Friday, March 25, 2011

Camera Obscura: Gatlinburg Film Fest Opens; 'Taxi Driver' Anniversary

I've not had a movie post in a few weeks as the state and federal legislative sessions have just brought out so much deeply ridiculous and useless proposals that have demanded my attention and yours (I hope). Not that I need to apologize to readers, more that readers (along with my humble self) can gain perspective and enrichment and a breath by taking a look at more esoteric creations. To paraphrase William Hurt from "The Big Chill", "Sometimes ya gotta just let art wash over ya."

The 3rd Annual Gatlinburg Film Festival opens today and offers a host of locally-made short film submissions for numerous awards, and also offers screenings of the documentary of the Nashville flood of 2010, called "Nashville Rises" and another doc, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" which offers an even deeper (and most bizarre) examination of the family of cult star Jesco White, 'The Dancing Outlaw'.

A full schedule of events is here - the Festival is held at the River Terrace Hotel and Convention Center. A write-up via the Knoxville News Sentinel has more.


Mention must be made of the passing of Elizabeth Taylor this week. She came out of the Hollywood studio system as a teenage girl and redefined the word Star like no other, a force of astonishing power and beauty, and a noted philanthropist, who captured America's imagination both onscreen and off for decades. Kim at TCM's Movie Morelock page has a tribute:

Elizabeth Taylor looms as large as Cleopatra herself on our cultural landscape. But Taylor wasn’t just a pop culture icon. The Oscar winning actress helped invent the term. Warhol turned her image into art. Mattel turned her image into a Barbie doll. The Vatican condemned her “erotic vagrancy” and the Queen of England honored the actress by appointing her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Taylor’s timeless beauty will haunt us forever. She’s part of all of our lives whether we want her to be or not and I’m thankful for the incredible body of work that she left behind for us all to enjoy."

She also has captured fantastic accounts of Taylor's work through the last half of the 20th century on her own blog, Cinebeats, with extensive reviews of her films and many great photos too.


And now for something completely different.

Since George Lucas is endlessly beating the dead horse of "Star Wars" into nano-particles, then so can the rest of us. The following vid is from a series called "Troopers", a fan-made collection of shorts which gives us a peek into the hum-drum lives of Stormtroopers as they run for coffee and bear claws, fix leaky pipes, take out the garbage -- and the one below is an "interrogation" of "rebel princess". Good stuff:


"Taxi Driver" is such a rare film - still retaining it's power after 35 years, and also a breathtaking take on America and New York City in one of its darkest times. A new print and new theatrical release is underway. Critic J. Hoberman tries to capture what made the film so unique both then and now in his recap:

Citizen of a sodden Sodom where the steamy streets are always wet with tears, among other bodily fluids, (the character) Travis Bickle embarks each evening on a glistening sea of sleaze. Seen through his rain-smeared windshield, Manhattan becomes a movie—call it “Malignopolis”—in which, as noted by Amy Taubin in her terrific Taxi Driver monograph, “the entire cast of Superfly seems to have been assembled in Times Square” to feed Travis’s fantasies. The cab driver lives by night in a world of myth, populated by a host of supporting archetypes: the astonishing Jodie Foster as Iris, the 12-year-old hooker living the life in the rat’s-ass end of the ’60s, yet dreaming of a commune in Vermont; Harvey Keitel as her affably nauseating pimp; Peter Boyle’s witless cabbie sage; and Cybill Shepherd’s bratty golden girl, a suitably petit-bourgeois Daisy Buchanan to Travis’s lumpen Gatsby."

I remember seeing it several times during the 1970s, and it is truly unforgettable. And it gave actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese a huge introduction to audiences. It tackles politics, social structures, fame and infamy, tour de force filmmaking, and offers a deranged, hilarious, and a daft Manhattan trapped in it's own cage.

In the mid-1980s, I rented a VHS copy of the movie, popped it into a washing-machine-sized top-loading VHS player, and saw it in a large living room of a home where I was house-sitting. As disturbing as it was on the theatrical screen, it was even more horrifying in my home. Letting Travis Bickle into your home leaves a dark stain on everything. It stands as one of the major milestones which the 1970s gave us is such large numbers - The Godfather, Chinatown, Nashville, and yes, even Star Wars - the creations of then-young filmmakers who are today's legends of Hollywood.

