January 17, 2005

The Freedom

I've seen many snippets of Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the years, but until this week I'd never sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish. I have vivid memories from my childhood of the scene where Barry is abducted by the aliens against his mother's will: the red light streaming in through the open door, Barry being pulled out the doggy flap, the screws in the radiator grill unscrewing themselves. I had a similar grill in my bedroom set in the wall at exactly the best position for me to lie in my bed and stare at it with suspicion and fear. I have ever been terrified of something coming to get me in my sleep. Aimee humored me in my desire to watch it as an adult on Wednesday night, and I thoroughly enjoyed touches like casting Francois Truffaut as The French Dude and the extras in Rockwell jumpsuits on the alien landing platform. The gentle, curious extra-terrestrials of Close Encounters are deliciously retro when compared to the black oil baddies from The X-Files, and the special effects really are cleverly done and barely show their age at all. However, the last hour could have used more levity and a lot less clambering up the side of the mountain.

Thursday afternoon I took one of my customary gallery lunches, this time up at Robert Koch Gallery to see Michael Wolf's Architecture of Density. Wolf snaps large-scale color photographs reminiscent of Andreas Gursky that show the outside of apartment complexes so vast they dissolve into sheer geometry the longer you look at them. I was trying to tell if they were digitally enhanced, and frighteningly I don't think they were. There are honestly buildings where that many people live that close together. His pictures also bring out the voyeur in me, trying to peek through a person's window into his or her life. Dizzying and beautiful.

The last time I heard local journalist Christian Parenti read it was at a benefit for The Baffler at Slim's on Burning Man weekend (that's Labor Day weekend to the rest of America) in 2001. Consulting my notes, I see that he read an amazing piece about how Chinese immigrants subverted the U.S. government's attempts to impose identity on them after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and I remember that Aimee and I thought he was hot. In more recent years Parenti has spent a significant amount of time in Iraq reporting things just as he sees them, and he was at Cody's Thursday evening to read from his new book based on those experiences, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. The title comes from the sarcastic way Iraqis refer to "the freedom" the Americans have brought them every time something new blows up. Parenti is an incredibly strong writer, and his account of a street fight where Iraqi civilians are caught in the crossfire between rebels and American soldiers snapped me out of the numbness that is all too common when I deal with the news these days. The discussion after the reading was mercifully free of Berkeley nutjobs, and instead gave Parenti the chance to calmly lay out the hopelessness of the situation. Lives are being destroyed, it's not going to stop any time soon, and my country is to blame.

Speaking of messed-up situations, Saturday I watched Steven Soderbergh's Traffic for the first time, an adaptation of the British TV series Traffik. In Soderbergh's version three interlocking stories (helpfully distinguished by three different color treatments) attempt to show how difficult it is to do anything productive about the drug trade. Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar of the U.S. who is about to discover his daughter is freebasing in the bathroom, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is a rich woman living in La Jolla who has never asked too many questions about where her husband's money comes from. Solid performances both, but the real stand-out is Benicio Del Toro as a Tijuana cop who gets drawn into corruption against his will. Soderbergh regulars Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are also great as a bickering pair of undercover agents. I liked Traffic a lot, but it had so much ground to cover in a mere two and a half hours that some parts ended up feeling like an after-school special. Trying to fit an entire Spike Lee film into one outburst from Topher Grace just made me roll my eyes.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Robert Koch Gallery
Michael Wolf
Cody's Books
Christian Parenti

Posted by nightfall at January 17, 2005 10:01 PM