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Posts published by “Rick Paulas”

Rick Paulas has written many things, some serious, plenty not, for plenty of places, like: The Awl, VICE, Pacific Standard, KCET, SB Nation Longform, The Morning News, McSweeney's, Wired, The New York Times and a whole slew of others. More than once, he wrangled a publication to basically pay him to eat a bunch of hot dogs at Dodger Stadium. He lives in Berkeley.

Sisyphus in the City: A Review of The Advocates

Special To Topanga Journal

Years ago, we went to L.A.’s Skid Row to attend a rooftop screening of an old film that’d recently been discovered. It was being shown by some local historical society, the big point being that a few seconds showed the same area of L.A. we were sitting in, but nearly 100 years ago. We rode our bikes to get there, and, running late, we focused entirely on pedaling as quick as we could on the way in. By doing so, we avoided noticing the expanse of tents and refuse, the people lingering wherever they could. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

But a friend took the bus to meet us, and by the time the film was over, that line had stopped running. This was before Lyft or Uber. And so, in the middle of some late Saturday night, we walked through Skid Row.

Nothing overtly memorable happened, but it’s a kind of journey you never forget. It was only a few blocks from the rest of downtown L.A.—the whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes—but it felt like we had been transported to an entirely different country, time, or maybe universe. There were unique smells, garbage fire flickers, and chaotic arguments wafting into night. Residents were holding court inside or outside their tents, passing drugs or booze or food, or whatever else.

the whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes—but it felt like we had been transported to an entirely different country, time, or maybe universe.” Rick Paulas

Despite the expensive high heels and tailored suits in the swanky bottle service nightclubs nearby, here was an entire community that had been abandoned. This was the last place these people had to go, and when they got there, they were forgotten. I never looked at the city the same way. 

Homelessness is one of the most pervasive signs of a system that’s fraying at the edges, and since our late-night walk through Skid Row years ago, it’s only gotten worse in America. As one commenter in Rémi Kessler’s new film The Advocates points out, while encampments used to be relegated to the various city Skid Rows throughout the country, they’ve now sprawled well beyond that. Tents are pitched along highways, nestled under overpasses. They populate city parks, while others place cardboard boxes in storefront alcoves. You’d be astounded at the number of folks who spend their nights in their cars. 

While development quickens and high-rises continue to be built, what’s missing in our current urban mindset is building housing for people who need it. There’s already plenty for people who don’t, but have the money to invest; this is how you end up with so many empty, as one commenter put it, “safety deposit boxes in the sky.” But what’s also missing to get there—and this is at the core of Kessler’s film—is the idea that secondary solutions to homelessness (drug rehabilitation, treatment for mental health issues, a good paying job) are not as important as literally making houses.

During my work as a journalist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, I’ve interviewed countless of homeless folks for a variety of reasons, and whenever I ask them what they need to get off the streets, the one thing they mention is: An indoor place to go. While there are people on the streets with mental health issues, for many, problems like drug abuse or violent mood swings are not the reasons for why they’re on the street, but problems that occurred after they got there. 

Consider: What would it be like to sleep on a city street, with traffic blaring by, unprotected from the elements, unsafe from passersby? Would you feel a little bit groggy every day? Maybe not in peak shape to attend a job interview? Or—and here is the dark secret of homelessness in America—maybe not rested enough to keep the job you have? And then, if someone has a drug that’s take the edge off for a few moments, would you refuse it? 

Kessler’s film begins with the tale of Yolanda and Ruben, a brother-and-sister pair who once had indoor lives. They live in a few cars that double as places to store their possessions, but the cars don’t run, and due to parking restrictions, every week they have to push them across the street to avoid a ticket. Imagine the toll that takes on a life, and how those parking tickets could add up if, one day, you’re not well enough to heft the heavy automobile across the street. Try being in a kind mood, or mentally focused enough to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, with that lifestyle.

As an expert says toward the end of the film, the solution to homelessness is very straightforward: Give people homes. After seeing The Advocates, you’ll see why.


