Free Pussy Riot

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadia), Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katia)

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – HBO

A defiant woman sits in a courtroom in Russia. She is pretty, with cropped hair, a full, protruding lower lip. Her expression says she is unconflicted; she is waiting. The judge presiding over the trial and that of two other young women is a Russian woman of a different generation. Heavy red rouge, a hairstyle out of the height of 1980s sternness. She seems to express no empathy for the women who are charged with disturbing the social order by acts of hooliganism. To them, she is a warden of Vladimir Putin’s court. The enemy they denounce on the streets also judges them in captivity.

The women are each sentenced to three years in a penal colony. According to their lawyers, the crime they had broken was no more than a misdemeanor. Even an admittedly “sloppy” one. These women, along with other members of an anonymous feminist modern art group called “Pussy Riot,” entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012 and approached the altar. They began what was to be their fifth performance together in a public space with a song they had written that contained the lyrics, “It’s god shit.” The performance lasted less than thirty seconds before the scattered crowd of enraged security guards and religious visitors, many who were overwhelmed with shock, rushed to remove them from that sacred space. This was filmed and added to the group’s YouTube site. It is a scene of such vibrant blasphemy that few will have ever seen anything like it.

The group was expecting the performance to provoke noise from the opposition and anger from Putin. They may not have expected the backlash they would see from the Russian Orthodox church. The church has come to symbolize much of what Russia was able to rebuild after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its fragile statements about conservatism are made stronger by the backing of Putin’s state. A mother of one of the members of Pussy Riot received threats to tear off her daughter’s limbs when she is released from jail. The three women who were arrested from the performance would be left to speak on behalf of the opposition from behind bars.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” a documentary directed by Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, aired on HBO this week. Revolution has in the last century appropriated the loud hues of rock and roll. Pussy Riot is driven with the sounds of punk rock, performed by young women whose thin limbs are colored in multiple brights shades of tights and whose identities are hidden with homemade balaclavas.

People only vaguely familiar with the group often refer to them as that “Russian band.” Their appearance is a shock of color and movement, seeming to compose far less a music group and far more a work of conceptual art. (Those who have seen that memorable, odd dance sequence in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers will feel a pang of recognition). The group also denies they are a band, saying instead they are a performance art group that uses metaphor and art to convey their opinions about feminism and free culture – two things that the Russian government denounces on a regular basis. In an interview with a British journalist about the group’s criminal trial, Putin asked him to consider the history and significance of the word “pussy,” inviting him to join in disgust at the audacity of such a thing. (“I assumed it referred to a cat,” the journalist coyly said).

As brash as the group comes off, there is no denying a certain amount of bravery that their performances demand. The process for the art itself seems simple, “write a song, some music, and think of a place to perform,” one member says. However the quick rush to the location, clambering up and over fences and walls, and the sudden burst of performance to a dazed public is not in the agency of every man and woman. The group’s fourth performance took place in Red Square, one month before the cathedral show. The title of the Kremlin performance was “Putin Zassel” (Putin pisses).

Today twelve activists are facing up to eight years in jail for their participation in a protest the day before Putin’s inauguration as President on May 7. Thirteen years after he first assumed the office, opponents are accusing him of establishing a base of loyalists who support his leadership of the United Russia party in what he calls a “sovereign democracy.” Part of this has been a clampdown on dissent that has echoes to Russia’s long communist era and belies a leader’s devotion to quiet, conservative values.

Pussy Riot shows the world how art expression brings criticism, clear and unmistakable as church bells, into a public square where it is not welcome. The Occupy Wall Street movement of last year could have used some of that – clear as its political objectives were. Today the words Pussy Riot evoke mass protests in Russia, a pop song, a book about the group published by the Feminist Press last September, shout outs from Madonna and various other activist celebrities. They all say that Russia needs a group like Pussy Riot.

The group should feel at least somewhat fulfilled by these results. Meanwhile, two women wait in prison – one having staged a prolonged hunger strike to protest her internment. At the appeal hearing where one of the women had her sentence suspended through a bit of shrewd legal legwork, Nadya Tolokonnikova lamented that Putin had been elected for a third term while she languished in isolation. To her, Pussy Riot and other groups like it really are important to Russia. “See what is happening,” she said to the court. “She what Russia has become?”



What is happening in Greenberg? One thing is Noah Baumbauch’s near-perfect screenplay and direction. This is a real LA film, and for whatever reason, Baumbach has chosen LA to be the setting for a particular portrait of sadness. Because that’s what this film is. It’s sadness…all of ours, represented in the title character far less than it is in its Lavinia of tortured lead female characters, Florence, who is kicked and poked and emotionally thrown just enough to make the viewer think, wow, Baum speaks the truth.

