Waste Land a Film about Beauty and Hope

Waste Land (2010)

Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, and Joao Jardim

O2 Films, 99 mins. in English and Portuguese

* * * *

On the surface, this is a film most Americans would avoid--it’s a documentary with no star power, its subject matter sounds depressing, and part of the dialogue is in Portuguese and is subtitled. The film follows the lives of Rio de Janeiro dwellers from the favelas, the drug-infested, crime-ridden slums that climb Rio’s hillside like a plague of kudzu. The subjects in this film make their living in a stomach-churning fashion: they hang out in the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill. There they spend twelve-hour days sifting through the garbage in search of materials they can sell. In a good week they earn the equivalent of about $25, but every day they prevent several tons of material from being plowed under.

This may sound like a huge turnoff, but it’s actually one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in quite some time. It centers on a project spearheaded by Brazilian-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz. If the name doesn’t ring bells for you, rest assured that they peal quite a few at art auctions; Muniz is among the world’s most successful living artists. He’s done well, in fact, that he decides to return to Brazil for two years, hang out in the dangerous favela, make art with the pickers, and donate any profits that result. He finds many things he did not expect, including a pickers’ association led by the idealistic Tiao, as gentle and sweet a young man who has ever graced the planet. None of Muniz’s subjects are what you’d anticipate. There is Zumbi, the organic intellectual who reads Machiavelli books he finds amidst the trash; Irma, the landfill cook, who looks like a Walker Evans photo; Suelem, 19, and the mother of two, who ends up in a Dorothea Lange-like tableau; the strong-willed and striking Magna; fashion-conscious Isis; and Valter, who has spent decades on the trash heap, but is as cheerful as a character conjured by Dickens. And don’t call them trash pickers; they definitely see themselves as engaged in grassroots recycling.

Muniz and his team worry about and debate whether their presence can help, or if they’re just another link in a chain of broken dreams. I’m not spoiling a thing to say that Muniz orchestrates stunning art and that lives are transformed. Orchestrates is the correct word; Muniz is not necessarily the center of the art that ensues. This is a moving portrait of hope amidst conditions that would induce despair in most people. It is also one of the beauty to be found in an unlikely place. In sum, it’s a film that might make you believe that humankind might just manage to save itself. It’s now available on video, and Netflix subscribers can view it as an instant download. I’d recommend you do so now and move it to the top of your queue.


Bin Laden Is Dead: Now the Hard Part

Enough with the flag waving and chest-thumping already! Osama bin Laden is dead and the world is a decidedly better place without him. Be glad, but don’t rejoice, because his death will also make the world a more dangerous place in the near future. The last thing the planet needs is a group of yahoo provocateurs to make it worse.

Let’s start with the obvious. Was Osama holed up in a mountain cave shivering, raged, and subsisting on tinned food? He was not. He was hidden in plain view--in a luxury compound. And where was that compound? Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. It was located in an affluent neighborhood less than half a mile from a large military academy. Uh oh. President Barack Obama did not inform Pakistan’s President Arif Zardari of the raid until it was over and with good reason. We have known for a long time that bin Laden was in Pakistan, that he enjoyed great support from factions there, and that he was receiving logistical support from officials high up in the Pakistani government. President Obama’s intelligence sources no doubt told him that informing Zardari in advance would have led to U.S. Navy Seals storming an empty compound. Score one for Obama, who managed to do something his inept predecessor George W. Bush never managed to do--keep his mouth shut instead of bragging and swaggering.

Again, though, let’s take stock of the plain facts. Pakistan is, simply, part of the problem, not an ally in the war on terrorism. The Al-Qaida network is in bed with elements of Pakistan’s government, its middle class, and parts of its military hierarchy and officer class. We have but to step next door to Afghanistan to see how widespread the problem is. There we find another erstwhile ally, President Hamad Karzai, who also plays terrorist-seeker, but is believed to be secretly chummy with Al-Qaida. He’s also as crooked as a U-turn. Would anyone be surprised to see former Taliban head Mullah Mohammed Omar turn up in Kabul? To make matters worse, Al-Qaida is probably stronger in Yemen (and maybe Indonesia) than it is in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

There was no “mission accomplished!” nonsense from President Barack Obama when he announced bin Laden’s death. He knows full well that there are dozens of future bin Ladens ready to step into his now-martyred shoes. He also wisely warned that revenge attacks are likely to ensue. Look for quite a few of them to occur in places Fox-watching Americans have foolishly allowed themselves to think are in the midst of “reforms” that will bring “democracy”--Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia…. (Americans use the word ‘democracy’ like it’s a Harry Potter-like magical incantation even though most of them can’t be bothered to exercise it at home!) Count on the fact that both Palestine and Saudi Arabia will come into play in a negative way, and it goes without saying that U.S. targets must be hyper-vigilant in the days to come.

