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December 31, 2011

Amazing tracking shots

A long time ago, I read what was described as one of the most amazing tracking shots in film, starting at a great height and ending up underwater. (A tracking shot is a long single take with the camera moving.) It sounded incredible but I did not think I would ever see it because I did not know the name of the film and besides in those days the only way to see a film was in theaters and if you missed it on its first run you were pretty much out of luck unless they showed it again at a film festival.

For some reason, I recalled the tracking shot description a few days ago and, thanks to the internet, was able to find it. It occurs at the beginning of the 1964 Soviet Union-Cuba joint production Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba). Here it is, with the shot beginning at the 2:10 mark.

It turns out that the same film has in my opinion an even more incredible tracking shot that begins at the 1:40 mark of the clip below.

You watch in amazement and wonder "How the hell did they do that?"

It is good to remember that this film was made in the days when equipment was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today and there was no post-production computer wizardry. These were real virtuoso performances by the director and cinematographer, that required exquisite timing by everyone involved. This is why I am far more impressed with the special effects in old films like this and 2001: A Space Odyssey than in, say, The Matrix.

December 27, 2011

James Garner

James Garner is one of my favorite actors. As a child, I was a devoted fan of his TV western series Maverick in which he played a nattily dressed gambler who, while not a coward, would go to great lengths to avoid a fight that might mess up his clothes. His later TV series like the The Rockford Files and his films built on his image of the friendly, easy-going guy who finds himself in situations that he would rather avoid but deals with it anyway. That personality was what made me like him.

So I enjoyed reading the review of his memoir in The Atlantic. As the review says:

He really is like the men he plays onscreen, even unto the modest requirements symbolized by the humble trailer that serves Jim Rockford for a residence. He is thoughtful, honest, and fundamentally gentle, although he has knocked men down when riled. On the evidence given here, one doesn't doubt that they asked for it. One doesn't doubt this guy at all.

One of Garner's great charms is that he seems like a really nice guy but it is almost impossible to know if the private personas of famous people match their public image. But the boyfriend of a friend of mine is a character actor who has acted in many films and gets the 'below the title' credit assigned to character actors who have significant roles. He is the kind of actor you recognize on the screen as having seen before but cannot easily recall the specific film. When I met him once he mentioned a film that he was working on with Garner and I asked about him and he replied that Garner in real life was even nicer than his public image.

Given that so many of one's childhood favorites later turn out to have feet of clay, it was nice in this case to have a childhood impression reinforced.

Here's the trailer for one of his films, Support Your Local Sheriff

December 21, 2011

Why this remake?

The new film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is being released today.

I have not read the books but saw the Swedish trilogy of films and they were pretty good. They are also recent, all being released in 2009 so I don't understand the reasons for this remake. The new version also takes place in Sweden and seems to have the same plot with the same characters and names, and the trailer seems awfully similar to the original, so I am baffled as to why it was done.

The only benefit seems to be to not have subtitles. I know that some people don't like them but they don't bother me in the least. In fact, after the film is over, I often cannot recall whether the film was in English or I was reading subtitles. Subtitles can also be an advantage because you don't miss mumbled words and the spoken words do not get drowned by ambient sounds, not an insignificant factor when you are watching at home, and your dog can get excited by seeing a squirrel and let loose a fusillade of barks.

Maybe the reason is purely commercial. The books have been huge bestsellers and by making pretty much the same film but in English with a well-known star like Daniel Craig, Hollywood hopes to cash in on the phenomenon and make a bundle.

December 19, 2011

Film review: Hot Coffee

I just saw Hot Coffee, an excellent and disturbing award-winning documentary about the concerted effort by big corporations that, under the banner of 'tort reform', seek to deprive people of their right to sue them for the damage they inflict. See the film's website for more information and for the interview that director Susan Saladoff had with Stephen Colbert, that I also linked to earlier.

Here's the trailer for the film.

The film takes its title from the famous case in which Stella Liebeck, an elderly woman, sued McDonalds because of the injuries she suffered when she spilled their hot coffee over her legs. A jury awarded her $160,000 in damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. McDonalds and other big corporations exploited this case to create a vast mythology about 'jackpot justice' in which they alleged that people filed frivolous lawsuits against big corporations and doctors in the hope that they would strike it rich, and that the cost of defending against these charges and paying the judgments was passed on to the rest of us. The corporations successfully appealed to the crocodile mentality in people that resents what seems like undeserved good fortune to people who are just like them but in which they do not share, and the case became the punch line for comedians.

The corporations have used that case to steadily encroach on the rights of people by instituting caps on damages, forcing binding arbitration on people so that they cannot sue in court but must have their case decided by an arbitrator who is picked by the very corporation that harmed them, and pouring money into judicial races so that any convictions that people obtain are overturned by higher courts and the laws depriving people of their day in court are ruled constitutional. The film shows how the oligarchy works, creating a pseudo-legal system that is friendly to business and government and conspires against ordinary people.

The documentary starts by exposing the central myths of the hot coffee case, which was that it involved a doddering old woman who spilled coffee on herself while stupidly drinking while driving. In actual fact, Liebeck was an active and robust woman who had just retired a couple of months earlier and was the passenger in the car that was parked in the lot when the event occurred. But what was shocking to me was the scale of the burns suffered by the woman. They were horrendous and required major skin grafts. The photos of the injury were horrifying and I had to turn away. What was worse, McDonalds had received many previous complaints about their hot coffee but had done nothing.

The idea of having some caps on damages seems reasonable to most people because of the perception that juries are emotional idiots who pick some number out of a hat out of excessive sympathy for the victim. The film examines a case in which a child (one of a pair of twins) was born with brain damage because of medical malpractice by a doctor who had had previous problems. The jury award carefully took into account the amount of money the family would need to provide a lifetime of care to their child but this amount was arbitrarily reduced because of the caps laws passed by the state legislature, which means that Medicaid (i.e., taxpayers) will have to foot part of the bill while the doctors and hospitals escape the full consequences.