There are a few women who are irreconcilably offended by the way Florence is treated in this film. And rightly so, indeed. Yes. This viewer felt pain, but it was largely a lot of her own ability to recognize the impulses and actions that probably make Florence a bit of a push over, and a dummy, in the film. You are forgiven and further empathized with, because I am guilty of the same.

Florence is the personal assistant to the kind of beautiful, liberal couple that lives in LA, which is very similar to the same couple that lives in New York, only the former have a pool that they let their weirdo neighbors use. She is babysitter to their kids, buyer of groceries, and walker of their lovable German Shepard and comfy Hollywood home. They take their kids on a family vacation to Vietnam, where they’re “opening a hotel or something,” and leave their heavily psycho-medicated brother, visiting from New York for a while after an off-camera break-down, alone with his thoughts, the liquor cabinet, and a notepad on which to write letters of complaint to various corporations and national newspapers.  (“Can a pool flood? What the hell kind of question is that?” his brother shouts over the phone from Vietnam).

Another thing that is happening is Ben Stiller, who, as the brother, Roger Greenberg, is giving us a performance that is unhinged and damaged and ultimately real: he gives us the comedy he was once capable of before a long, strange hiatus into…other things. Stiller has comedic posts in the deadpan, in the wacky, in that of the bemused straight man, and now in the form of a Baumbach lead. Bequeathed with a critical literacy that lets him analyze 20-year olds at his niece’s party (“Oh yeah, I heard the kids are doing coke again,” he says with mock amusement), by saying he read in an article that they are all incapable of expressing emotions. He reverses this comment in another, more serious scene when he admits to Florence that he thinks “young people are so brave.”

Greenberg is also available to transgress social and emotional boundaries with Florence, and then feign damage and unavailability when she, oddly, responds. His poor treatment of an old friend and bandmate who he reunites with in LA is troubling, since he is a fumbling, idiotic, selfish mess most of the time. But his relationship with Florence  is made to be the focal point for us to choose to hate him or forgive him. It seems like this is a very important choice, and Baumbach may be too hasty to make the call for us at the end. That doesn’t change the fact that everything that Baumbauch is trying to tell us with his film, in the focused details of misbehavior, is entirely, unforgivingly true.

-Heather Struck

I Fear What I May Do One Fateful Valentine’s Day

Not really. I mean, aside from giving myself digestive problems from eating too many jelly beans in one sitting and washing it down with a bottle of Riesling, which has happened before, so I can’t even really fear that anymore. But the revelation with Shutter Island is that it gives us a remarkable fear within the framework of a paranoia film. It’s probably the greatest and most intense fear in existence, because its explanations are so abstract. It is the fear that we will never really own our minds. If the purpose of art is to seek representations of truth, and the good artist achieves some amount of clarity in that quest, then how do all the rest of us manage to stumble along in our silly jobs with their useful applications, churning and creating and advancing modern society in an attempt to serve some greater duty to the universe? How do we do that knowing that, come on, we don’t have any clue about what’s happening out there.

If there’s a reason to get this existential here now, other than that I just think about this sort of stuff all the time, it’s that the paranoia in Shutter Island touches on what seems to be a current societal concern with the big questions of art and life, that have indeed been around forever. A Jonathan Ames quote from a recent episode of his HBO series, Bored to Death, leaps out at you like a line from T.S Eliot – “Our lives don’t change, we just become more content with our core of misery, which is a form of happiness” – delivered by a wonderfully surly psycho-therapist.

Ok, yes. Let’s talk about this and worry about this now. It’s been enough time. A psycho-correctional facility on a damp, north-eastern island is a scary enough setting for it.

Shutter Island is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane,who also wrote the novel that inspired Clint Eastwood’s somber Mystic River. Scorsese suggests in Shutter Island that there are indeed dark corners of human nature that are so traumatic to behold that they tear down humanity’s own grip on the earth. Without going too much into plot, which is woven masterfully with suspense and what are quite beautiful macabre scenes that caused one audience member to remark out loud, “This is getting trippy,” Scorsese has produced a fresh, imaginative work. If one expects staleness from this director, he proves them wrong with a defiant flourish, and he continues to make engaging films with not a scene wasted.

Heather Struck

We Are the Music-Makers*

So guess who’s having a golden ticket contest? A company branded with the same name as a chocolate factory from a lovely book that was adapted into one of the best musical screenplays of my life. That’s who.

According to the Wonka (owned by Nestle) marketing team, they are hiding golden tickets in bars of their [read: delicious] chocolate, which is especially delicious with a goblet of wine. Red or white, it goes. Especially with another glass, because that first one was just to whet the palate and prime it for the chocolate anyway. The grand prize winners (there are ten, which is already contextually inaccurate, according to the film, which I have seen 10,000 times) win a trip around the world! Wow! Four destinations, three travel companions, and $12,500 spending cash.

Hm. What about this is strange? The cash, yeah. Why is Wonka giving out cash prizes? That’s a question that a nice healthy glance at their 10-K can and will address.

