Thursday, October 4, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Part Two

I was hooked. I'd entered a door into a magical realm that couldn't have contrasted more with the beer and bratwurst world outside. I was Alice in Wonderland, and everyone I met was young, fun, and incredibly creative. Sleeveless Black T-Shirt finished his introduction and I asked if I could look around.

"Absolutely," he said. In a dressing room to my left, a woman painted a big red heart onto her powdered face. To my right, the costumed couple lazily lounged in the "kitchen" set, continually chatting but without emotion, their faces devoid of expression. I headed there, mystified by the stilted acting and flat dialog, and he followed me. "A Swedish man sent us a script that we are acting out here," he explained. "It is about a young girl and her grandfather."

I stared for probably ten minutes. I couldn't understand the words but I was pretty sure I loved it. It definitely wasn't your grandma's Swedish cinema: while those movies are inarguably brilliant, they don't really comment on the world today, with eight hours of talking about truth and beauty before everyone dies on a beach under a burning scarecrow.

It reminded me of a play I saw last year called the Borderline Procession. A bunch of people sat around around in a bunch of houses, and one by one they were replaced by Britney Spears lookalikes. When everyone was replaced, they sang "Oops I Did It Again" and then the theater went dark.

Because, you know, after you examine life, what's left to say? Nothing. Might as well sing.

These two didn't exactly look like Britney, but I loved their postmodern clothes. I love it when characters are portrayed untraditionally, to express the weirdness of their persona -- like having a person play a dog, or a bag of rocks portray a man. I was dying to know more but the German was impenetrable. Was the grandfather gay? No, that would be too obvious. He probably represented her burgeoning adolescent desires. With his porn mustache and hairy chest he certainly reminded me of mine.

Black T-Shirt Guy got involved with Heart-Face Actress so I walked over to a small room where a man and woman sat in front of a control panel. Mounted on the wall were eight small monitors, and a mixing board sat on a table. They wore microphones and headphones but when I peered inside they stopped talking and invited me in.

The man introduced himself as Merkur, and he said his assistant was Amanda. He said they sat there all day watching the rooms and making sure the actors followed the script. It's more exciting than it sounds, he said, because usually he just slides knobs up and down.

I glanced around the room, overwhelmed. I couldn't begin to imagine the technological scope, even ignoring the artistic venture. The TV screens, the microphones, the cameras, the internet setup: someone had a serious vision and the chops to back it up. I felt like the few scraps of information I had didn't really explain anything, and every time I talked to somebody it just raised more questions. Were the actors reciting memorized lines? Did the writers pay to get their work produced? How many subscribers did they have? Did they stick to avant-garde, allegorical pieces and hope people would appreciate them? I had to start at the beginning.

"So how did this end up in an abandoned shopping mall?"

"This is actually my second try," he said. "I set up something similar but couldn't make it profitable. I was working here, at the Spielhalle, when they went out of business and they let me take over the lease. We've been here over two years."

"And now you work here full-time?"

He nodded. "We wake up at 4:30 in the afternoon and work all night," he said. "We all live here, in a big room in the back."

I absorbed this new piece of the puzzle and tried to add it to the picture inside my head. Instead of explaining anything, it just made it seem more impossible. They lived here? For two years now? The dedication, the artistry, the sheer edginess made Andy Warhol look like Grandma Moses.

"And all because of a Swedish man," I said.

He shot me a surprised look. "Yes," he finally said. "Because of him. But we have had other customers."

A red flag flew inside my head. I'd meant that this current production was for the Swedish man, but the answer implied far more. And considering they'd had six studios for two years I'd assume there'd be "other customers."

I sensed I'd worn out my welcome so I said goodbye and explored further, ending up at the communal bedroom. Yes, they clearly lived here. The refrigerator, the dirty clothes and the artsy slashes of paint testified to that.

Like some demented Goldilocks, names were painted over each bed.

While I was soaking in the details, a spunky young woman grabbed me from behind. "You speak English!" she said. "I speak English! I will explain everything to you!"

Melanie talked non-stop, mostly incomprehensibly. One thing I've learned is that the more someone insists they speak English, the less likely it is that they do. Maybe in her head she was fluent, but the sounds coming out of her mouth didn't even come close.

