on sending traditional Hollywood up in flames emerged to ask: “What were movies now, what could they be? Where was America going, where should it go?” Director Peter Bogdanovich thought it most appropriate that the dying art form of American cinema should be used to visualize a dying town, a dying era, and a dying way of life. According to Bogdanovich: “I saw [The Last Picture Show] as a Texas version of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), which was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of the automobile. This was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of television.” Following the decade in which veteran American directors like Ford, Hawks, Curtiz, Borzage, Anthony Mann, Capra, Milestone, Stevens, Walsh, Wyler, Siodmak, and Jacques Tourneur made their final features, BBS Productions (collaborating with Jack Nicholson) funded seven radical new productions, including “The Last Picture Show,” which embodied the spirit of a New Hollywood.

September 5: “THE NEW WORLD” (Terrence Malick, 2005)
Terrence Malick’s “The New World” is a transcendentalist vision made in the style of his films “The Tree Of Life” (2011) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998). Malick revives the Algonquin language and the Powhatan Native Americans’ way of life in poetic detail to depict their first encounters with settlers in America not so much as a historical episode, but as a metaphysical reflection on humankind’s place in the universe, and the extent to which nature is an external manifestation of our inner processes of transformation.

September 12: William Greaves’ “SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM” (1968) / REMEMBERING PAUL ROBESON” / and Les Blank’s “DRY WOOD” (1973) and “SWORN TO THE DRUM” (1995). Tonight’s special presentation will be a mosaic of short documentaries made by, or about, African Americans including…

1.) “DRY WOOD”: a portrait of black (French-speaking) Creole life in the Louisiana Delta, and their development of Zydeco music.

2.) “SWORN TO THE DRUM”: Francisco Aguabella’s exploration of the Cuban religions of Santeria, Abacúa and Yezá, hybrids of Catholicism and various African spiritual beliefs emphasizing rhythm (especially rumba rhythms) as expressions of divinity among us.

3.) “REMEMBERING PAUL ROBESON”: The son of an escaped slave, Robeson managed to become a top-billed movie star during the time of Jim Crow America, as well as an athlete, scholar, social activist, and renowned baritone, who literally stopped a war in Europe by singing on a battlefield.

4.) An introduction to the work of WILLIAM GREAVES, who emerged from the rich traditions of early 20th century Harlem theater into The Actor’s Studio of 1948 (alongside Marlon Brando), but had to emigrate to Canada to play roles that weren’t stereotyped due to racism prevalent throughout American culture at the time. Greaves went on to become of pioneer of African-American filmmaking, directing over 200 documentaries and returned to The United States during the Civil Rights Movement to participate in the ongoing discourse regarding African-Americans and their place in society.

September 19: An Introduction To The Early American Cinema of D.W. Griffith (1908 – 1931) and Pál Fejős (1927 – 1930)
Known as the “Inventor of Hollywood”, D.W. Griffith pioneered modern filmmaking techniques through such technically groundbreaking films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). Chaplin called Griffith “The Teacher Of Us All,” and according to Orsen Welles, “No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.” Griffith was the first person to make feature films, the first to use close-ups, and generally seems to have been the first to understand how camera placement and lighting created an expressive language that owed more to music than to traditional narrative.

Pál Fejős, one of the greatest experimental filmmakers of the silent era, became a director after serving as a medical orderly for the Imperial Austrian Army on the Italian front lines during World War I, where he also managed a theatre that performed for troops. He arrived in Hollywood by hitchhiking to Pasadena, stealing fruit from orange orchards, and convincing one of his drivers to finance his first film. Fejős always saw film as closer to painting than to theatre and was more concerned about issues of light and shadow than story. By the Great Depression, he was working with million dollar budgets and the largest crane ever made. He then dropped filmmaking altogether to become one of the greatest pioneers in the history of anthropology and discovered 18 lost ancient Incan cities in Peru.

September 26: “THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION” (Frank Darabont, 1994). Set in 1940s Maine, one of the best American films of the 90s, for the birds within each of us that can’t be caged because their feathers are just too bright. Our curator Steve Elkins will share some stories about his experiences with Shawshank’s producer, Nikki Marvin, and the effect she had on his own work.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Cinema of Chad

I am currently researching the cinema of Africa, for an upcoming film series at Hibbleton Gallery.  So far, I’ve researched the cinema of Angola and Burkina Faso.   For this post, I’d like to introduce you to the cinema of Chad.  But first, a bit about Chad:

Chad, the fifth largest country in Africa in terms of area, has a harsh arid desert climate.  It is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The official languages are Arabic and French. Islam and Christianity are the most widely practiced religions.   France conquered the territory by 1920 and incorporated it as part of French Equatorial Africa. In 1960, Chad obtained independence but (like so many post-colonial African countries) soon became engulfed in a series of civil wars, lasting from 1965-1979, and then from 2005-2010.  

Here is a map of northern Africa.  Chad is in the middle.

Since 2003, the Darfur crisis in Sudan has spilt over the border and destabilized the nation, with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living in and around camps in eastern Chad.  While many political parties are active, power lies firmly in the hands of President Déby and his political party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement. Chad remains plagued by political violence and recurrent attempted coups d’etat. Chad is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world; most inhabitants live in poverty as subsistence herders and farmers. Since 2003 crude oil has become the country's primary source of export earnings, superseding the traditional cotton industry.