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Leslie Zemeckis Continues Filling In History with Feuding Fan Dancers

Special To Topanga Journal

Viewing the “fan dance” in the year 2018 is a quaint, cutesy activity on par with listening to an old radio play or riding a horse.

From the comfort of your own home, in front of the glow of your laptop computer, you can search for the dance online and get its general gist. The dance will involve a lady, maybe nude, maybe merely scantily clad, and she’ll be holding two large ostrich feathers in her hands. She’ll use the dual objects to cover herself, and now and then—purposefully or otherwise—she’ll allow a brief glimpse of skin to the audience’s prying eyes. That’s what the crowd—men, mostly—has been waiting for, and they’ll hoot and holler their approval at the sight. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

It’s fun, in an outdated, mostly innocent, sort of way. It’s a hobby for the privileged or curious, largely unnecessary for the general public to know or understand, certainly with no role in pushing the world’s culture forward. It’s time has come and went, sort of like that old form of the English language with its awkward misspellings and phrasings. Interesting to see, but in an era when you can see literally anything from one’s smartphone, we’re well past the allure that the fan dance originally created. For better or worse, we’ve moved onto more outrageous forms of self-expression.

“When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it.” Rick Paulas

But of course, this wasn’t always the case. When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it. 

For the fan dance, this culminated in a battle between Faith Bacon, “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and Sally Rand, one of the world’s most famous showgirls of all time.

This fight is the driving force throughout Feuding Fan Dancers, Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating and page-turning dive into the lives of Bacon and Rand. But the book isn’t so much a stodgy legal thriller satisfied with merely picking the nits of creative ownership, but rather widens its scope to become a meticulous, behind-the-scenes analysis into the intersection of show-business and femininity in post-Depression America. 

I won’t spoil the ending, or announce who prevails, other than to say, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that here, finally, is the story of these two largely forgotten women. Part of that is because of the lack of media affordances that didn’t yet allow the ease of recording, but largely it’s been due to publishing gateways frankly not really caring all that much about the stories of women. The book’s ultimate goal—and increasingly the goal of Zemeckis’ work—is correcting those wrongs by filling in history’s blanks.

Leslie Zemeckis has been on a hell of a roll. Her 2015 book, Goddess of Love Incarnate, told the story of Lili St. Cyr, the so-called “highest paid stripteaser in America,” while her recent documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer highlighted Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. With Feuding Fan Dancers, it’s become even more clear how Zemeckis sees her role in the cultural discourse.

History, it is said, is the story of the winners, but really, it’s the story of those who storytellers consider powerful. Historical analysis has long been dominated with the stories of men, for the obvious reason men have largely held positions of what’s been considered power. But contrary to the inherent narrow framework of storytelling, power is not a top-down hierarchy. Kings get dethroned, managers retire or are ostracized, congressional officials retire or get impeached. Actual, real power comes from those changing society at its base. And one arena for that shift—the one that Zemeckis has chosen to focus on—is the world of popular entertainment. When it’s at its most potent, that is the true nexus of democracy and organizing, of creating and spreading propaganda strong enough to change the world.

It’s this lens that makes Zemeckis’ work important and vital, particularly in today’s post-Trump era, when the world’s most powerful positions are held by overtly feckless buffoons. The emperor has no clothes, but never really did, and there was never really a true emperor at all, just someone who happened to be sitting in a big chair. Now, like always, true power resides in the largely nameless figures who push the cultural football further down the field. They don’t campaign to get elected, or own billion-dollar businesses, or live in castles. They take what once was, and make it what it will be. Quite often, contrary to high school history classes, these figures are female. And now and then, they may even wear nothing but enormous ostrich feathers.


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Nelly: A Fascinating Portrait of A Sex Worker Turned Superstar

Special To Topanga Journal

Halfway through Anne Émond’s film Nelly, there’s a scene with a group of sex workers hanging around a hotel room suite. Wine glasses in hand, they huddle around the white glow of a laptop, and log onto some unnamed “escort review” website. They then begin to read each other’s reviews out loud. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

The site isn’t named or shown; it could be one of many, as sex work has been reviewed and critiqued on the internet since the internet was a place where words could go. These reviews are written by “johns,” ostensibly to warn other people if the worker isn’t on the level, but in reality just a bunch of horny dudes writing erotica for strangers online. In the scene, the workers rightfully mock the reviewers, but there is still a clear sense of being affected by the reviews. After all, someone is publicly judging every single part of their body.

