The Gun Crisis In America: Misunderstanding “Freedom”

Posted in Misc, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2014 by halmasonberg

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Human beings are a tribal people. We have always separated into groups within groups, both physically and psychologically. In the big picture, we are part of a galaxy, which is part of a universe, of which the Earth is one of the planets within that universe. On that planet are many forms of life. One of which is the human being. But it’s difficult to gain a true sense of identity as an individual when you are one of over seven billion people. So as a species, we break up into smaller and smaller groups: continents, nations, countries, states, regions, counties, neighborhoods, communities, schools, work, political leanings, religious affiliations, circles of friends… It’s easier and quite natural to feel “special” as part of a group that represents something we have in common, choices we’ve made, what we want out of life,. The people who “get” us and who we “get.”

As part of a group known as “Americans,” it is – like in many if not all other countries – near impossible to feel “connected” to all individuals comprising that group, even when we may feel a sense of “national” pride. So we continue to break into smaller factions as we whittle down our similarities and differences. And more than I wish, those smaller groups do battle with one another. Either over an inability to allow for other schools of thought and belief systems, over a need to feel superior or “important,” or over injustice, whether real or perceived.

In America, one of these many smaller groups, but large enough to be of considerable consequence to our daily lives, has chosen to define their freedom in a manner that works directly against many of the other values this group espouses. Why is this? Well, partly it’s an aspect of behavior of that larger group mentioned above, human beings. But it also belongs to a group that has a more difficult time comprehending the results and consequences of their actions. There are people out there, perhaps even a majority, whose internal, emotional needs outweigh logic, science, facts, reality, truth and common sense. I suppose most groups say this about opposing groups, but I think in some cases, it may well be true. Certainly one human trait is destructiveness. Destruction not only of others, but of ourselves.

I have had many conversations with many people on both sides of the gun-control debate/argument. As guns are not an important part of my life, it would be easy for me to dismiss their importance altogether. But I will not. Guns are important to the people who appreciate them and therefore have value. However –and there really IS a “however”– guns are — though not exclusively – widely used by human beings to kill other human beings. One group killing another group. One individual killing another individual. One individual killing a group. Let’s face it, guns were created for the purpose of killing, be it man or beast, despite the fact that they can also be used for other purposes: target practice or sport, for example. And, like cars, there are many different makes and models of guns. There are different levels of performance and quality and, for a gun owner, collecting guns can be exciting. Make no mistake, the creation of different guns is an art form and collectors are collecting creations they admire. Guns and the various levels of talent associated with using them, can say something about who you are, a form of self-expression. ALL of these things are valid and important and I would not want to see that devalued.

And…

While I am certain that for the average person, pulling a trigger and shooting another human being is most probably a very difficult and painful experience, one that many simply could not follow through with, it is far easier by comparison to shoot someone than engage in hand-to-hand combat and drive a knife into your “enemy.” It is certainly less personal. You don’t have to touch them, smell them, go near them, or even be seen by them. And let’s face it, for some people, killing another human being is simply far less difficult than we’d like it to be. And guns make it easier. Of course we all know inanimate objects do not often kill people (unless you’re REALLY standing in the wrong place at the wrong time), but guns are a very strong means with which to kill. And by the very nature of many guns, killing in larger numbers is made easier and more “practical” via gun use than knives. The other part of the equation is that knives have a place in our day-to-day lives. Food preparation, eating, whittling, cutting rope, etc.

Cars can and have been used as weapons. As have planes. But they, too, have other, more practical purposes. Purposes they were created for. None of these things were created for killing. Guns were created to be weapons. Like I said above, they don’t “need” to be used as weapons, but that is their primary purpose.

Lately there has been a “movement” by many American gun-owners to publicly display their love, admiration and commitment to their guns by taking them out into public places. Malls, shopping centers, restaurants… In a culture that is in the midst of seeing an overwhelming rise in not only gun deaths but in mass shootings, strapping a gun or guns to your back and strutting your stuff in public is less an act of enacting your rights and more an act of terrorism. The average American citizen is not comfortable with the public presence of guns. Unlike some other countries where this is the norm, America is no longer that place and hasn’t been for a very long time. In this day and age, anyone carrying a gun in public who isn’t a police officer is seen as a potential threat (and even some police officers are seen as potential threats).

Those who enjoy “enacting their legal right” to carry unconcealed weapons with them into places where doing so will very likely induce fear, anxiety, and unease, where there are children present, where people expect to go with some sense that they are not endangering their lives by doing so, is an act of terrorizing. You don’t have to point that gun in order to induce fear, agitation, alarm. The potential for something to go horribly wrong rises exponentially in such an instance. Anyone who does not understand this concept and acts out in such a way as to cause distrust and worry for one’s wellbeing, is already someone that the average person would consider worthy of concern.

I know that many of the people behaving in this manner do so with the notion that it actually makes a place more safe, not less. Someone is there to protect you if need be. Unfortunately, most people do not feel safer in a world where weapons like guns are that easily accessible. Oftentimes, if not MOST times, these public gun-toters do so under the guise of enacting their “freedom” under the 2nd Amendment.

That greatly misunderstood word: Freedom.

