How my home movie became a MAGA hit

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In the mid 1970s, I worked as an exchange teacher in a California high school.  It was an exciting and formative year for me and my family.   1976 was the bicentenary of American independence, and signs and flags everywhere announced “Spirit of ’76”.  There was a palpable feeling of optimism.  The Vietnam war was over, the Viking mission to Mars was a success, and the social and technological future looked bright.  Driving the open freeways (justifiably celebrated by the British architect Reyner Banham) to the beautiful beaches of southern California, we felt endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But we knew we were fortunate. The difference between the standard of living in our Orange County suburb and that of neighbouring communities was obvious. School districts were still segregated, and minority rights remained a political issue.  Coming from the UK, we were also struck by the alien religiosity of American life: the city where we lived had far more churches than bars.  The land of the free seemed remarkably unequal, and the separation of church and state required by the Constitution seemed to have amplified rather than reduced the power of religion.

I had brought with me to California my vintage (made in 1939) clockwork powered Bolex 16mm movie camera, so I began to record my impressions.  As a visiting educator, I was encouraged to visit schools in other communities, and I took my camera with me.  In those pre-video days, movie cameras did not usually record sound, so I recorded on tape a good deal of music and talk radio.  When I returned to the UK, I put my visual and audio impressions together so as to try to convey my mixed feelings.  The result, The spirit of 77 in Los Angeles, has an upbeat drive culminating in an orgasmic Disneyland firework display, but the scenes of urban poverty and deprivation have a counterpoint of commercial and religious radio. 

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I entered the movie for a film festival in 1978, where it was judged to require an “English voice” to explain the content – an aesthetic choice I had specifically rejected.  I showed it to family and friends as often as I dared try their patience, but for many years the film remained in a can – until the advent of YouTube.  I uploaded a digitised version in 2012. 

In the last eight years, the film has been viewed 160,000 times.  Currently it is receiving about 800 views a day.   The 900 published comments suggest the reasons for this popularity.   One recent post has caught what I was trying to express:

What a powerful look back at a time when people actually had hope for a brighter future. The overexposed shots really add to that 70’s vibe. The juxtaposition between rich/poor and the middle class…brilliantly done! The pop culture references really were great! I really felt like I was experiencing life in ‘77.  Reality is that much uglier now.

Many responders compare life as depicted to the present:

Everyone is skinny or fit in this video. Processed food wasn’t as rampant as is today. Obesity wasn’t even a thing

No computers, no mobile phones — a lot of time to spend with family and friends and trying to find interesting things to do during the summer breaks. The 70’s and 80’s sure was different and i loved them decades for it.

Many blame technology for reducing social and family interaction:

How great our life was in the 70´s! we didn’t have all this technology and that gave us great opportunities to meet other people face to face, not like today. I simply loved this clip!

ahh… the good times, when people were outside and kids playing because there was no social media. everyone is stuck on electronic gadgets. shame

Nostalgia for a better past is frequent:

Beautiful. Wish I could step into the screen 🙂

A wonderful time capsule of an America long gone.

 don’t know why I am such a nostalgic person but I feel an extreme nostalgic and dreamy feeling towards this I guess I will just imagine and enjoy my time

However, many comments stress the negatives as well as the positives of the 1970s:

Society as a whole was not simpler in the 70’s. The Vietnam conflict defined the culture, and in the early 70’s we had airline hijackings every other week. Alcohol and tobacco advertisements were unfettered and everywhere. But if you were a kid growing up in the middle class, it was a good time.

All seems idyllic until you see the poverty-stricken areas of South Central L.A.   Meanwhile, the denizens of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu & other tony spots of SoCal were blissfully unaware of such poor areas in existence.

The 70’s were great, one minor glitch, segregation, school busing, racism, cop beatings, and just plain hatred.  And the pollution!

Some responders attempt to find political and economic reasons for  the difference between life today and in 1977:  

It was a time when we loved ourselves and every one around us, and people genuinely believed that the government’s main purpose was to govern ‘for the people.’ We watched as American citizens from all walks of life would openly, candidly, express their opinions, and make a difference that you could see in action.

Back then, people were happier and healthier…corporate greed has ruined this country.

I wasn’t even alive in 77 but I would love to go back to LA between 1950-1970s… any of those times would have been the best time to live in LA, cause I would have bought a house and held on to it.

More alarming are the frequent comments that draw on the narratives associated with Make America Great Again.   The many racist remarks are astonishingly ignorant of history, and I frequently have to delete offensive comments that have evaded the YouTube censor.

Before California became a part of Mexico 😃

back when whites ruled and wasn’t invaded to death

They didn’t start out ‘poverty stricken’. They moved poor blacks from Alabama & Mississippi to the area and made it that way.

But one recent commentator had a better grasp of history:

4:27 – “A resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.” Now 40+ years later, it’s worse than ever. TWO MILLION Palestinians locked up in the open air prison called Gaza.

Many blame liberal ideas for the decline:

The days before 9/11. The days before the satanic deep state takeover. The days before identity politics. The days before SJWs [social justice warriors].

The Left have destroyed yet another once beautiful place.