In the case of the damage caused by binding arbitration, the film looked at the case of a young woman who was gang raped by her fellow Halliburton employees in Iraq and then when she complained was locked in a storage trailer and was released only because her father in the US got their congressman involved. But she could not sue Halliburton for damages because her employment contract had a binding arbitration clause that she was unaware of and she had to fight hard just to get her case heard in court.

The film says that many of the contracts we now enter into, such as with our credit card companies, include such clauses in the fine print, when we originally sign up or in the modifications to our agreements that we get in the mail and which hardly anyone reads. Arbitrators overwhelmingly rule in favor of the companies. It is not hard to see why. The arbitrators are picked and paid by the company and make their living by deciding these cases and those who rule against the companies find that they rarely get asked again. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

The film also examines the case of how business interests pour money into electing judges who will be sympathetic to them, in particular waging a relentless campaign to defeat a Mississippi Supreme Court judge who was deemed to be not subservient enough.

The filmmakers interviewed some of the jurors in the hot coffee case and they explained how they weighed the evidence and arrived at their verdict and the size of the judgment. Rather than being stupid people who picked a large number at random, they carefully weighed how much blame should be borne by the woman and how much by McDonalds and what punitive damages would be appropriate to send McDonalds the message that they had acted irresponsibly by cavalierly ignoring the warnings about its product. They settled on two days worth of coffee sales revenue.

I have been called for jury duty several times and although I have never been picked for an actual case, I have spent a lot of time in the jury poolroom talking with my fellow potential jurors. These are just ordinary people from all walks of life and for some of whom it was a real hardship to serve on a jury because they lost wages. But I was impressed at how seriously they took their task and they confirmed my belief that I would much rather put my fate in the hands of a jury of my peers than in those of an arbitrator or judge, however well-educated or experienced they are.

December 09, 2011

The Room and film clichés

I recently saw the film The Room (2003). This is a film that got brutally panned in reviews and I watched it fully expecting it would be terrible. Why subject myself to such a waste of time? Because it belongs in that rare category of films that are so bad that they are good. As one person said, The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad films, so awful that it has developed a cult following, with special midnight screenings for the faithful who anticipate every scene, throwing plastic spoons and footballs at appropriate moments, and yelling out key pieces of dialogue.

Most ordinary bad films are bad because they are the work of a group of people who could not quite get their act together, with the writers, actors, and director either not agreeing on the vision or with one or more key people putting in a subpar performance. The really great bad films are usually the result of a single person with a vision that is badly flawed, combined with ineptitude. In this case, that person is Tommy Wiseau who is the writer, director, producer, and star and who, as far anyone can tell about this person with a somewhat mysterious past, had never made a film before or even acted in one.

Film making involves a lot of conventions that we do not notice (if done well) but are essential in enabling the viewer to follow the film without being explicitly told what is going on. For example, a shot of a character gazing intently at something is usually followed by one that shows what he was looking at. If you are shown the exterior of a building followed by shot of a room, we are justified in assuming that the room is inside the building. And so on. Wiseau violates cinematic conventions at every turn. Characters appear that do not have any backstory and then disappear without explanation, plotlines are introduced and dropped, events are foreshadowed that don't materialize, scenes inside the small apartment are interspersed for no apparent reason by random scenic views of San Francisco (the Golden Gate bridge should receive credit simply for the amount of screen time it gets), the dialogue is painful, the acting is either wooden or overwrought, and there is lack of continuity in the storyline.

For example, we are told repeatedly that Wiseau and his fiancé are going to get married in a month. Then late in the film, Wiseau and three friends appear in tuxedos and Wiseau is profusely complimented on his appearance, suggesting that this is his wedding day. They then go into an alleyway and throw a football around (throwing a football around in confined spaces is a recurring theme) until one of them falls down. The film then continues with everyone in regular clothes and it turns out that the wedding is still a month away and no explanation is given for the mysterious tuxedo scene.

At the end, Wiseau gets really upset (ostensibly by his girl friend's betrayal but perhaps because he realizes his film is a disaster) and sets about systematically trashing his apartment. He sweeps everything off the mantelpiece, breaks glasses, throws things at the mirror, flings his TV through a window, overturns furniture, empties the contents of dresser drawers, etc. As I watched it, I realized that I have seen this film cliché many times and it made me wonder: Do people in real life do this? I am not talking about bad boy rock musicians or other celebrities who trash their hotel or dressing rooms under the influence of drugs or because that has become something they think is expected of them and gets them publicity. I am talking about people who trash the places where they actually live because they are angry or upset.

I know that I wouldn't because, at the very least, I would have to clean up the mess afterwards and go to all the trouble and expense of replacing the things I broke. It all seems so pointless. Is this kind of tantrum something that happens only in films? Do the readers of this blog personally know any ordinary person who has ever done something like that, or even just thrown a glass at someone or into the fireplace, another popular cliché?

So watching The Room at least prompted in me one serious question, so it was not a total waste of time.

November 04, 2011

Guy Fawkes day

Tomorrow (November 5th) is Guy Fawkes day. The mask used to represent him in the film V for Vendetta, has become the symbol of those who fight oppressive governments and systems. I predicted back in 2006 when it was released that it would become a cult classic, and I am particularly glad to see that come true.

v-for-vendetta-751826.jpg

(Image courtesy of reader Norm.)

November 01, 2011

Documentary: Hot Coffee

Stephen Colbert interviews Susan Saladoff, the creator of the documentary with the above name, that challenges the myth put out by the corporate industry and its pliant media allies that trivial lawsuits are out of control and that people need to be limited in their ability to take big corporations to court.