It sounds an awful lot like other countries and schools of thought that many Americans would deem, well, unAmerican. We live in a country of laws and we do so for a reason. They are not there to limit, but to protect, to create a life and a community wherein we can feel safe and secure, at least as much as is possible. And those laws are constantly changing with the times and the needs of the people, as we evolve, individually and as a nation. Using the excuse that it has always been so so it should continue being so is not a concept this country was founded on. Laws are changed all the time. Our nation was designed to do this. It is what, theoretically, allows it to function and continue on into the future, to grow. For instance, it is no longer illegal to sell and consume alcohol, slavery is now illegal, interracial marriage is now legal, gay marriage is in the midst of becoming legal country-wide, murder is illegal…

The 2nd Amendment, its creation and purpose, may not only no longer be relevant to modern-day America, it may be holding us back or, worse, sending us backwards. Australia’s staunchly conservative Prime Minister John Howard (11 March 1996 to 3 December 2007), a gun advocate, close friend of George W. Bush and a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, wrote about America’s obsession with the 2nd Amendment:

“The Second Amendment, crafted in the immediate post-revolutionary years, is more than 200 years old and was designed to protect the right of local communities to raise and maintain militia for use against external threats (including the newly formed national government!). It bears no relationship at all to the circumstances of everyday life in America today. Yet there is a near religious fervour about protecting the right of Americans to have their guns — and plenty of them.”

After a series of gun massacres culminating in a shooter in the town of Port Arthur, Tasmania, who went on a rampage and killed 35 people in what is considered the worst episode of this kind of slaughter in Australian history, Howard instituted a comprehensive set of gun-control laws, much to the vocal opposition of many of his right-wing counterparts. The result? According to Time Magazine:

The results have been tangible: A widely cited 2010 study in the American Journal of Law & Economics showed that gun-related homicides in Australia dropped 59% between 1995 and 2006. The firearm-suicide rate dropped 65%. There has been no mass shooting in Australia since the Port Arthur attack.

I have heard may argue that the problem is not actually guns, but mental illness. It’s absolutely true that mental illness is a problem in this country. Since the Reagan era, help and resources for the mentally ill and their families has been horrifyingly limited. I know too many families with children who are mentally ill and potentially dangerous in the same ways many of our mass shooters turned out to be, who cannot get the proper help for their children UNTIL their children act out in such a blatant way as to get themselves committed for treatment and evaluation. They must PROVE through ACTION that they are a danger to themselves or others. For most, as we have seen with so many mass shootings and suicides, this can already be too late. At the same time, there must be a great level of protection for all people so that they cannot be “committed” simply because their family thinks they should be. There must be a strong and detailed process for this. And that process should not be decided on by Legislators, but mental health professionals from lawyers who specialize in mental health to the doctors who treat patients suffering with mental illness.

But that’s just a start.

Gun-control laws also need to be in place so that anyone who has been committed or arrested for actions that may be attributed to mental illness cannot acquire a gun without going through a very serious evaluation by the above-mentioned professionals. This, like those who have been incarcerated for violent crimes, should be red flags against gun-ownership. In order for things to change, in order for this country to become a safer place, both sides of the argument need be addressed. Suggesting one without the other is only going to prolong results and that means more deaths. The gun-culture in America still needs to change.

There was a time in U.S. history when the mentally ill didn’t simply reach for a gun to enact their dysfunctions. No, that is learned behavior. And distinguishing the mentally ill from the mentally stable is sometimes a very large grey area and, in some cases, quite subjective. If you can’t “cure” mental illness today, then other actions must be taken. And those actions are within our grasp.

As for the notion of guns and freedom, there are already many countries in the world where anyone can obtain, carry and use a gun with no laws barring them from doing so. Equating carrying a gun around in public with freedom is, well, not unfamiliar…

The following is a comment made by a recent Syrian national who had been living in Britain (which has tough gun-control laws) who recently left the U.K. to return to Syria to join the ISIS call for Jihad:

“I don’t miss a thing, you know? I felt like I was in prison in that country. And I am here, I feel free, you know? I can drive, I don’t need a license, I don’t need insurance, I don’t need this and that just to watch TV. You don’t need a TV license. All of these things — you know, you feel like you’re in prison, you’re being punished… Here, it’s freedom. Totally freedom. I can walk around with a Kalashnikov if I want to, with an RPG if I want to.” –Abu Sumayyah, Idlib, Syria.

Freedom.

The following images are American men and women enacting their “freedom” in well-attended, family-oreinted, public places.

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Luckily for many of us, the “freedom-displaying antics” of those pictured above and others like them has resulted in guns actually being banned from places they previously had not been. This should – at the very least — suggest that the actions of these folks and their intended results are not really in sync with reality or practicality. Might I suggest a reevaluation?

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If freedom for you means the right to carry high-powered weapons around without restriction, without having to pass a test or even knowing how to use your weapon, do you also think the government should not demand that you have a driver’s license and insurance to drive a car? Do those notions feel too restrictive for you? Are they tantamount to being in prison? Do you feel they unfairly limit your freedom? If so, then there are countries that already function without restriction or regulation for such things. I’m not saying “leave America.” I’m saying “Be careful what you ask, wish and fight for.”

The countries that mirror the freedoms described above are universally considered dangerous places to live. And for good reason. Many of their citizens often live in fear. And despite the fact that many of the groups and individuals carrying guns do so for their own protection and/or to stand up to a corrupt government, the consequences are always, without fail, bloody, lawless, terrifying and supremely damaging to the entire nation and its inhabitants.

These are very unstable countries with shockingly high murder rates. If every gun owner were a responsible, self-reflective, empathetic, sympathetic human being, maybe this course of action would work. But the human race does not function as such. That particular group is made up of so many smaller opposing groups, as mentioned above, that dependance on guns as a means of protection and a realistic solution to a nationwide problem is simply not realistic. It is pure fantasy, the proof for which is there for the taking in countries and scenarios being acted out across our globe. Syria and Iraq today, for example. Fear and instability are what these countries have in common.

