Sunday, 16 September 2018

Fear

Fear
Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House is the latest book on the Trump presidency, after Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. Whereas Wolff's book was a gossipy account of palace intrigue, Woodward focuses on policymaking (and unmaking), though both writers portray a chaotic White House led by a president unfit for office. Both books were also instant bestsellers; Fear has already sold over a million copies, only a few days after publication.

Fear begins with Trump's former chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, taking a draft letter from the Oval Office, to stop Trump withdrawing from a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea: "I stole it off his desk... He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country." In case this seems far-fetched, Woodward reproduces the actual document, and adds that Cohn, and former staff secretary Rob Porter, also removed similar letters that would have pulled the US out of NAFTA and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

These incidents confirm the gist of the anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times on 6th September, which revealed an internal Trump resistance campaign: "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." (Although, despite the efforts of Cohn, Porter, and the "senior official" who wrote the op-ed, Trump's nationalist instincts ultimately prevailed, and he withdrew from NAFTA and the climate accord.)

Such attempts to subvert a president's agenda are not completely unprecedented. Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men claims that President Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ignored Obama's directive to restructure Citibank after the 2008 financial crisis, and that Obama's authority was "systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers." Suskind's book has been criticised for its errors and exaggerations, though whatever the truth about the Obama administration, the West Wing's challenging of Trump's decision-making is much more blatant.

Unlike Suskind (and Wolff, whose book also contained mistakes), Woodward's journalistic reputation is second to none. He investigated Watergate with Carl Bernstein, and has covered Washington politics for almost fifty years; his previous books include two studies of the Obama administration (Obama's Wars and The Price of Politics).

Woodward also relies on contemporaneous documents, such as the South Korea letter, adding even more credibility to his account. Another document obtained by Woodward, the minutes of a security meeting, is an official summary of the West Wing's concerns about Trump (and it reads like a preview of the op-ed): "many of the president's senior advisers... are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views."

Fear quotes senior staffers expressing these feelings more directly: former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (as previously reported) calls Trump "a fucking moron," and according to Chief of Staff John Kelly, "He's an idiot... He's gone off the rails. We're in crazytown." The book ends with Trump's former lawyer John Dowd calling him "a fucking liar" though the quote's impact is slightly diluted because it also appears a few pages previously. ("He could not say what he knew was true: "You're a fucking liar." That was the problem.")

Woodward conducted interviews on 'deep background', though his key sources are fairly identifiable. White House meetings and conversations are transcribed at length, in quotation marks, though the dialogue is presumably reconstructed rather than verbatim. (This is problematic, though it's become standard practice in memoirs.) Dowd, for example, provides extensive quotes, most notably from his meetings with Robert Mueller. These are the first insights yet into the leak-proof Mueller investigation, and Dowd quotes Mueller twice asking about any "corrupt intent" on Trump's part.

Trump declined to be interviewed for the book. Woodward released a recording of a phone call with Trump last month, in which Trump initially denied, then admitted, being asked to participate. Wolff did interview Trump, though he overstated his access. Trump also spoke to Ronald Kessler, for his hagiographic The Trump White House, in what Kessler claimed was "the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president".

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Someone from Nowhere

Someone from Nowhere
[Spoiler alert: this review reveals the film's ending.] Prabda Yoon's directorial debut, Motel Mist (โรงแรมต่างดาว) was a study of sexual politics and power dynamics, though it also had a political subtext, signalled by a shot of Bangkok's Democracy Monument in the wing mirror as a car drives away. In Prabda's more compelling second film Someone from Nowhere (มา ณ ที่นี้), the entire plot, location, and characters are all political metaphors.

The film takes place in a condo called Liberty Land, which becomes a microcosm for the country (as 'Thai' means 'liberated'). The condo's apparent owner, a young woman, goes about her morning routine: swimming, greeting various neighbours, and taking a shower. But then she discovers an injured man outside her front door, and phones the condominium staff and the police for help. Meanwhile, the man claims to be the condo's rightful owner, demanding: "The only thing I want is to have this place back." She insists that he's lying, and replies: "I won't let you people get away with this atrocity."

To all intents and purposes, the condo is hers, though her deeds of ownership are blank pages, and the assistance she called for never arrives. The analogy to the 2014 coup is clear: like Yingluck Shinawatra, the woman is intimidated by a powerful intruder (the man, representing the military reclaiming its traditional rights); she has no legal defence (her deeds were erased, just as the constitution was abrogated); and she receives no external support (Thailand's judicial system and police force didn't intervene to prevent the coup). The film's political subtext becomes increasingly direct, culminating with the national anthem playing as the man and woman stab each other.

Like Anocha Suwichakornpong's Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก), the film's repetitive structure highlights the cyclical nature of the military's interventions. The man places the woman's unconscious body outside, and assumes occupancy of the condo, going through the same morning routine as she did. He then discovers her outside the door, whereupon she claims to be the rightful owner and he insists that she's mistaken. By implication, the two protagonists have relived the same debate, with alternating roles, many times over (symbolising Thailand's transitions between military and civilian rule). Their apparent amnesia echoes the national tendency to gloss over repeated acts of political violence (as the title of Napat Treepalawisetkun's short film We Will Forget It Again also implies).

Someone from Nowhere's title ostensibly refers to the injured man, as the woman occupies the condo when the film begins and the audience's sympathies initially lie with her. But there are also suggestions that the woman is the interloper: the neighbours didn't acknowledge her during her morning routine, for example, while they readily converse with the man. One neighbour tells him that there's been no good news for eighty years, suggesting that the condo's residents harken back to the pre-democratic era before the 1932 revolution, and therefore that they accept him (the symbol of authoritarianism) rather than her (a disruption of the status quo).

