Ella Taylor

Pulp Diction

Sin City, an exquisitely made, unbearably faddish movie that will strike joy into the hearts of all who revere amputation and apocalypse, opens with a swoony love scene culminating in a murder for the heck of it. From there it moves smartly to the promise of child molestation and, with the culprit having had both his face and his balls shot off by Bruce Willis, steams merrily along toward cannibalism, electrocution and the mounting of severed female heads on walls. Had enough? If not, then you are in all likelihood an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth's fondness for comic books about hell on Earth. If you're a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands.

Still, given the current vogue for empty aesthetics, I'm bracing for the laurels that middle-aged critics suffering from hipster anxiety will heap on this fusion of comic-book art, Asian combat anime and digital cinema. I'll lay odds that Pauline Kael, in her late period of indiscriminate pop worship, would have gushed acres of heated prose in favor of Sin City. As for me, after half an hour spent drooling over its visual splendors, I found the movie every bit as sickening as its creators intended it to be, minus the kicks they so palpably got out of making it.

Billed as a collaborative work, Sin City is directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with some input from Quentin Tarantino -- a meeting of flamboyantly underage minds if ever there was. More accurately, the movie is a labor of puppy love by Rodriguez, whose work shuttles between enjoyably low-rent noir romanticism (El Mariachi) and childlike exuberance (Spy Kids), for the 1990s graphic novels that made Miller a star. Set in an urban wasteland -- populated by Amazonian hookers, compromised cops and corrupt senators -- that lies somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and the mangier back alleys of downtown Los Angeles, the Sin City series set the tone for a born-again comic-book art set in the seething underbelly of cities where vice and virtue rub shoulders and trade places at the wrong end of a gun. More imitation than interpretation, the film was "cut and shot," as the credits archly put it (God forbid Rodriguez should be doing anything as reactionary as editing or cinematography), on a green screen with state-of-the-art digital manipulation that essentially functions as a paste-up of Miller's visceral drawings. The handsome production design is classic noir, a shadowy world of silvery black and white stained with blood red and livid yellow to signify both beauty and deformity of body and spirit. As is so often the case with hardcore pulp, the dialogue, co-written by Miller and Rodriguez, works better on the page than declaimed out loud, which revs up the clipped meta-speech to the point of real silliness.

Sin City brings together three of Miller's tales, in which ambiguous heroes, festering in the same interstitial cracks of the city as their quarries, take revenge as a means to redemption from their own failings. Unrecognizable under many pounds of makeup and Schwarzenegger musculature, Mickey Rourke looks splendidly craggy as Marv, a street-fighting loner who cruises the nighttime city hunting down the killers of a beautiful blond hooker he fell in love with because she was the first and only woman to drop him a kind word. Doing Bogart detail, Clive Owen, in floor-mop hair, plays a private eye who tries to stay out of trouble (represented by a porked-out Benicio del Toro with a dagger stuck in his forehead, in a sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) while laboring to protect a leathered-up bevy of ladies of the evening who -- headed by Rosario Dawson in heavy bondage gear and Devon Aoki as a silent but deadly swordswoman -- turn out to need less protection than he does. In a valiant effort at moral complexity, Sin City is bookended by the ailing, washed-up cop Hartigan (Willis), who in his last hour of service saves an imperiled child whose destiny will haunt him to the end of his days.

These three heroic abstractions (no one in his right mind could call them characters) coalesce into a gaga knightliness that only a virgin schoolboy could get behind. In the acting out of Miller's timely if hardly original themes, the hazy line between sin and virtue blurs into a furiously accelerating orgy of gore and severed limbs that could very well make Takashi Miike blanch -- that is the true, manga-inspired impulse of this film. "We were like three kids in a tree fort having a ball," Miller has said about the making of Sin City, and I believe him. The product of three adolescent imaginations with a Sam Fuller fixation, brilliant mastery of the toys in their digital sandbox, and next to no grasp of life, Sin City's moral dilemmas are bogus and engage no emotional response. Unlike the Spider-Man franchise, the movie has no sense of fun beyond the filmmakers' high-pitched giggles at the expense of audience stamina.