Here is the trailer for the documentary.

September 29, 2011

The strange case of disappearing color in films

If I walk into a room where someone is watching a film on TV, I can always tell immediately whether the film is a recent one or from a few decades ago, even without clues about the actors. But I would not have been able to explain how I knew this.

It turns out that it is due to the fact that films now look different in the color palette that they use. In earlier days the colors in films were more natural and often quite lush and vibrant and ranged over all the hues. Photographing color is tricky and apparently directors in days gone by paid close attention to the colors that appeared on screen to prevent any jarring effects. But with modern films, it is possible to manipulate color in the post-production phase and thus less attention is paid to this aspect of filmmaking photography.

The trend in modern color films is to drain the colors out and impose a kind of subdued bluish tint. This article gives examples of the change. Look at the stills from some old and new films and you will see immediately what I mean.

Why did this happen? This article explains that with the ability to digitize film and manipulate its color, film makers have during the post-production phase deliberately set about to created the somewhat drab look that is now so ubiquitous.

You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land? Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal. And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate. So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background. I mean, people are really important, aren't they?

And so we now have this teal-orange dominance in modern films. Although I had not read these articles when I posted the item about old and new film trailers, those two trailers illustrate this point quite nicely.

September 26, 2011

Trailers for films

It is interesting to see how trailers have changed over time. I recall a few decades ago, they would have fairly long sequences but with a loud, urgent, voice-over narration in the annoying style of old newsreels. Take this one for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

These days that obnoxious narrator is gone, to be replaced by an occasional and more subdued voiceover. But now the trailers have annoying rapid-fire cuts that last for very short times. The goal these days seems to be to show a fraction of every scene of the entire film in the hope that at least something will appeal to the audience. I have got into the habit of playing a game in which I try to identify which bit comes from the climactic scene of the film. Here's a trailer for one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

No doubt these trailers are the products of extensive market research but I wonder if showing a few scenes in more depth in the old style (but without the old narrator) might engage the viewer and cause them to want to see the film more than these scattershot montages.

September 18, 2011

Disco scene from Airplane!

I just watched this film for the umpteenth time.

September 07, 2011

Film review: Taxi to the Dark Side

I finally got around to watching Alex Gibney's Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) which recounts the sordid story of the American government indefinitely detaining, torturing, and murdering people in its custody as a result of the so-called war on terror. I had avoided seeing it, since I knew I would be both sickened and angered by the images and descriptions of the treatment of prisoners. But the recent emergence from under whatever rock he lives in of Dick Cheney, the chief force behind these abhorrent policies, to promote his book made me decide that I had to see it.

The film takes its title from two key themes. One is the story of a young Afghan man named Dilawar who drove a taxi for a living but one day was picked up by Afghan security forces and turned over to the US as a suspected terrorist. He was taken to Bagram base and within five days he ended up dead, his body covered with bruises and his legs beaten into pulp, resulting in homicide being listed as the cause of death by the medical examiner. The other was Cheney's statement that in the war on terror it was necessary for the US to go to the 'dark side' and do things in secret that were necessary to keep America safe.

I am glad that I saw the film but it is not for the squeamish. It vividly reminds one, using still and video footage and re-enactments, of the ghastly horrors that took place in US prisons at the Bagram base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Guantanamo. Here's the trailer.

The whole torture process was an example of cynical manipulation. Aided by its legal advisors like Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo, and Jay Bybee, the Bush administration created a policy that allowed even the most heinous of treatment. Yoo even refused to categorically rule out the right of the president to order the crushing of a child's testicles in order to coerce the child's father during interrogations.

This policy also seemed to be designed expressly to protect the high level people in the Bush administration (George W. Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, David Addison, Donald Feith, Lewis Libby, and other civilian and military high command) from any repercussions while allowing them, if things got messy, to pin the blame on the low-level people who actually carried out the acts. The way this was done was to let the word go out that the normal rules of operation (such as those specified under the Geneva Conventions and in standard US military guidelines known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice) were no longer operable but not specify in writing what the new guidelines were. Instead the low-level interrogators in the military and CIA were given a wink and a nod, suggesting that anything goes in the drive to get information. As a result, the interrogators were allowed to run amuck. And they did. We saw with the infamous Stanford prison experiment that even ordinary undergraduates can, in just a couple of days, become sadistic monsters when given unchecked power over other students who were just like them. You can imagine what can happen when soldiers in war are given even greater freedom over people whom they perceive as the enemy and are so different from them and who speak a different language.

Even in the face of stiff competition from a morally bankrupt administration, Cheney is clearly the most contemptible, a cowardly sadist, someone who seems to have a weird sense of pride in having caused the suffering and death of others, who has a grandiose image of himself as the savior of the country. This is a man who should be treated as a pariah, shunned by all decent people, not treated as simply another retired politician. While the whole Bush crew deserves to be tried for war crimes, he is the most deserving. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff, now says that he thinks that Cheney, for all his bravado, fears being tried for war crimes and that he would be willing to testify against him at a war crimes trial.

But of course, this will not happen in the US because, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Obama has shown himself to be as complicit in torture and war crimes as any member of the Bush regime and anxious to protect his predecessors and has effectively granted them blanket immunity. He does so because he is continuing and even expanding the detention and torture of prisoners. Obama even claims the right to execute US citizens abroad if he thinks they deserve it. The only way that any of these people will be prosecuted as war criminals is if they go abroad and encounter an independent-minded prosecutor in another country, since crimes against humanity have no jurisdictional or time limits.