Melanie brought out an iPad and I thought I heard the word "chatroom." I still didn't know what their subscribers got for their money, so I examined it with interest. The screen was completely blank.

My unease bumped up another notch. Melanie looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. "No people yet," she said. "I just turn it on."

One more question got added to the end of the list. How did this make sense? Wasn't it supposed to be a twenty-four hour operation? I assumed they had thousands of subscribers supporting them, so wouldn't there always be somebody in the chat room?

Still, I wrote it off. I glanced around the room and felt envious that people believed in art so strongly that they subjected themselves to this. Melanie practiced her English for a few more minutes and then held up the iPad again. "Busy now!" she said.

It wasn't busy. Two people were exchanging small talk. They clearly couldn't have been "subscribers," because instead of discussing art or film their conversation consisted solely of the lines "Where are you?" and "I'm in Australia."

We were staring at the iPad when we heard a scream. Melanie smiled and shrugged her shoulders, and I thought about ignoring it too until another one followed, and then another. I ran toward the sound and discovered it was coming from the kitchen. The young girl was now sprawled out on the ground and her grandfather stood over her.

They were arguing.

The grandfather grabbed a hot iron and swung it at his granddaughter. She tried to fight him off but he was stronger. He pressed it against her face and she screamed again.

He grabbed the free end of the cord and wrapped it around her neck. He pulled on it, choking her, and she gasped for breath. That's when I noticed she was pregnant, at least five or six months along. He screamed in German. I didn't understand. He was mad about the pregnancy, maybe. She was too young. Maybe he didn't like the dad.

That's when he picked up a knife and started stabbing her in the stomach.

Or ... could he be the dad? I thought.

I took one last look at the pair and ran for the door. I don't remember any more of the afternoon. The questions that had been circling inside my head were being answered much too quickly. Merkur told me: there was no global audience -- just the Swedish man. If he didn't build the studio, he bought it. Merkur's first failed business. He paid for everything; he scripted everything. These kids stayed here and acted out what he wrote. He had these people perform everything he couldn't do in real life.

And so we abandon the Spielhalle, and our new acquaintances. We brush off everything we felt that afternoon: the jealousy, the admiration, the sense of adventure and fun. We abandon the young woman dying on the ground and we find our way back to the mall. It is dark and everyone is gone but noises still rattle the plywood that boards up the broken windows. Now the sounds evoke new images, of actors and a play about incest and infanticide. The meta-image of the author is also there: with his money, his power, and the lives he controls with his whim. Creating a world and then watching it, from far away, unfold on the internet.

We glance over our shoulder for one last look. We know we've seen something we shouldn't have, as the images start to flash and swoop in our head like buzzards looking for a kill.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Part One

I went to Wiesbaden, Germany last Friday. I didn't have any real reason to go. In fact, I didn't actually want to go, but you have to be somewhere in the universe and three days in Frankfurt was two days too long. My boyfriend had to go there for work so I hitched a ride. It was pretty much a no-brainer: if you're lazy and like cappuccinos you can entertain yourself in any European city for a day or two. While looking for parking Boyfriend pointed out a sign advertising a Biennale -- an art festival held every other year. "You are lucky," he said. "Eh," I replied. Maybe some people would have been excited but to me it was like being in England and running into a street food fest.

After Boyfriend left for work, I glanced at the unimpressive buildings and made a snap decision: this was yet another German city where the highlight would be a cappuccino and a chair. As I walked toward the old part of the city, though, another sign pointed to a temporary new attraction so I ventured a few steps off my path.

My brain still tells me I couldn't have seen what I thought I saw. The city had a spectacular beaux arts theatre that had to be two hundred years old -- and they'd let an artist open a cheap little supermarket inside it.

The juxtaposition between the theatre and the market couldn't have been more extreme. Half of me was dazzled by the murals, the statuary, the stone work, and the frescoes, and the other half couldn't believe that muffins were just $1.29.

This had to be the most exciting art piece I'd seen in a long time, and I'd just blown $247,000 to spend 17 years in New York.

Maybe the Biennale wouldn't be to art what Germany was to music, design, architecture, dance and comedy, I decided. After I had my fill of cappuccino and chair, I went to check out more.

