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THERE'S THIS passage in Gemara about whether the angel of death can make a mistake. Gemara is part of the Talmud, and so the-I think about that. You know, it just doesn't seem to make sense to me. But I don't know, I-I just think it's not a question I'll ever answer.
-Robert Swartz, The New Yorker
Before Steve Job's and Steve Wozniak invented Apple computers they began by phone hacking with a blue box device, which allowed users to make unbillable long distance phone calls, essentially defrauding the telephone company. In his initial design of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg hacked into Harvard Connections, enabling private student Facebook accounts to become public as users were able to vote on which profile was "hotter." Zuckerberg received academic probation and Woz and Steve, we know the rest. . .
As Aaron Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, points out in the film The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz directed by Brian Knappenberger, the difference between those people and Aaron was that "Aaron wanted to make the world a better place, he didn't just want to make money." Unfortunately Aarons fate did not match that of his predecessors, last year he hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment while facing thirty five years in prison for hacking into M.I.T.'s JSTOR accounts in order to (as some have suggested in the film) make the academic journal's accessible to the public, or research the journals funding sources to ensure credibility. As Aaron saw it, he was on a mission-ideas crushed limitations, and if boundaries did exist it was his job to cross them.
Aaron's personal ciaos, like most prodigies, was his inability to cope with the rest of the world. As described in a New Yorker article written shortly after his death, Aaron's commitment to compassion was almost "pathological," he had immense difficulty living in the world and therefor dedicated his life to changing it. In one of his blog posts Aaron describes sitting on a plane unable to ask the flight attendant for water, thirsty as hell. He lived in a place of vast ideas where everything mattered, learning how to read at the age of three and creating "The Info Network" at twelve (Wikipedia before Wikipedia), and the thought of asking a flight attendant or any waitress for something was unsettling, as those vocations were degrading to Aaron.
By the age of 19, after merging his software company Infogami with Reddit, a social networking website, Aaron was a millionaire. He attempted to work as a "civilian," but by day one he was in the bathroom crying. As Aaron mentioned in his blog Raw Thought "Wired has tried to make the offices look exciting by painting the walls bright pink but the gray office monotony sneaks through all the same. Gray walls, gray desks, gray noise." (http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/officespace)
While the New Yorker Article attempted to go beyond prosecutorial zeal to explain his suicide (Aaron had ulcerative colitis which resulted in a compulsion to only eat white foods and often led to depressive episodes), Knappenberger's film primarily focuses on the court case while exploring Aaron's genius and social conciseness. Like many documentary's, it is activism at its most illustrative and perhaps profound form. These days people only remember shit if it's presented visually and let's face it, the "occupy" movement stained protests.
The film begins with Aaron as a small child reading Paddington at the Fair; Paddington's curiosity is endless as he tries every ride. With family and news footage weaved throughout the film, Aaron's curiosity is palpable-the instructor of the family, teaching his younger brother Algebra, and at fifteen joining Creative Commons, barely reaching the podium as he presents an archetype for computer licensing at the launch in 2002.
Beginning at a young age Aaron wanted everyone to question the nature of restrictions and why they were put in place. And as a freshman at Stanford he downloaded Westlaw while working on a project with Stanford Law students. His goal was to research the legal databases funding sources and determine if financial interests affected judicial decisions. But academic life did not hold his attention for long and he dropped out after a year.
When Carl Malamud, the founder of Public Resource.Org, asked for participants to download PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) in order to establish a free marketplace for court documents, Aaron obliged by downloading 2.7 million federal court records. Although Aaron caught the attention of the FBI, considering the laws were, well, public, the government decided not to press charges.
In the winter of 2011 Aaron went a step further by downloading JSTOR (a database for electronic journals) at M.I.T., an institution which prides itself in its hacking culture. Once M.I.T. become aware that their system was in breach they contacted the Government who, instead of stopping the downloads, kept them going in effort to prolong the investigation and establish a stronger case. Once Aaron was spotted on surveillance video he was arrested, arraigned and released on $100,000 bail.
Initially Aaron was only arraigned on two state charges of breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony. Once indicted on federal charges including wire fraud, computer fraud, and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, it was clear the government was more interested in precedence than justice. Hacker cases and the laws designed to prosecute them are toddlers, with slight equilibrium, therefore cases such as Aarons are prosecuted in order to establish president for future cases.
Aaron decided not to accept the plea bargain of six months in prison. Although the film makes it clear that he had political aspirations and therefor did not want to be a convicted felon (felons are not allowed to hold public office nor are they allowed to vote), one would also assume a public trial was in line with Aaron's principles-the governments case and namely the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (responsible for eleven of Aaron's thirteen charges) would be put into question.
The most remarkable aspect of the film and Aaron's story, aside from his tragic death, is the legal framework behind his case. As Cindy Cohen, the legal director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was "inspired by the film War Games." You know the one; a then pretty Mathew Broderick plays a hacker who unknowingly starts a nuclear war. During the cold war the film was scary enough to get congress to pass the bill in 1986, listing broad computer abuses. It would be safe to assume that all of us commit these crimes daily.
