2013 - %3, March

Travels in China, With Skateboard: A Photo Diary

| Sun Apr. 7, 2013 12:00 PM EDT
An image from "Changsa."

Changsha, Rian Dundon's first monograph, could be aptly subtitled My Six Years Hanging out in China. Not unlike the country itself, Changsha is big and sprawling, a photo diary akin to something Anders Petersen, Morten Andersen, or Jacob Au Sobol might put together. There's no real narrative, no particular story set out to be told in pictures. It's just Dundon carrying his camera and loads of black and white film as he tumbles from one adventure to the next. It's my favorite kind of photo project.

Dundon set out on his journey without any real background in the country or its languages, landing in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, located on a branch of the Yangtze River. He expected to be there for a year. He wound up spending six.

It's the absence of any agenda that makes this book work so well.

Dundon dove into the city headfirst, exploring its alleys, skateboarding its streets, eating, drinking, smoking, and, of course, shooting constantly. What emerged was a view of China we don't often see in the West, a chronicle of daily life for a younger generation.

It's the absence of an agenda that makes the book work so well. The in-between moments, direct flash shots in nightclubs, landscapes, city details, and otherwise mundane street scenes come together to create a more telling experience of life in China than any formal photo story could hope to. Changsha offers its perusers a chance to live vicariously through Dundon, and it's a far more interesting armchair-travel experience than anything you'll find in an airline magazine.

Perhaps the best way to review this kind of book is simply to let the photos sell you on it (or not). So here's but a very small glimpse at some of the 200 pages of photos in Changsha, which I recommend highly.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

(emphas.is, 2013)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In Honor of Buzz Bissinger, Strange Fashion Longreads

| Sat Mar. 30, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel.

Last week, Friday Night Lights creator and journalist Buzz Bissinger set the internet on fire with a candid, 6,000-word confessional about his out-of-control addiction to high-end shopping published in GQ.

Bissinger's obsessionforty-one pairs of leather pants? A $22,000 jacket?—is so outlandish that it almost seems like a ruse. Yet there are many more weird stories woven into what we wear, why we wear it, and what happens to it when we clean out the closet.

For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here and follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest.


"G.I. Joe: Retaliation": The Anti-Obama Conservative's Fantasy

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 5:26 PM EDT

#YOLO.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Paramount Pictures
115 minutes

G.I. Joe: Retaliation—sequel to American Classic G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra—is escapist filmmaking for the paranoid wingnut.

Before I get to why, let me just state for the record that Retaliation is no Battleship—which is to say it is not a coruscating beacon of unimpeachably fantastic moviemaking. Yes, they are both Hasbro movies; but this one lacks a certain joy and self-aware humor—even though it was written by the same guys who wrote Zombieland and Spike TV's The Joe Schmo Show. The brightest part of the movie is the fact that rapper/producer RZA * plays a blind ninja dojo master named Blind Master. (Click here to see RZA as a ninja-dojo-master action figure.) The film also has Channing Tatum, The RockNorth KoreansAdrianne Palicki fighting North Koreans, and 3D visual effects.

Watch: The IRS's "Star Trek" Training Video

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 3:16 PM EDT

Last week, CBS News got its hands on a copy of a Star Trek-themed training video the IRS made for its employees in 2010. The video and a Gilligan's Island-themed one also shot in the tax agency's in-house studio reportedly cost $60,000 to make. William Shatner is not amused:

Predictably, congressional belt-tighteners have set their phasers to outrage. "There is nothing more infuriating to a taxpayer than to find out the government is using their hard-earned dollars in a way that is frivolous," fumed Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.). (Meanwhile Congress is acting highly illogically by spending $380 million on photon torpedoes that don't work and no one wants.) Cowed by its critics, the IRS has apologized for "the space parody video."

At least none of your tax money was spent on acting lessons:

And so far, no one is freaking out about these Star Trek-themed spots produced by the Social Security Administration. Probably because they feature George "Sulu" Takei, who is awesome.

And let's not forget the time NASA decided to name a spaceship after the USS Enterprise.

Star Trek crew with space shuttle
NASA

The Revival of Thao Nguyen

| Mon Mar. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Thao Nguyen at Noise Pop 2013.