I've lived in Germany for 18 months now but I still don't speak the language. After a painstaking month-long course I learned a bit of grammar and vocabulary, but even asking for directions to the bathroom requires twenty-eight words, one of which is RAMPSPUTENUMFALLRICHTUNG. So, I've temporarily put off learning more and resigned myself to being permanently confused. I found a brochure for the Biennale but rather than try to decipher it -- even Artforum leaves me scratching my head, and it's allegedly in English -- I headed for their information booth.

The clerk described some of the works and it sounded like I'd already found the highlight. However, right next door was an art installation in an old shopping mall. It opened in half an hour so I wandered Wiesbaden and discovered that, like every other German city, it had an old church in an old square and forty miles of cobblestone streets lined with really boring chain stores. At opening time I was in front of the old mall next to maybe eight other people. This was probably the reason in Germany stores outnumber galleries by 80,000 to 1.

I'm an avid fan of ruin, as you can see from my apartment and workout plan. While there's a lot of ruin in Germany, it's mostly to older buildings and not malls built in 1972. This place had evidently suffered the same fate as the dated low-rise malls in America: tastes changed, shoppers left, and the place was just locked up tight.

They were right to abandon this place. Totally enclosed within a larger building, there was no sunlight and no fresh air. Now the escalators didn't move, the stores were shuttered, shop windows were smashed. Most of the doors were chained shut but flashing lights and strange noises beckoned me into others to confront the Biennale's theme, which was Bad News.

I started to feel a little freaked out. Seeing babies cut up rats with scissors will do that to you. The lighting, the setting, and the creepy sounds would have been perfect for a horror movie. I walked from floor to floor without seeing another soul, with the only signs of other life spray painted on the walls. I tried to dispassionately admire the works but they still achieved their goal, which was to scare the shit out of me.

I ran out of water and started to get hungry but the Chinese restaurant I passed looked like it had closed fifty years before. I'd wandered in so far in and taken so many twists and turns I had no idea how to find my way out. Even the game room, or Spielhalle, seemed intimidating. The Bad News had gotten to me, that was obvious. Even when I wasn't being assaulted by some frightening new work I could hear the menace of the last one echoing in the halls. I'd clearly been in here too long when a simple blue facade seemed menacing.

Inside, a life-sized sculpture with a friendly cartoon face hung by a rope from its neck.

The darkened room was nearly empty. In one corner, a plywood door had a push-button combination lock. Next to it, a glass window looked out onto a makeup table in a fully-stocked dressing room. Three television monitors hung from the ceiling, all showing the same image. Words in German listed a phone number and website, and small squares contained video footage from rooms somewhere. In some of the squares you could make out shadowy figures moving around. Across the bottom of the monitors were the words "Ezzolino Live Cams."

I didn't even notice the man approach. He had to be fifty, with handsome features, but his loose clothing couldn't disguise a sturdy paunch. He said something to me in German but when I said I didn't speak the language he switched to broken English. "Google it," he said, pointing at the monitor. "There's an explanation online, in English. 'Ezzolino Live Cams.'"

Online porn doesn't interest me so I hesitated to follow his advice. He was kind of handsome, though, and I was curious, so I got out my cellphone and typed in the words. I didn't move as we both scanned the tiny screen and his arm rubbed against mine. Google turned up nothing. "Try 'Wiesbaden,'" he added. "Ezzolino Live Cams Wiesbaden."

I repeated the process but again found nothing. He took my phone. "This must be some kind of tourist Google," he said. "This is different from what I get."

He played with my phone for probably ten minutes while my interest dissipated. I reached to get it back but he was focused on the screen and missed the hint. "At three-thirty they will open the door," he said, nodding toward the corner. "I talked with them online and they told me to be here."

I looked at my phone and it was 3:26. "Oh," I said. I let him continue using my phone but fifteen minutes later the door remained shut. He tapped keys on his phone and then held it next to mine. "See the difference?" he said. On mine, the search had turned up nothing. On his was the explanatory link. I took his phone and emailed the URL to myself. Then, at 3:48, I gave up. I took back my phone and said goodbye.

I was retracing my steps down the frozen escalator when I heard the man shout. I turned and saw him in front of the Spielhalle, poised to run back in. "They opened the door!" he yelled. "They opened the door!"

