Friday, 27 December 2019

Inside Trump's White House

Inside Trump's White House
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House began life as an authorised record of Donald Trump’s presidency. After initially giving the book his tacit approval, Trump later tried to sue the publisher for libel. Now, almost two years later, comes another author with his own offically sanctioned account. “I was being given the nod to write an official history of a presidency,” boasts Doug Wead, writer of Inside Trump’s White House. (The US subtitle is The Real Story of His Presidency, while in the UK it’s The Authorized Story.)

The book is a response to Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s equally critical Fear, both of which depended on well-placed though unidentified sources. Wead disparages this “secondhand testimony, which was usually anonymous” though he later admits that he also relied on “a long list of anonymous sources inside the Trump White House and the government”.

His sources were apparently selected for him by Trump’s team: “White House staffers sent me names and phone numbers of people to contact.” These contacts include Dan Scavino and Keith Schiller—recognisable to anyone familiar with Trump’s background—who Wead admits are “names that I had never heard before”. In another example of Wead’s naivety, he boasts that Trump showed him a top-secret letter from Kim Jong-un—“My people don’t want me to give these to you”—though Trump had tweeted the entire text months earlier.

Two previous (and similarly hagiographic) books have claimed unique access to Trump. Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie wrote that Trump’s Enemies contained "the only formal book interview President Trump has sat for since being elected to office," and Ronald Kessler maintained that The Trump White House featured “the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president”. Presumably, Trump co-operated with Inside Trump’s White House because of Wead’s equally dependable loyalty: Trump tells him, “Doug, I think you and I have good chemistry. That’s going to be a good thing for this book.”

The result is a flattering portrait of the Trump administration, not quite as fawning as Trump’s Enemies though devoid of any brickbats. Whereas The Trump White House was surprisingly critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Wead lavishes praise on both of them, and refers to Kushner as ”the president’s brilliant son-in-law”. In fact, Wead devotes a chapter to each of Trump’s adult children, making this essentially a Trump vanity project.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik
TV Buddha
TV Buddha
TV Buddha
A major Nam June Paik retrospective is currently on show at Tate Modern in London. The exhibition features more than 200 works, including Button Happening, Paik’s earliest extant video piece and, therefore, arguably the first example of video art. (Paik purchased a video camera in 1965. Legend has it that he filmed Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York on 4th October of that year, though the footage no longer exists. Button Happening was shot at around the same time.) The show also features numerous artefacts from Paik’s Fluxus period, including Zen for Film, a projection of unexposed 16mm film.

The exhibition opens with Paik’s masterpiece, TV Buddha. This installation—in which a Buddha statue contemplates its own image via CCTV—exists in numerous variations, though the Tate retrospective has the original 1974 version (with an 18th-century Buddha and JVC Videosphere TV), on loan from Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. The exhibition runs from 17th October until 9th February next year.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke
2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke: The Genesis, Making and Authorship of a Masterpiece, by Filippo Ulivieri and Simone Odino, now sits alongside eleven other books about 2001: A Space Odyssey on my bookshelves. (The others are 2001: Filming The Future, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2001 Memories, Moonwatcher’s Memoir, Are We Alone?, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2001: The Lost Science, The 2001 File, The Making Of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Space Odyssey.)

Despite being the latest of at least a dozen books on the subject, 2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke offers a surprisingly original analysis of the making of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece and his collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke. It provides “for the first time a complete account of the creative odyssey undertaken by Kubrick and Clarke,” including previously-unseen material from both the Kubrick Archive and, especially, Clarke’s papers at the Smithsonian.

Most accounts of the production of 2001 are largely anecdotal, relying on decades-old recollections, though 2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke takes a reassuringly systematic approach, verifying every fact via contemporaneous press reports and production documents. The book’s most substantial section offers a unique chronology of 2001’s production, meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed. There is also an in-depth examination of the often-overlooked period following Dr Strangelove, when Kubrick was formulating his plans for 2001.

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke was first published in Italian, as 2001 tra Kubrick e Clarke: Genesi, realizzazione e paternità di un capolavoro. Co-author Filippo Ulivieri also wrote the excellent Stanley Kubrick and Me, the memoir of Kubrick’s personal assistant.