As the documentary emphasizes, habeas corpus and the right of an accused to a trial by jury is the bedrock of the rule of law, a foundation of a civilized society, the violation of which was one of the crimes of British rule that was specified in the Declaration of Independence that precipitated the American revolution. Yet the US now casually disregards it. We accept as normal the indefinite detention of people without trial or access to lawyers merely on the government's say so, kangaroo courts that are custom designed to secure pre-ordained verdicts, and the abuse, torture, and even murder of anyone the government decrees to be an enemy.

The moral corruption of the US government is deep and bipartisan. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that some day Americans will look back at the things that were done in its name by the US government in the war on terror and wonder with amazement how it could have been that such acts, though widely known, did not rouse the public into righteous anger at the subversion of all the values that a decent society should hold dear.

August 26, 2011

Mythic hero films

When I was a teenager in Sri Lanka, there seemed to be a never-ending supply of adventure films involving bare-chested muscular heroes (usually played by body builder Steve Reeves) portraying mythic characters fighting evildoers and monsters. The films had titles like Goliath and the Barbarians, Ursus, Hercules, Hercules Unchained, and Hercules and the Three Bears (ok, I made the last one up). These films were made in Italy and the actors' lines were badly dubbed into English. The films were low-budget and cheesy, and although they and made for some campy fun, one quickly grew tired of them.

By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger came along, I had no desire whatsoever to revisit that genre and in fact have not seen a single film of his. I will not see the current remake of Conan the Barbarian either, but I found Stephen Whitty's review to be hilarious.

July 22, 2011

Film review: The Company Men

The film looks at the effect of the loss of jobs in the current economy, but from the point of view of the upper middle classes. It centers around the character played by Ben Affleck, a well-paid executive who suddenly loses his job as a result of his division in a conglomerate being shut down. The reasons for the shut down and layoffs are the usual: the top management of a manufacturing company shifts production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and tries to goose up its stock price (thus increasing their personal wealth via their stock options) by eliminating jobs to increase profits, especially laying off older workers who are paid more, all the while paying its chief executives high salaries and providing them with fancy offices, corporate jets, and other perks.

Also in the film are the always watchable veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as much older senior executives who also lose their jobs, the former because he tries to protest the lay-offs, especially of long-time employees like Cooper. The film looks at how they try to adjust to suddenly feeling useless, the shame they feel at their friends and neighbors and relatives knowing about their sudden drop in status, and the sting of not having calls returned and being rejected for job after job.

This is not a great film but it is worth seeing. Initially it is hard to feel any sympathy for the Affleck character who plays the role of a shallow yuppie jerk, living in a large suburban house, driving a Porsche, regularly playing golf at his country club, thinking that he is so good that the recession will not touch him and that he will be snapped up for a similar high-paying job immediately, and refusing to accept the fact that his new reduced circumstances may last a long time and require him to adjust to a much more modest lifestyle. He also looks down on his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is self-employed as a home-builder who does much of the work himself and hires one or two people to help him. But Affleck manages to humanize this character so that you do eventually start feeling sorry for him.

Since I do not move around in such corporate or social circles, it was hard for me to get a sense of how realistic the situations and portrayals were. The firings of even the very senior executives seemed too abrupt and secretive to me. It also seemed odd that people who had earned so much money over such a long period did not seem to have sufficient savings or other reserves to ride out not having an income for a few months, so much so that they cannot even pay their children's college tuition. Do such people actually blow almost their entire incomes living high on the hog, thinking that they will never face any setbacks in life?

The US is notorious for having a very low savings rate. I wrote in an earlier post about how 50% of the population are economically fragile, in that they would find it hard to lay their hands on $2,000 in 30 days if a sudden emergency should require it. I thought that this would apply to mostly the middle class and poorer who had less disposable income but this film suggests that this may extend to the more wealthy upper-middle class too. Maybe these people try too hard to emulate to the lifestyles of the people profiled in David Sirota's "Such it up and cope" article and feel that a fancy house, a Porsche, country club membership, and fancy vacations are essentials, not luxuries, and thus spend as much as they make, if not more.

One interesting side note in the film was seeing how the executive outplacement system, which is a benefit offered to executives to ease the sting of being fired, works. It seems to be much like working in an office in that you are given a desk, a computer, a phone in a shared cubicle (and maybe a private office if you are a fired senior executive), plus some coaching on how to find a job, except that it is for a limited time and your job is to find a job.

Here's the trailer.

June 25, 2011

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

There was something very likeable about stage, screen, and TV actor Peter Falk. Just seeing his rumpled everyman persona appear on the screen made you smile, just as you would when an old friend enters a room. So his death yesterday brought some sadness.

He will be best remembered for his recurring character of Lieutenant Columbo. The TV series was formulaic but in a good way. There was no violence, no car or foot chases, no explosions, just old fashioned storytelling. The beginning showed the crime being committed so there was never any mystery involved. The plot revolved around how Columbo pieced together the sequence of events that resulted in him determining the culprit, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game leading to the capture of the guilty. This focus on the 'how' rather than the 'who' also solved the problem that besets traditional whodunit TV mystery series which like to cast a well-known guest actor each week because the most meaty guest role is usually that of the villain, which gives away the surprise.

As an added bonus (for me at least) there was also a class element to the Columbo stories. In every episode that I saw, the criminal was very rich and moved in high society and viewed with condescension the disheveled cigar smoker in the worn and grubby raincoat, driving a beat up old car, and alluding to his never-seen blue-collar family and background. The criminals would draw the conclusion that he could not be very smart and that they were safe, and the slow dawning on them that that they had underestimated him and that this befuddled character would be their Nemesis always added a pleasant zest to the ending in which they received their comeuppance.