He turned and ran back into the Spielhalle. I froze for a second, then sprinted up the escalator. I reached the Spielhalle just in time to see him dash through the unlocked door. I got there a second before it closed. Inside a young man with long hair and a wispy moustache shot me a cautionary look, and said something to me sharply in German. I guessed he was asking me if I had permission to be there, if I had talked to someone online and gotten an invitation. I nodded and said, "Ja."

To my right, the man I'd followed was sitting next to two young women who looked Scandinavian. I took an empty chair as the long-haired young man addressed the group in German. The handsome man pointed at me and said, "Can you speak English? For him?"

The guide nodded. "I am your tour guide," he said. "This is a studio for filming that is arranged like a house. There is a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Ordinary people like yourselves send us scripts, and we act them out in webcasts that continue twenty-four hours a day."

I looked around at the rooms. To my left was the bedroom, with the dressing area and makeup table. At it, a woman was painting her face white. Another strange figure, something like a cross between a skeleton and a scarecrow, hung in the corner behind her. In the kitchen to my right a man and a woman were acting out a scene. Judging by the costumes, this scene was not supposed to look natural: the woman wore a 60s-style housewife dress while the man wore a dress that was slightly more provocative. The woman sat on a counter, the man sat in a chair, and they seemed to be arguing in German. Small microphones extended in front of their mouths.

The guide smiled at us with his hands clasped across his sleeveless black t-shirt. "Welcome to Ezzelino Live Cams," he said.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Poor Rebekah Mercer! Rolling around in shit all her life and now people act like she stinks.

Rebekah Mercer is one of the daughters of Robert Mercer, the right-wing’s version of George Soros if everything conservatives said about him was true. She inherited billions of dollars along with his right-wing beliefs and the crank media outlet Breitbart News. In today’s Wall Street Journal she develops Gloria Vanderbilt’s "Poor little rich girl" theme with an op-ed about how misunderstood she is. Her "natural reluctance to speak with reporters has left [her] vulnerable to the media’s sensational fantasies." All she has is money, a dozen houses, power, recognition, politicians at her beck and call, and a media outlet to defend herself.

Poor thing. No wonder she’s jealous of the rest of us. Any time we want we can scream to our eight followers on Twitter.

I’d love to put a succinct summary of her conservative oeuvre here, but, well, there’s just too much bad to write. She helped finance Trump’s presidential run, combined six condos in a Trump Tower to make a home larger than the one New York City gives the mayor, and defended Trump’s pussy-grabbing tape. She created and ran the Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC, and made the film "Clinton Cash" with Steve Bannon. She liked him so much she started a political committee with him, and supposedly was going to push him for president in 2020.

She’s a trustee, along with names like Koch and Coors, of the Heritage Foundation, a group that denies climate change, fights ObamaCare, and authors papers arguing that same-sex marriage is a threat to religious liberty and Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ's than whites.

She didn’t start off as a villain. She tried working for daddy’s hedge fund before deciding, like Vanderbilt, to just take his money and do what she wanted. Where Vanderbilt did jeans, Mercer and her sisters started Ruby et Violette Bakery. It wasn't particularly ambitious considering they were already rolling in dough.

How does this questionable history translate in the story in the WSJ today? "Over the past 18 months," she writes, "I have been the subject of intense speculation and public scrutiny.... Some have recklessly described me as supporting toxic ideologies such as racism and anti-Semitism."

Huh? I think she’s being intentionally misleading here. It’s like Hitler defending himself with, "Right now critics are saying I’m a bad dancer." Dude, we might get to that eventually, but right now there are a few bigger fish to fry. I’m thinking misogyny and homophobia are the main complaints against Mercer, as seen in Breitbart headlines like, "Gay rights have made us dumber. It’s time to get back in the closet." and "Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?"

"Last month a writer for the Financial Times suggested mysteriously that my 'political goals are something she [sic] has never publicly defined.' In broad strokes this is what I believe:"

The next eight thousand words are a real shocker. She wants the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be sheltered, discrimination to vanish, immigrants to be welcomed, blah blah blah. Which makes me think she needs to find better advisors, because the politicians she pushes are against all of the above. "I am deeply committed to research and the scientific method," she says, though her family gave $200,000 to a politician who believes the government sprays chemicals on the public from airplanes flying overhead.