The Fabulists

The Fabulists
Michael Peel, formerly based in the Financial Times’ Bangkok bureau, is now an FT Brussels correspondent. Once free of the tacit censorship familiar to all Bangkok-based journalists, he wrote of his “sense of alarm about the stifling atmosphere” surrounding discussion of the monarchy, in a cathartic FT Weekend Magazine feature (published on 14th October 2017).

In The Fabulists: The World’s New Rulers, Their Myths and the Struggle Against Them, Peel analyses the rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In a chapter on post-coup Thailand, he reflects on the paradox of the country’s adulation for the monarchy and its severe lèse-majesté law: “The longer I spent in Thailand, the harder I found it to reconcile this”.

Peel interviewed an imprisoned lèse-majesté suspect, and an ultra-royalist who snitches on anti-monarchists to the police. Peel describes his meeting with the shackled prisoner as “one of the more bizarre interviews I have conducted.” Tentative cracks appeared in the royalist’s over-zealous attitude, as he was faced with a moral dilemma: “He had fallen out with his son over his alleged disrespect for the monarchy. I asked gently about this. He replied elliptically.”

Peel also spoke to Sulak Sivaraksa, who has faced numerous lèse-majesté charges, all of which—thanks to behind-the-scenes interventions—resulted in acquittal. Sulak’s latest narrow escape came in 2014, when he challenged a national myth, questioning the historical accuracy of King Naresuan’s legendary elephant duel: “even this semi-licensed gadfly found he could not avoid the official swat.” Like the recent Sulak biography Roar, The Fabulists is on sale in Thailand only because it has somehow slipped under the government’s radar.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Spectrosynthesis II

Spectrosynthesis II
Spectrosynthesis II
Portrait of a Man in Habits
Gay Mixed II / Gay Mixed IV
Spectrosynthesis II - Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia (สนทนาสัปตสนธิ ๒: ไตร่ถาม ความหลากหลายในอุษาคเนย์) opened at Bangkok’s BACC on 23rd November. This major group exhibition features more than fifty artists, and is on show until 1st March next year. The substantial catalogue includes an essay by curator Chatvichai Promadhattavedi.

Highlights include Michael Shaowanasai’s Portrait of a Man in Habits, in which the artist poses as a monk wearing female make-up. When it was first shown, at the Chulalongkorn Art Center’s Alien {Gener}ation exhibition in 2000, it was condemned by the Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) newspaper. This led to complaints from Buddhist groups, and the photograph was withdrawn from display.

Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê’s collages Gay Mixed II and Gay Mixed IV are also included. They are constructed from photographic strips woven together like traditional Vietnamese mats, though they include images from gay pornography censored in Vietnam.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

23rd Short Film and Video Festival

23rd Short Film and Video Festival
Syndromes and a Century
The 23rd Short Film and Video Festival, Thailand’s longest-running annual film festival, begins on 14th December. This year’s event includes two films that were previously censored in Thailand: Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง) and Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ).

The seemingly arbitrary censorship of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century was the catalyst for the Free Thai Cinema Movement’s campaign for film classification. The campaign was successful, as the Film and Video Act introduced a rating system, though it was a rather Pyrrhic victory, as films continued to be cut and banned.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Birth of Golden Snail was banned under the Film and Video Act, though the ban was legally questionable. The film was rejected by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), though the Act specifies that responsibility for censorship lies with the Film and Video Censorship Committee (which had not viewed the film) rather than the OCAC. Birth of Golden Snail received its premiere in Singapore last month.

Birth of Golden Snail will be shown as part of the Short Film and Video Festival’s opening programme on 14th December, and Syndromes and a Century will be screened on 16th December. Both screenings will be in 35mm, at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya.

30th Singapore
International Film Festival

30th Singapore International Film Festival
The 30th Singapore International Film Festival ran from 21st November to 1st December. The Festival included the first public screening of Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง), at the National Gallery on 29th November. This silent film was shot on 16mm—like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)—in the style of 1920s French avant-garde films such as Un chien andalou.

Birth of Golden Snail was inspired by legends associated with Khao Khanabham cave in Krabi. It begins with a group of cavemen spearing fish and lighting a fire. As they celebrate, a match cut transforms them into Japanese soldiers camping at the cave during World War II. (This transition, from prehistory to modernity in an instant, recalls the famous cut from the bone to the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The soldiers capture a local schoolgirl after she glimpses them hiding gold bars in the cave. (The gold is tinted yellow, in an otherwise black-and-white film.)