June 18, 2011

A feature film that deals with atheism

I came across a film called The Ledge that supposedly has an explicit atheist as a main character. The film's website has this press release:

The Ledge is the first film in Hollywood history that puts an atheist into the hero role in a production that features A-list stars. It is written and directed by Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dawin, the scientist who discovered evolution, the biggest challenge to religion since Gallileo. The film was nominated for Best US Drama at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and stars Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy, Liv Tyler, Lord of the Rings, Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee, Patrick Wilson, Watchmen, and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, Crash, Iron Man.

On the rooftop of a city skyscraper, Detective Hollis (Terrence Howard) pleads with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) not to jump. What he does not know is that Gavin, an atheist, is involved in a deadly feud with Joe (Patrick Wilson), a Christian extremist. Joe's wife, Shana, (Liv Tyler) is caught in the middle as Joe seeks to test Gavin's faith or lack of it. Cutting between the present and the past, tension escalates as verbal shots give way to deadly threats in a race against time that neither God nor the police can stop. Along the way, the film provocatively explores the intellectual and emotional conflicts between religion and atheism.

Here's the trailer.

May 24, 2011

Film review: Gasland

This award-winning documentary provides a stark warning about the danger that hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' as it is popularly known, poses to the water supply in the nation and to its air quality. It blasts the notion that natural gas is a 'clean' source of energy. It may be clean when it is used but the way that fracking extracts it from shale rock formations underground creates very serious environmental and health hazards.

Fracking involves pumping huge amounts of water mixed with about 600 chemicals (some known to be toxic and carcinogenous) deep underground at high pressure to create the equivalent of an explosion to fracture the shale rock, thus releasing the natural gas which is then extracted. But only about half of the contaminated water is recovered. The rest, mixed with natural gas, can end up in the water table and watersheds and streams and rivers, polluting them.

The film has much lower production values than Inside Job but, like that film, will make you angry at the way that big corporations, in this case the oil and natural gas industry, aided by its allies in government, ride roughshod over ordinary people, destroying their water supplies and air and, in the process, their very lives. It is heartbreaking to see ordinary people being treated like dirt and having nowhere to turn.

Here's the trailer for Gasland:

It is a personal film, starting with Josh Fox, who was involved with the writing, directing, producing, and camerawork, receiving a letter from a gas company offering him $100,000 for the right to drill wells on the 20 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania, a wooded area with clear running streams, on which his parents had built their home.

Fox travels the country to talk with the people whose lives have been impacted by fracking. In investigating the effect of such drilling, he discovers that it can result in destruction of the environment and the health of the people in the vicinity. People's wells become contaminated and the air gets polluted, resulting in people and animals developing serious health problems.

Most of us assume that industries are subject to regulations imposed by the government to protect people and the environment. The high water mark for such protections occurred in the early 1970s when presidents Nixon and Ford (both Republicans incidentally) signed the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). What I had not been aware of, and was shocked to learn from the film, was that in 2005, the energy bill that was pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industry from those three laws as well as the CERCLA/Superfund Law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability) Act (1980). The oil and gas companies were also exempted from even informing the public what chemicals were used in the fracking fluid. They could now act with impunity and they did. Cheney's former company Halliburton benefited greatly from these exemptions.

But that is not the only way that these big companies get their way. They also use their power to defund the regulatory agencies that are supposed to provide oversight to protect people and the environment so that they cannot match the resources that these corporations can bring to bear. That is what this current push against 'big government' is largely about. It is not about eliminating waste or saving money or cutting red tape by reducing the bureaucracy. It is all about making sure that federal, state, and local governments, the only entities that (in principle at least) represent ordinary people and are large enough to act as a counterweight to industry, are made ineffective by cutting the budgets of their regulatory agencies, forcing them to reduce staff and creating working conditions so bad that they cannot attract the kinds of technical experts who are needed.

The people in the Tea Party and other groups who rail against 'big government' and think that 'drill, baby, drill' is a cute and catchy slogan, are being played for suckers by the big corporations and the oligarchy. I wonder how many of the ordinary people that Fox interviewed in the film, whose lives and livelihood were destroyed by the oil and gas industry, were among those who had bought into the idea that government is too big, and whether they now realize that they were duped.

One of the most alarming things in the film were the maps of the country that showed the network of rivers and watersheds, and superimposed on them were the shale formations and the natural gas wells that had been drilled. Much of it consists of public lands that the oil and gas corporations are eagerly eyeing to exploit for their purposes. You immediately see that almost the entire water supply of the US is threatened. Furthermore, they are discovering shale formations around the globe and you can be sure that fracking will spread as money is dangled before the eyes of poor people and nations to provide the oil and gas companies the same immunity they got here.

Gasland should have had people up in arms but although it received an Oscar nomination (it lost to Inside Job), it has not aroused much anger. Interestingly, the film has aroused public opinion in France against fracking and there are moves in that country for a nationwide ban on fracking, citing what we have learned in the US. It seems like people in the US are passively accepting the destruction of their once pristine lands and water supplies, and are reduced to serving as guinea pigs that other nations benefit from.

May 23, 2011

Film review: Inception (no spoilers)

Following in the tracks of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film takes a speculative look at how the brain works while maintaining at least some level of plausibility, unlike the case of the Matrix franchise which seemed to have been a case of special effects run amuck.

Inception examines the possibility of one or more people entering the dream of another and thereby manipulating that person's dream to discover secrets or, as in the main storyline here, plant the germ of an idea in the mind so that the person thinks it originated spontaneously. I found it to be an interesting film. It plays with the age-old question that everyone has speculated about at some point about how we would know whether the lives we perceive we are living are real or a dream.

One has to follow the film closely because the story involves a dream within a dream within a dream, i.e., three levels down, and the story jumps between the three levels. The plot depends heavily on the idea that time in dreams elapses ten times faster than it does in real life, so that when one has descended to the third level, one second in real life corresponds to about 1,000 seconds in dream time, or about 15 minutes.