She supports "ideas and policies" rather than people. I feel better knowing maybe she didn’t like Trump but just told a lackey to put forty million dollars on the first person who said Ted Cruz’s dad shot JFK. "The only thing I ask of the politicians I back is that they be true to the promises that they made to their constituents during their campaigns." Apparently she dozed off in the seconds between Trump saying he’d never cut Medicaid or Social Security and Monday’s budget decimating both.

If she’s so smart and scientific, why does she support the voices of white supremacists, assholes and cranks through Republican politicians and "news" outlets like Breitbart? "I own a minority stake in Breitbart News," she says, implying you’d have to have 50+ percent before they’d give you the microphone at meetings. Why, 49% is hardly worth owning, since to influence Breitbart’s insanity in any way she’d have to make a deal with other owners. Sure, two are her sisters, but maybe it’s a long walk to their bedroom doors.

Segueing from "There’s nothing I can do about it!" To "It’s not really so bad," she says, "I believe [Breitbart] adds an important journalistic voice to the American conversation." I love the way this is phrased, implying differing voices are more important than honesty. No, Breitbart is part of the conversation like Uncle Hal screaming "JESSICA SIMPSON’S SURE GOT SOME TITTIES!" is an important part of the Thanksgiving conversation.

"Stephen Bannon, its former chairman, took Breitbart in the wrong direction." Hmm... He was the co-founder, so this is a little weird. It’s like getting on a bus and then shouting that the driver is going the wrong way. Next she'll say Bannon was just there to get coffee. "Now that Mr. Bannon has resigned, Breitbart has the opportunity to refine its message and expand its influence." Because nine years isn't long enough to refine your message. I can identify: I was only married thirty years and still when I tried to tell the hubby I loved him sometimes I accidentally yelled, "WHY IN GOD’S NAME DID I MARRY YOU?" Clearly that message needed some tweaking too. And they definitely need to expand their influence, because President Trump hasn’t retweeted them more than eight or nine hundred times.

"I have chosen to involve myself with important policy issues, and with some of the institutions that discuss them, because I am, first and foremost, a mother." Aw. She must be a good mom, too. I mean, mine never told me, like a Heritage Foundation panel on Feminism, that women have jobs foisted on them when what they really want are husbands.

"I hope that my children will show stoicism and perseverance through adversity," she writes. The girls will definitely find adversity at places like Breitbart, where a headline reads, "There's no hiring bias against women in tech. They just suck at interviews."

We get to her kind-of point in the last two paragraphs. It’s all about — ta dah! — free speech. "This country was founded on the principle of open discourse," Mercer writes, echoing bigots and assholes everywhere. For right-wing snowflakes it translates to, "Sure, I say offensive shit, but why do people get mad?"

It’s not an especially bright argument coming from a Stanford graduate, since it could be the defense of somebody yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theater. "Well, nobody else was saying it," she could argue.

"But questioning the status quo is more important now than ever. America’s future depends on it." Rich Girl should write t-shirts instead of baking cookies. This "Question Authority" thing could really catch on. And though she’s just a minority shareholder clearly Breitbart agrees, offering their insightful retorts to accepted reality:

  • Homophobia is bad: "Trannies whine about hilarious Bruce Jenner billboard."

  • Racism is bad: "Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage"

  • Sexual harassment is bad: "The solution to online 'harassment' is simple: Women should log off"

  • Feminism is good: "Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy"

Even the Founding Fathers would be applauding these sentient additions to the discourse, as well as Mercer's pushing Trump to appoint brainiacs like Michael Flynn, Kellyanne Conaway, and Jeff Sessions. Because nobody attacks the status quo like they do, asking the tough questions like, "Is white supremacy really bad?", "Do you seriously have to put people in jail for lying to Congress?" and "Is there really such a thing as a fact?"

Call her a poor little rich girl, but know one thing: she’ll keep adding to the conversation as long as she has money, and cookies to get that bad taste out of her mouth.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I am so excited about this new film coming out! I just know I'll love it as much as The First Appearance of the Third Avenger and The Fifth Time We Saw Avengers Four Through Twelve.