Penalizing terms of service is an example used in the film to explain the illogical nature of the Act. For example, according to Seventeen Magazines terms of service on their website (which was taken down last year), you must be at least eighteen years old to read the magazine. Technically if one does not follow these terms of service agreements they are committing a felony.
With federal prosecutors refusing to be interviewed for the film, the dissension was provided by former U.S. attorney Orin Kerr where he clarifies why the government went after Aaron with an incredible amount of zeal:
I think the government took Swartz's "Gorilla Open Access Manifesto" (Aaron's online declaration supporting free knowledge) very seriously. They saw him as someone who was committed as a moral imperative to breaking the law, to overcoming a law that Swartz saw as unjust [. . .] What was driving the prosecution was the sense that Swartz was committed, not just to breaking the law, but to really making sure that law was nullified, that everyone would have access to the database in a way that you couldn't put the toothpaste back into the tube. Ultimately [this is] a decision for the American people to make working through congress [. . .] We are now entering this different environment of computers and computer misuse and we don't yet have a really strong sense of exactly what these lines are.
Aaron committed a crime, several in fact, and was attempting to null aspects of those laws through illegal actions as he did by downloading the Pacer documents. While Kerr establishes a masterful legal argument, the human argument would go a little something like this:
My friend told me a story once about a cop who pulled him over while he was drunk; the cop had every right to give him a DUI, but told him to call a friend instead. My friend, twenty-two at the time, was able to keep his job (you were fired at Costco if you got a DUI) and go about his young life, a bit wiser and perhaps more thankful. Unlike my friend, Aaron was not putting anyone in danger.
Those featured in the documentary would conclude that Aaron's actions were not harmful, why not just take him aside after the JSTOR incident? O.K. kid the gig is up. The only entity he seemed to be harming were the publishers in JSTOR. Authors of research studies are paid a flat fee, either by a University or the public. Once all of their labor intensive work is done they hand over their research and copyright to publishers, often multimillion dollar corporations.
We needed Aaron more than he needed us. Like Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg (although I don't really like to use his name with these other dudes), Aaron would have been a force in the technical and social world. Imagine if Harvard had decided to take up federal charges against Zuckerberg? There would be no check-in's at Pet Smart and Lil Kim's baby name, Royal Rein would not be #Trending. Aaron was prepared to do much more than provide a social network of sonograms, but the universe couldn't hold him long enough.
Currently a campaign is underway to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Legislation which has been introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon (my home state, Ra Ra Ra!)
Normally I do not include free links to films, but Aaron would have wanted it this way. The link can be found at The Internet Archive, which provides free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public.
It is the summer of 1987, timeless houses hidden beneath winding country roads, sweeping green trees descending over mailboxes, screen doors leading to overgrown backyards and friendly convenient store clerks- how could anyone be unhappy in this place? We are tapped into a Terrence Malick type of world where subtleties of nature act as windows into the minds of its characters. Like a piece of music scenes are delicately compiled, swaying back and forth, delving into lives once lived.
The music has stopped for Adele (Kate Winslet) whose young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) makes breakfast, does the chores and runs to the bank for his mother who only leaves the house once a month, which she happens to do on this particular Labor Day weekend. Adele is barely able to start the car or push a shopping cart- her hands shake as she attempts everyday tasks. As Henry leaves his mother in the store to look at comic books a man approaches him asking for a ride, suddenly mother and son realize they do not have a choice in the matter. Frank (Josh Brolin) leads them to the car, demanding Adele and Henry take him to their home.
Frank has no ill intent and tells Henry why he needs to lay low in their home; he has escaped from prison after jumping out of a hospital window. Frank is the type of man a lonely housewife (or any housewife for that matter) could get used to, he attends to chores around the house-fixing door hinges, waxing floors, baking pies- hands wet with peaches and sugar. For Adele the music starts again, at first a little hymn and then a complete symphony.
Frank and Adele both recognize a loss in each other-life and its elaborate stages have left them crippled-Adele a prisoner in her own home and Frank surrounded by concrete for most of his life. Life for them was never supposed to be about simply "existing," yet it has become their fate and bereavement seems to be the appropriate option.
We are given glimpses into their previous lives, assumedly filled with joy and promise. A younger Frank (the hauntingly identical Tom Lipinski) walking through corn fields as though adrift, experiencing every stage of life-young love, sex, marriage-only to encounter deceit which leads to his crimes. Although Frank would "never intentionally" cause harm to anyone, it's an inevitable aspect of life- intent rarely precedes heartbreak.
Although Labor Day, Jason Reitman's (Juno, Up In The Air, Young Adult) first full-fledged drama, survives mainly on visual nuance, corny elements inevitably trickle in as Reitman chooses to tell a love story that is not altogether dreadful. This choice may put off some viewers who want a convincing tale of unconventional love. But Adele and Frank are characters of fiction composed by Joyce Maynard (To Die For), the type of people who exist in our minds and should never set foot in the real world (depressed shut-ins don't look like Kate Winslet and escaped convicts most definitely look nothing like Brolin).
