Archive for August, 2010


American Independents: An Interview with Kyle Stevens

August 24, 2010

“Any contemporary study of independent film should start with Cassavettes,” says Kyle Stevens, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who will be teaching a class at Filmmakers in the Fall Semester entitled “American Independents: Cassavettes, Todd Haynes, and the Coen Brothers.”


Stevens’ class will cover the history of independent film, using these three filmmakers as case studies to illuminate the economics, aesthetics, and techniques of independent film. Cassavettes was the first modern filmmaker to work outside of the system, and to create “new forms of narrative” that challenge the expectations of viewers. He “pioneered the style,” bringing in new ways of filming and acting and incorporating improvisation, allowing his films to “capture the present moment.”

Todd HaynesStevens finds Haynes an exemplar of independent film because he “made us rethink ways we watch,” particularly the way we watch women, and how we identify with characters.

The Coen Brothers are the models of modern independent film. Stevens asks, “how independent are they if they are winning Oscars?” Yet they have their own style, and he lists one of their movies as among his favorites.

Stevens feels that independent films are accepted by the mainstream because “we enjoy having our expectations played with.” As life gets more complex, we are able to accept, and we often desire, “more complicated forms of storytelling.” Independent films are better suited to deliver this than mainstream films based on stock narratives. They also “speak to our senses of identity,” and are likely to deal with issues such as race and sexuality, which are of interest to a wide audience.

Coen Brothers

Stevens’ plan for the class is to have students watch films, cogitate, then spend class time analyzing and discussing. Themes that are of particular interest to Stevens are the ways people interact, the ways they present themselves, and the politics of identity. These topics, among many others, will be discussed in the class.

When asked about his favorite independent film, Stevens noted that he had recently seen the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” which he likes because it is “deeply funny” and, unlike other Coen Brothers movies, not cynical. It accomplishes being “sincere, but not trite.” In particular he is fascinated by the prologue, and says he “can’t wait to discuss it with the students.”


Paper Politics

August 19, 2010

Paper Politics , on display at Space gallery until October 24th, 2010 , is an exhibit of grassroots political posters from around the world. The images depict and react to political and social issues of the past ten years. The messages are of solidarity, revolution, and empowering communities and individuals against capitalism and war.

paper politicsTopics of the posters range from war to evictions, pollution, genocide, Abu Ghraib, women’s issues, health care, transgenic foods, and labor history in Pennsylvania.

Many images play on corporate imagery, essentially uncoopting youth culture from corporations. One shows the McDonald’s arches upside down, reminiscent of the upside down flag, a symbol of maritime distress.

One striking image shows Jesus driving an SUV that is equipped with a rocket launcher.

Many posters show images from war, or from the streets, accompanied by facts or quotes.

Why must these images be put on posters and hung in community spaces? These are images that are not shown in the mainstream media because they show an America that many are uncomfortable with.

Let’s take a minute and talk about our current national discourse. What images and ideas are given to the people? What facts are presented? What phrases are repeated? Our national discourse tends to involve one person or organization proposing legislation. An opposing group claims that said American discourselegislation is being ‘shoved down our throats.’ In order not to seem too overbearing, the legislation is nixed. If a party or organization makes unpopular legislation, blocks popular legislation, or suffers from corruption, they take some other story and blow it up into a media frenzy. The media reports on the emotions of people, and facts are left at the wayside. So, if you want to present information and images about the world we live in, a world with an undercurrent of violence, a world with poverty, unchecked capitalism, war, genocide, greed and weapons, what can you do? You can make a poster and hang it in a public space. Space has a collection of hundreds of such posters, many of which show real images accompanied by facts. All the posters show what we the people are concerned about, and what the media doesn’t address.

Let’s talk about what ideas are considered unacceptable in mainstream America. Marxism is taboo. It seems heretical to many Americans to say that workers should own the profits of their labors. One American mantra is that the rich create jobs, and should thus profit heavily and be taxed lightly in order to incentivize them to create more jobs. I apologize for using the nasty word ‘incentivize’. The fact that that word even exists shows a fundamental believe that people only do things in order to reap a tangible reward.

In America, another entrenched thought is that we are all at the will of the economy. The economy is our ultimate boss, the force that shapes our lives more than any other, and one we cannot control, but can only mildly affect. However, as the posters at Space point out, the economy is a social construct that exists because enough people believe in it to make it manifest. It should not control us. We should control it. If we, as a nation, decided that poverty must be ended, we could end it. We could improve housing, distribute healthy food, and give everyone health care. But these things, although doable, are seen as impossibilities in a capitalist economy. The poster makers at Space are angry about this situation, but also hopeful that given a sea change of opinion, this circumstance can be changed.


Another common notion is that war can make the world better. People are killed because of their political beliefs, or because they happen to live in an area governed by people with unsavory political beliefs. It seems obvious that guns cannot bring peace, but somehow that is not part of our national discourse. The media argues how many guns and tanks are necessary to secure an area for democracy, but no talking head ventures that zero might be the ideal number.

The posters in the Space Gallery present images that address these issues. They represent ideas that so many of us agree with, but that are never presented in the mainstream. Seeing these images is refreshing, engaging, and provocative. The best advice I can give you is to turn off your TV, never turn it back on, and go out into the world and see what ideas are floating around in our free, shared, public space.

Space gallery is free and open to the public.