Long term? Several things suggest themselves:

1. Quiet but persistent military and financial disengagement from both Pakistan and Afghanistan; the first is simply the second without the war damage. Every dime spent in aid to either nation is a subsidy for corruption and anti-Americanism. The United States should get out of the imposed “democracy” business. It will probably mean a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of an overtly theocratic government in Pakistan. To be blunt about it, it’s simply none of our business. To be even more frank, who cares? Change must come internally, not through U.S. bombs and dollars. While we’re at it, pull back from the treacherous Saudis as well.

2. Increased rapprochement with India and China. I’ve never understood why the U.S. viewed Pakistan as its natural ally in the region, when India--though it has myriad problems of its own--has been far more stable, powerful, and open to the Western world. Southern Asia is likely to be tense for some time; hence the U.S. should cozy up to the two powers least likely to be affected by upheaval. But let India and China emerge as regional powers and end the nonsense that Washington-based think tanks can direct the region like a symphonic conductor.

3. Turn off the oil taps. This is more than thirty years overdue, largely because another fool, Ronald Reagan, convinced Americans there was plenty of oil. There isn’t, and what does exist is in the hands of people who don’t like us. We need a national energy policy, now. (We needed it when Jimmy Carter called for it in รก1978!) Let’s take the cash currently propping up tyrants and pump it into a Manhattan Project for Energy. This would allow for slow disengagement from both Southern Asia and the Middle East that would be good for everyone involved. Curtailing OPEC blackmail that sends the economy into periodic paroxysms would be a boon to Americans, but there’s also a potential geopolitical gain. If the United States ended oil diplomacy, would it correspond with rising credibility among regional leaders? It’s a premise worth testing.

Osama bin Laden is dead. Now comes the hard part.


Bob Dylan Revealed Unveils Very Little

Bob Dylan Revealed (2011)

Directed by Joel Gilbert

Highway Entertainment, MVD5 1360, 110 mins.


Bob Dylan is, simply, the most important American musician of the past fifty years. He is a brilliant songwriter and poet, a clever arranger, a good (but not great) guitar player, and a man whose music is steeped in various Americana brews. He’s also vain, boorish, egotistical, and as treacherous as a cobra. If it weren’t for the music, he’s the sort of person you’d go out of your way to avoid. Without that music, Bob Dylan Revealed fails to unveil much of anything.

The video purports to take us back to Dylan’s early days with Columbia Records. We do get some memories from producer Jerry Wexler, and as we wend our way to the 1980s, we also get snippets from others, such as Band drummer Mickey Jones, folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, bass player Rob Stoner, boxer Rubin Carter, violinist Scarlet Rivera, the Rev. Bill Dwyer, and Dylan fanatic A. J. Weberman. And this too is a problem because what we hear and see are random and personal snapshots whose connective tissue to larger events is as thin as generic Kleenex. In some cases it’s as if Gilbert is simply stitching together whatever footage he can get his hands on; in others, the informants speak with a measured reserve reminiscent of defendants with lawyers whispering into their ears. Or, in the case of Hurricane Carter, rants straight out of a Black Power rally circa 1972.

What we get almost none of are the two things we most want: Dylan’s own thoughts and his music. I searched in vain to try to find out whether Dylan authorized this project or refused to be part of it. I suspect the latter, which would also explain why there are few musical clips longer than several seconds in duration--that would be as long as fair use copyright would allow. Without the music we are asked to care about Mickey Jones’s home movies that reveal--gasp!--Bob sitting in the back of a limo or Bob playing acoustic guitar on the stage. We don’t hear that footage, mind you. Instead there is generic filler music and Jones’s narration. Do we care about how much gear was hauled for the Rolling Thunder Revue? Or Dylan’s (embarrassing and brief) conversion to fundamentalism? What are we supposed to make of the several-times-mentioned revelation that Joni Mitchell was booed when Rolling Thunder played at the prison where Carter was incarcerated? (In my mind, anybody who boos Joni Mitchell deserves to be behind bars!)

Here’s the deal. We’re supposed to care about Dylan minutiae with Weberman’s passion. Through the years Dylan has shown very little inclination to care about his audiences, so why would we care about Dylan trivia? We just want the damn music! If you want to probe Dylan’s psyche, Todd Haynes’s semi-fictional I’m Not There (2007) is hard to beat. If you want a bio-doc, Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home (2005) remains the gold standard; and if you want to know why Dylan matters in social and political terms, read Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (2010). But give Bob Dylan Revealed a wide berth.