Motel Mist

Motel Mist
Motel Mist (โรงแรมต่างดาว), the directorial debut of writer Prabda Yoon, was dropped by its distributor, TrueVisions, the day before its scheduled release date. Apparently, the studio hadn't anticipated such a risqué drama, and Prabda organised an independent release a month later. The studio's name was removed from the credits, though the film still includes plenty of product placement for the company, as an entire subplot is told via TNN, the TrueVisions news channel.

The title refers to Motel Mistress, the 'love motel' where the majority of the film is set, and there are knowing references to Psycho, with the motel clerk's peephole hidden behind a painting. The standout scene, though, is the journey to the motel (driving symbolically away from Bangkok's Democracy Monument): a middle-aged man picks up a teenage prostitute, and their awkward fumble is choreographed to Bizet's Carmen.

After more kinkiness at the motel, the revenge plot kicks in, as the young woman humiliates the man who exploited her. But this is the film's least effective sequence, as it's tacky (with slow-motion shots of wobbly dildos) and lacks any suspense.

Concept, Context, Contestation

Concept, Context, Contestation
The Concept, Context, Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia (มโนทัศน์ บริบท และการต่อต้าน: ศิลปะและส่วนรวมในเอเชียตะวันออกเฉียงใต้) exhibition was held at BACC in 2014. The scholarly exhibition catalogue, edited by Iola Lenzi, features essays on art in Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The plates section includes rare reproductions of Vasan Sitthiket's Blue October (ตุลาลัย), recreating photographs of the 1976 Thammasat massacre; Paphonsak Lao-or's Loss of Hearing (สูญเสียการได้ยิน), commenting on lèse-majesté by self-censoring books on page 112; Sutee Kunavichayanont's History Class (ห้องเรียนประวัติศาสตร์), with sensitive historical events carved onto school desks; and Manit Sriwanichpoom's The Election of Hatred (การเลือกตั้งแห่งความเกลียดชัง), defaced 2011 election posters similar to Thai Politics III.

Thai Politics III

Thai Politics III
Miti Ruangkritya's Thai Politics III is part of his Thai Politics series inspired by Thai political polarisation. The exhibition catalogue, in an edition of 500 numbered copies, features reproductions of defaced posters from the 2011 election, in which Yingluck Shinawatra defeated Abhisit Vejjajiva. The cover has been die-cut to simulate a slashed poster of Abhisit. Manit Sriwanichpoom's series The Election of Hatred (การเลือกตั้งแห่งความเกลียดชัง) also featured photographs of defaced 2011 election posters.

Thai Politics VII

Thai Politics VII
Artist Miti Ruangkritya published Thai Politics VII last year in an edition of 500 numbered copies, as part of his Thai Politics series of works inspired by Thailand's recent political polarisation. The booklet consists entirely of photographs (sourced from social media) of televisions showing NCPO announcements after the 2014 coup, indicating the omnipresence of military propaganda. (Danaya Chulphuthiphong's short film Night Watch made a similar point, showing a television with the NCPO logo on almost every channel.)

Storytellers of the Town

Storytellers of the Town
Storytellers of the Town, edited by John Clark, was published to accompany a 2014 exhibition by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook in Australia. The catalogue includes stills from videos in which Araya addresses female corpses (Conversation I, I'm Living, and The Class), though it also features images of her more recent work, The Treachery of the Moon. For this twelve-minute video, Araya projected footage of the 2010 UDD protests onto her surroundings as she sat watching a lakorn (soap opera) on television. Araya's work was also included in Art and Words (ศิลปะกับถ้อยความ), though Storytellers of the Town has a more comprehensive bibliography.

Khaki Capital

Khaki Capital
Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia, published last year, examines the military's tendency to exert its influence beyond the barracks, into national economics and politics. The book includes chapters on Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Editors Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat chart the history of the Thai military's state interventions, and the reasons behind its impunity: "The symbiosis of monarchy and military has created a sense of entitlement among the armed forces, especially to its right to influence decision-making regarding national security and national development." They also provide a detailed analysis of the 2014 coup.

Although the book is available in Thailand, some of its contents (such as its assessment of "the most remarkable instance of military corruption under the NCPO junta") cannot be cited online. Its editors also contributed to Military, Monarchy and Repression, an anthology of essays on Thailand's judicial, military, and political tensions.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Chronicle of a Summer

Chronicle of a Summer
Bangkok's Doc Club Theater will be showing the classic Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d'un été) this month at Warehouse 30. This self-reflexive documentary is an experiment in filming truth, which director Jean Rouch readily acknowledges is a contradiction in terms. It is also the first example of cinéma vérité, a style that developed in parallel with the non-participatory 'direct cinema' movement pioneered in the US with documentaries such as Primary and Dont Look Back. Chronicle of a Summer will be shown on 14th, 20th, 22nd, 24th, and 30th September.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

J-Anime Movie

J-Anime Movie
Spirited Away
Bangkok's TK Park will host a weekend of Japanese animation at the end of this month. The event, J-Anime Movie (อนิเมะ...อันนี้มันส์) will take place on 29th and 30th September, and will open with Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し).

Monday, 3 September 2018

Bangkok Screening Room

Tokyo Story
Suspiria
Bangkok Screening Room will shortly be showing two polar opposite classics of world cinema. Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story (東京物語) is a masterpiece of visual restraint, with its measured pace and stationary camera, and it appeared on Sight and Sound's decennial film poll in 1992, 2002, and 2012. Dario Argento's horror film Suspiria, on the other hand, is an exercise in Baroque excess, with stylised violence and Expressionist set designs. Tokyo Story will be shown on 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 25th, and 29th September. Suspiria opens on 18th October.