Anyway, this reminds me of how very much I enjoy Wonka chocolate, especially on long, thoughtful, winter days like these. Those thoughts turn to tears far too often this deep into the winter. It also reminds me of the way Gene Wilder pleased me as a kid when I watched this movie. But I always, without fail, laughed at this scene with Tim Brooke-Taylor.

*And we are the dreamers of the dreams.

Heather Struck

We Could Just Build a Robot and Call it Our Daughter

The Onion’s AV Club did a bang-up review on the amazing DVD release of Small Wonder, the theme song of which tells us why television had a sitcom revolution in the last decade. Everything that is banal and terrible and devoid of meaning in life was made into a TV pilot. After a brief, heightened peak with Harry and the Hendersons, it was a long, far slide to rock bottom.

Heather Struck

Rejoice, Rejoice

There is hope for us all. And by hope I mean a modicum of opportunity that still leaves out pretty much ever other minority at this point. We’ll get there though, team!

Heather Struck

People sit rapt on futons and respond to last night’s Gilligan’s Island Premiere

12 million people watched this last night. And it makes…no…sense. It’s really hard to understand Lost‘s popularity now, because that show is really hard to understand.

A selection of live blog comments from last night’s premiere reveal an almost substance-like abuse problem that its self-loathing viewers exhibit. Here are some from Twitter and from a live blog at The Awl:

Maevemealone [#968]

I don’t understand anything at all anymore! I hate Lost! I can’t wait for this stupid show I’m addicted to to just END ALREADY.

Daisy [#2667]

Another Thing I’m Wondering!

Why didn’t Danielle Rousseau recognize Jin after the Oceanic crash? (She and her team had pulled him ashore after he’d time-traveled.)

MisterHippity [#46]

Because the writers are making this up as they go along. And they didn’t think of that.

Jonathan Saffron Foyer [#3201]

But, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t two possible ways the world could have gone to begin with. It’s just now they’ve revealed what would have happened at the plane never crashed. Now, the question is which world is the actual LOST world and which one is the merely possible LOST world? which one is actual Jack and which one is counterpart Jack? This raises more questions they don’t have time to answer. […sorry what? Didn’t Abrams cover that in Star Trek, but made it work?]

blueprint [#2019]

I have seen professional football games with fewer commercials.

TWITTER – jesikalin RT @angryasianman: HELL YES. ANOTHER ASIAN DUDE ON LOST.

zerbeda19763 TV program #Lost: an attempt by humans to reconcile seemingly conflicted beliefs about time, space, religion, science, personal hygiene.

stephenwithph @andrewsunkim wait that was willy wonka music?? [was it?]

lessthanair #LOST PROPS WILL BE AUCTIONED OFF. MUST GET CHARLIES SHOES [yeah, that seems normal]

People really trust that it will end and not sputter out pathetically. And if it doesn’t, so help ABC onMay 23. This is going to be one angry mob whose lives have been sucked from them in a most cruel fashion by Walt Disney.

Heather Struck

Oscar Gala – Best Leading Actress

Sandra Bullock won’t beat Gabourey Sidibe for a Best Leading Actress award (She can’t. I mean I’m not going to a watch a tedious awards show unless I’m roped into it or someone amusing is live blogging it, but if she does beat Precious I think that entire auditorium may implode onto a pile of uneaten vanilla-mousse filled chocolate shells. Or maybe Alec Baldwin’s hair will burst into flames. It can’t happen), but her nomination lets us remember the many years of shallow amusement she has helped to provide us. Good on her for films like the below. Because I watched While You Were Sleeping about 6 times one month, and that is a symptom that something else is very wrong that needs introspection and meditation and thought.

Heather Struck

Oscar Gala – Best Adapted Screenplay

The New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog ran Armando Ianucci’s statement responding to In The Loop‘s Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. No amount of profanity could make it what it is without the script’s fantastic display of brashness and freshness, which helps make idiotic leadership the clearest villain I’ve seen in fiction in a while. [See what I did there? That was a sly dig at current events about gubernatorial races and corporate leadership and stuff].

“We’re all tremendously thrilled to get this nomination,” writes Armando Iannucci, the writer and director of the satire “In the Loop,” a nominee for best adapted screenplay. ” ‘In The Loop’ was just a simple little film about how Tony Blair’s an idiot, so it’s nice to see Tony Blair’s idiocy get such international recognition.

“‘In the Loop’ was just a low-budget independently funded film, so the nomination must be proof that with limited resources but an enormous amount of profanity, you can achieve anything. Personally, it means that I will become unbearably arrogant in my belief I should have complete artistic control over all my projects, to the point that I must never be let near a camera again.”

-Heather Struck

Happy Groundhog Day – Let’s Appreciate Harold Ramis

“Something is different, and anything different is good.” Word.