Most notable too, the movie was the very last scored by composer Bernard Herrmann, and the music is a relentless heartbeat of night and the city and the madness of those times. It is mournful and bluesy and adds so much to an already iconic movie. The opening moments and music are below:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Class Action Lawsuit Over Radioactive Pollution in East Tennessee

Vivid fears of radioactive pollution in Japan have prompted much-needed attention here in the U.S. on the storage and usage of nuclear material. The grim picture in East Tennessee is gaining attention as well.

A class action lawsuit over radioactive pollution in the Nolichucky River is being prepared against Erwin, TN's Nuclear Fuel Services plant. Residents around the facility are attending meetings to consider the suit, and concerns have been steadily growing since a recent study has shown the radioactive contamination might also be affecting drinking water in Greeneville, TN as well.

The Nolichucky River, located downstream from the Erwin NFS plant, is contaminated with enriched uranium. The river serves as a source of water for Greeneville, Tennessee, as well as surrounding communities. As we’ve reported previously, there are no known sources of enriched uranium in the area other than NFS. The facility produces nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and processes weapons-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Last year, the radioactive material in the Nolichucky River was discovered by Michael Ketterer, a chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University and specialist uranium contamination. According to an earlier report in the Greeneville Sun, Ketterer’s study, believed to be the first scientific research on water and soil outside the boundaries and downstream from the NFS plant, states that an apparent entry point of the enriched uranium-contaminated water into the surface water is through underground discharges from seeps and springs.

Ketterer was commissioned to conduct the research by regional environmental groups opposed to the 40-year renewal of the operating license for the NFS facility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected to rule on that issue sometime this year.

From the 2010 Greeneville Sun report cited above:

Then came perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening when Wallack asked: "Is NFS discharging highly-enriched uranium into the Nolichucky River -- yes, or no?"

There was no reply from NRC officials.

At that point, Marie Moore, NFS's environmental and industry safety manager, who was seated in the back of the room, said: "Yes, but there are limits."

"And you're telling me that (Nolichucky River) water is safe?" Wallack asked.

"From NRC's perspective, yes," Cobey said."

Also, a group of filmmakers are working on a documentary "Atomic Appalachia" to report on the widespread signs of contamination in the soil, water and air from NFS.

NFS has a record of systemic failures and has been cited for a "deficient safety culture" for a large release of uranium in 2006, and that it was only a "matter of luck" the leak was not worse. But problems and accidents have been constant at the facility for years and years.

One NFS employee was fired, she says, for reporting accidents and safety failures at NFS, in this report from

UPDATE, RELATED STORY: Federal charges against TVA Nuke plant worker announced.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Local Soldier, Firefighter Tells Legislature Not To Strip Rights Away

As both a soldier currently in Kuwait, a Morristown firefighter and a Tennessee citizen - SFC Rob Croxdale is reaching out to the Tennessee legislature and demanding they back off their efforts to silence his political voice. HB 0549 would prohibit public employees from having their organizational dues used to lobby the government and express their political will.

In a letter to committee chair Rep. Todd Curry, Rob writes:

"It has come to my attention that your committee is reviewing a bill (HB 0594) that would take away my right as a Firefighter to engage in the political process. This right ensures me that I have a voice in what takes place in legislation that covers my benefits, and most importantly, safety issues that cover my brother and sister Firefighters.

Taking the right or legislating it to the point to where it would become useless or even criminal to engage in the political process, is contradictory to the very reason I have been a twenty-year-plus veteran of the Tennessee Army National Guard.

My fellow Guardsman and I are also involved in the National Guard Association of the United States. This organization is involved with the political process as well. Even as a member of the Armed Forces, I am allowed to participate in the political process. I cannot do so in uniform. The same applies to me now as a Firefighter.

I have served this country and the Tennessee National Guard for over twenty years. I have done so because of the rights that were passed on to me by those who have given their lives to ensure that I could enjoy them. Now, I find out that one of these rights may be in jeopardy. I am truly offended that this particular legislation is actually being put on paper, not only as a Firefighter but as a Soldier.

If you are able to get this legislation to pass, are you gong to tell my fellow Soldiers that we can no longer be active in the political process?

