by Yasmeen Adin
I am stuck in Berkeley for the foreseeable future. At least until travel restrictions back home loosen up. Even then, if I am able to go back home, it remains unclear if I will be able to return to the US. Amidst all this uncertainty, finding any glimpse of positivity can be difficult. Feeling obliged to be positive feels even worse during a global crisis that directly affects the most vulnerable among us. The constant reminders to remain positive while navigating the uncertainty of the situation are becoming draining and unbearable. I am frustrated and anxious and depriving myself from the right to feel so in order to convince myself that everything is okay. But it is not. Yet what has been keeping me and many others grounded so far is the sense of community that was immediately cultivated during this crisis.
From the earliest stages of the progression of this pandemic, it became clear that the ideals valued the most in our modern capitalist societies would get us nowhere. The evils of this system that governs us, from our day-to-day lives to the institutional level, were exposed to everyone. Since when is meeting the deadline of a paper considered more important than mourning the death of a beloved person who did not even get a proper funeral? Since when is profiting off of the backs of workers considered more important than their health and well-being? Since when is physically hurting others to get a roll of toilet paper considered more important than putting those more in need first? Glorifying these flaws in the name of individualism, productivity, and economic growth contribute to normalizing and embedding them in our behaviors and cultures. But there are those who refuse these norms and resist back against them. They choose collectivism in their resistance to showcase the inadequacy of our governments.
Since the very first few days of the shelter-in-place order and social distancing that led to many folks leaving or losing their jobs, links and databases to independently-initiated funds have started circulating. They act as financial compensation for BIPOC, disabled, unemployed, houseless, and LGBTQIA+ folks, and they uplift creatives and freelancers and others who live paycheck to paycheck. Others began tabling to give out food, basic medical services, offer shelter, and fulfill other needs that governments and corporations have failed to address. Even after weeks of debate, the work that these institutions have accomplished (i.e. the stimulus package, which was only passed after weeks of debate), does not help many people who still lack access to basic needs. As a result, acts of humanity and solidarity performed by individuals and nonprofit organizations are being highlighted and publicized to hide the failure of the systems that were supposed to serve us. However, they also prove that what will get us through this eventually will be our fight as a community, a unit, a collective, not individual corporate leaders or a collapsing government.
by Lucas Fink
(Image via NPR, sourced from EPK. The Bling Ring is now streaming on Netflix)
The Bling Ring is an incredibly frustrating 2013 film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, also wrote and directed the very good 2003 film Lost in Translation. I am choosing to not celebrate her successes as a filmmaker here and will instead elements of The Bling Ring I found to be crass and problematic. This decision may seem at odds with the effusive praise I’ve piled onto other movies in past posts. But we don’t need to be positive all the time. Sometimes movies are not good. Such is life.
The Bling Ring, based on actual events, is about a group of teenagers who break into the lavish homes of celebrities and steal their things. I can’t remember how many are in the group nor can I remember any of their names. There are three the film wants the viewer to pay attention to, though. I used Wikipedia to learn their names. Mark, solidily acted by Israel Broussard and the only character in the film with some semblance of a moral compass, is the audience stand-in. Rebecca, stiffly acted by Katie Chang, is an obsessive, borderline-sociopathic kleptomaniac. Nicki, elevated to the level of pure caricature by Emma Watson, is absurdly conceited and obnoxious. They steal from celebrities, enjoy doing so, and are then caught. Such a premise seems ripe for social critique. How does a culture dominated by spectacle, by celebrity, images, and commodities, a culture in which - to plagiarize a smart French dude Guy Debord - direct experience has been replaced entirely by mere representation and appearances; how does such a culture affect the youth who inhabit it? It’s a really good question. Thankfully, the film never concerns itself with it. Instead, the film spends an hour and a half relishing in how ridiculously stupid and vain its characters are. Look at these stupid and superficial teens! YUCK! Doesn’t their behavior repulse you? Aren’t you nauseated and appalled by the detestable behavior of these stupid teenagers? Can you believe that some stupid teenagers actually did this stuff? Isn’t that insane? Imagine being such a stupid, vapid TEENAGER.
I’m sorry if I belabored the “stupid teenager” thing. I just felt the need to make it clear how heartless the film is. It’s not just that its characters are “one-dimensional,” it’s that the film ratchets up the one-dimensionality so much that the characters become literal incarnations of all that is evil and abhorrent and then takes sadistic pleasure in highlighting that evil and abhorrence. I should note here I’m not at all against satire or hyper-exaggerated characters. But satire uses its hyper-exaggerated characters to reveal the contradictions or absurdities of the world those characters live in. The Bling Ring doesn’t do that. Its non-characters aren’t used to criticize consumerism or digital capitalism. Instead, they just exist for you to laugh at and be disgusted by.
A VICE News Special in 2014 profiles Alexis Neiers, the member of the “Bling Ring” portrayed by Emma Watson. Alexis had an abusive father in her childhood and was addicted to heroin in her teenage years, when the events of The Bling Ring took place. Alexis now writes for VICE about addiction amongst youth and is a certified substance abuse counselor. What a stupid bad person.
I’m kidding. She’s obviously a decent person with nuance and depth and trauma. Most people are. That’s my main issue. The film individualizes responsibility instead of politicizing it. The film’s answer to “why does everyone seem so superficial and vain now?” is “because they’re just like that.” In the final shot of the film, Emma Watson turns to the camera and says something superficial and vain so the viewer can laugh and go “yeesh; people suck.” People like her are the problem, certainly not larger socio-economic forces. The movie is pretty to look at, though.
Watch Lost in Translation or Tiger King.