I read recently (but unfortunately did not keep the reference and cannot find it now) that this view has been challenged and that dream time and real time are similar. I dream a lot and since seeing the film, I have tried to remember on waking if the events in my dreams seemed to cover a lot of time and haven't noticed such an effect.

Inception is the kind of film that, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, requires a second (or even a third) viewing in order to try and fill in some of the details that confused one the first time around. But I will not be doing so. The reason is that the film is too long, running about two and a half hours. While I think that the ideal length for a film is 90 minutes, some films require a longer time to do the story justice and I have no problem with that. David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, for example, runs well over three hours and is well worth it.

What I dislike are films (Casino Royale is another example) that seem to spend a lot of time on chases and shootouts that seem highly repetitive and do not serve to advance the story. I am guessing that filmmakers add these scenes to make things exciting and suspenseful but I find them boring and this film could have eliminated about 30 minutes without any loss and that would have, at least to me, made it better. Maybe I have seen too many such chases since the classic one (below) in Bullitt (1968), where Steve McQueen's Ford Mustang flying through the air in San Francisco created the template. Maybe younger filmgoers are not as jaded as I am and enjoy these extended chases.

Inception has lots of special effects, such as an entire cityscape being folded over so that the streets of one part get placed upside down on top of another part so that cars drive along a street that turns upwards and then come back upside down. But I find that with the advent of sophisticated computers, these effects don't wow me anymore. Since Star Wars came out in 1977, we know that computers can produce all these spectacular visual effects and creating these effects have become the province of graphic artists. Although they do require a lot of painstaking work, they don't arouse any more wonder than the effects produced by cartoon animators because animations and computers both enable you to ignore the laws of science,

It was different before the days when computers could seamlessly blend live action with illustrations. When you saw special effects in a film you wondered how they did it and when the secrets were revealed you marveled at the cleverness of the filmmakers. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in 1968 and wondering how they captured the effects of space travel. Decades later I watched the DVD version that in its bonus section explained some of the tricks used and it was impressive to see how with ordinary objects and clever camera work they managed to do extraordinary things despite having to work within the constraints of the laws of science and with gravity. That required real ingenuity.

Here's the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

April 23, 2011

Phone calls in films

To enjoy a film, you have to suspend disbelief and get absorbed in the story. One sure way to destroy that feeling and take you completely out of the film is having a character dial a phone number that starts with 555, which are never given out to customers. They do this because apparently viewers often will note the numbers and call them (I have no idea what drives people to do this) so that if a real number is used, the owner of that number gets tons of annoying calls.

In the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy "Bruce Almighty," God's phone number (776-2323, no area code) appears on the Carrey character's pager, so of course moviegoers called it and asked to speak to God. That's kind of funny, unless you happened to own that number in your area code.

The Associated Press reported that a Florida woman threatened to sue Universal Pictures because she was receiving 20 calls an hour on her cellphone. The phone number also connected divine-seeking callers to a church in Sanford, N.C., where the minister, who happened to be named Bruce, was not amused. The BBC reported that even a man in the Manchester, England, area was receiving up to 70 calls a day from folks seeking help and forgiveness.

At the time, Universal explained that the number it chose was not in use in the Buffalo area, where the movie was set. The studio subsequently replaced it in TV and home video versions with, yes, a 555 number.

I have wondered why, with their multi-million dollar budgets, film companies don't simply purchase a few dozens of real numbers that are sufficiently varied and nondescript so that no viewer would likely remember that they have seen them before in other films.

So I was glad to see in the above article that some films are purchasing real numbers where, if you should call it, you receive a recorded message, maybe promoting the film.

April 09, 2011

Title song from Singham

Apparently a new film has been released in India with the title character sharing my last name. The way my last name is spelled in Tamil leads to a slight ambiguity in transliterating to English, with those favoring a hard g sound writing it as Singam and pronouncing it 'Sing gum' with heavy stress on both syllables while those favoring a soft g (as my family does) writing it as Singham, to rhyme with Bingham.

The Singham/Singam in the film seems to a tough but honest cop in the Dirty Harry mold, as you can see from this music video created around the title song.

April 08, 2011

Marjoe

Some time ago I wrote a review of the documentary Marjoe of a Pentecostal child evangelist/faith healer in which Marjoe Gortner (an unbeliever and now an adult) gives an insider's account of how the racket works.

You can now see the entire film online. It is quite fascinating

March 28, 2011

The lessons of V for Vendetta

After reading the book The Count of Monte Cristo and seeing the 1934 film adaptation, I watched the film V for Vendetta again and enjoyed it even more, as it is one of those films whose message grows on you with repeated viewings (though the plot holes also become more apparent) and I cannot recommend it enough. The trailer focuses a lot more on Natalie Portman, the box office draw, than the film does.

I could see why the character of V would be drawn to the story of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both he and Edmond Dantes seek vengeance for injustices and terrible harm done to them personally, as well as see themselves as agents for bringing evil people to justice. Here is a key scene in which a speech that V gives explains what is going on and why things have to be changed.

I predicted that the film V for Vendetta would become a cult classic and that seems to be coming true. Its basic message, that of people waking up to their oppression and taking on a cruel and ruthless power structure that uses the media and religion as tools of control, has caught on and I have been observing people in various demonstrations wearing the iconic V mask and using the V symbol, mimicking the climactic scene in the film where the people rise up against their oppressive rulers.

V for Vendetta.jpeg v-for-vendetta-logo-wallpaper.jpg

The group Anonymous that consists largely of computer hackers sees itself in the tradition of V, fighting against oppressive structures behind a shield of anonymity. It even uses the V mask on its website where it describes its vision of expanding access to information and breaking down the barriers of secrecy that prevent people from realizing what is actually going on. This group is acting behind the scenes to support the current uprisings in the Middle East.

