A Defense of Acquaintances

I got a very interesting question in the comments section of my film Acquaintances today. Rwordplay wrote:

Dan, Not entirely sure I understand the point of the exercise. I think think it’s difficult to transcend the banal—it is obligatory for novelists and still life painters, but it’s absolutely critical for a filmmaker to turn ordinary conversation into something so mysterious, we have no choice but to listen. Where’s the mystery?

I wrote a lengthy response:

I suppose the mystery is in how these people escape these circumstances, either imagined or real, and frame them as narratives. The last interview in particular keeps veering between obviously open wounds and fantasies that seem all the more fantastic for their incredible banality (to have a child and name it after a video game character), and the mystery is what he could have done to escape that. As it stands, he killed himself. Some of them are less attempts to be mysterious so much as to try capturing the fleeting moods of a town-the segment in the coffee shop where man talks about feeling trapped in Saratoga since it doesn’t seem lively to him would seem to suggest both an irony in its contrast to the fantastic quality of the stories preceding him and captures a feeling I’m sure every subject had at some point. Each interviewee seems to take solace in the notion there’s some sort of normal world out there somewhere. Yet, their idea of this world is always woefully underdeveloped. Though I hadn’t read this when I made the film, Stanley Elkin’s observation that the great life is one of cliches seems appropriate here. Each one breaks through a hardship with the help of a system of their own making-the ridiculous amnesia tv show,holding open doors, reiki treatments, the almost country lyrics of the man with the speech impediment. Are these admirable accomplishments or sad writhings of trapped creatures?

Though I can’t say I defend the entirety of the film, most of which was shot when I was 17 and edited between then and when I turned 19, I still find that I achieved a great deal of what I set out to do with the piece. I shot it when I was obsessed with the work of John Cassavetes and the subsequent academic renderings of him by Ray Carney, in particular the books Cassavetes on Cassavetes and The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies. Both are excellent books, and I recommend them highly.

In Cassavetes work there seems to be a promise of wisdom in the reckless disregard for any structural or grammatical traditions in the cinema, one I took whole heartedly-that if one could only escape ideas one could reach the wealth of experience as it happens. This dovetailed nicely with the strong feeling I had then about Saratoga-that so many people I knew regarded it as a trap, that they’d never escape it, and that their future lay in cities, and that I disagreed with them entirely on all these points. The town seemed stranger and more rich in contradictions and lore than anything David Lynch could concoct and they all seemed to be on the surface. Yet this was a surface so slippery that one could hardly skate on it without falling and tripping. So going in, my initial impulse was “How do I show how bizarre and exciting the day to day life is here?”

The other initial guiding impulse was simply that the film was in a sense an autobiography of my high school years-that I had spent most of my time gathering stories from the townies as they were called, and the film is like an extremely condensed version of my many leisurely days of coffee and wandering. I went in with only two rules, each of which I broke rather quickly.

1)I would go into each interview with no predetermined questions or subject in mind. I wouldn’t prompt the subjects. Any structure would come from later editing, which I gave myself an open deadline to finish.

2) The only thing consistent to each interview is that I would speak to the person for an hour, the length of a mini DV tape.

I broke rule one several times, knowing many of each subject’s stories and guiding them toward ones I thought should be preserved. I also broke it, and at the same time allowed for the repeated motifs of the film simply in that the questions were ones I’d had on my mind at the time-how does one reconcile after quarrels with parents, what do you do after finishing high school etc. Rule two I broke by using two tapes on Ross, the first subject in the film.

I wasn’t sure what shape the film should take after shooting, and decided I would try to memorize each tape in the process of editing so I could form the footage like a short story. I edited each segment individually with no sure idea in my head how they would be combined if they were going to be combined at all. The idea to shoot landscape shots came to me two years later, two weeks before I had booked the Saratoga Arts Center to premiere the film. These shots solved two problems with the finished segments-1) I thought they moved way too quickly, and one after another would instill a mechanical skimming by the viewer, 2) I wanted it to be about the town by being about the people in it, and this seemed to connect the two things in a more concrete way.

