Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Confronting Our Baser Instincts

Corruption has become the backbone of American business and politics. Whether it involves bribing elected officials through perks offered by lobbyists or using substandard materials on a construction project, someone is always looking for ways to peddle influence, cheat on materials, skim money off a contract, or scam potential victims. While some people think of corruption only in terms of power and money, the corruption of basic thought processes reaches deeper into our society than ever before.
The folks at MoveOn.org decided to give Breitbart a taste of his own medicine by using his own editing techniques to produce the following video:


Unfortunately, MoveOn's efforts cannot undo the damage done to Shirley Sherrod. Nor will it get equal time from the media outlets that rushed to air Breitbart's video. In Emily Brown's recent essay on Salon.com ("I Will Write Your College Essay For Cash") she stated that:
"My next client, whom I actively solicited on Craigslist, wanted me to write an ethics paper. She had no idea this entailed irony of any kind. She had no idea what the word 'irony' meant, until I used it in her essay and sent her a link to a dictionary definition.
I sell my services under the pseudonym 'Charles Darwin.' Not a single client seems to realize that's not my real name. While I'm happy to do college and grad school work, doing high school work (especially work contracted by a parent so unimpressed with her own child's intellect that she's trawling Craigslist) seems deeply wrong. Disturbingly wrong, like something akin to child abuse. My college students and grad students don't affect me that way. They're adults. They're ruined already."
For a sexual predator like Don Juan, nothing beats the thrill of deflowering a virgin. For a con artist, new challenges are just over the horizon. But for the intellectual snob, nothing beats corrupting the mind and destroying the integrity of an innocent, well-meaning person.

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Last year, when CentralWorks offered the world premiere of Machiavelli's The Prince, I was struck by the playwright's skill at making Machiavelli's treatise on the use of power so relevant to contemporary politics. My reaction was primarily with regard to the Bush administration (which had been accused by John Dilulio of being micromanaged by Karl Rove's team of "Mayberry Machiavellis."

CentralWorks recently revived this production, which was inspired by Machiavelli's so-called "handbook for tyrants." A year after its premiere, playwright Gary Graves seems to have grown even more prescient. As one listens to his description of the corruption and decay in Florence, one can't help but compare the playwright's references to failing infrastructure, homelessness, public apathy, and the loss of a general fund to the crises America faces today.

Mark Farrell as Machiavelli (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with the use of deceitful measures in power struggles (whether they involve political intrigue or flat-out war). But his writings have proven remarkably accurate. This time around, many of his references seem to be aimed at the Obama administration for its growing defensiveness and naive clumsiness in using political capital to keep its enemies at bay.

Essentially, Machiavelli's The Prince involves a battle of wits between two men: the young Prince Lorenzo who has suddenly risen to great power and his former tutor (Machiavelli) who has become a master of political intrigue. The younger man is extremely idealistic, wanting to make peace with his enemies and restore Florence to its former greatness. He finds it extremely difficult to believe how cynical his former teacher (who has been banished from the city) has become.

A former diplomat, Machiavelli has evolved into a master manipulator who is more than willing to twist his way into his former student's mind in the hope of infiltrating the current circle of power and authority.

Cole Alexander Smith as Prince Lorenzo (Photo: Jay Yamada)

This year's production offers a new cast, with Mark Farrell as Machiavelli and Cole Alexander Smith as the Prince. Both men offer carefully etched performances which keep the audience on edge throughout the play's 70 minutes.

Kudos to Graves (who also directed the play) and Gregory Scharpen (whose sound design offers a subtle underpinning to the battle of wits between the two protagonists). It isn't often that a play challenges its audience to wrestle with so much information while the moral values of each argument are delivered with such passion and intensity. Machiavelli's The Prince continues through August 22nd at the Berkeley City Club (you can order tickets here).

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It's one thing to foment evil. It's quite another to accuse everyone else of being evil. Recently, the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare screening of 1922's Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages. This film is essentially a lecture on how the men of the Catholic church exercised their misogyny during the Middle Ages by accusing women of practicing witchcraft.

Poster art for Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen (who had become fascinated with the text of the Malleus Maleficarum), Haxan became the most expensive silent film ever made in Scandinavia. Christensen appears in the film as both Jesus Christ and Satan.

Haxan was initially banned in the United States for its graphic depictions of nudity, torture, and acts of sexual perversion. However, when seen by a modern audience, the film proves to be highly educational in unexpected ways.

Apparently, one of the superstitions surrounding witchcraft was that people who were witches had willingly kissed Satan's ass. The film also suggests that the general lack of knowledge about such illnesses as sleepwalking, kleptomania, Parkinson's disease, and senile dementia probably caused many women to be accused of witchcraft during the Inquisition.

Add in layers of superstition (promoted by supposedly pious men of the cloth) and one can easily see how mass hysteria was generated, often with tragic results. Torture quickly became a sure way to get frightened and confused women to confess to their own witchcraft. It also helped to deliver the names of other women suspected of worshipping Satan.

Because the screening started nearly an hour behind schedule (this was the last of six programs presented on Saturday, July 17th), Haxan did not let out until nearly 12:15 a.m. Those who stayed through to the bitter end (many remained in their seats just to hear Sweden's acclaimed Matti Bye Ensemble accompany the film) should be saluted for their determination. Haxan is currently available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Here's a trailer:


1 comment:

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