Archives for posts with tag: back channel economy

If like me you are a diehard lover of cities and the sidewalk, where democracy is formed, you’ll love Chop Shop,  now streaming at Netflix. Ebert says it’s one of the best movies of the oughties. I wouldn’t know, but it has many virtues.

The 12-year-old actor Alejandro Polanco celebrates Willets Point, Queens, in the 2007 neo-realist movie, Chop Shop.

First, it is neo-Marxist. Modernity, it is argued, began in public space with the uprooting of the cobblestones people used to throw at the Bastille. And democracy itself was invented in the plazas of Athens, where citizens gathered to vote on civic matters. Willets Point is not a planned city – so far from being planned it overlooks Rikers Island, the nexus of New York City chaos – and has no sewage system or streetlights. It is an organic, Systeme D — the back channel economy in which half the world’s workers now labor — explosion of auto parts and repair shops where there used to be junk yards.  Visually, cinematically, it is the opposite of the planned, organized, civilized city and much more in the realm of the visual chaos Robert Venturi first discovered in Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas celebrates in Lagos.

Willets Point is the urban version of the vast parking lot in which most suburban Americans live, and which academic architecture, who fancy themselves the avatars of modernity, are just beginning to address.  It is not the architecture of reassurance symbolized by Disneyland and everything else Hollywood builds into a set.

The suburbs – I suppose Queens could be considered a suburb of Manhattan – are where all the entry level immigrants now live. The outer boroughs are no longer for white people only, and that clash and ascendancy of cultures is what Chop Shop is partly about. Shea Stadium is right there; the kids sneak into baseball games; everyone in the world wants to own an American muscle car and comes to Willets Point to get one.

Second, the  neo-realist story idea arose from reality. No member of the chattering classes has ever laid eyes on Willets Point, Queens. No Spielberg or Bruckheimer has the nerve to emerge from un-air-conditioned space to regard actuality.

The Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, guided there by a roadie who’d had his own car chopped there, spent months hanging out in Willets Point.  He didn’t know what his story was going to be. He waited for the neighborhood to tell him. In the visual chaos, he slowly began to see that there were children who lived and worked there.* That children in America live and work in junk yards is something you’d never know unless you just quietly hung around a place, not re-conforming the reality to make it videogenic. Apprehending, I don’t know, reality.

Third, he had no casting director and basically no lines to memorize, only a carefully rehearsed and diligently pre-shot, shot and re-shot improv script. He found the lumniscent young actors who play the orphaned brother and sister himself. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales epitomize the lure of British television and movies to me – indeed Bollywood, Australian, Spanish movies and movies everywhere else but America – they are real faces. Uncut, unBotoxed, shining out light the way no Hollywood mask can.

Gonzales and Polanco live in a crawl space above the chop shop.

Polanco looks, walks, speaks, and acts everything that is good about boys of all ages, and the poignancy of his being 12 years old, a little man — sometimes trudging like a tiny pigeon-toed old man —  is the heart of the story of the working child. Gonzales has the more unsympathetic part, more difficult, perhaps to play than the beautiful boy, but her face in the scene in which she embraces her little brother and swings his legs around in a kickball game is one I will never forget. Then there’s the pigeon scene at the end. Oh me.

Gonzales and Polaco kick ball in Chop Shop.

Finally, there are scenes in the movie, notably one in the subway where Polanco and his much shorter sidekick sell candy, in which there are no actors whatever. Every candy buyer in the subway cars – mostly hard-looking young African-American men – is a real New Yorker caught by Bahrani’s hand-held camera. Bahrani says, “That’s the great thing about New Yorkers is, they’ve seen so many cameras they don’t really care. (Laughter) I’m amazed still. Like, that woman who—not even once does she look into the camera, or even care! No one asked any questions, either, like, “Why is there a camera and five people following?” They just bought their candy and went… It’s amazing, you know? Thank you, because that was like New Yorkers; they allow these things to happen.”

http://www.movingimagesource.us/files/dialogues/3/81269_programs_transcript_html_302.htm

Totally open, and totally cool. The new Jerusalem, the city on the hill for which we left so much behind. Run, comrade. The old world is behind you.

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*The NYT has a wonderful piece about the single, lone legal resident of Willets Point, Joseph Ardizzone,of the auto repair ghetto where so much life goes down.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/nyregion/17willets.html?_r=0)

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1. Is the left really the “working class”? And is that working class really liberal? Was it ever? Has the working class — qua organizable by unions — disappeared with smokestack industry?

2. Did the post-industrial economy, the Internet, create this finance economy implosion? (I was thinking of the industries it has decimated: newspapers, recording industry, network TV and I wish I knew more about how insta-trading created the financial implosion.) Has it gutted collective bargaining?