On the other side of the coin, many countries that have strong and responsible gun-control laws have among the lowest murder rates on the planet. And mass killings are almost unheard of; they are a bizarre anomaly and not the rising daily event it has become in our nation. These results can be witnessed in countries like the above-mentioned Australia, which has a large gun-culture (and, like America, was a country “tamed” via gun-violence), but has seen massive reductions in homicides and mass killings since enacting strict gun-laws. But there are reports and findings that suggest simply enacting gun laws alone is not enough. The data changes from country to country and here in the U.S. from state to state. The culture itself needs to change. This happens through gun-regulation laws that directly link responsibility with gun-ownership. It means a higher awareness in conjunction with direct educational practices on the potential negative repercussions of gun use and abuse. It means teaching history. Accurately. It means looking to other nations and their laws and practices as examples of what works and what does not, and who we would like to hold up as an example, and who we would not. In this arena, America is NOT currently leading the way. Far from it.

Here’s a chart outlining countries with the largest firearms ownership per person around the world. America, of course, is on top:

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The following chart shows the homicide by firearm rate per 100,000 people in those same countries. Again, America leads.

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So what is it that America is and isn’t doing that led to such staggering numbers? If these were the statistics on ANY other crises in our country, be it bridges collapsing or buildings imploding or deadly gas leaks in schools or terrorist attacks, there would be a universal uprising by all citizens to be protected. We simply could not ignore or excuse the numbers. So what is it about our gun-culture that allows so many people to push it aside, blame it on something else, or simply demand “more proof?”

Then there’s suicide, the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. According to the Harvard School of Public Health:

“In 2010, 38,364 people killed themselves. In more than half of these cases, they used firearms. Indeed, more people in this country kill themselves with guns than with all other intentional means combined, including hanging, poisoning or overdose, jumping, or cutting.

“Though guns are not the most common method by which people attempt suicide, they are the most lethal. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death. (Drug overdose, the most widely used method in suicide attempts, is fatal in less than 3 percent of cases.) Moreover, guns are an irreversible solution to what is often a passing crisis. Suicidal individuals who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have time to reconsider their actions or summon help. With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there’s no turning back.”

Currently, the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) is comprised of men, women and children who feel that their government has systematically alienated and abused them, subjected them to lesser freedoms and treated them as second-class citizens. They are fighting for their rights. So why is it that ISIS is also synonymous with murder, terrorism, fear, insanity, irresponsibility and deemed an untrustworthy and unstable group? How about the following:

Here, a boy crouches, machine gun in hand, moments before the two blindfolded men seen below were shot. (Image source: ISIS video via MEMRI). The shooting of ISIS “opponents,” their hands tied behind their backs as they are shot in the back of the head by masked “executioners” has become an official mark of the group.

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Here, another boy waves the black flag of ISIS in celebration and solidarity (Image source: ISIS video via MEMRI).

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The dead bodies of the executed men were paraded through the town in front of children who had come to watch the “festive public execution,” as it was promoted. This happened in the main square of Manbij outside Syria’s largest city of Aleppo. The executioners then hanged the bodies crucifixion-style in the town’s main square as a warning to others. This is NOT an unusual or singular experience in this region. It has become part of the culture. Guns, violence, executions (outside of any law, I might add) and random acts of terror, humiliation and outright murder is commonplace. The examples of gun culture and its effect on both human beings and the many varied groups they belong to is well-documented and all of recorded history since the invention of the gun bears out the same results.

So why are there so many people in America who believe that, somehow, we can make the same choices and observe a different outcome? Why do they believe the desire by many for gun-control laws stems from the media “taking advantage” of tragedies like the Newtown, CT. elementary school shooting to further a “political agenda?” I would guess, in part, that some people are more interested in getting what they want and attaching themselves to any belief system that bears out their desires than in actually taking a breath, trying to understand the far-reaching effects of particular schools of thought and actions, and making the hard decision to do what is best for the safety of innocent human lives, our fellow citizens, our neighbors, and agree that the freedom for any human being, any American citizen, to easily obtain and use a weapon as potentially deadly as a gun, and most especially semi-automatic weapons, oftentimes with the purchase of high capacity magazines, is NOT what is going to make America more safe.

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Take a look at the recent standoff at the Bundy Ranch. Hundreds of armed men and women gathered to defend a man, Cliven Bundy, who had broken the law by not paying grazing fees on his property for over 20 years.

The basic history of the land fees goes like this: In 1933, Edward T. Taylor, a Representative from Colorado, reintroduced a bill which became known as the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA). It was intended to regulate grazing on public lands to improve rangeland conditions. This service later became the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which managed about 167 million acres of publicly-owned rangeland. As a result, farmers with cattle grazing on these federal rangelands are required to pay a fee.

Bundy claimed that he inherited “pre-emptive grazing rights” on public domain land since some of his maternal grandmother’s ancestors had kept cattle there. Bundy took his case to court and lost since there is no such thing as “pre-emptive grazing rights.” The court ruled that Bundy needed to pay the same fees as thousands of other ranchers throughout the U.S. Bundy and his family had actually been paying the grazing fees until 1993, after which, due to refusal-of-payment, Bundy’s grazing permit was cancelled. In court, Bundy failed to prove that he had special rights to grazing privileges that others did not. So, not getting what he wanted, Bundy decided he no longer acknowledge that the United States owned this land and therefore the laws were not valid and, as a result, he would not recognize or honor them.

BundyStandoffRight-Wing organizations and media outlets from Fox News’ Sean Hannity to the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity made Bundy a celebrity and egged on protestors to show up and stop the “tyranny” and “intimidation” of the Federal government. The circus that followed saw a well-armed group protecting Bundy’s “rights” and “freedoms” via threats of violence. Even Bundy himself acknowledged that he was not interested in a peaceful resolution. “You gonna be a peacemaker,” said Bundy, “you’re gonna be on the BLM’s side.” 