Years ago, before he grew famous, Tarantino told me in an interview that his own enjoyment and the kick audiences got out of his brand of aestheticized violence were its only justification. I can't think of any other, but his formula -- visceral, stylish, derivative and detached from all humanity -- has grown into a virus, frantically copying itself all over the map of contemporary cinema. Given the burgeoning market for their work at home and abroad, in all likelihood he and Rodriguez and their legion imitators will get better and better at what they do, while having less and less to say. For those of us who like our movies to show or tell us something about the way we live, that's both too much, and not nearly enough.

Deep Throat Doc

When Deep Throat opened at Manhattan's World Theater in June 1972, it did reasonably well, but not great. In fact, its box-office numbers were just peaking when a moral panic swelled around the movie in the form of police crackdowns and several obscenity trials that helped drive the final gross up to $600 million and, doubtless, still counting in video. It also generated a groundswell of excitable punditry, from conservatives – prominent among them Charles Keating, who has not excelled at raising the nation's moral profile since – about the evils of filth, and from liberals about freedom of artistic expression and the ongoing sexual revolution. And though it's true that Deep Throat signified a brief mainstreaming of porn, the fusion of hardcore and art predicted by gung-ho practitioners of both never caught on.

This appears to be a source of some distress to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the team who brought us both documentary and dramatic versions of the Club Kid expos̩ Party Monster, and whose hard-working new film, Inside Deep Throat, seeks to establish a pioneering role for the movie in liberating America's sex life. To me it's far from clear that that cheerfully cheesy slice of hardcore, made for $25,000 by a middle-aged hairdresser named Gerard Damiano, about a woman who discovers that her clitoris is in her throat and is thus liberated into nonstop fellatio, has spawned much in the way of a cultural legacy. When it opened, matrons in flowered frocks showed up out of media-made curiosity, while men came to see it, as Erica Jong points out in the documentary, because it flagrantly catered to their time-honored fantasy about women loving to give head. Certainly Deep Throat creaks audibly under the cultural and political weight loaded onto it by an army of the usual libertarian talking heads in the documentary: John Waters, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Larry Flynt and, more interestingly, Wes Craven, who admits that in common with many independent filmmakers, porn is where he got his start. A few stalwart female enthusiasts are wheeled on РDr. Ruth, a worryingly temperate Camille Paglia, and (scoop!) Helen Gurley Brown touting the skin-enhancing properties of semen Рfollowed by the usual array of humorless '70s feminists who, we are led to believe, turned Deep Throat's uninhibited star, Linda Lovelace, into a repentant prude. In fact Lovelace did get shafted in more ways than one, as Damiano admits, and after a brief return to porn at age 51 she died, penniless, in a car accident in 2002.

Things get fresher, funnier and, inevitably, more poignant when we meet the people involved in the making of the movie: Lovelace's co-star, Harry Reems, who sank into drink and drugs before becoming a Christian and retiring to work in real estate in Utah; and the plain-spoken, genial Damiano, who, now in his 70s, seems a happy man despite the fact that he never made any serious money off Deep Throat. Corroborating Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, Damiano claims that many of the porn filmmakers of the 1970s, before video and the invasion of Mafia distributors lowered the tone, thought of themselves as independent artists on a mission to reunite America with sexual pleasure. I believe he believes it, but that doesn't make it so.

Wild About Harry

The best of the Harry Potter films so far, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is also hands down the scariest, and the deepest. With all due respect to Chris Columbus, who has shifted from directing to co-producing while bequeathing to director Alfonso Cuarón some terrific sets and the talented screenwriter Steve Kloves, the latest of Harry's excellent adventures is an inspired meeting of minds and (more to the point) hearts, between Cuarón and Potter creator J.K. Rowling. In plain Potter-speak, Columbus -- who directed the capable if uninspired Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and the suffocatingly dull Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- is a bit of a Muggle, a solid citizen altogether too grounded in the common-sense world. Perhaps Columbus is too well-adjusted to commit fully to Rowling's instinctive affinity for the outsider, or her grasp of that children's power -- especially with abandoned kids like Harry -- to create parallel universes that simultaneously give shape to their darkest fears, and provide them with alternative communities that redeem their loneliness.