This is right before Southern California (including the suburbs) became a holding tank for illegals, gangs, drugs and liberal indoctrination.   

Some posters merely recite anti-democratic slogans:

Cultural diversity ruined LA

Let’s Make America Great Again

Liberal progressive infestation

These respondents don’t understand that the agony of contemporary American life is not down to immigration or democratic ideas, which have both been fundamental to the US from the beginning.  Economic and political policy over the last 30 years in both the US and the UK – since Reagan and Thatcher – has enriched the corporate, financial and media oligarchies at the expense of the people.  To these centres of power, Trump is a useful tool to incite populism and direct the fury of the masses against minorities, “libtards” and “snowflakes”.

I’ll leave the last word to a recent commentator.

I see a video of white ppl enjoying LA’s fruit while living comfortably keeping minorities away from the same American dream. Even with all that said it look like great times no matter the economic and social climate.

Occupying yourself during periods of isolation

This timely guest post is by Guy Saunders, who has researched people’s experience of solitary confinement.

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This post is aimed at providing some ideas about what a person can do to occupy themselves during periods of time in isolation. This post is based on research I carried out looking at people’s experience of solitary confinement. I carried out interviews with former hostages and political prisoners about their use of imagination and how they got through time spent in isolation. There were common themes in their responses and some of these seemed to me to be relevant to what it is like to get through periods of social isolation.

Part One: Experiences of social isolation

When people first experience social isolation, they tend to feel disoriented for a while. When someone experiences another period of isolation, this early disorientation does not feature. It seems that we can learn how to adapt to such a condition and that this gives us the skills we need to deal with…

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The clear air of London and LA

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The coronavirus has caused widespread respiratory disease, but it has cleansed the streets of cities across the world as traffic has reduced. During the last three weeks, traffic in the LA freeway network has reduced by 80%, and London traffic has reduced to levels not seen for many years. Photographers have been quick to record the astonishing changes in cityscapes.

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There is a striking change not only in the city itself but in the way we see it. Hermione Hodgson’s photos of London reveal the beauty of the design and architecture of the streets when our view isn’t blocked by traffic. The sheer size, danger, intensity and noise of traffic normally take up most of our attention. When the air is clear and the streets are calm and empty, a new city emerges.

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In Los Angeles, the improvement in air conditions has revealed the background to the city often shrouded in smog.

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The burial of strangers

Walking in the Clifton area of Bristol recently, I came across a small piece of ground almost hidden behind a hedge. It was being tended by the man pictured below, who did not tell me his name but explained that he had decided to restore and maintain a burial-ground that had been used for nearly a century until 1871. The Historic England record confirms that it was an ‘overflow graveyard for St Paul’s, Clifton (demolished), much used by visitors to the Hotwells. Closed 1871’. 

The picture above comes from the 1990s and shows the state of the burial-ground more than a century after it was closed.

I was moved by the restoration, which, the attendant explained, was in remembrance of hundreds of unknown people buried there during the 18th and 19th century who had come to the Bristol Hot Wells for cure. As they were not local to Bristol, they were buried outside the parish in the strangers’ burial-ground.

The hot wells were owned by the Merchant Venturers, a Bristol business association which still exists, and were central to the development of Clifton as a genteel resort in the early 18th century. Hotwells’ popularity lasted about a century. Sewage from the river seeped into the springs, which became toxic. Pleasure-seekers went elsewhere for their fun and Hotwells gained the reputation as a last resort for the incurable, many of whom are buried in the Strangers’ Burial Ground at the bottom of Lower Clifton Hill.

A city subordinated to the virus

In the late 18th century, William Blake wrote a poem, ‘London’, that depicts the city subordinated to trade.

I wander through each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow …

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Blake originally wrote ‘dirty’ street and ‘dirty’ Thames, but, as Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (p.148), the change of adjective introduces the idea of ‘chartering’: the organisation of a city in terms of trade.  As he wanders through the streets already (in 1794) under the control of the Corporation of London, Blake notes people bound by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’: the religion that keeps the child sweeping chimneys, the patriotism that emboldens the soldier to defend the king.  But mainly he hears the curse of prostitution and the commodifying of relations that spreads both mental and physical plague.  All these, Blake implies, derive from a social system where people have to sell themselves to survive.

Perhaps our current time is the first period for several hundred years when the city is not subordinated to trade.  The stores are closed.  The streets are almost empty.  Metal beer barrels line up outside the deserted pubs.  There is less traffic and less noise.  The air is cleaner.  Most people are indoors, learning to live without the constant pressure of work.

I’m not suggesting that capitalism has been magically transformed.   But perhaps the lockdown is producing a change of consciousness.   Economic fundamentalism has failed to prepare us for or protect us from a natural and predictable occurrence.       Faced with the prospect of people dying from starvation as well as from the coronavirus, the Conservative government is supporting the population with sums of money that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.  Homeless people are being housed.   Those self-employed or on short-term contracts can hope for government funding to tide them over.   Those on permanent contracts but currently without work because of government restrictions on social gathering will receive 80% of their normal income.