It was 2008, and amid the wreckage of the financial meltdown, indie folk was having a moment. Bon Iver's "authentic" melancholy dominated a generation of breakup playlists. Fleet Foxes' swelling, choir-boy harmonies packed the pews. And a little-known songwriter named Thao Nguyen was picking up Cat Power comparisons with her album We Brave Bee Stings and All

Reviewers praised Thao as quirky (she learned how to play guitar in her mother's laundromat) and perky (the record was stuffed with beat-boxing and handclaps), if not raw—at times her voice swung stubbornly off-key, which lent her an air of rough-hewn realness. The lyrics, too, cut deft and deep: Thao would sing in one moment about dewy childhood nostalgia, and in another dive into a dark corporeality of blood, bones, and heart attacks. She was 23 years old.

Your Guide To Al Pacino Screaming, From "Dog Day Afternoon" to David Mamet's New HBO Film "Phil Spector"

| Sat Mar. 23, 2013 6:59 PM EDT

Phil Spector
HBO Films
91 minutes

Al Pacino yells a lot in this movie. Granted, that could be said of any number of Al Pacino movies.

Phil Spector, which premieres Sunday, March 24 at 9 p.m. ET, is the second time in three years that Pacino has starred in a Barry Levinson -produced HBO movie in which he plays a highly controversial real-life figure who ends up going to jail. (The other being 2010's You Don't Know Jack, for which he won an Emmy for his portrayal of physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian.) This time around Pacino is the eponymous record producer, the unhinged musical genius behind the "Wall of Sound" studio production technique—a thickly layered sound heard on classics like The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road." Spector had long enjoyed a reputation for being a lunatic; his eccentricities were often eclipsed by allegations of a pattern of violence against women. Less appalling tales involve him doing things like holding The Ramones at gunpoint during a recording session in 1979.

All his wild and vicious behavior culminated in the shooting death of actress/model Lana Clarkson at his California mansion in 2003. For this, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009, and sentenced to 19 years to life.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Photographing a Mother's Descent Into Mental Illness

| Sat Mar. 23, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Most photographers use their books as a means to an end, a delivery vehicle for their images. Photographer Joshua Lutz, by contrast, uses his latest, "Hesitating Beauty," to tell a story. Lutz identifies as an artist who works with photographs—a fitting description given the gorgeous large-format landscapes he's shot in the past and the way he turned this one into an artistic medium. In "Hesitating Beauty," he employs vintage family photos, contemporary images of his mother, and text that reads like fragments of a stranger's letters—not to mention the book's physical format—to plunge the reader into a world in which reality appears entirely subjective. It's not some philosophical jerkoff, but a rather painful exploration of his mother's descent into mental illness. Here she is in one of the few vintage photos found in the book, younger than today.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

Lutz's first monograph, "Meadowlands," was a sprawling object befitting the subject matter. The book itself was giant and unwieldy; its pages allowed his large-format images to stretch out. You got a little lost in his landscapes, finding beauty in the most unlikely places.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

But "Hesitating Beauty" is appropriately stark. It's a smallish book, about the size of a diary. Where "Meadowlands" stood wide open, arms outstretched, Lutz's new book is tight and withdrawn—arms wrapped around itself. The format fits this very personal photo narrative of Lutz caring for his mother as she slipped from paranoia and depression into psychosis and delusion. It's a sad book. Strong and memorable, but sad.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

"I tried to imagine a time when the past, present and future collided," Lutz writes, "a place where the weight of memory is heavier than reality." Unlike other über-personal photo projects about the demise of a loved one (and there are a lot of 'em), "Hesitating Beauty" imparts the sense of setting out on a torrid sea in a small boat—or drifting in and out of consciousness and reality. There are moments of lucidity: The images and texts from Lutz's father, the detail shots from within the hospital, and even the shots of Lutz's mother. You know where you are and what you're looking at.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

But then Lutz will sweep you into a dreamscape, with images that might not be quite what they seem and text that only sometimes makes sense. Even the old family photos tinker with the concept of reality. Everyone looks happy. Dig deeper, read the text, and you quickly learn otherwise.

Even the cover image, a woman wearing pearls caught mid-blink during a portrait session, tips you off that everything within hovers on the fringe of normality. How do you use photography to describe mental illness? How can images tell the story of seeing someone you love slip gradually into a world divorced from reality?