Cuarón has explored this territory before in his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's old-fashioned tale A Little Princess, a small jewel of a movie about a poor little rich girl whose storytelling gifts transform her pricey boarding school from an arid emotional wasteland into a warm oasis of the imagination. Despite loud championing by the critics and a re-release by Warner Bros., the public turned its back on this exquisite picture. They're unlikely to do the same with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and not only because it's a juggernaut going in. The movie is a marvel of special effects seamlessly hitched to a powerful coming-of-age story. Part of the secret of Rowling's success is her ability to tap into the mind of the modern adolescent, a terrain mined by Cuarón in Y Tu Mamá También. To judge by minor sartorial upgrades (Hermione has dumped the plaid uniform for cool jeans, and even Ron Weasley looks a little less as if he just rolled out of a sleeping bag) and a whiff of romance in the air, Harry, played once again by the cute but wanly inexpressive Daniel Radcliffe, and his pals are growing up, though not enough to jettison the prankish vitality that makes the Potter novels such a gas for kids of all ages.
Cuarón clearly enjoys his special effects. In the priceless opening scenes, Harry misuses his powers to inflate his hated Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) and send her floating off, a furious balloon popping buttons, into the ether. Fleeing from his awful relatives, he's picked up by a purple Knight bus, a triple-decker conveyance complete with a scrofulous bus conductor and a shrunken head gabbing unstoppably in a Caribbean accent, and rushed through the quiet Muggle streets to the Leaky Cauldron inn.

And so to Hogwarts, a haven not only for trainee wizards but for every child in the world who finds school an infinitely more inviting place to live than home. With its grumpy talking paintings and its ghosts flitting merrily through the halls, Hogwarts is not just an eccentrically jolly magic castle but a safe house, patrolled by the usual severe but for the most part kindly teaching staff. Michael Gambon, uncharacteristically benign in his knotted beard, replaces the late Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore, and several new characters complete the picture: David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, a tweedy professor of the Dark Arts, and an entertainingly hammy Emma Thompson as a hippie-spinsterish prof of Divination who sees big trouble in Harry's future. In fact, the future has already arrived, in the person of Sirius Black, an escaped prisoner convicted of collaborating with the dastardly Lord Voldemort (valiantly dispatched by Harry in a previous installment) in the deaths of Harry's parents. Black has escaped from the fearsome prison of Azkaban and is headed for Hogwarts, which for Harry's protection is now being guarded by the dreaded Dementors, fluttering batlike creatures who suck the souls from their victims. They appear to be particularly interested in Harry's, which is about to embark on its own long, dark night as he tries to discover who betrayed his parents, and why.

Chris Columbus made the first two Harry Potter movies for the more literal-minded of Rowling's fans, those who are switched on by mere wands and wizards and Quidditch matches, and by getting scared out of their britches. There's plenty to delight that constituency in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, including a shiny creature called Buckbeak, half horse, half eagle, a total klutz on the ground and grace itself in flight. There's a house of horrors called the Shrieking Shack, a Marauder's Map and a time-traveling device that adds some wicked twists to an already exhausting plot. But in the end, Cuarón, true to the spirit that swept through Y Tu Mamá También, has made a Harry Potter movie for romantic explorers of the soul. If Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is Rowling's darkest novel to date, it is also the clearest articulation of her sense that our most potent fears come from within. Around that proposition, worked over to the point of banality by a hundred years of horror movies, Cuarón creates a moody gray-and-silver Transylvanian dreamscape, the kind we wake from at once sweating with terror and as satisfied as if we'd exorcised a vampire ourselves. The battle between good and evil is never a simple Manichaean struggle. In fact, ugliness may be a virtue and beauty suspect, and what drives the story is that it's hard to tell who's who. Far from being the wild-eyed wacko of the tabloids vivants that broadcast news of his escape, Gary Oldman's Sirius Black is civilized and regretful, a man tortured by his own conscience. Kindly Professor Lupin has his own dark secret as well, and even Ron's pet rat, Scabbers, is not what he seems. Nor, in the end, is Harry's family history, news of which shakes the pedestal upon which he has placed his father. I don't know enough about J.K. Rowling's childhood (though I'll wager being born in a place called Chipping Sodbury was enough to cultivate her taste for Dickensian names and places) to tell what makes her cleave so sympathetically to werewolves, jailbirds, hairy giants and Muggle-magician hybrids like Hermione. Like many Brits, Rowling is a committed populist who also never met an underdog she didn't like. In Alfonso Cuarón, for the first time, she has found a soul mate, someone who can speak for the Frankenstein monster in all of us.

Ella Taylor is a film critic for the LA Weekly.

Occupation Revisited

I'd give anything to have seen the faces of the wonks and military types, guests of the charmingly named Office for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, as they emerged from a Pentagon screening last summer of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 revolutionary epic The Battle of Algiers.