The film was intended as a site-specific installation to be projected onto the Khao Khanabham cave wall, as part of last year’s Thailand Biennale. However, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) argued that its depiction of the Japanese soldiers could “make a bad relationship between Thailand and Japan.” (This is unlikely, as the soldiers are not portrayed entirely negatively: although they tie the schoolgirl to a tree, they offer her food and, when she escapes and is punished by her father—a character from Chulayarnnon’s film Vanishing Horizon of the Sea—they ask him not to beat her.)

In a dream sequence, snails appear on the schoolgirl’s body. One shot shows the creatures on her breasts, though strategically-placed gastropods and shallow focus ensure that there is no explicit nudity. Also, the sequence is comical (with a “Pregnant!” intertitle) and surreal (as a snail shell suddenly appears via a jump cut). Nevertheless, the OCAC claimed that the image of a pregnant schoolgirl set a bad example, and that the shot of her breasts was indecent.

They were particularly concerned because Krabi, the Biennale exhibition venue, has a one-third Muslim population, and they told the director: “It shouldn’t be screened in the Muslim community.” Those concerns were apparently well founded, as Chulayarnnon received a death threat from a local Muslim community leader. As the director told me in an interview last year, “He had a chance to see my film, and he posted on Facebook: ‘Do not look down on the cave, otherwise you will die!’” On the eve of the Biennale, Chulayarnnon was informed in writing that the film violated the “peace, morality, national security and dignity of Thailand”. (Their letter was exhibited at Field Trip Project Asia this year.)

The OCAC cited the Film and Video Act, § 29, to justify their ban, though the paragraph in question states: “if the Film and Video Censorship Committee considers any film as having content which undermines or is contrary to public order or good morals, or may affect the security and dignity of Thailand, the Film and Video Censorship Committee shall have the power to order an applicant to edit or cut off the scene before granting approval”. In other words, the OCAC acted beyond its jurisdiction, as the power of movie censorship rests solely with the Film and Video Censorship Committee (which did not view the film).

Negotiations with the OCAC progressed at such a snail’s pace that no agreement had been reached by the close of the four-month exhibition, and Birth of Golden Snail was effectively aborted. The film finally emerged from its shell in Singapore, and it will receive its Thai premiere later this month, at the 23rd Short Film and Video Festival.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

The Irishman

The Irishman
Martin Scorsese has directed twenty-five feature films, only a handful of which are gangster movies. But, perhaps due to the tremendous influence of GoodFellas and his long-overdue Oscar for The Departed, he’s indelibly associated with the gangster genre. Also (notwithstanding his recent work with Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese’s collaborations with Robert de Niro represent one of the greatest director-and-actor partnerships in cinema history. So when a new Scorsese film returned to the world of organised crime, and reunited the director with de Niro after two decades, expectations were set very high indeed.

The Irishman is a late-career masterpiece from Scorsese, made for Netflix after the major Hollywood studios baulked at its $150m budget. Scorsese has previously made documentaries (and a faux documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue) for Netflix, and directed the Boardwalk Empire pilot for HBO. The Netflix deal meant that The Irishman’s theatrical window was limited to just a few weeks, and there are no plans for a blu-ray or DVD release in the near future, though it’s streaming on Netflix (in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio) indefinitely.

The epic film spans almost fifty years, though its complex back-and-forth structure is never jarring or confusing, thanks to incredibly seemless editing by long-term Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. CGI was used to remove facial wrinkles in the flashback scenes, though the effect isn’t entirely convincing: while it does smooth the actor’s faces, it can’t compensate for their older bodies and slower movements. The film itself has a slower, more elegiac pace than Scorsese’s earlier gangster classics, and Joe Pesci’s performance is especially restrained (in contrast to his hot-tempered roles in Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and Casino).

The Irishman was adapted from I Heard You Paint Houses, based on the recollections of Frank Sheeran, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa. (Sheeran, played by de Niro, is the eponymous Irishman. The film uses I Heard You Paint Houses as a subtitle, ‘painting houses’ being a metaphor for gangland killings.) Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, disappeared in 1975, and the circumstances of his death have never been revealed. Sheeran claimed responsibility, and The Irishman takes him at his word.