While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money. An unprotected-by-law industry, sex workers are vulnerable in ways that so many other professions aren’t — dangerous clients can act with impunity when workers can’t safely contact law enforcement — but there’s also the society veil of silence over the work itself. “It’s illegal, and it’s immoral, so we shouldn’t be talking about it,” is the sentiment.

“While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money.” Rick Paulas

Yet these are the kinds of glimpses that makes Nelly, and the book it was inspired by, such important documents. Without them, the work continues to occur — as it always has, as it always will — under the cover of darkness. 

The movie tells the story of Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier, a sex worker based in Quebec who rose to international fame after the publication of her 2001 autobiographical novel Putain (Whore), a fictionalized story narrated by a sex worker named Cynthia. She would go on to write four more books, each one a semi-autobiographical examination of her life — really: what book isn’t? Each book tried to pry open how society treats women. In 2009, after years of depression, she died via suicide.

While Arcan wasn’t as popular a figure in the U.S. as elsewhere — which certainly says something about the insidious reach of Protestantism that still haunts this country — viewers don’t need to know her backstory to be intrigued by it. 

Unlike standard biopics, this one’s told in a sort of foggy, nonlinear way, with Émond seemingly sampling from a few different characters that make up the entirety of who “Nelly” was. In all, there are five versions on display: An adolescent Fortier being introduced to sexual connections for the first time; a drug-addicted frail woman in a codependent relationship; a confident and fully refined sex worker; a fretful author trying to manage the pressures of publications; a glowing media superstar. The last four are all played by Mylène Mackay, in a series of dynamic performances that see her shifting moods scene-by-scene. I’m unfamiliar with Mackay’s previous work, and it took me about half of the movie to realize she was playing four characters, both a testament to her ability and a criticism of my own attention span.

Despite all being part of the same individual, each is presented dramatically different. One may even be fictionalized. It’s unclear. Reality and performance and truth all seem to blur in this portrait, like one of those 3D posters where, if you cross your eyes just the right way, you’ll see a sharpened vision of a boat or some mountain jutting out toward you. But every moment before and after is just a hazy blur.

If the movie comes off as disjointed, that’s probably part of the point. Life is messy, and trying to tell anyone’s story in such a compressed lens as a film is an act of blinding hubris and logistical chaos. The narrative should be from the moment the person’s born until they die, but as soon as you remove a single moment, you’ve introduced an editorial lens that has to justify itself. Émond pulls off the feat by using the chaos to her advantage. Moments occur, personalities change, other personalities emerge. If it’s unclear which is the “true” version, that’s because there isn’t one.

Toward the end, Arcan admits that she “invented Nelly to protect Isabelle, but I think the opposite happened. I did things to write about them.” In today’s age of social media, where everyone with a smartphone and ego live in a way where they’re constantly thinking if an experience is worth publishing to the world, there are fewer sentiments more relatable.


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Sandow Birk And Elyse Pignolet: Art vs. Trump

Special To Topanga Journal

The Los Angeles-based visual artist Sandow Birk knew that a Trump presidency would be horrific as soon as he heard the bumbling clown was running for President.

“I knew he would be an imbecile and a joke and an absolute horror if he were elected,” writes Birk, in an email. “Although I didn’t think he’d be as bad as he has been already.” 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

For Birk, living in this simmering waking nightmare worked itself out of his system while in residency in New Zealand. There, Birk collaborated with master printer John Pusateri to develop Trumpagruel, a series of hand-drawn images on lithograph stones currently on display at Track 16 Gallery in L.A.

Inspired by Gargantua and Pantagruel, the “misadventures of two bumbling giants” from the 16th century story by François Rabelais, in Birk’s version, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief is a billowing buffoon being spoon-fed by Fox News, a wailing baby to be comforted by an army of Republican sycophants, an ignoramus tweeting up a storm while the White House burns behind him. The finished product is as beautiful as it is grotesque, but more than that, it’s an odd consolation in our current chaotic era. 