3. Read Chekhov and George Steiner’s “Proofs” for insights into the actual character of the Russian proletariat, which is different from Communism, and the Italian, which I think is perhaps closer to the 19th century Platonic concept of Marxism.

I think Gogol is also essential to the understanding of the mystic Slav dealio, which is also different from Communism (rather more than from Marx and his humanism). The mystic Slav’s amazing powers of abstraction, surrealism, modernity, explosive nihilism (all that is solid melts into air), apocalypse, and flame-colored satin tablecloths in the nightclubs along the Brighton Beach boardwalk — Russian orthodox bling.

Chekhov

Steiner profiles the fortunes of an Italian Communist cell at the fall of the Berlin Wall — the literate artisan class, the only U.S. parallel to which I can think of is the dear, departed International Typographers’ Union. They made hot lead type for — how you say in English — newspapers, I think they were called. Back in my Newspaper Guild shop steward days, when we argued for a week in the AME church at 15th and M whether or not we should cross the pressmens’ racist, sexist, violent Irish ahole picket line, the ITU, as I remember — basically, deaf graduates of Gallaudet — was the only one of the newspaper unions to be retraining their guys for the computer age.

Steiner

4. For forty years I have been encountering the educated serf class in socialist Third World countries. The waiter at Luxor has a degree in economics. The butcher boy in Havana was an Olympic basketball contender and has a Master’s degree in kinesiology.

5. When I was in Egypt, in the beginning of the 1980s, all the coeds were wearing black burkas and black wool gloves over their skintight jeans and silver lame baseball jackets. The average salary of a policeman was $9 a month.

6. The result of this is that the only economy which works is the back channel or Blade Runner economy. You go to the Cairo Museum and see many, many curatorial tragedies due to the world’s heritage objects being displayed in padlocked cases humidified with empty Petri dishes and fumigated with visible moth balls. The guard in the room where the Rosetta Stone — the Rosetta Stone, people — is displayed by itself has roped it off and permits no entry unless baksheesh is extorted.

7. I see us, that is Americans, now joining those Third World places who missed pre-industrial and went straight to post-industrial, as having been educated for a different economy. All the supermarket checkout people will be former reporters, punk musicians, and classified ad sales people. The black people, who have, for various reasons, been on to the back channel economy for the past 400 years, have already sewed up all the well-paying, post-industrial, “proletarian” but now upper middle class jobs, like UPS driver. I think the unions — who hate brown people the way the Irish pressmen hated everybody else — now call themselves “progressives”, having carefully chosen to avoid anything that smacks of “liberal”.

8. A friend, who is 37, just paid off the last of her med school loans. I’ve been talking about the university lately as the predatory lender who has landed the average college graduate with $25,000 in debt. Average means 50 per cent of them have more.

A professor, who labored both in the Ivy League and elsewhere, said, Oh yes! Those terrible predatory lender schools like the University of Phoenix! No, dude, that would include the predatory student loan officers at Princeton and the big fat state university at which one has spent one’s career.

9. What is a leftist? Someone who believes that there is a commonweal the government needs to pay for? A simple version of the social contract I like is, I pay taxes, you protect me. This strikes me as the social contract and not the position of a wild-eyed anti-capitalist anarcho slacker or The Communist Manifesto.

10. Is this a hint of what a leftist might could, for one brief shining moment, in the summer of love, have been? Someone who believed Love itself was to be found in the democracy of public space?

More and more young people were flooding the Haight, including four beautiful girls from Antioch College, in Ohio. A sexy anarchist movement, the Diggers, had sprung up, and the girls joined in. One day two of them, Cindy Read and Phyllis Wilner, “were walking down Haight Street,” Cindy recalls, “and Phyllis said, ‘Isn’t this how you thought the world would be, except it wasn’t? But now, for us, it is!’ ”

San Francisco Diggers poster, ca. 1968, from the Diggers’ Archive

….“The Summer of Love became the template: the Arab Spring is related to the Summer of Love; Occupy Wall Street is related to the Summer of Love,” says Joe McDonald, the creator and lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish and a boyfriend of one of that summer’s two queens, Janis Joplin. “And it became the new status quo,” he continues. “The Aquarian Age! They all want sex. They all want to have fun. Everyone wants hope. We opened the door, and everybody went through it, and everything changed after that. Sir Edward Cook, the biographer of Florence Nightingale, said that when the success of an idea of past generations is ingrained in the public and taken for granted the source is forgotten.” http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/07/lsd-drugs-summer-of-love-sixties

11. Still alive, after all these years. Go on, Joe.

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