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

"Hesitating Beauty" is not the usual coffee-table book that you pick up and leaf through casually. Yes, there are 50 or so wonderful images to be perused. But to get the full impact, you have to pick it up, spend some time with it, put it down, and then repeat—each time uncertain whether you'll land at a moment of clarity or be lost underwater; unsure which way is up, or what is real.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

"Hesitating Beauty" is far more than a means to an end. It's subtle yet powerful. And it's one of many signs that Lutz is not simply a great photographer, but a very smart one as well.

Joshua Lutz/Schilt Publishing

 

Schilt Publishing, 2013

The Moral, Economic, Political, and Literary Philosophy of "Spring Breakers"

| Fri Mar. 22, 2013 2:42 PM EDT
Subtle.

Spring Breakers
A24
92 minutes

This movie strives for realism.

Who among us didn't fund our college spring break trip with money stolen from a diner in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood? Who among us didn't go to Florida with our friends and our Disney Princess backpacks, only to drunkenly strip naked in an alleyway and start flipping off passing cars for absolutely no reason? And who hasn't dry-humped James Franco on a bed covered with $100 bills and loaded Uzis before embarking on a bikini-clad killing spree in a mansion?

In this sense, the violent and lotus-eating Spring Breakers is exactly like your average college spring break vacation.

I'm not going to waste too much time recapping the film; I've embedded a trailer below, which should more than suffice. The best way I can describe Spring Breakers (other than "Scarface meets Britney Spears," which was already taken) is that this is Piranha 3D, except the piranha fail to show up. It's a feverish and frenzied story about four spoiled, staggeringly immature, narcotics-addled white girls who have major race issues, but it's not Girls on HBO. The film, directed by the fairly notorious Harmony Korine, torpedoes the Disney-era memories of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a haze of bare bodies, murdered hedonists, and snorted blow.

There have been so many fact-sheets and think pieces written about Spring Breakers that it's nearly impossible for me to contribute anything novel at this point. And the film is so dense in its perverted ridiculousness that it would take me a three-part book series to unpack it all. I will however provide you with a brief guide to the rich philosophy—economic, moral, literary, political—of Spring Breakers, presented in digestible quotes from the film. Here you go:

Education reform

"Fuck school!"

Poetry

"Big booties...This is poetry in MOTION, y'all!"

Surmounting life's many obstacles and coming out a winner

"You can't be scared of shit! You gotta be HARD!"

Capitalism

"Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet."

"Disaster Capitalism"

"Let's just [steal] this fucking money, and go on SPRING BREAK, Y'ALL!"

The American Dream (transcription via Kyle Buchanan)

"This is the fuckin' American dream! This is mah fuckin' DREAM, y'all! All this shee-yit! Look at my shit:

  • I got… I got SHORTS—every fuckin' color!
  • I got designer T-shirts!
  • I got gold bullets! Motherfuckin' VAM-pires!
  • I got Scarface—on repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y'all!
  • I got ESCAPE! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein...Smell nice? I SMELL NICE!
  • That ain't a fuckin' bed, that's a fuckin' art piece. My fuckin' spaceship! U.S.S. Enterprise on this shit. I go to different planets on this motherfucker!
  • Me and my fuckin' Franklins here, we take off. TAKE OFF!
  • Look at my shee-yit. Look at my SHIT!
  • I got my blue Kool-Aid.
  • I got my fuckin' NUNCHUCKS. I got shurikens; I got different flavors: I got them sais. Look at that shit! I got sais. I got blades!
  • Look at my sheey-it! This ain't nothin', I got ROOMS of this shit!
  • I got my dark tannin' oil—lay out by the pool, put on my dark tanning oil! ...

Look at my shit."

Race relations in America

"I was the only white boy in my neighborhood."

Gun rights in America

"I got machine guns...A fucking army up in this SHIT...I'M THE FUCKIN' DEATH STAR...DROPPIN' PLANES!!!!!"

Sexual politics

"I love penis."

(Quotes featured here are applicable in virtually any situation or argument, really.)

Spring Breakers gets a wide release on Friday, March 22. The film is rated R for practically everything that's in it. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the weekly movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

Meet the Agent Who Protected Presidents, the Popemobile, and the Factual Accuracy of "Olympus Has Fallen"

| Fri Mar. 22, 2013 8:16 AM EDT
Actor Gerard Butler.