The development of a Chadian film industry was hampered by the devastations of civil war and from the lack of cinemas, of which there is only one in the whole country.  Here are brief descriptions of the relatively few films produced in Chad:

Bye Bye Africa. 1999. Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun. It was the first Chadian feature film, and the first by Haroun, who is probably the most important filmmaker from Chad. The autobiographcal docu-drama tells a fictionalized version of the director’s life. A Chadian film director who lives and works in France (Haroun) returns home upon the death of his mother, and is shocked at the degraded state of the country and the national cinema. Encountering skepticism from his family members about his chosen career, Haroun tries to defend himself by quoting Jean-Luc Godard: ”The cinema creates memories." The filmmaker decides to make a film dedicated to his mother entitled Bye Bye Africa, but immediately encounters major problems—cinemas have closed and financing is impossible to secure. Eventually, the director departs Chad in despair, leaving his film camera to a young boy who had been assisting him. The film won awards at the Amiens International Film Festival, Kerala International Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival. 

Daresalam ("Let There Be Peace”). 2000. Directed by Issa Serge Coelo, the other major director from Chad.   Set in a fictional African country called Daresalam, it reflects the civil war that ravaged Chad during the 1960s and 1970s, and is a modern take on the Cain and Abel story from the Bible.  Two young friends’ peaceful existence is interrupted when the central government enters their village harassing them and browbeating the villagers into paying new taxes to help fight the civil war.  This ultimately leads to a massacre, and sends the two friends into different factions of the bloody civil war.  Speaking of his film, Coelo explained he wanted to expose the vicious circle that originates when a despotic government causes the outbreak of a civil war, which tends to feed upon itself endlessly.  In Coelo's words, "war becomes the only economy of the country. Violence, the only way of speech.” 

Abouna ("Our Father”). 2002. Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun.  This is a film about absent fathers, and its impact on families in Chad. Two boys awake one morning to find that their father has abandoned their family. While watching a movie, they think they see their father speaking to them and steal the film to examine the frames. Their mother (Achta) eventually despairs and sends them to Koranic school. Unhappy, they plan their escape until the eldest boy falls in love with a deaf girl (Khalil). After each day for shooting, film was sent 2600 miles to Paris for processing. Only after waiting several days, when word came back that there were no problems, would shooting resume.The film won awards at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Kerala International Film Festival, the Ouagadougou Panafrican Film and Television Festival, and UNICEF.  It was the Chadian submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Daratt ("Dry Season"). 2006. Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun.   Set in the wake of the long Chadian civil war, 16-year-old Atim is sent by his grandfather to the city to kill Nassara, the man who murdered his father before Atim's birth. Atim, carrying his father's gun, finds Nassara running a bakery. Unexpectedly, the taciturn Nassara takes Atim under his wing as the son he never had and begins teaching him how to run the bakery. The emotionally conflicted Atim is drawn into the life of Nassara and his pregnant wife (Aziza Hisseine), before an unexpected finale. Inspiration for the themes of revenge and reconciliation was taken from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Darratt won the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as eight other prizes at Venice and the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou.

DP75: Tartina City. 2007. Directed by Issa Serge Coelo, his second feature film.  Set in an unnamed African country, where a brutal government death squad plagues the land. A journalist, Adoum, having obtained his passport, wants to travel abroad to report on the situation in his country. While at the airport, a compromising letter is found on him, and he is thrown in jail.  The film’s title is taken from "tartina", a mixture of bread and sheep's bowels served to prisoners.  While the country where the film is set remains unnamed, the context is that of Chadian history in the 1980s and 1990s.   The film won the Innovation Award at the Montreal World Film Festival.

A Screaming Man. 2010. Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun. It revolves around the current civil war in Chad, and tells the story of a man who sends his son to war in order to regain his position at an upscale hotel. According to Haroun, the father-son relationship is an examination of modern day Chad: "Between the father and the son is the transportation of memory, genes, and culture…The unrest in Chad has lasted 40 years and it’s the father who has transmitted the culture of war to his son, because otherwise there is no reason for the son to get involved.”  Haroun says that the main character Adam is "screaming against the silence of God.” The film received the Cannes Film Festival's Jury Prize, making Haroun not only the first Chadian director to have a film in the main competition, but also the first to win one of the festival's awards. It also won awards at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Lumière Awards, and was nominated for a Magritte Award.  

GriGris. 2013. Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun. A 25-year-old man with a paralysed leg dreams of becoming a dancer, and starts to work for a gang of petrol smugglers. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was selected as the Chadian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.  It also screened at the Denver Film Festival. 

Most of these movies are available online for purchase through Amazon.  That's how I got them.  Viva world cinema!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Anti-Club Playlist 8/26/12

On Friday nights, I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante (aka the Anti-Club), with my friend Tim Maag.  When I tell people I'm a DJ, they often ask, "What kind of music do you play."  My response is usually, "Eclectic."  My goal with these nights is to focus on music not typically played at clubs and bars.  Having this regular gig allows me to constantly be seeking out new music, and to share it with others.  Sometimes I focus on an artist I like (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sonic Youth, Neil Young).  Other times, I focus on regions of the world (the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, etc).  Lately, I've been choosing a record label I like, and playing music that they've put out.  In recent weeks, I've featured Burger Records, Lollipop Records, Sub Pop, Father/Daughter.  This past Friday, I chose Bomp! records out of Los Angeles.  They began in the late 70s, and have put out music by artists like Stiv Bators, The Nerves, Dead Boys, DEVO, and other greats.  As always, I threw in some random, eclectic choices as well.  Here's my latest playlist, with album artwork.  Click on each song, to give it a listen...

“Sex Education” by The Nerves

See you next Friday night at The Anti-Club!