The movie tells the story of the struggle in the mid-1950s between Algerian nationalists and French occupying forces who, by means of brutal repressive tactics, managed to crush the rebellion, only to lose the war for the hearts and minds of the Algerian public.

There are no exact parallels between that situation and our current adventures in Iraq -- we are not, or not yet, a colonial presence there, and only the deluded would characterize Saddam Hussein as a revolutionary hero. Yet there's a frightening resemblance between the film's masterful depiction of terrorist insurgents -- women with guns under their robes, packs of kids yelling epithets, random assassinations of policemen -- as they eat away at the superior force of their masters, and the exhausting war of attrition we're witnessing nightly on CNN.

With canny timeliness, Rialto Pictures is re-releasing The Battle of Algiers, in a freshly struck 35mm print with new sub-titles from the French and Arabic. The film, which served as a bible for the radical left in the late '60s (I must have seen it five times or more as an undergraduate), and was banned in France for several years after its release, is a classic of politically engaged filmmaking and is based on a book by Saadi Yacef, a former FLN leader who also produced the picture and played a version of himself. Shot in black and white with mostly non-pro actors, the movie, with its grainy, documentary style and ardent immediacy, owes a large debt to Roberto Rossellini and other Italian neo-realists. The fevered crowd scenes, shot almost entirely in close-up, are straight out of Eisenstein.

As a Jew, a communist and a resistance leader in fascist Italy, Pontecorvo had ample reason to identify with the oppressed. The Battle of Algiers wears its political affinities proudly on its sleeve: Scenes of the systematic torture of terrorist suspects are unsparingly graphic (and, in one controversial case, accompanied by a Bach chorale); again and again we hear the French colonialists voice their contempt for the "dirty Arabs" they've ruled with unbridled arrogance for 130 years.

Still, Pontecorvo is evenhanded in his regret over the lost lives on both sides -- the score, by turns percussive and mournful, which he wrote with Ennio Morricone, underlines the devastation in parallel scenes of Algerian and European bodies being pulled from the rubble. He is far from starry-eyed about the brutal tactics of Islamic fundamentalists in purging drugs, alcohol and prostitution from the Casbah. And he is at pains to avoid demonizing the oppressor -- the colonel in charge of subduing the terrorists is not a sadist but a professional who sees torture as an unavoidable tool of his mission. It's he, after all, who challenges the stunned French press with the question "Should we be in Algeria?"

The Battle of Algiers was made during the full flower of anti-colonial sentiment, relatively uncomplicated by the fears of global terror that plague us now. September 11 brought the war home, and the Bush administration has stirred the pot by propelling us into occupation of a country that likely had little connection with the forces who attacked New York City, yet almost certainly will forge one in the years to come.

How will Pontecorvo's film play now that we have learned to fear Islamic fundamentalism? In the movie's most shocking set piece, three Islamic women dressed as Europeans saunter through a French checkpoint to set bombs in public places. One of the women gazes sadly around the bar at patrons who are about to die. It's a moment of phenomenal cinematic and emotional power and, perhaps, a rare lapse into wishful thinking on the part of the director. One doesn't have to believe that history has an irrefutable inner logic to conclude from recent history that those who, in acts of opposition, acquire the habit of terrorism frequently become addicted to it once they assume power.

Algeria won its independence in 1962. In the early '90s, the country's Islamist party was elected by a solid majority, then prevented from taking office by a secular military. The civil war that followed, which has claimed thousands of lives, offers a lesson in the confusion and resort to absolutism that have emerged as the tragic legacy of empire and occupation.

It would be heartening to learn that there was a colonel who stood up at the Pentagon screening and asked -- should we be in Iraq?

The Left Eats Its Own at KPFK







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KPFK Responds
LA Weekly film critic Ella Taylor's story on the situation at KPFK, "The Left Eats Its Own at KPFK," paints a picture of a tiresome conflict seen many times before by long-time participants and observers of political struggles within the Left.

The intensely biased piece is an attempt to get readers who know little of the situation at KPFK to buy into her framework to understand the conflict. An important problem with the story she tells is that it rests on inaccurate facts and misleading assertions and attributions, and it misrepresents both the actions and the intent of those it reports on. At its heart, the story is a thoroughly distorting and trivialized vision of the motivations and goals of the Pacifica reform movement, which is comprised of hundreds and thousands of people nationwide who have struggled against such misleading caricatures for years now.