A protester aims his weapon from a bridge next to the Bureau of Land Management's base camp where seized cattle, that belonged to rancher Cliven Bundy, are being held at near Bunkerville

These men and women took an actively armed stance to defend a man who simply did not believe he needed to follow the same laws as others and, when he lost that battle in court, decided that they would defend Bundy’s personal lawless vision through threat of gun violence. Was this a last resort? No. Were there more legal channels to go through? Yes. Does this example of defying the law through violence work toward a safer country? No. It continues a culture of violence as a means to an end.

It wasn’t until Bundy revealed some of his other beliefs, such as his comments about black people in America, that some, though far from all, of his media supporters backed off. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” stated Bundy. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” Less freedom than slavery? Really? Is this who we are meant to follow? Is this the incarnation of the future of America we’re meant to take up arms and fight for? The ones the media agitates us to support? You want to talk about dangerous media manipulation? Here it is. Don’t believe the media is helping fuel fear and misinformation as well as a call for violent resolution that leads to misguided and potentially bloody standoffs? Check out Fox News’ “Judge” Jeanine Pirro’s Opening Statement on “diseased” immigrant children and about Iraq and ISIS and how we need to bomb them. And then bomb them again. All in the name of “Justice.”

Getting back to that grey area between mentally ill and mentally stable, I would suggest that Jeanine Pirro’s mental stability is seriously in question. Is she who we want calling the shots? Is she who we want to listen to and follow? What percentage of the American public does she represent? To me, she is an extremist as dangerous as any terrorist organization spreading propaganda and calling for violence.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against taking action. I’m not suggesting we simply trust the government and not speak up to support our beliefs and to protect our freedoms. No, our country was created to allow for protests and free speech and for change to be made possible. But not through armed-response. Once again, that misguided course of action is something that is currently being showcased across the globe and throughout the Middle-East, and the results are universally catastrophic.

There is a dangerously fine line between the mentality and media propaganda that allowed the Bundy ranch fiasco to come into existence and the “festive execution” of Syrians detailed above. Both saw themselves and presented themselves to others as individuals fighting for “Freedom.”

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And both promoted a “festive” and celebratory gathering. With children. And guns.

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Waving flags in celebration and solidarity. Remind you of anything?

Protesters gather at the Bureau of Land Management's base camp near Bunkerville, Nevada

Now understand, I have a deep distrust of the U.S. government. Particularly in this day and age when corruption and lies have become trophies for many in public office so long as they don’t get caught. America is a country of bullies. We like to see and present ourselves as saviors and those defending justice, but more often than not, self-interest is at the heart of our actions as a nation. And that example trickles down from the top and into the hearts and minds of potentially every citizen. It becomes our defining culture. It has proven to be the enormously ugly side of Capitalism and highlights many of the very real weaknesses inherent to all human beings and, more often than not, it backfires and we end up paying the price for our own lack of insight and our inability to take a step back and see exactly who and what we have become.

Take the deadly lawlessness under the guise of responsible American Business of Blackwater, which had a $1 billion contract to protect American diplomats in Iraq, and was later termed “an environment full of liability and negligence” by the State Department’s chief investigator. Despite the State Department’s initial evaluation, Blackwater became so powerful that, after Blackwater employees fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007 and a State Department investigation was initiated, they managed to force the inquiry to a quick close after Blackwater’s top manager threatened “that he could kill the government’s chief investigator and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq.” The result? American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators, who were asked to leave the country because “they disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor.” 

Violence and bullying over law and morality. This is an American-made beast. It is a part of who we are and what we breed.

But these weaknesses are no excuse to not strive for growth, to not attempt to leave a world for the generations to follow that is a bit better than the one we lived ourselves. Publicly arming ourselves and educating that Might is Right is in no way, shape or form, going to move us forward. Only back.

There is a big difference between being responsible and honoring and respecting the lives of fellow Americans, fellow human beings, regardless of similarities or differences, by enacting laws that limit gun ownership, the types of guns available, the ability to obtain high-powered semi-automatic, high-capacity magazine wielding weapons, and having the “freedom” to do what one pleases and desires regardless of the danger to others, not to mention the stability of the country itself.

Guns are not going away. Know that. Embrace that. But creating and enacting laws that prevent mass shootings and high public death-rates, is not the enemy, nor is it imprisonment or taking away freedoms. It is being responsible and facing the truth of the dangers of a society with a strong gun presence and easy access to them.

The only reason these laws are being fought against is because there are powerful lobby groups (the NRA being one of the strongest) who stand behind those for whom the sale of guns is a colossal money-making endeavor. And for those people, those companies and organizations, bringing in that level of money is so far-reaching, so deeply embedded, that human lives, American lives, are not a higher priority. So they prey on those who love guns, who understand guns, and who are ready to fight, even spill blood, in an ironic attempt to defend that right, that “freedom.” No matter what the cost.

These people are not our enemy. They, too, are our fellow Americans. And they are systematically being compromised via fear-tactics and misinformation by those who have made it an art with a sense of pride and identity to manipulate others into fighting against their own well-being by preying on their needs, their desires, their history with and their love for that which has become a part of their identities, their guns.

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No one wants to strip you of your identity or that which you love. They only want to create laws that make our country a safer place, a more civilized, humane place to live. It’s one of the very things that separates us from so many other countries and makes us potentially “special.” It is one of the ways this particular group, Americans, can lead by example through our willingness to be self-reflective, to make difficult but necessary choices, to consider the safety and well-being of our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, to be important above all other things.

Anything less will result in a country that does not resemble the America our forefathers envisioned. Nor that of any honest human being desiring to move forward by learning from the mistakes of the past, as well as the mistakes of the present.

Continue to contribute to JAZZ NIGHTS Here!