In Olympus Has Fallen (FilmDistrict, 118 min.), highly trained and well-armed North Korean terrorists storm the White House, murder nearly every Secret Service agent in Washington, DC, and take the president hostage in the underground command center. The terrorists explode large chunks of the White House, tear down its American flag in particularly heinous fashion, kill a lot of innocent civilians, and knock over the Washington Monument in the process. And a lone agent (played by Gerard Butler) is the only one who can save the day, mostly by using sharp objects, assault weapons, and Die Hard-emulating trash-talk.

Given that the real-life White House is fairly well protected—maybe with lasers—and hasn't been burned down since the British invaded in 1814, this film isn't going to win awards for realism. (The assumption of such paramilitary competence on the part of the North Koreans is also really, really funny.)

But even the most intentionally unrealistic action movies aim to get some details right. The Core, a 2003 sci-fi disaster movie about scientists who travel to the center of the Earth to set off nukes, had its very own scientific consultant. And Olympus Has Fallen director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun) sought out a good deal of Washington and Secret Service advice on how to craft his thriller. One of the technical consultants was Joe Bannon, a former special agent with the Office of the Attorney General and Department of Justice in Los Angeles, where he also worked as an allied agent with the Secret Service.

"I understand the terrorist mindset [of] willing to lay down their life for what they believe in."

Bannon now teaches presidential and heads of state protection—as well as a form of martial arts that combines "ancient Shaolin Wisdom with Modern Medical Science"—at the Bannon Institute of Martial Arts and Executive Security International in Colorado. And as brawny as that may sound, when he talks about protective services, Bannon blends religious convictions and psychological maxims. "I understand the terrorist mindset [of] willing to lay down their life for what they believe in," Bannon told me. "Not that I agree with any attack on the United States or the White House, but I have to respect that value."

In his long career as a special agent assisting the Secret Service, Bannon says he served on protection details for George W. Bush, the Clintons, the Gores, Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein, the Saudi royal family, the first family of Kurdistan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Pope John Paul II. "I provided close-quarter protection for the Popemobile when he gave a service at Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1987," Bannon said. "I helped him down the stairs of the Popemobile and he smiled at me and touched me on the shoulder. Everyone wanted to rub my shoulder after that to get, like, a blessing out of me."

MoJo Photo Editor Honored for Shot of Occupy Mayhem

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 3:06 PM EDT
Occupy protesters flee an attempt by Oakland police to entrap them.

The shot above, by our photo editor Mark Murrmann, has been selected for inclusion in American Photography 29, a highly prestigious juried competition and photo book that leans toward edgier work. "Regarded as the books of record," the competition website notes, they "are still produced in all their defiant, large-format, luxurious, hard cover glory."

The winning photo was part of his series from a January 2012 Occupy protest in downtown Oakland, California, where tensions between protestors and police were at the boiling point. Mark, who had to run from the riot cops along with everybody else, offered this play by play:

It was another prime situation in which to be kettled—narrow streets, with large condos on all sides. And this time it happened: A line of police moved in from Telegraph, not letting anyone in the crowd out. Another line moved in from the opposite direction. I got cut off from the main protest, along with a few Occupy medics. We made our way around to Telegraph, on the other side of the kettle. A block away, in the kettle, a flash grenade went off. Two girls on bikes pleaded with police to be let out. Then, a large group of protesters broke down a recently re-erected chainlink fence enclosing a vacant lot next to the park. Protesters flooded the lot, breaking free of the kettle. The march resumed up Telegraph Avenue.

In the end, he managed to avoid arrest (unlike at least one of our reporters). Murrmann enjoys shooting punk rock shows in his spare time, so he's pretty comfortable amid mayhem. He's also got a sharp eye for light, motion, and composition—the resulting work is artful, gritty, and visceral. Here's another batch he shot on the fly when a bunch of Occupy protestors decided to take over a Bank of America in San Francisco's Financial District. In any case, it's an honor well deserved.

Police respond to an Occupy protest at BofA in San Francisco.
Police respond to an Occupy protest at BofA in San Francisco, Nov. 17, 2012. Mark Murrmann