Editing was guided more by a desire for an indefinite tone, a simultaneous feeling of tragedy and humor and the inability of the audience to feel any specific thing while watching it without later calling such feelings into question. This makes it incredibly hard for the viewer to try to do a detailed reading leading toward a notion or lesson to be taken away. The film doesn’t have intentions toward either. If it’s heading toward anything specifically, I suppose it’s a premonition of something that has fascinated me more recently-the challenge to perform in the wake of tragedy and the scramblings toward and inevitable disappointment in the improvisation undertaken.

The first public screening after showing a number of segments to friends was an interesting experience and in some aspects a signal of failure. A film I thought was hilarious was taken with mute horror for the most part and while the audience was moved, they all shook my hand and hugged me afterward as though comforting the bereaved at a funeral. Friends I’d shown segments to earlier had laughed uncontrollably or launched into several hour accounts of their own lives. Many asked me if I owned a tripod. I didn’t then.

I’ve begun work on my next long form film, which is going to deal with ambivalence and non-feelings in a manner entirely different from Acquaintances-there will be properly filmed shots, written material, voice-overs, etc. I hope the two will make interesting bedfellows.

And if you haven’t already, please check out the book I just published. It’s really cheap and I personally think it’s pretty good, though there’s no accounting for taste.

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The Book is On Sale!

My memoir of Occupy Wall Street’s first incarnation, a labor of love and much coffee, is now on sale in the Amazon kindle store. A softcover edition will hopefully be out by the end of the month. Check it out here: http://www.amazon.com/Every-Messages-Somebody-Thinks-ebook/dp/B007R0NNFK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333467120&sr=1-1

Greg Mitchell at The Nation gave me a shout out on the OWS blog, and I should be going on WBAI sometime soon to promote it. I also am going to get it out to a couple other online stores (the Ibook store and the Nook store I’m working on currently), so enjoy!

One regret I had about putting it on the Amazon store is that their ridiculous formatting guidelines forced me to forego the illustrations I had made for it. They will be in the softcover, but for anyone who bought it on kindle, here they are:

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In related news, my first film is up on youtube now:

A video portrait of me, done for a student project by my sister, a good companion piece to Acquaintances, is here:

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Occupy 2.0 Day 3

The temperature and the dates continue to be asynchronous in the melange of weather which seems to have transcended the unseasonal into the aseasonal.

Guy with dreads walks up with half a cigarette.

“Hey man you got a light?”

I handed him my lighter.

“Nice man. I just found this on the ground. Fucking awesome right?!”

That seems as good to set the tone as anything.

The new Occupation, much diminished, seems to be, when not screaming clichés, screaming for them. The inmates are running the asylum, the madhouse overturned, Occupy’s nut gone flake. The library offerings today were, quite appropriately, an overflowing bag and an attendant stack of works by Danielle Steele and her numerous acolytes, all appearances suggesting them unread and unloved. Thank god for small graces.

The small cadre left seems sadly the sort who, I cringe at the crude language, have little else to do besides hang about a public park. A neo-Stalinist who wouldn’t leave the table complained to me the neo-Maoists were nothing but cultists. I used the phrase “dialectical materialism” and he had no clue what I meant. A couple high school girls asked me what Occupy was about. “I heard the country’s gettin’ real bad and we like…we’re becoming communist or somethin’.” I tried to explain that no, it was closer to representational oligarchy and they said “Oh yeah, same thing.” and walked off.

People who would normally mutter on the subway realized they could mutter in mic checks and so we hear perpetually refrains best refrained from, except the couple beggars with boomboxes from whom we hear “Just Dance” distorted. “The State” has become the all purpose sentence subject, the attendant authority to swaddle the drifted in the self-importance of their own paranoia.