Posted in Politics on April 14, 2014 by halmasonberg

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Jazz and the men and women who make it have always found themselves on the forefront of cultural turbulence. In many ways, this is part of the DNA of jazz. The documentary JAZZ NIGHTS: A CONFIDENTIAL JOURNEY chronicles a fleeting and almost completely unknown moment in time involving a group of L.A.’s top jazz musicians who congregated in alternating configurations every Sunday night at a legally ambiguous members-only, back-room hash bar. 

Once a week, these expert musicians formed a circle, a coterie of non-verbal, intuitive communication. There were no pre-determined set lists, no rehearsals. Attendance was through word-of-mouth only. No advertising. 

These musical nights at L.A. Confidential in Los Angeles poignantly echoed the Prohibition Era speakeasies of the 1920s as well as the ’50s underground jazz clubs of Harlem and Greenwich Village. The LACon experiment reflected a society caught in a quagmire of differing opinions and laws, this time surrounding the legalization of marijuana, which is currently considered medically legal in the state of California, while simultaneously remaining illegal under federal law. 

In addition to the music and setting, these cutting-edge musicians explore, via in-depth interviews, their lives, influences, backstories, upbringings, inspirations, and cultural affiliations. The result is an evocative tapestry of live music, thoughts and memories, and a snapshot of a moment in time amidst an ever-evolving American landscape.

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Posted in Art, Film, Los Angeles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2014 by halmasonberg

jazz nights poster Horn 72smallerLike Jazz? Check out the 8-minute trailer for my documentary JAZZ NIGHTS: A CONFIDENTIAL JOURNEY. It’s showing exclusively at my Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds to complete the film. Production is done and now we need help to bring the film to fruition. Even if you have no interest at all in contributing, check out the trailer and maybe read a bit about the film. And, most importantly, pass on the link to others via Facebook or email, Twitter, whatever. We just want to get the word out there to reach folks who might be interested. It’s a project of love for myself and the musicians.

Jazz and the men and women who make it have always found themselves on the forefront of cultural turbulence. In many ways, this is part of the DNA of jazz. The documentary JAZZ NIGHTS: A CONFIDENTIAL JOURNEY chronicles a fleeting and almost completely unknown moment in time involving a group of L.A.’s top jazz musicians who congregated in alternating configurations every Sunday night at a legally ambiguous members-only, back-room hash bar. 

Once a week, these expert musicians formed a circle, a coterie of non-verbal, intuitive communication. There were no pre-determined set lists, no rehearsals. Attendance was through word-of-mouth only. No advertising. 

These musical nights at L.A. Confidential in Los Angeles poignantly echoed the Prohibition Era speakeasies of the 1920s as well as the ’50s underground jazz clubs of Harlem and Greenwich Village. The LACon experiment reflected a society caught in a quagmire of differing opinions and laws, this time surrounding the legalization of marijuana, which is currently considered medically legal in the state of California, while simultaneously remaining illegal under federal law. 

In addition to the music and setting, these cutting-edge musicians explore, via in-depth interviews, their lives, influences, backstories, upbringings, inspirations, and cultural affiliations. The result is an evocative tapestry of live music, thoughts and memories, and a snapshot of a moment in time amidst an ever-evolving American landscape.

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Ronan Farrow and the Woody Allen Witch Hunt

Posted in Art, Film, Misc with tags , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2014 by halmasonberg

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Let me start by saying I have no idea if Woody Allen is guilty or innocent of molesting his daughter. And to that point, neither do you.

We don’t know these people. What seems to be clear to me is that there is a lot of anger, hurt, sorrow, fear and dysfunction among the Farrow/Allen group. As there is in any family. What concerns me far more than anything Woody Allen is accused of doing, is the reaction of the public to the tweets and statements of Ronan Farrow and family. The constant commentary on social media that Woody Allen is a monster, that he is evil, that we should stop supporting him as an artist, the call for his head (or his balls) on a stake… This is dangerous and far reaching. It doesn’t effect just one person or one family. It reaches out and envelops something far deeper, far more nefarious and destructive.

Now granted, my reaction here comes from my own fears and doubts, my own dysfunctions. My personal fear of being misunderstood or misrepresented, my fear of a mob-mentality, my fear of people who know what’s right not stepping up out of their own fears of attack or retribution… These are some of the things that drive my emotional reaction to the media circus playing out right now. And I can’t take them with any less seriousness than I do the actions and reactions of others.

History has shown us that people’s fear and hatred can be quite easily manipulated. Whether it’s the Salem Witch Trials or Nazi Germany, the war in Iraq or the Tea Party, people can be rallied with relative ease into forgoing truth or facts and replacing them with pitchforks and torches. The vitriol that I have witnessed against Woody Allen in the past few weeks has left me shaken. Not out of concern for Woody Allen. Again, I don’t know if he is a victim or a victimizer. What frightens and concerns me is that Ronan Farrow and family seem to be on a dangerous mission. And people, from the ignorant to the well-educated, are falling in line to back the hatred and anger (far more than the sadness and hurt) based, not on facts or reality, but on their own personal fears and dysfunctions. And Ronan (and whoever else may be behind this) knows exactly what to say and where to say it to create this tidal wave of misguided loathing. I say misguided because we simply do not know the truth or even anything vaguely resembling the truth. Woody Allen is being tried in the media, not by a jury of his peers, but by a jury of easily manipulated emotions and misinformation or, as one commentator observed, “a media psychodrama with the verdict handed down by random members of the general public.” This whole fiasco goes well beyond the question of Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence. The only thing here that comes close to encapsulating the word “monstrous” in my opinion is the behavior of the public in this matter. It is historically and socially monstrous. Have we learned nothing?