Taking away the rights of others in order to make your job as elected officials easier is wrong and quite frankly lazy. ... Sitting down with a Firefighter and discussing issues that affect his/her livelihood should be considered an honor."

I've always been proud that Rob is a friend of mine as he has tirelessly served in a most selfless manner both here at home and overseas - he puts his life on the line daily. He and his family bear a burden most of us choose not to bear at all. He - and all those in the public sector who serve with him - demand more respect than the Republicans in Tennessee are offering. I encourage you to read all of his letter here and hope you will contact your legislator too and tell them how wrong they are with this proposal.

Rep. Blackburn Against Free Speech

Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn led Congress last week to strip the constitutional right of free speech from one single news organization claiming it was for fiscal savings - but her opening remarks on the bill make it clear:

"I rise in strong support of HR1076, a bill to get the federal government and federal taxpayers out of the business of buying radio programs they do not agree with."

Certainly, some taxpayers and some in federal government do not agree with what they hear on NPR. Some, however, do agree. Most importantly, as noted at

My concern is that the federal government would grant money to local public radio stations — supposedly in the public interest — and then make a law abridging the right of those stations to air certain content.

... every day at work when I walk into the Poynter Institute (I can see) a large marble plaque that contains the words of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Here they are:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There, in one sentence, our five most precious freedoms are protected. The two words that stand out to me in today’s reading are: “no law.”

As for the sudden emergency need to slash spending - a whole one-ten-thousandth of one percent for NPR - Rep. Blackburn felt much differently last fall when she gave bonuses to her own congressional staff. Just the cost of salaries alone for her office were:

Total salaries for Blackburn's staff in 2010 were $1,077,251 compared with $1,044,681 in 2009, according to LegiStorm."
In total:

U.S. House members from Tennessee saw their legislative staff budgets increase in 2010 through fourth-quarter bonuses, part of a trend in which the nation's returning members paid $19 million more for their staffs last year than in 2009." $19 million is more than 3 times the amount ($5 million) being defunded for NPR.

Thanks for no savings, Rep. Blackburn, and thanks for opposing free speech.

Anti-Science Bill Advances in Tennessee Legislature

Today hearings are scheduled on a bill to force teachers and curriculum creators in Tennessee to teach superstitions in science classes.

Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn was very careful in presenting HB 368 so it hides the anti-science goals, but the result is clear - science classes must present science itself as controversial and the bill promotes a deep lack of understanding of what "scientific theory" means. As for who should help create these low standards - not scientists, of course - but administrators. The bill only defines as "controversial" a select set of areas: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." And, as noted below, Rep. Dunn's legislation is the creation of evangelical Christians.

Rep. Dunn's aim of injecting politics into school science classes is a dangerous act. And his proposed new state law is a part of a nationwide effort to use the schoolroom as a political tool to promote political agendas. These bogus ideas are labeled "Academic Freedom" bills, which sounds nice, but really point to a desire to eliminate critical study and reject the history of scientific investigation, and the legislation is drafted by evangelical organizations:

... 'academic freedom' bills that are being introduced by state lawmakers around the country instruct educators to teach students about “both sides” of controversial issues—most notably on evolution. The Seattle-based, pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute is behind efforts to introduce many of these bills and has proposed sample legislation for lawmakers to follow.

Since the Louisiana bill was passed (making it the only state to have actually passed an academic freedom bill into law), proposed bills have included global warming and human cloning on the list of “controversial topics,” as they encourage “thinking critically” about the “relationships between explanations and evidence.”

More recently, in Kentucky, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

Other troubling aspects of this dumbed-down educational law includes the following confusions for teachers:

"Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects."

Whose expectations? Those of the uneducated and misinformed? The really loud folks who think science is a colossal hoax?

Schools must also insure " ...respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues."

Respect for the scientific method, peer review, and the actual scientific meaning of the concepts of "theory" and "experimentation" .... well, let's just push that aside. Since new data and observations are made in most scientific fields of study as a result of the work of scientists, then, yes, concepts and theories are often revised. But it's a huge leap in thinking to claim that science is mostly mistaken guesswork and inherently controversial.

SEE ALSO: Bill O'Reilly does not understand science either, but he does a TV show and YouTube channel to share his nonsense.