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Word is out that I'm working on a story about the latest coup at KPFK, and troops from both sides are massing on my voice mail, my e-mail, my editors' voice mail in varying tones of panic, paranoia and PR.

The radio station's interim manager, Steven Starr, worries that the opposition is giving me a distorted picture of what's going on. A woman who had pitched a KPFK story to the L.A. Weekly a year ago leaves me precise instructions on how my piece should be written. A member of the newly rejuvenated Local Advisory Board, fondly or otherwise known as the LAB, wants to set me straight about the "antics" of Marc Cooper, host of the station's most popular drive-time talk show, who was suspended by Starr for refusing to raise funds for the new KPFK because he didn't like the direction in which it was headed. And my in-box is buried under an avalanche of variously furious, anguished or waggish electronic mail from the dispossessed, who have taken to calling the LAB and the national board "the Branch Pacificans."

Going in, I imagined I would write a wry, detached account of yet another brawl at KPFK, yet another palace coup in the long history of Pacifica radio wars. My piece would be about two camps of battle-scarred lefty partisans fighting over very little, yet convinced that the Earth was at stake. I'd seen such futile wrangles elsewhere, notably in my years as a college professor, when people of allegedly higher intelligence fought to the death over the protocol of office supplies. It's an old story in any hermetically sealed organization where no one outside the zone of combat gives much of a damn about the issues or the outcome. But on the marginalized far left, whose history is pocked with struggles over minuscule differences of policy or procedure -- distractions from the task of playing gadfly to the powers that be -- infighting is second nature. Over the years I've taught myself to knit, crochet, and sleep with my eyes open at meetings where the agenda was the agenda.

Except that as I sank into the thick of things, the battle at KPFK began to matter, to reveal itself as more than an internal power play, more even than a struggle about what counts as good alternative radio. Can it really be that the left in Southern California, which apparently helped fuel the station's highly successful February pledge drive, is willing to have its agenda set by people who give airtime to black separatists who refer to other blacks as "paint jobs" and "Uncle Toms," or to a nutball conspiracy theorist who got ample airtime in the closing hours of the fund drive to persuade us that the CIA plotted the attack on the World Trade Center? KPFK's troubles, which stretch back over the years since the station was founded in 1959, offer a case study in the widening abyss between two wings of the aging American left over the question of whether to go forth into the world speaking truth to power, or languish in splendid, and increasingly irrelevant, isolation. On one side are the '60s activists who have become intellectuals and argue that the left must work from within society and refine itself through dialogue and debate. On the other are the '60s activists, mostly hard-line Marxists or self-appointed guardians of minority identity, who believe that any contact with corporate capitalism and white elites contaminates and dilutes the cause.

A bundle of bright-orange peace stickers adorns the coffee table in the lobby of KPFK's offices in North Hollywood. Outside the studio, two musicians with exotic-looking instruments wait to begin a live performance on the daily music show Global Village. In January, KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, along with four other managers at sister stations around the country, was placed on administrative leave and then fired without formal reason, though various LAB members charge that he has separated the station from them and from its "true" audience. In the weeks since, the station has raised a record $914,000 in its fund drive -- and watched helplessly as its staffing fell apart. Several key staffers and volunteer programmers have resigned or been dismissed, while those who chose to hang in fire off memos protesting iniquitous decisions on the part of the interim management. Meanwhile, much of the dwindling programming schedule is plugged with canned local and national reruns, as the public-affairs directors scramble to find guest hosts to fill in for the departed.

What's left of the permanent staff signs off on morning duties, while the afternoon program director, Dan Pavlich, contemplates the alarming white expanse of his board as he scrapes to fill Cooper's critical 4 p.m. slot with guest hosts for the rest of the week. A calm, business- as-usual atmosphere prevails after the frenzy of the fund drive, whose volunteers were heavily peopled with the "banned and the fired" under Schubb's watch, now hoping to get their old slots back. Interim manager Starr, an affable man in jeans and sweatshirt who talks with the bushy- tailed bonhomie of one who has been dishing out PR for years (he was once an agent), breaks off from a meeting with interim part-time troubleshooter Andrea Buffa, who's down from the Berkeley station, to tell me that the fund drive exceeded all expectations and everything is terrific. When I ask for specifics on the projected changes at KPFK and on increased community outreach, the pair expand on plans for a slew of "programming collectives," two of which are already in the works: a West South-Asian collective, to include Kurds, Afghans, Israelis and others ("some experts, some not"), and a youth collective. I mention that in several conversations with members of the LAB, I've been able to elicit no concrete plans for the future. "Forget the LAB," Starr says, and on hearing who I've talked to at the station, he intimates that they're the wrong people. He personally escorts me to the offices of two employees who are understandably so anxious to hold on to their jobs that they witter on generally about "regrouping" and "redistributing responsibilities." A third, an African-American who is filling in as interim operations director, is torn between real regret at the departure of Cooper and others, and fury at Schubb for failing to include "a broad range of voices" in programming.