What adds to the horror of the scene for me is not only that people are gathering to stir one another’s dread and hostility, but that so many of them (most, I dare say) are completely ignorant of any of the actual facts of the case. I have read and heard so much information and accusations in discussions and tweets and chats and posts that are completely and absolutely false. Factually incorrect. Robert B. Weide‘s piece in The Daily Beast, The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast, is the first sane piece of writing on the issue I have read to date. There is more than enough information out there to, at the very least, suggest the possibility that Woody Allen did not molest his child. In fact, there is just as much evidence to suggest the possibility that Mia Farrow may have coached her daughter into believing this. But no one seems to be up in arms about that possibility. Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting that any of the above is true or false; I am not trying to do to Mia what Ronan is doing to Woody. All I am pointing out is that people are reacting, not to facts or evidence or truth or reality, but to what they want/need to believe to fuel whatever fears and desires they have surrounding this issue. And people like Ronan Farrow are igniting that fire every chance they get. Again, I understand that he is hurt and outraged. I understand that he may need or want others to share in that rage. I understand that it must be extremely painful to watch this man you believe to have done something horrible to you and the ones you love being celebrated with lifetime achievement awards and accolades. I get it. That must be extremely painful and frustrating. But to act out that rage on social media knowing full well that the people he gathers there do not care about truth or justice, to use their dysfunction as a means to rally them to his side, to enact his fantasy of a mass rejection of Woody Allen, to essentially mark him as a monster… THIS is something worthy of a public discussion. THIS is something playing out right here in front of us, something we ourselves are a part of. NOT the private matters of a family none of us know or could possibly know.

The witch hunt that is taking place, the ease with which the Farrows have stirred mass hatred by using the public’s ignorance as a tool to soothe and satisfy what is, essentially, a family tragedy, is frightening to me. And to see it reach those I know whom I considered intelligent and thoughtful people, to see them pick up their hangman’s noose with such fervor and conviction shows me that we have not evolved very far at all. Certainly not far enough to avoid future tragedies. We have proven once again that we are out here, waiting to be duped, lied to, tricked, or simply misguided with good intentions by those with an agenda, be it innocent or nefarious. We are the masses happy to point fingers at what frightens us all the while shying away from pointing that finger at ourselves. We gather and yell “monster” never seeing the monster that stares back at us in the mirror, the real monster we should be facing, the real monster we should be working so diligently to bring out into the light.

Must-See Films

Posted in Art, Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by halmasonberg

powellThanks to modern internet technology (soon to be outdated), I have compiled the two previously posted MUST-SEE FILMS lists into one. The difference here is that, thanks to Listchallenges.com and its host, Eli Dragen, you can now click on the poster art for each film and it will self-calculate.

For me, what’s interesting about this exercise is not only counting how many of these “must-see” films you have already seen, but how many you have not. What a potential treasure-trove of cinematic delights that awaits each and every one of us.

Be warned: the list is long. 890 films, to be exact. Excessive? Perhaps, but we all wanted to create a list that would be far more comprehensive than the little lists floating here and there and everywhere around the internet. This is a true film-lover’s list.

Here’s what we wrote about it on the Listchallenges page itself:

This is a list created by 6 self-proclaimed Film-lovers and/or filmmakers who also share a strange love of making lists. So we decided to combine those two things to offer a “Must-See” film list for the true film enthusiast.

There have been other film lists passed around the internet, but we felt they were often such contemporary, mainstream lists of films that they, well, quite simply didn’t do justice to the art and entertainment of cinema. We also wanted to acknowledge films that were remakes, originals and/or alternate cuts. And while there are TONS of great films NOT mentioned here, the ones that ARE mentioned certainly show a wide range of tastes, styles, genres and interpretations of “Must-see.”

No film list can please or reflect the tastes of everybody, but we assure you that this list might at least challenge you and, we hope, open you up to some films that you may not have even known existed.

Be warned: This is a big list.

We hope you enjoy and happy viewing!

Click here: http://www.listchallenges.com/must-see-films

The names of the 6 list contributors are: Janice Findley, Paul Hansen, Karl Holzheimer, Caren McCaleb, Any Norman, Hal Masonberg.

THE HOBBIT: The Desolation Of Tolkien

Posted in Art, Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2013 by halmasonberg

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Before anyone gets too excited or too defensive over the title of this post, let me start by proclaiming that I am not only a massive fan of Tolkien’s masterworks, but I am also a big fan of Peter Jackson’s filmic interpretation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Now I’m speaking of the Extended Editions, of course. For those who have only seen the Theatrical Cuts, I can only say that you haven’t seen the actual films and can, therefore, only offer a limited judgement of the work that was done in bringing that story to the screen. 

The Extended Editions, particularly of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, were vast improvements over the shorter versions. What disappointed and seemed like a loose veil of a story wrapped around a series of poorly staged battles at first, suddenly blossomed into the emotional character adventure and exploration — with full social and historical commentary intact — that had made the Tolkien books so compelling. Were the films as good as the books? Of course not! If you expected that, then you believe in the impossible. So, given realistic expectations, I found the films to be an extraordinary achievement on a massive scale. I loved them and have happily returned to that 12-plus-hour cinematic adventure on several occasions. Not that I didn’t initially enter in to Jackson’s world without some serious concerns.

When I first heard that Jackson was going to tackle this beloved piece of literature, I was more than a little worried. With the exception of HEAVENLY CREATURES, I was not a huge fan of Jackson’s work. His combination of darkness and comedy rarely worked for me. I like my coffee black. Cream and sugar not only waters down the taste, it changes the taste completely. I had every reason to believe that Jackson would infuse these films with a goofball humor that would consistently undermine both the integrity and gravity of the books and the stories they contained. But to my jubilation and astonishment, Jackson — with one or two exceptions — created what I found to be a very dark, enthralling and epic motion picture experience.