Much of this promised support has yet to come through, and some people may not be caught by the safety net.  But even Boris Johnson accepts that there is such a thing as society.  Perhaps – just perhaps – we can look forward to a somewhat more caring and communal future.

Coronavirus: an existential view

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The Monatti, illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, ca. 1895–99

As the reality of the coronavirus lockdown begins to take hold, popular searches on Netflix include movies titled Pandemic and Quarantine – and sales of Albert Camus’ 1947 Nobel Prize-winning novel La Peste (The Plague) have increased by 150%. La Peste chronicles a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague at some time in the 1940s in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, the town in which Camus lived during the war, separated from his wife and mother in France.  Oran is also the setting of some of his other novels.

Camus is known for his existential philosophy of the absurd.  Le Mythe de Sisyphe, written a few years before La Peste, elaborates the myth of Sisyphus’s punishment by the gods: to push a rock to the top of a hill and let it roll down to the bottom, a task to be repeated for eternity. This represents the absurdity of life, in which, as Dr Johnson wrote in 1782:

Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.

Sisyphus, according to Camus, lacks hope but is nevertheless happy: he is clear sighted about the nature of life.  Existentialism teaches that all we have is the facticity of existence. We have no illusions about the afterlife, or even about the nature of life on earth. Camus tried to avoid anthropomorphic descriptions in his novel L’Etranger, written in the same year (1942) as Le Mythe de Sisyphe. According to Alain Robbe Grillet (in Pour un Nouveau Roman), this attempt was not successful: the book didn’t establish a “separation entre l’homme et les choses”.  Perhaps La Peste is more successful in suggesting the absurdity of existence in an alien yet familiar world. “The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” the narrator writes.

As Bookerworm notes, La Peste seems prescient in its description of a city similar to those around the world currently under lockdown after a plague epidemic, the citizens condemned to an abyss of nonexistence. Oran’s bureaucrats, like President Trump and others in recent history, dismiss the plague as merely “a special kind of fever” until the evidence becomes undeniable and under-reaction is more dangerous than over-reaction. But the plague in Camus’ novel is metaphorical as well as literal. The plague is an allegory of fascism and, by extension, of mechanical, unconscious living. The citizens who are dutifully oblivious to the true situation represent the French citizens who colluded with the Vichy regime of German occupiers. Parallels with our current world situation press themselves on us, despite our social distance from mid-century Algiers. It is many years since the pestilence of Nazism, but the rise of an intolerant and aggressive nationalism in both the US and the UK demonstrates that, in Camus’ words:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.

Today, news reports daily inform us of the rising curve of death. Bookerworm states that we cannot but reckon the absurdity and impotence of human lives when hundreds of people are dying lonely without their dear ones near the bed, saying their last goodbye through video chat before being unceremoniously cremated.  What has changed over four centuries?  In Italy, many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague.

And yet the existential view is not of despair. Having achieved clear-sightedness about the nature of existence, we can mobilise our human resources to deal with it. The tragic absurdity of the current global situation is that, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation as recently as 2019, and a modelling exercise in dealing with a pandemic carried out by a UK government organisation in 2016, none of their recommendations for protective clothing and necessary equipment has been fulfilled. The UK and US governments have been slower than others even in taking necessary action that doesn’t need equipment, such as social distancing. Despite the rhetoric, it is evident that the National Health Service was not prepared to deal with the Coronavirus. More than three months after its flaring up in China, equipment supply is still patchy. Mass testing, which elsewhere (China, South Korea, Germany and Italy) has helped isolate victims and slow the spread of the disease, has barely started in the UK.

It comes down to the state’s being prepared for foreseeable events so as to protect citizens. In La Peste, the hero, Dr. Rieux, says: “This whole thing is not about heroism. … It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies.  After the exile lasts for months, the residents of Oran learn that theirs is collective suffering and decide to fight it together.

Camus insists on the need for vigilance by all actors in the narrative of life. Dr. Rieux

knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory: it could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.

The plague, he continues, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Coronavirus Diary

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Teignmouth

Thursday 26 March 

I’ve stayed at home alone for the last two days. Self-isolating is the new expectation, and I’ve had plenty of writing to do.   Each day, I’ve spoken to two or three friends by phone or video link. 

Yesterday, the speaker on Thought for the Day (on the Radio 4 Today programme) compared the government’s call for social distancing and self isolation to God’s call to Mary to be the mother of Jesus.  Both of these, the speaker said, was a big ask. 

Judging by the change in the town over the last two days, people are responding to the call.  There was a short queue outside the Co-Op supermarket, three people standing two metres apart from each other, and we were allowed in only one at a time. Nearly every shop is closed and there are so few people on the street.  The woman serving in the bakers’ was wearing a mask, and she had blocked the door with a table so that I had to stand on the threshold at a proper distance. 

I’m sitting on the Den, a large area of grassland near the beach.   Almost no-one is in sight.  There is no noise of traffic.   Two women have just come and sat on a bench near me, sitting in the correct distance apart. The sky is wonderfully blue with very light cloud, and no jet trails.  The environment is drawing a deep breath of relaxation.