An evangelical passed a pamphlet, “Frequently Asked Questions for the Second Coming.” The first question: “Where did everybody go?”

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A Quiet Day for Union Square Occupation

I went to Union Square yesterday and worked the info table for a couple hours with Rich, but I had to split in order to attend my friend’s going away party. It was pretty quiet, even though a large march came in the middle of my shift. One confused older woman kept coming back every 5 minutes asking me where someone named Andy was, growing more upset each time she asked. Another face of the perpetually lost.

I spoke with Stan, a friend from Liberty Plaza. He’d gotten arrested with the Occupy Media team and was held in the tombs for 3 days. He eventually gave in to the police request for an iris scan on the promise he’d be let out sooner, and was, but only an hour sooner than anyone else.

“I know I have an ACD, but I feel like I need another arrest to get back my arrest cred. How many times have you been arrested?”

“Just the one in Albany.”

“I think I should do it on a Tuesday. The last one was on a Tuesday.”

“You’re planning this??”

“Yeah, thinking about it. Saturday seems passe, too many people get arrested on Saturdays. Sunday is too slow. Gotta be a Tuesday.”

“Well, good luck with that.”

Today I came to Union Square only to find out the Info table had been confiscated by the police the previous night. I wandered around a bit and settled down to do some reading for a class.* I got some done, but mostly I kept looking around distracted. People kept screaming nonsense and harassing each other, apparently thinking they were on the set of Maury. The numbers really dwindled today. People were holding each other “accountable” for whatever insults they’d hurled at each other on the e-mail groups over the winter. Getting the internet involved as a communication medium in this is a bad idea, but it’s too late to turn back.

I ran into A. He smelled like rubbing alcohol. I saw him last on the subway. I’d noticed he’d lost some weight, which I presumed was a booze weight. I guess I was wrong. He must just not be eating. His eyes lacked luster like fried yolks.

“You want to get a drink?” he asked.

“Sure.”

We walked a couple blocks to a bodega. He grabbed a 4 Loko and I grabbed a can of ginger ale. The clerk had the paper bag the size of a can of 4 Loko precise ready. A acknowledged the bag with a familiar “Grazi!” and we walked out.

“I got a ticket for this the other day you know.”

I nodded. You don’t get in many interjections with A.

“It’s fucked up. It’s either a $25 fine or 5 days in jail. Usually a 4-5 day stint in jail they’d set the fine at something like $300-$400. I’m going to fight the fucking thing, but seriously, that’s the fine?

“They got rid of the brown bag laws. That’s a sign of a neofascist state, they won’t just let you kick it in the street. I’m a grown adult, an international lawyer,-”

He took a sip of the 4 Loko from the bag. I think it was grape.

“-and I just want to have a fucking drink on the street you know?”

He kept talking about some court case he’s being flown out to California to work on that he claimed was worth $1.23-1.85 billion. The details kept shifting. Nobody is giving a guy with a graying hoodie drinking 4 Loko from a bag on the street a case like that. Still, the odd swagger persisted.

“I was talking with a friend the other day, and he said ‘Man, you’d be the best billionaire ever!’ and I was like ‘Yeah, I kinda would be.'” He walks with a lurch and gesticulates like he was trying to indicate a pregnancy.

A, if you’re reading this, get help.

When I got back to Union Square there was nothing doing. I took the train home.

*Michel Foucault-History of Sexuality Vol. 1

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Occupation 2.0!

The Occupation, despite any doubts I might have had, is back on. We’ve been in Union Square, on the 14th street side, since Saturday. A lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while are back. Not all of them, but not all of the more annoying crazies are back either. And most importantly, the Info table was up most of the day today, and I got to work at it a while.

This new phase is interesting, though for different reasons than the last one was. Now everyone knows, or at least everyone who comes to the table does, what Occupy Wall Street is and why we’re here. The people asking me “Why are you here?” were mostly other Occupiers looking for an example of how to handle the question when speaking to their friends, relatives, and acquaintances. My old stock answers were a bit rusty, but I got them mostly up to date. NDAA and a couple other developments mean the answers need to be updated. I’m working out the kinks at the table.