Meanwhile, the wrong people are telling me that the staff, paid and volunteer, is beaten down and barely functioning. The money from the pledge drive, even though it was earmarked for the exclusive use of KPFK and is supposedly sitting in a local bank account, has yet to filter down to the station. So short is ready cash that there's no money for colored markers; recently the phones were cut off for a day. More than one employee expresses weary frustration at the endless internal sniping on and off the air. One predicts that in six months the audience will dwindle into "the banned and the fired" and their supporters -- the LAB's "true" audience.

This is the kind of battle that has more than once threatened to destroy Pacifica, a tiny network of five stations nationwide that for the last 50 years has been the sole broadcast voice of the left, a radio equivalent of and collaborator with The Nation magazine. Founded after World War II by a group of Bay Area conscientious objectors as a listener-sponsored alternative to commercial radio, Pacifica was designed to offer a forum for the free exchange of views between diverse groups. The network's highs have been high indeed, mostly when competing factions have united against a common enemy -- McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Iran-contra. Time was when the network also boasted some of the richest cultural programming in radio: Film critic Pauline Kael cut her teeth at KPFA in Berkeley, which also aired guru- philosopher Alan Watts, and the Beats; the network was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's Howl. But in the late '70s, as movements on the left grew more fragmented and identity politics displaced class struggle on the left agenda, sectarian programming crept in, carving up the audience by ethnicity, gender or ideological tendency. Listener- sponsored radio was reborn as "community radio," with airtime allocated to those mostly unpaid volunteers who could shout the loudest on behalf of their ethnic, political or spiritual groups. One KPFK activist, according to a piece by John Dinges in The Nation two years ago, actually tried to bequeath his air slot in his will.

In the late '80s, with audience numbers in free fall and many so-called loyal listeners tuning in for as little as minutes a week, Pacifica's national board began to enact reforms designed to professionalize the stations and increase their audiences. This brought loud protests from local programmers passionately attached to their soapboxes. Since 1998, both the board and its detractors have squandered time, energy and scads of money squabbling over the practice of its mission, with one side claiming the other was stuck in the '60s while the other accused the board of trying to water down Pacifica and turn it into NPR, which had lured away not only many of the network's listeners, but some of its liveliest broadcasters. Thousands of dollars were spent on lawsuits, public relations, and even on security when the brawling became physical. For a while, Schubb, who was committed to reform, managed to keep KPFK out of the fray. The station doubled its audience, tripled its fund-raising, and rebuilt its studio and its transmitters. Though even some of his supporters say Schubb's diplomatic skills were not what they might have been, he did replace some of the ghettoized programming favored by the LAB and its supporters with more cerebral fare that brought the station some much-needed sophistication without abandoning its critical edge. The jewel in the crown was drive-time public affairs: Cooper's daily show, plus Radio Nation, his weekly collaboration with The Nation magazine (He also writes a column for L.A. Weekly.); Jon Wiener's, Suzi Weissman's and Joe Domanick's early- evening drive-time shows. (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute film commentary on Wiener's show.) And though, aside from the music programming, arts coverage remained inexplicably weak for a network that once boasted the likes of Kael, Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jon Beaupré's early-morning magazine lent the programming a certain urbanity and elegance.