A recent communiqué further explains its mission.

Under most circumstances, ordinary people have little chance against the massive firepower that rulers will unleash through their security forces against protestors. The prime purpose of the armed security forces in any country is less to defend the country from outside forces and more to be used against their own people if they should challenge the power structure. Soldiers are deliberately hardened during their training so that they will be willing to kill even their own people. We see this happening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, and it is likely to happen in Saudi Arabia and Syria and Jordan. And, yes, it will also happen in the US if the people should really rise up in mass protest against the oligarchic rule that is going on here.

What stops security forces from killing civilians is if they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers arrayed against them, so that except for the psychopaths, even the most hardened troops on the front line begin to suspect that rather than saving the nation from those who would harm it, they are on the wrong side and are being used as tools to perpetuate a power structure that is actually against the best interests of the nation.

For all the ballyhoo about the use of social networks in the Middle East revolts, that is only a tiny part of the story, since only a small, though influential, minority has access to these new technologies. Besides, technology alone cannot overthrow oppressive governments. The basic message of V for Vendetta is that it is when large numbers of people are willing to get out of their homes and go out into the streets and rise up against their tyrannical rulers that regimes get toppled. As the tagline of the film says, "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."

The people in the Middle East are doing precisely what V recommends, whether they have seen the film or not. These protests are spreading. I don't know where they will go.

March 26, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

Elizabeth-Taylor.jpgElizabeth Taylor was stunningly beautiful, a wonderful actor, and seemed to be (to the extent that one can infer about public personalities by their public actions) a nice person who supported many worthy causes (especially AIDS prevention and treatment in its early days when many did not want to be associated with it) but who unfortunately could not seem to find happiness in her private life and battled many illnesses and personal demons.

She is the only famous actor that I have seen in person. It happened sometime between mid 1962 and 1963 when I was living in England for a year. My parents were friendly with an executive at Pinewood Studios and he invited my mother and me to spend the day visiting the studios and wandering around the various sets. At lunchtime he took us to the cafeteria and there was Elizabeth Taylor at an adjoining table. They were shooting some final scenes from her epic Cleopatra and she was in costume, famous hairstyle and all.

Of course my mother, a big fan, was far more excited by seeing Elizabeth Taylor than a boy like me who would have preferred to see the action heroes of that time. But even at that age I could tell that she was really pretty and this is the image that I will remember her by.

March 22, 2011

Review: The Nature of Existence

I watched this documentary yesterday. The filmmaker and narrator Roger Nygard is looking for the meaning of existence and his method of finding out is to travel the globe and pose questions on god, the soul, happiness, sex, the afterlife, etc. to people from various religious groups and from scientists and just record their responses. There is no attempt to challenge the stated views or to analyze or to create some kind of synthesis. What we get are snippets of people's views from all across the spectrum.

The documentary is fairly entertaining but not deep. The filmmaker seemed to spend a lot of time on two particular groups. One group consisted of serious scientists whom, as far as I could tell, were all atheists, and the other group consisted of people from more exotic religious groupings, people whom we would not normally encounter, such as druids, new-age spiritualists, Indian mystics, and the like. There was one supposedly very popular Indian guru named Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who got a lot of screen time who had a twinkle in his eye as he delivered his banal fortune-cookie aphorisms that suggested that he knew he was perpetrating a con and was delighted that all these saps around him were buying it.

Mainstream Catholics and Protestants were represented by sober clergy and intellectuals while the evangelical Christians got the short shrift and were largely represented by a preacher who rails at people on university campus grounds, a wrestling ministry that uses wrestling bouts as a means to evangelize, and drag racers. A lot of time was given to an Orthodox Judaic rabbi in Israel who spouted deep-sounding but meaningless words about the finite and the infinite.

The best segments were of a 12-year old girl, the neighbor of the filmmaker, who in a few pithy words dismissed the idea of both god and the afterlife.

Although Nygard did not have any overt point of view and ended with a somewhat trite statement of the 'why can't we all get along' sort, I thought the film had a definitely anti-religion subtext by contrasting sensible atheist views with the mumbo-jumbo of religions.

You can see clips at the film's website.

February 28, 2011

Inside Job Oscar acceptance speech

The producers of the documentary on the financial collapse point out the dirty open secret about the mess.

January 23, 2011

100 best movie quotes of all time

Jerry Coyne provides links to film clips that show the 100 best movie quotes of all time. Can you guess which one is #1?

Here's the first twenty.

Rather than quibble with the list or its rankings (after all, these were done by some anonymous person and reflect just his or her opinions), I found it fun to watch all the clips and note how many I had seen.

January 18, 2011

Film review: Good Hair (2009)

Hair is an important issue in the black community, getting way beyond the level of attention that people of other ethnicities give it. I first became aware of this fact a long time ago back in Sri Lanka as a student when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). As a young man of the streets, he adopted the then common practice of 'conking' (straightening his hair) and he vividly describes his first experience. As he became radicalized he decided that this attempt to adopt the hair styling of white people was a symbol of how much black people had internalized their sense of inferiority and subservience and he went back to his natural look. The 1960's was probably the high point of black acceptance of their natural hair. Nowadays it seems like the black community, especially women, has gone back to accepting straight hair and to even see it as desirable. One wonders what Malcolm X would have thought about this development.

I had not paid much attention to this question until I saw the documentary Good Hair (2009) last week. It is produced by comedian Chris Rock who acts as the viewer's guide through the incredibly complex world of hair products and styles aimed at the black community. Rock said his interest in this topic was piqued when one of his very young daughters came to him one day and asked him why she did not have 'good' hair. In searching for an answer, he and his film crew explored the economics, psychology, and sociology of the hair business and its users and it is a fascinating journey.