Most of the old info crew wasn’t there, though Rich was. Rich is probably the most dedicated info guy I know, and stayed with it through the winter. He photocopied most of the fliers we stocked the table with today himself. Since the Occupation is pretty close to broke now, this was important. The General Assembly was held at Zuccotti instead of Union Square today because of what I heard third hand as being “financial reasons”. I took this to mean, “The occupation is broke and we don’t want the press to know we’re broke.” I answer my straw man with “The press already knows we’re broke, we have to be transparent.” It’s unfortunate a lot of really unnecessary and crappy working groups ate up the money, but whatever. I never trusted the office crew much anyway, and seeing how we now have no money and no office, this makes it easier for OWS to be guided by the people who were/are in the park, which is how it was in the beginning and how it should be.

We didn’t get many interesting crazies today. The best one was a likely 500 pound man, whose hair had grown out naturally into a mullet while also thinning considerably. If he weren’t…you know…500 pounds, his glasses would have been a good size and shape for safely playing basketball. He had a black Star Wars t-shirt with Darth Vader printed large beneath a ragged jogging jacket.

“There’s nothing here by David Duke!!”

“No…he’s a klansman. The klansman.”

“No he isn’t! He’s totally behind you guys.”

“But uh…we got black people here. I seriously doubt that.”

“He isn’t a KKK guy any more! He’s totally changed. You should get some of his stuff and maybe I’d support you guys.”

“Well, I guess we’re just gonna have to make that sacrifice.”

Duke is considering trying for the 2012 Republican Nomination for president. This is more a sign of how much the Republican party has changed than any new leaf on Duke’s part.

I actually got a lot of reading done today. I picked up a hardcover collection of all of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ writings on the Paris Commune from the OWS library and am almost done reading it. Lots of choice bits and interesting terminology. Some of my favorite phrases from it, probably old hat to Marx enthusiasts but new to me were:

-“dictatorship of the proletariat”-what Marx calls the Commune
-“slaveholder’s rebellion”-what Marx calls the counter-revolution of the ruling party. Imagine all the articles about “I’m having trouble living on $350,000 a year!” and all the stockbrokers/CEOs who complained about Occupy and how we all didn’t/don’t appreciate them enough. Blech.
-“vile multitude”-what Theirs (the villain of Marx’s narrative) called the Commune and the working class
-“capitulard”-what the Commune folk called the people who wanted to capitulate to the Prussians
-“souvenirs”-French word for memories, what Marx uses to refer to the constructed/teleological/pacifying historical narratives guiding the various factions of the French populace at the time. He often uses this in the construction “national souvenirs”, national remembrances literally.
“garrotte”-not one of Marx’s terms, but a silent assassination device I was unfamiliar with. Basically a really uncomfortable chair used to strangle people.

Marx has a lot of swagger talking about the Commune, which usually manifests itself in clever turns of phrase, cunning political analysis, and only rarely in the dialectic of someone showing off wallet snapshots of their children. Which sorta makes sense, since it was kinda his baby. He shrugs off the Bonapartes with a turn of phrase which, in a more devastating conception than simply assigning them the value of evil, opportunistic, or oppressive: he thinks they’re silly. In his “First Address on the Franco-Prussian War”:

“…the death knell of the Second Empire has already sounded in Paris. It will end as it began, by a parody. But let us not forget that it is the Governments and the ruling classes of Europe who enabled Louis Bonaparte to play during eighteen years the ferocious farce of Restored Empire.”

This ties in to the larger assumption guiding the text-that the lines are entirely class division and that national identity is a game of the ruling classes. It’s a powerful one, and I suppose I don’t need to expound on it much. Marx does it pretty well in a prescient passage describing what the legacy of the Franco-Prussian War, and with it the Paris Commune, will be:

“History will measure its retribution, not by the extent of square miles conquered from France, but by the intensity of the crime of reviving, in the second half of the 19th century, the policy of conquest!