Depending on who's talking, KPFK has either sailed into a glorious new era of free speech and accountability to its listeners, or slunk back to a chaotic and politically byzantine past. Starr and the LAB are promising to reopen the station to community participation, especially minorities, which they accuse Schubb and those he nurtured of neglecting. "Mark Schubb, with the blessing of the prior Pacifica administration, simply refused to fulfill his duty to work with the LAB," says Dave Fertig, the LAB's representative to the interim national board. "With resumed community involvement and openness at KPFK and Pacifica, I believe the recent reckless mismanagement, and the enforced silence about it, is unlikely to recur." This line of argument maddens Schubb, who says he hired more people of color during his tenure than had ever been hired during the station's history, though he freely admits that it's hard to find talented black, Latino, Asian or other minority journalists when the pay at Pacifica is so lousy. Which goes to the heart of the degree to which identity politics has displaced the less sexy but more useful category of economic inequality on the far left. Is ethnic inequality redressed, as Schubb interprets it, by affirmative action or, as the episode of the black separatists amply illustrates, by doling out airtime to anyone ä who happens to have dark skin? Schubb is infuriated by the thought that the balkanized programming he so painstakingly dismantled will return to KPFK as a result of such woolly and condescending thinking about how ethnic minorities use radio. "I'm sure," he says dryly, "that if you're a janitor working a 10-hour job and then another in some fast-food place, you want to come home and listen to the Marxist Struggle Hour or the Latvian Accordion Hour on KPFK." Pacifica has allowed such programming to go on, he says, "out of some bogus liberalism, some bullshit permissiveness that I think is one of the core problems of the left in America. Whoever yells the loudest gets whatever they want. At a certain point the smart people just leave, and the angry ones run it until it's dead."

Right now there are gifted haters on both sides of the KPFK dispute. Cooper calls the LAB "an unelected, unrepresentative lump group of eight people whose opinions are no more valid than the opinions of the first eight people you get out of the phone book." In turn, he and Schubb are held primarily responsible for KPFK's perceived ills and dismissed as agents of corporate capital. Cooper has received hundreds of e-mails insinuating that he survived the coup in Chile because he's a CIA agent who plotted the murder of his own boss, Salvador Allende. And during Schubb's tenure, his car sustained $3,500 worth of vandalism when protesters picketed the station. The vilification has been mirrored at Pacifica stations around the country in lockouts, death threats and letter campaigns on both sides. But a casual trawl of the Web sites shows that it's the activists who have the edge when it comes to crafting a hate campaign. While Schubb was running KPFK, the LAB and ousted programmers constantly disrupted the daily conduct of business at the station and held meetings in which Schubb and his staff were shouted down and harassed.

If there's one thing activists know how to do, it's organize. During the February fund drive, for the first time KPFK's sister stations banded together for a day of fund-raising to save the station's powerful but ailing transmitter -- and this without the efforts of Cooper, the station's most talented fund-raiser. But try to get Starr or the LAB to articulate a philosophy of radio and a vision of future programming at KPFK, and you get a lot of vague predictions of greater community involvement, increased sensitivity to people of color, and apprenticeship programs.

It seems the antagonism and mistrust between activists and intellectuals that has always bedeviled the left never dies. On almost any issue, Cooper, Schubb and their volunteer allies at the station -- among them Weissman, Wiener and Barbara Osborn, who hosts the weekly show Deadline L.A. -- can think and talk the LAB people into a cocked hat. They have a grasp of how radio is made and used. They're willing to entertain new ideas and debate those who disagree with them, on and off the air. They're witty, irreverent, and brimming with ideas and a sense of fun -- something that's always been in short supply on the Marxist left. Schubb recalls a meeting about cultural programming early on in his tenure in which he noted that KPFK had given birth to Fireside Theater, Harry Shearer and a whole new world of political satire. One protester sprang to her feet and yelled that there were horrible things going on in the world and the last thing that was needed was more jokes. The activists don't want for sincerity or commitment, but as a group they come off as anti-intellectual, dull, humorless and hidebound. The new Pacifica board held its meetings in Los Angeles two weeks ago, and for sheer lumbering, procedural tedium, the live broadcasts out-snored even KCRW's Santa Monica City Council meetings.

Several years ago i went hiking in Anza-Borrego with a group of middle- aged leftist women like myself -- or so I fondly imagined. When we stopped to rest, I produced a copy of The New Republic, and was immediately hauled over the coals by a woman who professed herself shocked that I would lower myself to read such a right-wing rag. I told her I didn't see how I could expand my critical thinking if I only read stuff I already agreed with. Off she flounced in a huff, leaving me to imagine her reaction had I brought along the National Review.