When I then heard that Guillermo del Toro was tapped to direct THE HOBBIT, I worried again. While somewhat fascinated with elements of Del Toro’s work, I have never quite connected with his style or instincts as a filmmaker and was more than a little concerned that he would take THE HOBBIT in a direction I would not like. When he backed out and Jackson stepped back in, I was both relieved and thrilled.

Unlike many others, I was fascinated by the notion that Jackson and company were not only going to film THE HOBBIT, but many of the other tales that connected that first book to the trilogy; they were going to take Tolkien’s other writings of Middle Earth and expand on that initial story written for a young audience. What remained in question was whether Jackson would attempt to capture the childlike sense of play that separated THE HOBBIT from its more adult follow-up, or whether he would focus more closely on allowing the filmed version to exist more as a prequel to his own LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Was it possible to do both? It seems Jackson has tried.

I must say here that I actually enjoyed the first HOBBIT film. Not nearly as much as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but I so love this world and these characters that venturing back was, quite simply, a joyful and pleasurable experience for me. What kept that film from matching its predecessors, however, were those goofy elements that Jackson had been known for in the past that were responsible for allowing me to drop out of so many of his other films: a self-consciousness; that recurring “wink” to the audience; a schizophrenic tone shift that always felt more adrift to me than it did daring, a pubescent sensibility that I was thrilled seemed almost absent in his LOTR films. I was vastly disappointed in both Jackson’s KING KONG and his adaptation of THE LOVELY BONES. They both missed their marks for me by wide margins. But I still believed that Jackson’s connection to Tolkien’s work brought out something different in him and, as a result, I chose to hope and, to an extent, trust his work and vision in this department.

My gravest issue with Jackson’s first installment of THE HOBBIT — to address this in more detail – was that, for me, many of the action scenes stepped too far out of the reality of the created world. Reality. An odd word for a story that takes place in a mythical land of elves, hobbits and dragons, I know. But each and every world has its own set of rules. Break them and the pieces crumble. Jackson allowed the most dangerous and life-threatening sequences to devolve into moments of silliness and a defiance of gravity meeting flesh and bone that, for me, undermined the threat of the dangers themselves, thus vastly decreasing the tension and forcing me to take the lives of the characters far less seriously. Was Jackson giving in to his own worst sensibilities that had kept me at arm’s length in the past? Or was he simply trying to honor the fun, playful aspects of Tolkien’s book in his own way? I truly do not know. For me, Jackson walked a fine line in that first HOBBIT film. Luckily, he teetered on the better side of it and left me wanting more (i.e. excited about the next HOBBIT installment).

Yesterday I returned to Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world with THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.

What. The. Hell. Happened?

I sat there gape-jawed and full of embarrassment as I watched what played out for me like every Tolkien-hater’s misguided vision of what THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT must be like. Jackson had, somehow, managed to turn this film into something almost indistinguishable from every other action/adventure movie oozing out of the fetid remnants of Hollywood today. STAR TREK, DIE HARD, THE HOBBIT… They’re all now just effects extravaganzas moving through tired, similar plots with action scenes that are played more for the humor and hijinks (and, again, winks to the audience), than they are for any true commitment to story or character or consequence. The action scenes in DESOLATION OF SMAUG are almost unwatchable in their entirety. Silly, tired and overdone, they come and go with little impact as eyes glaze over with the fog of the insipid and the mundane. As if Rube Goldberg had fashioned an action sequence for a prepubescent animated Disney film on a horrifically uninspired day. Even Martin Freeman, who was so charming and full of life in his depiction of Bilbo Baggins in the first HOBBIT installment, devolved into nothing more than a lifeless prop here, seconded only by the regression of Sir Ian McKellen‘s Gandalf into nothing more than a familiar face with a large stick and baggy robe. Was it the decision to turn the intended two films into three that caused this greatest of missteps? Was it Jackson’s over-attention to the 3D/48 fps process that distracted him from the actual storytelling that is to blame here? I truly don’t know. What I do know is that my personal experience of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG was utterly and entirely disappointing and even somewhat painful. The reduction of this great story into something as tepid and weary as what I witnessed yesterday is something worth mourning. Not a global crisis, to be sure, but from a film/movie perspective, incredibly sad. My personal experience of this filmed version of THE HOBBIT is forever tainted in such a way that, unlike the LOTR, I will never go back to this prequel trilogy as I will not allow myself to submit to any of the feelings this middle film elicited in me. Some missteps I can push aside, oftentimes many. But some are far too great to dismiss or ignore.

This is one of them.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is the film people who complain about Jackson’s reinterpretation have seen all along. The version I never saw. The version I dreaded.

Desolation, indeed.

GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D

Posted in Art, Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2013 by halmasonberg

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When I first saw GRAVITY, I saw it in 2D. Or as it’s better known, NOT in 3D. I was told by friends who enjoyed the film and knew that I was not a big fan of the usual 3D experience, that GRAVITY need not be seen in 3D, that it would work just as well without it. Being that they never saw the film in 2D, there was no way they could have understood what a vapid experience GRAVITY would be for me in 2D.

Since that time, I’ve been told again and again by other fans of the film that the 3D experience of GRAVITY is essential; that the film cannot be separated from the experience. The film was made to be seen on a big screen in 3D and any lesser experience is not a proper reflection on the film or the filmmakers.

They were right.