“It felt encouraging that these women together could come forward and tell their stories. At the same time, I felt angry and frustrated that the men in these stories for decades were allowed to prey on these women unchecked.” Elyse Pignolet

By depicting our current reality through tropes from the distant past, there’s something comforting about the cyclical nature of this overwhelmingly blatant buffoonery, an echo of the great fools that have tumbled their way into history’s dustbins. Sure, Trump is a little different, in that he has weapons that can literally eradicate all life on the planet. But, still.   

More dreary—albeit, not aesthetically—is the art of Birk’s partner and collaborator for 15 years, Elyse Pignolet, also on display at Track 16. Pignolet has taken inspiration from the #metoo movement to design a series of ceramics that reference the stories that have been bravely shared and meticulously exposed over the past year.

I asked Pignolet what she felt like when these stories began to appear in the news.

“It was a bit of a shock at first,” writes Pignolet, in an email. “It felt encouraging that these women together could come forward and tell their stories. At the same time, I felt angry and frustrated that the men in these stories for decades were allowed to prey on these women unchecked.”

You can draw a pretty direct line from Trump’s election—particularly, after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—to the rise of the #metoo movement. It’s definitely a big part of the “Trump era,” whatever that’ll mean in history books. And yet, even now, it’s difficult to know how lasting of an impact the movement has had. 

Weinstein’s trial is far from a sure deal, and it’s unclear what Cosby’s sentencing will bring. Meanwhile, some of the other abusers exposed in the #metoo stories have already found new gigs, their sins of the past washed away with time. So it’s fitting that among the powerful shouts strewn across Pignolet’s ceramics like “Revolution” and “Had Enough,” there are also declarations of this being the “Same Old Shit.” Long after Trump’s removed from office, by ballot or impeachment, sexual harassment will still be a truth that must be addressed, from both sides of the aisle. 

It’s these two sides that are at the center of American Procession, the dramatic highlight of the Birk/Pignolet show. The work—called “a panorama of American icons and ideology”—is a set of dual 17-foot long woodblock prints hung on either side of the main gallery. Inspired by the “Procession of Princes,” a mural on Germany’s Dresden Castle, the work depicts the two paths that America has traveled through its history, and will continue to plod into the future.

On the left wall is The Left, exemplified by political figures (Lincoln, Obama), revolutionary activists (Jane Addams, MLK, Chomsky), artists (Nina Simone, Bruce Lee, Jello Biafra), and the nebulous concept of “We The People.” On the right is The Right, from slave traders to Brigham Young, Dick Cheney to Peter Thiel, and of course, Trump himself, carried on the shoulders of “the rich” and “the 1%.” In the gallery, the two sides march toward the great mess of progress, despair, ruin, and innovation that is, at its core, the mess of America. 

If the commentary in American Procession feels too organized, if the structure feels too neat, that’s not the fault of the artists. They’re merely mirroring the times in which they live; if you aren’t seeing the same division and radicalism, you must not be watching the news. Say what you will about the Trump presidency—and, really, say it, loudly, and all the time—it has led to a great distillation of ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum. 

Donald Trump, after all, is nothing but pure conservative thought without the sheen of respectability or concealment of its inherent racism. But the question that still remains without an answer is what, specifically, constitutes The Left?” Until that finds resolution, there may be no end to the art produced in response to the Trump presidency, if only because of the nightmare presidency will last that much longer.

Track 16 Gallery is now located at 1206 Maple Ave, #1005 on the 10th floor in Los Angeles.


Sandow Birk:

Elise Pignolet:

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Genetically Modified Children: Monsanto, Bayer and Tobacco

Special To Topanga Journal

The most striking imagery in the documentary Genetically Modified Children, by filmmakers Juliette Igier and Stephanie Lebrun, is the children suffering from incurable diseases purported to be from GMOs. This is by design, since it pulls on the emotional strings of anyone viewing. Yet, the heart of the film is something any of us can relate to: economic desperation.