Countdown to Zero

August 7, 2010

Quick quiz:

  1. How many nations have nuclear weapons?
  2. How much highly enriched uranium has been stolen?
  3. What was the access code to the minute man missile launch site?
  4. If the order were given for the currently online nuclear weapons to be fired, how long would it take for 500,000 people to die?                        (Answers at end)

In observation of the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film Countdown to Zero is currently playing at the Harris Theater. The film is a documentary about the current status of nuclear weapons around the world today and consists of three main parts: it describes how easily nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of nongovernmental terrorist organizations, how the weapons still on ready-alert since the cold war could easily fire by accident or miscalculation, and how many nations around the world are developing, or have recently developed, nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

countdown to zeroThe message of the film is that the common sense of the people, the majority of whom want to see nonproliferation and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, should be heeded. The film describes the dangers of nuclear proliferation and non-disarmament using facts about accidents, miscalculations, the commonplace occurrence of theft of highly enriched uranium. Interviewees in the documentary include Mikhail Gorbachev, Valerie Plame, and Jimmy Carter. Historical footage of Robert Oppenheimer, Ronald Reagan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before the showing on Friday night, Dr. Dan Fein spoke about nuclear proliferation. He referred to the US as the “avatar of nuclear militarism,” and cited that nuclear weapons are often seen as “the poor man’s deterrent against imperialism.” Indeed, in the film, Kim Il Jung is cited as saying that North Korea was not invaded by the United States on account of her nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once stated, “we’ll eat grass, but we’ll make a nuclear bomb.” (On a side note, it has been much in the press that Pakistan, in theory a United States ally, has been providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

minute man missileThe film also discusses MAD, mutual assured destruction. This situation is known in mathematics as the prisoner’s dilemma, a situation where, when everyone works in what he sees to be his best interest, the worst possible situation for everyone comes to pass. When nations choose to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent to being invaded, or to having similar weapons used on them, then every nation eventually has nuclear weapons. And then we’re all in big trouble. Whether on purpose or by accident, an existent nuclear weapon is one that could be activated.

Because the probability of a nuclear accident is above zero, the inevitability of a nuclear accident is ensured. Given infinite time, that which can happen will happen. The questions then become: how probable is a nuclear accident, and how much time will nuclear weapons be around? As for the first question, there have already been a series of near-nuclear accidents, including planes taking off unknowingly carrying nuclear missiles, and the subsequent accidental dropping of nuclear missiles, once with five of six safety mechanisms malfunctioning. (That particular one fell in the Carolinas.) A number of planes and submarines carrying missiles have crashed and sunk in the oceans, the weapons of which have never been recovered. So, let’s go ahead and say the probability is not astronomically small. To reduce an accident, it is thus necessary to reduce the amount of time nuclear weapons are around, i.e, they should be dismantled.

The showing on Friday was sponsored by Remembering Hiroshima 2010, who promoted the signing of START, a disarmament treaty that is up for renewal. Before the film, Jo Schlesinger described the organization and its mission. She also invited Jasiri X to perform, and he wrote a piece especially for the occasion. The song was a conversation between a mother and her son taking place on the morning of August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, the son questioning what was happening and why. Before he performed, he stated that he wanted to “humanize individuals.” We often speak of war in the abstract, as I have done for this article, and don’t look at what war means for the individual people who are the victims of it. I highly recommend his work, which can be viewed at

Countdown to Zero will be playing through August twelfth at the Harris Theater.

Answers to quiz:

  1. 9 nations, with a combined total of over 23,000 nuclear weapons on Earth.
  2. It is unknown how much has been stolen. In all cases that uranium has been confiscated from thieves, it was originally unknown that the uranium had gone missing.
  3. 0000000000 – All employees at the facility were aware of this code.
  4. Half an hour.

Pittsburgh Bike Fest 2010

August 4, 2010

August 6th- 15th

The ultimate goal is a multi-modal, safe, sustainable transportation system for Pittsburgh. The proximate goal is to have fun, meet folks, and ride bicycles.

Bike Fest 2010

Bikefest begins on Friday and consists of a variety of bike related activities. There are scores of organized bike rides, ranging from light, family-friendly rides around town, to arduous, uphill, 90-mile bikeathons. There are bike games such as polo, rodeo, and a scavenger hunt. There are classes on bicycle maintenance and repair. There are lectures on sustainable transportation. There are midnight rides, early morning rides, rides that cross bridges, historic rides, and city tour rides.

The best thing about Bikefest is that anyone can organize an event. Bike Pgh is acting as the hub for planning and information distribution, but the festival is essentially a people’s festival in which anyone can create or attend any event. So, if you want to, say, sponsor a naked bike ride, or a Halloween costume bike ride, a spray paint my bike pink and cover it with glitter activity, or what have you, feel free!

On Wednesday the 11th, Filmmakers will sponsor a free showing of The Great Muppet Caper, the greatest adventure ever to involve a frog, an elegant pig, and bicycles.

Muppets on bikes

Pennsylvania has been rated as one of the worst states for bicycling. In order to raise the ranking, the state needs to have more bike lanes, better maintained roads, larger shoulders, etc. It also needs more bikers. It may seem odd that increasing the number of bikers will increase biker safety, but there are a few reasons. First, if there are more bikers, drivers will expect them and take precautions. Secondly, there is safety in numbers. If ten people bike together, they are an easily noticeable force. Also, the more bikers there are, the stronger the biker lobby. Even if it is an unofficial lobby, one with no central organization or money, it could still be a powerful.

So, to make Pittsburgh a better place for all bicycles, for the environment, and for the future of mankind, get out there and play pick up bike polo!