Watching GRAVITY in 3D was a completely different experience. Shots that seemed pointless, gimmicky and empty in 2D, came alive in 3D and suddenly Cuarón’s visual choices made sense, they were effective. I felt a deep sense of vertigo watching the film in 3D that was barely even hinted at in 2D. Wow. I sat there thinking to myself, “Maybe I was wrong…”

Let me go back for a moment and explain why I don’t usually respond well to 3D. What happens is this: I find myself so caught up in the 3D experience that it takes me much longer to actually get into the story; I find myself far less attentive to the narrative and characters, dialogue comes and goes, I catch bits and pieces, but my brain is too busy processing the three-dimensional experience. The same was true with GRAVITY. I was so taken with the feeling of being in outer space, that most of what they were doing and saying slipped past me. Thankfully, having already seen the film in 2D, I already knew. In 2D, I followed the plot, the dialogue, relied on the characters to take me on my journey. And the truth of the matter is, for me, the story and characters in GRAVITY are not strong enough to carry this film. The 3D is. But only to a point. By the halfway mark, after the initial “Wow” factor had worn off, I realized that I was still left with the same poorly-written, empty experience that had been the 2D journey. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ageless observation has never been displayed more poignantly and aggressively than in GRAVITY:

”Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing.” –Gillo Pontecorvo

GRAVITY is the most effective use of 3D I have ever seen, seconded only by Wim Wenders’ PINA. The difference here is that PINA is about something. GRAVITY, on the other hand, seems to have nothing to say, nothing else to offer BUT the 3D. Why can’t we use this amazing technology to create an experience that is satisfying as a whole? Instead, critics and audiences are tricked into thinking they are seeing an incredible film when they are, in fact, seeing an incredible and creative use of an advanced 3D technology. But at the end of the day, Cuarón’s status as a storyteller remains diminished. With the exception of A LITTLE PRINCESS, Cuarón, for me, has proven to be a director who leaves me feeling empty, oftentimes gypped. There’s a lot of impressive camerawork in terms of long-takes and well-choreographed shots, but what lies beneath those shots and takes is nothing more than thin air. Lift the top off and the air just dissipates into nothingness. Gillo was right. In the case of GRAVITY, the amazing 3D hides an emptiness that just keeps getting bigger.

Oddly, in most Cuarón films, there is a moment toward the end when, despite my growing feeling of disappointment, he sets up what I believe to be the most perfect and daring ending. Almost as if the entire structure of the film were tailor-made for this moment, this conclusion. And as I watch it unfold, I think to myself that if the film ends now, if it ends this way, it will make up for all the other “lesser” moments that had been disappointing me so much. In fact, it may allow those seemingly lesser moments to now reveal themselves as having intent, perhaps even a poignancy that simply requires patience and trust in the filmmaker. But Cuarón takes these moments, builds them to the penultimate edge… Then tosses them away.

Sigh…

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, CHILDREN OF MEN, these films have amazing potential endings that are set up to leave the audience with questions, to allow them to be active participants, to give them something of value to take with them after the film has ended, to create a lasting and provocative experience. But Cuarón, time and again, dangles these potentially great cinematic moments in front of us, only to snatch them away and give in to what seems to be a fear-based response (Spoiler Alert: Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: she acted this way cause she knew she was dying of cancer. CHILDREN OF MEN: Yes, there is a ship after all).

GRAVITY reeks of fear to me. (More Spoilers) When Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, gives her final speech — that over-written, over-produced Hollywood moment when films feel the need to have their heroes spell out everything in verbal terms — Cuarón STILL manages to create a moment that, if he’d allowed himself, would have left the audience with something to genuinely chew on. After proclaiming to the universe (with a seriously bombastic score to back her) that there are only two ways this can go: either Stone will find herself at home tonight with one hell of a story to tell, OR she’ll burn up in the atmosphere and that, either way, it’s gonna be one hell of a ride… Cuarón had an amazing opportunity to leave us, the audience, out in space as Ryan Stone quickly descended toward Earth in a fiery ball. Does she make it? What do you think? It seems pointless and dissatisfying to me to have Stone pose the question only to have it answered 30 seconds later! Had Cuarón taken the opportunity he himself set up, he would have created an experience that actually had something of value to offer us; he would have allowed us to be introspective, to do exactly what a film like this — a film about human beings moving through the vastness and cold of space with their home far below, so close and yet so out of reach — should do: make us think, make us feel, make us ask questions of ourselves, of our experiences as human beings living on a planet out in the middle of… what, exactly? Instead, Cuarón takes us back to Earth, he doesn’t leave us in space, he doesn’t leave us with one single, solitary question, he asks NOTHING of us as an audience and brings the roller-coaster safely back to Earth so that we can all step off and go back to our lives unscathed, unchanged. Sure, we get to watch Stone crawl out of the primordial goo, like ancient ancestors before her, to a world that has lost its connection to satellite technology, but this is a tepid replacement for the gift that almost was.

Wimp.

For me, the entire film feels like a lesson in not taking risks. The 3D experience is so convincing, so effective, that one gets the sense that the George Clooney character, Matt Kowalski , is there, not so much to keep Sandra Bullock from panicking, but to keep the audience from panicking. Nothing fazes him. He’s fun and happy, listens to cowboy music and is always debonair and charming. He’ll take care of us, ease us through this harrowing cinematic 3D experience. Thank god Cuarón finally takes Kowalski away. Of course, he goes — not just willingly — but cracking jokes, listening to music and admiring the view. Why, this isn’t so scary or existentially frightening after all… But wait… Cuarón suddenly brings Kowalski back again in what is one of the most obvious and unnecessary bits of writing I’ve witnessed in ages. I was so happy to have gotten rid of this character who stood between me and an actual experience, an actual emotion. Alas… From this point forward, the story descends with frightening rapidity into predictable, overwrought simplicity. Unimaginative writing slides headlong into pablum and not even the amazing 3D can hide the vacuity that is the story and characters of GRAVITY.

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