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

The film opens with the story of Ricardo Rivera, regional head of an electrical company in Argentina. He’s noticed that many of the farmers on his route can’t pay their bills, and discovers that it’s because they have sick children at home to care for. “We are all contaminated,” Rivera says, talking about the pesticides that have been used for decades in the region’s tobacco fields.

“We are all contaminated,” Rivera says, talking about the pesticides that have been used for decades in the region’s tobacco fields.

Lucas Texeira in the film Genetically Modified Children

While the story of the tobacco farmer children is the core of the documentary, to me, the most striking moment was that felt by a fully-grown, healthy tobacco farmer.

Midway through, the filmmakers introduce us to a cooperative where farmers sell their annual crop. There, each tobacco bale is evaluated by the color of its leaves, its size, and its texture. But as the norms of what tobacco is considered “the best” have changed over the years, so have the payments. “Now, only the use of chemical products insure good results,” says the narrator.

One farmer has brought his year’s haul in for sale, but his crop wasn’t grown using the same pesticides that the larger farms around use. In comparison, it looks dark and flimsy. Thirty seconds of evaluation later, the farmer finds out how much his year of labor is worth. He looks at his receipt, and walks away disheartened. “He has just earned $1,000 Euros for a year’s work,” explains the narrator.

The farmer shakes his head and gets into his truck, nothing left to do.

This scene is at the core of why the argument around GMOs has to change.

GMOs are a tough conversation for the liberal set. On the one hand, claims of rigorous scientific testing, stating that GMOs are safe; according to the New York Times, “about 90 percent of scientists believe G.M.O.s are safe,” in addition to endorsements by “the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.” For a mindset that prides itself in Science with a capital S—particularly now, as fact has also become a political battleground, most dumbly exemplified in the climate change conversation—it makes sense that many liberals are not only fine with GMOs, but get downright angry if you suggest otherwise.

Where this sentiment gets sticky is with the rise of corporate conglomerates like Monsanto and Bayer. Due to the strength of current intellectual property laws, GMO-producing multinational corporations—the so-called “Big 6” are the aforementioned two, plus BASF, Dupont, Dow Chemical Company, and Syngenta—have been allowed to dictate the lives of the world’s farmers. Frankly, that’s what their products are intended to do.

Simply examine the mechanisms of Monsanto’s Roundup brand. In 1970, a chemist discovered glyphosate, a herbicide that kills weeds, but also kills the crops around them. You can see how this would be problematic to cash crop farmers. But, in 1996, that all changed. Monsanto announced its first line of Roundup Ready products, genetically engineered to resist glyphosate. Suddenly, farmers not only had an herbicide to kill weeds, but plants that wouldn’t be killed by the herbicide. Perfect corporate synergy. Since, Monsanto and friends have developed an army of seeds and plants that work in the same way, creating a vertical monopoly that forces farmers to buy both the herbicides and the seeds, or else.

Leaving aside the potential health impacts of such seed monoculture, consider the implications of these products. As time’s ticking clock marches forever forward, and capitalism’s innovation factory searches for more, better, stronger versions of perfectly fine methods from the past, so does the necessity to utilize such innovations to stay one step ahead of the competition. In the capitalistic race to the bottom, farmers have no choice but to use the herbicides, and then also the seeds that are resistant to them, or risk financial ruin.

This decision, despite the World Health Organization announcing that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. This decision, despite their children living painful, short lives while suffering from harrowing, incurable diseases. If farmers are financially dependent on GMO crops to sustain themselves, they’ll continue taking the risk. What other choice do they have?

The film ends with two lines spoken by the narrator: “According to the World Health Organization, 3 million people are poisoned by pesticides every year. Agri-chemicals are worth $40 billion dollars a year to the multinationals that produce them.”

It’s a cost-benefit analysis made between people and corporations. And as long as anti-GMO liberals continue to focus on the scientific and emotional arguments—as opposed to the one provided by examine the pure economic incentive that the farmers are reliant on—they’ll forever be stuck on the sidelines, watching the world poison itself for the benefit of the few CEOs.


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