To me her response was dispiritingly emblematic of the defensive maneuvers of a far left that has been spinning its wheels on vulgar- Marxist doctrine of the oppressors and the oppressed since the '60s. Cocooned in monastic disengagement, its adherents are hanging on for dear life to a set of rigid and often obsolete principles so as to avoid contamination by the evil corporate empire. Some have embraced a crude identity politics that ends up not only condescending to the very people they champion, but perpetuating a culture of the victim that includes their own privileged selves. And while the intellectual left engages with the establishment, not to say the right -- Robert McNamara and Pat Robertson have both been guests on Cooper's show, and both gave great radio -- this group is interested in talking only to itself as it relives, over and over, the unexamined life.

Marginalization has the virtue of keeping the marginalized honest, in a limited way. But it can also cramp the mind and narrow the spirit, creating a siege mentality that's defensive, sanctimonious, mistrustful of change and suspicious of political maturity. If there's one Pacifica radio show that exemplifies the best and worst of the American far left, it's Amy Goodman's popular Democracy Now, which is broadcast nationally out of WBAI in New York. Goodman is unflagging in her pursuit of corporate and political malfeasance at home and abroad. She is incorruptible, unimpressed and unintimidated by power or authority, which is why she's one of the few interviewers who've ever been able to fluster Bill Clinton. And she's excellent at providing a voice for the wretched of the Earth, from Ohio to Afghanistan. But one doesn't turn to her show for open debate about leftist thought. On almost any issue, she will trot out verbatim speeches of a small circle of like-minded friends -- Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Cornel West. During KPFK's fund drive, Goodman rebroadcast a tortuous speech by West in which he contrived to read into the bombing of the World Trade Center a parallel with the oppression of blacks in America. Admittedly, this is more dotty than harmful. More seriously, when Goodman rightly scolds the commercial media for their distortions, she's not above replacing those distortions with others of her own. As the conflict in the Middle East escalates, she routinely reports Palestinian casualties -- which the mainstream media have also been doing for some time -- while ostentatiously omitting those on the Israeli side.

So diligently has Goodman internalized her identification with the oppressed that she has come to believe herself to be one of them. When it comes to the Pacifica wars, Goodman is hobbled by a whopping martyr complex that plays on the air as the irritating whine of the career victim. Thus WBAI, from which she was exiled for five months in a dispute with the old Pacifica board, became "the station of the banned and the fired." This continued throughout KPFK's mid-February fund drive, when her show (which had not been broadcast here while she was fighting with the board) sometimes aired three times a day, in which she peppered her energetic pitches with requests for cash to help restore a "plundered network."

Goodman has played a key role in shaping the on-air narrative of oppression worked up by KPFK's new regime during the fund drive. If that wasn't dreary enough to listen to, the station also saw fit to boost the fund drive's final hour by peddling the video of Mike Ruppert, a defrocked cop who sought to convince us that the CIA was behind the attack on the World Trade Center. Dave Adelson, a LAB member who told me he saw no reason to condemn the hateful rhetoric of the black separatists on the air even though it made him "cringe," nonetheless leaped to interrupt a Grateful Dead show and excoriate programmer Barbara Osborn for the crime of paying tribute to Cooper and asking listeners to call in their response to his suspension. Starr, who was initially seen by the opposition as a nice fellow who was in over his head, is by now so thoroughly in the pockets of the LAB that he allowed this intrusion. When the public-affairs programmers, led by Beneath the Surface's Suzi Weissman, handed him a forthright letter of outrage over the Mike Ruppert debacle, he responded that, in the context of a rebuttal, the program made "compelling radio." Thus does the loony left come full circle and join hands with the meshuggeneh right. If confirmation were needed of what Christopher Hitchens has called the "ardent confusion" of the ultraleft, this is it.

The sad part of all this is that there is nothing visibly new about the new regime at KPFK. It's a classic and possibly terminal case of the divorce of thought from action in that part of the left that refuses to grow up. All the signs are that, now the first flush of victory is over, the station is sliding back to the vapid populism that distinguished it before Schubb arrived, when programming was carved up by putative interest groups and any nut or bigot with a grievance could grab the airwaves if he or she yelled loud enough. Programming collectives, which bring people together solely on the basis of their ethnicity, age or gender, can only aggravate such separatism. Someone has to be responsible for making good radio that won't bore listeners to death. In the unlikely event that a new manager with vigor and vision is hired, he or she will have his hands tied behind his back if he tries to lift things out of the uncertainty and confusion that already prevail at the station. "We were here for the listeners," says one employee sadly. "Now we're here for us."

Ella Taylor writes for the LA Weekly, where this article originally appeared.
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