Marx’s appraisal of the French government in the time of the Franco-Prussian War:

“The Second Empire had more than doubled the national debt, and plunged all the large towns into heavy municipal debts…It was only by violent overthrow of the Republic (the Commune) that the appropriators of wealth could hope to shift on the shoulders of its producers the cost of a war which they, the appropriators, had originated.”

Sounds kinda like the US military industrial complex and the bank bailouts at the same time. How to shift the costs, how to shift the costs…

The ruling class’s first move is, of course, to attempt to shut down the media so that no one could communicate. They put a two centimes tax on every imaginable type of publication. This worked in fooling the rural areas. When Theirs called up the National Guard to violently shut down the Commune, only 300 soldiers out of 300,000 responded to the call. The NYPD should learn from this, seeing how 25% of their pension was just put in Bank of America, and Bank of America is only a little more alive than Patrick Swayze at the moment. One cop said to me after I explained this: “Yeah! You buy low. Me, I just go in to work. They’re the guys that know how to handle the money.” They’ll learn, and soon they’ll Occupy.

Marx, in the third chapter of his essay “The Civil War in France”, points toward a total systemic overhaul as the answer to the tired cycle of labor-capital, empire-colony.

“But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for it’s own purposes.”

So we come back to that old question, “Where do we go from here?”, “What next?”, or, as one angry pedestrian put it to me at the table today, “Is this your idea of an ideal world? This is what you want the country to look like, a bunch of fucking hippies drumming in a park?”

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Why You Should Always Keep Wrapped Deli Meat in Your Pocket

Starting to get the real crazies and career panhandlers and whatnot to the booth. I love them all. Also getting the narcissistic middle-aged women who want to tell me, in detail, everything about the history of dixieland or their cat or whatever. I hate the conceit and also the fact that they’re wrong so much of the time (on the dixieland, though I assume the stuff about the cat could come into question after some empirical investigation.)

The best one so far was a guy who came up, scraggly beard and claimed to have been a professional panhandler for 20 years. He says to me “Sir, Dan is it?”

“Yeah, Dan.”

“Do you have any meat?”

“What?”

“You always gotta have meat in your pocket.” (I should point out here that every time he said meat, he made an oversize baroque pantomime of jerking off. Figured you should know that.)

“Wha?”

“No, nothin’ dirty or anything, but I got meat in my pocket!” (Jerk-off pantomime.)

So he actually takes out five individually wrapped slices of Turkey breast from the first pocket in his cargo shorts.

“See, you never think of it, but I never leave home without it. It’s my five-point plans why you gotta have deli meat in your pocket at all times.

(He’s counting the fingers on his right hand with the fingers on his left.)

“Point 1: You get hungry right? We all get hungry!

“Point 2: You like a good deli sandwich right? We all love a good deli sandwich, good roll pickles and all that shit.

“Point 3: You ain’t always gonna be near a deli. Sad fact of life, something you’re too young ta know.

“Point 4: So whaddaya do when you get a craving for deli sandwiches and they ain’t there? (He jerks off again. It breaks his catskills rhythm.)

“Point 5: You should always have some slices a deli meat in yer pocket case’in ya get hungry. See, I even got cheese!”

He pulls out 5 individually wrapped slices of American cheese from his pocket. People want actual information from the booth, but I’m entranced.

“I wanna buy yer hat kid, I made $1200 today, I’ll give ya $120 for it.”

“But wait, Craig, Craig’s your name right?”

“Right.”

“Where do you keep the bread?”