Love has a special place in the mind which authenticity should never meddle with, a place only novels, plays and films can enter and Labor Day grips this emotion whole heartedly. The thought that, despite a life of suffering, love will rush in and rescue us is ridiculous in the physical world but needs to exist in our minds to propel hope.
To say Winslet is good in this movie is like stating leaves grow on trees, she is simply good in everything, and no one does dowdy / sexy quite like her. As Reitman stated in an interview with AP's Jake Coyle:
I don't know another actress who knows how to deal with this kind of brokenness and vulnerability and make it so sensual. There're a lot of actresses who can play broken people, but she does it without judging them. She does them and allows them to bloom at the same time.
As for Brolin, with masculine sensitivity oozing from his brow, he is perfect as a convict on the run with a heart of gold, okay maybe silver?
Another aspect of the film which will most likely be ignored by critics who fail to look past the romantic elements, is the complexity of transgression-how circumstance, not necessarily one's intention, can cause us to become broken and not able to enjoy a milkshake during Sunday dinner with dad. Reitman alludes to these transgressions visually as we see Frank and Adele experience life on every level, in sickness and in health. The strength of Labor Day relies on a collection of scenes-summer days and ice cream, to blood soaked thighs and overflowing bathtubs-life and its many stages plays favorites indeed. Small measurements of grace come in small sometimes tightly contained doses that are easy to ignore. Frank and Adele have chosen not to ignore what small doses they have.
Thus far Reitman's transition to drama has not been well received, with critics deeming it over-sentimental. The ending will throw viewers off, but a film should never be confined to its ending alone (which is yes rather stupid and unbelievable) and if this story were delegated to the pages of fiction, sentimentality would be welcomed with open arms. In an age of tinder and grindr aps where we can pick a one-night stand at the drop of a condom, perhaps we could give romantic hope a bit of a chance. As a child of six in 1987 I kept thinking about how wonderful my life was pre-internet and texting, when conversations and meeting people for the first time was a substantial experience, if you "liked" something or someone a shout from the rooftops would be necessary, not passificity.
When Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) visits his sister at their family home in Queens he reminds her that he doesn't want to "just exist," as to suggest an artist's life is more compelling and impressive than well hers. The line between mediocrity and normal life is blurred for an artist, to ship out or take a pension is almost the same as jumping off the George Washington bridge, which Llewyn's singing partner recently did. At this point in his musical career Llewyn is tired, dreary, and homeless-roaming from couch to couch-the charm of freezing city streets and small club gigs have lost their allure.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the musician's life no one writes about. Mundane struggles befitting to the Cohen Brothers who have never shied away from the somber aspects of life. Based on the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a performer who refused to fly and could not drive, sustaining himself in Greenwich Village for most of his life.
When Llewyn apprehensively travels to Chicago to try and get a gig he is partnered with two eccentric passengers, musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and the mainly silent driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). On the way to Chicago when Roland isn't sleeping he spends most of the drive insulting Llewyn:
"What's the N stand for? Lou N. Davis?"
"Llewyn, Llewyn, L-L-E-W-Y-N, its Welsh."
"Well it would have to be something, stupid fucking name like that."
This road, unlike Kerouac's, is anti-climactic where nothing seems particularly open or alive; Llewyn is sent on an ominous journey, the only destination a standstill. Once he arrives in Chicago his presence is met with disregard and Llewyn, who can barely afford his trip back to New York, returns to his family home in Queens. Taking a break from the dreary clubs, Llewyn visits his father in a care facility, whose eyes blankly stare at his son as he sings "Ladies of Spain." Llewyn, a former merchant seaman, has decided to set sail again after saying goodbye to his father for what he assumes will be the last time.
There are no substantial highs and lows in Llewyn's world, just the humdrum of life's many blows as he tries to find more substantial gigs and a couch to sleep on. While Alexander Payne's Nebraska achieved authenticity, Llewyn Davis takes us on a journey with a beginning, middle and end more familiar in real life than on film. Sometimes the only thing a searcher finds is a dead end and an unlikely companion, for Llewyn it's a cat named Ulysses and a singing career going nowhere.
While the plot remains subdued, the mood of the film is striking. Shot in a rusty muted haze and set in a time and place when "the village" was young and starving, as opposed to the recent culmination of six figure salaries amongst NYU's elite. And then there are the songs, folk, the black liquorish of music which only few have a palate for. The film plays on this with songs, melodies and sweaters more appropriate for kindergarten than mass appeal, but it also gives us a stirring rendition of Fare Thee Well, an 18th-century English folk ballad, where a lover bids farewell before setting out on a journey:
I remember one night, a drizzling rain
Round my heart i felt an achin' pain
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
As Llewyn explains at the begging and end of the film, "if it was never new, and never gets old, than it's a folk song."
There is a haunting subtlety to Llewyn's journey that will not take hold immediately, and its nuances may creep in as the mind wonders while waiting in line at the grocery store. Certain aspects of the story will fail to take hold (nothing particularly mind-altering occurs) while others-the Chicago road trip and Llewyn's fathers blank eyes, will never say farewell.