He looked momentarily embarrassed, shook my hand and went off to piss on a public plant.
—————————————-

As for real news from base camp, the cops arrested a shit ton of people yesterday. Ray Kelly should resign in disgrace-these are illegal arrests. The NYPD is going to be in court for a long time. I think the Direct Action committee wanted the arrests though, because why else would they have gone onto the Brooklyn Bridge? It got a lot of attention to the cause, so I guess it made sense. I spoke to one of the head organizers from the occupation in Israel and he related the problem they had that we avoided:

“The first week we went out, 400,000 of us, and demanded the police get a raise. The next week they got a raise. The police loved us after that. They loved us so much we couldn’t get arrested!” He gave the Larry David shrug.

The bureaucratic nonsense is working itself out as the people with bipolar disorder in camp are finally hitting the low points of their cycles. We’ve built up a good enough cache of counselors where I think we can handle it, though I did have to politely dismiss one guy working information today since he was just a rambling incoherent mess.

The food is getting better and better. Someone brought salmon with vegetables today which was absolutely delicious. It’s getting really really cold now though, so the comfort station has been running low on blankets and basic items.

I went drinking with some of my cohorts in information and we all traded shrooms stories. I think I had wildest one, but it was damn close. I’ve been able to spread my name far and wide through business cards, hopefully will get some gigs coaching underground competitive eaters from that. I realize I must sound just as crazy as the sandwich guy when “I was the prom king of Saratoga High School” is too abruptly followed with “I ate a whole peach pie in 4:45, won even though everybody had put their money on the fat guy.”

I’m trying to come up with a new biography, entirely lies, which will be more palatable to the general public. Any and all suggestions welcome.

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A Quiet Day for Me, A Busy Day for the Plaza

Things are getting more and more organized at an incredibly fast clip. I’m considering moving myself from information desk duties soon to help establish a group giving guided tours with lots of local color in the immediate area of the square. In the time since I last blogged the leader of the Wall Street area’s community board, a friend of Abbie Hoffman back in the day, gave us his glowing support, and even the Burger King has softened up. People are realizing, 13 days in, that this is here to stay. Again the daytime numbers just kept getting bigger. Saturday’s march, meeting at 3pm in the square, is going to be massive. Look for it in the news.

That also extends to people like myself who have been working ridiculous (though never less than delightful) hours working on it, who now realize we can’t keep pulling all-nighters if this is going to be going on for a month (months?). I took yesterday as a quiet day, going with Alexander (a lawyer whose international travels have left his voice in a permanent hover state between 7 different accents) to a screening of some movie about a hip hop tour in Palestine. Though the film unfortunately displayed an overly close stylistic kinship to MTV reality programming (talking head interviews in front of some dynamic, diagonal wall or background, repetition of mundane events in the visual and the vocal track, unfocused diary feel), the conditions the film showed were deplorable.

We then took a long walk, each with a big bottle of Presidente through Harlem. Alex is fairly convinced the only options are “violent revolution or we all starve.”

“It used to be when I was a kid the door would open, you know what I mean? You had to kick the shit out of it, but it would open. Now it won’t.”

He told me about a conversation he’d had with GG Allin’s band after a GG concert at SUNY Purchase 20 years ago. “They said he’s an alright guy to tour with so long as you go to sleep after him and wake up before he does. Otherwise god knows what would happen to you. They were really clean cut guys for being GG Allin’s band.”

He walked me to the 96th street subway station where I met a man who claimed he was a career panhandler. He fell in love with my hat and offered me $120 for it before explaining the necessity of always keeping wrapped deli meat in your cargo pants pocket (not a sex thing, he had it and whipped it out, bologna, with American cheese singles nearby.)

I had a conversation at the info desk with some fellow WBAI junkies. If anyone knows the guy who does the late night show “Weaponry”, I am the biggest fan of his show. Please send him out here!

On an obscurely related note, one of the other protesters crashed at my apartment night before last, and I introduced him to the joys of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck. Special thanks to Laura, god amongst roommates, for being so cool with waking up to a random guy sleeping in our living room.

More updates tomorrow, yesterday was a bit slow.

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