One way to get 'good' (i.e., straight) hair is to simply straighten it. I was vaguely aware that this involved the use of some chemicals but was stunned to learn that the main chemical in question in the 'relaxers' (as they are called) was sodium hydroxide. I recall almost nothing from my high school chemistry classes but one thing I do remember is being warned about how dangerous this chemical was (it even goes by the name 'caustic soda', which should be warning enough) and to avoid any contact with skin. And here were people regularly and routinely putting it on their heads.

Rock does not shy away from pointing out the dangers, having many of the people he interviews describe the pain of the process. They report that is produces an excruciating burning sensation and that if it is not washed off in time can result in serious scalp burns. If it gets into the eye it can cause blindness. To emphasize the dangers, Rock has a scientist put a few drops of it on a piece of supermarket chicken and shows how it burns a hole through the skin and into the flesh. The scientist also keeps an aluminum soda can in a vat of sodium hydroxide and after a few hours the entire can had dissolved. But despite this, even the parents of children as young as three put this product on their heads.

As I watched this, my mind immediately connected it to the former practice of foot binding in China, in that this was another sign of the extreme burdens imposed on women by the demands of society. A group of young high school graduates said that they felt that a black woman with natural hair simply would not be taken seriously in the business world and would be at a strong disadvantage when it came to being hired at all. It seems bizarre that if a black woman lets her hair grow naturally, she is perceived to be making some sort of militant political statement. This may be a relic of 1960s attitudes.

The other process of getting 'good' hair is known as 'weaving' and this involves braiding the hair tightly onto the scalp, sewing a tight mesh onto the hair, and then sewing hair that has been bundled into thick strands onto it. This process is also quite painful but at least it avoids putting dangerous chemicals on the scalp. The downside is that it is expensive (running into thousands of dollars) because it has to be done by a professional and takes a long time to complete, almost a whole day. Furthermore, once you get a weave, you are quite restricted in your activities. Going to a steam room or swimming, or even getting your hair wet in the rain, are some of the things that are out of the question. You cannot let anyone touch your hair either.

Where does the hair in the weaves come from? It turns out that it comes mostly from India. Apparently when Hindu women make vows to their god, in return for the sought-for favor they have their heads shaved. Hair is a sign of vanity so shaving one's head is a sign of one's devotion, a willingness to sacrifice for god. This shaving happens at the Hindu temples in assembly line fashion with people lining up to get it done, a process known as 'tonsure'. The hair that is cut is then collected by temple officials and sold to hair dealers, and one suspects that some religious leaders may be cynically exploiting the devotion and gullibility of believers to make a tidy profit by encouraging this practice and selling something that they are given for free. India has about a billion people and Rock says that about 85% of them have had their heads shaved at least twice in their lives. That is a lot of hair.

The hair dealers then clean and sort the hair into thick, long clumps (10-14 inches is about the desired length but the longer the better) that are then sealed in plastic packs and shipped off to the US. One Beverly Hills dealer who had a carry-on sized suitcase containing these packs of hair said that he could sell the whole lot in a few hours for about $10,000 to $15,000, which gives you some sense of the scale of the business. Some black women will spend enormous amounts of money on weaves and other hair products, even as they are struggling to pay the rent and utilities and buy food. The irony is that while the majority of customers who buy any kind of hair product are black (they purchase 80% of all hair products sold), the industry is owned and controlled by mostly white or Asian people.

The documentary spends quite a lot of time on the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show held in Atlanta. This is a huge extravaganza where vendors show off their latest products and it culminates in a contest in which four finalists compete to win the award for best stylist. But don't think that this contest consists of people simply styling hair. It is more like performance art with elaborately costumed choreographed dancers on sets with lights and music and involves stunts like cutting hair while hanging upside down or underwater. It is quite an amazing thing to see.

The politics of hair is tricky and Rock has to walk a fine line. While he clearly wants his own daughters to take pride in the hair they were born with and not want to straighten it or add weaves, he avoids being judgmental about the people who have taken the other road. He wanders through the world of hair with a genial attitude and a bemused expression and gives the film a nice light touch.

This is an excellent documentary that I can strongly recommend. To people like me, it opened up a world that was all around me and yet of which I was almost completely unaware.

Here's the trailer:

January 10, 2011

Trailers before films

I like to watch film trailers. They usually serve the intended purpose, which is to tell me whether I want to see the film or not.

What I do not understand is when I borrow a DVD of a film and they show the trailer of the very same film before the film begins. What is the point? Presumably film makers make trailers to persuade people to watch the film. Surely if I have gone to the trouble of borrowing the film, inserted it into the player, and sat back in my chair, it is pretty clear that I have committed myself to watching it. I don't need any more persuading.

This practice is especially senseless with modern trailers that seem to practically give away the entire plot. If you see it a long time before the actual film, you likely forget all but a few moments and so no harm is done. But watching a trailer just before seeing the film is bound to ruin the experience.

Just last weekend, it was even worse. I sat down to watch the film The Man Who Would be King (1975) and not only did they start with the trailer, they even had a "The making of…" type documentary before the film, with interviews with the stars and director discussing the characters and script, showing how the scenes were set up, and so on. I like such documentaries in general but only after I have seen a film. Seeing it before would ruin the suspension of belief needed to enjoy films.

I of course immediately skip past the trailer and documentaries as I am sure almost everyone else must be doing. So why do some film companies do this? Does anyone have any ideas as to what could be the reasoning behind such a practice?

January 02, 2011

O Lucky Man

Here is Alan Price singing the title track from Lindsay Anderson's great 1973 film.

I particularly like the line: "If you can't be tempted with heaven or hell, you are a lucky man."

So true.

The future of humankind

British director Lindsay Anderson produced a trilogy that began with If... (1968), continued with O Lucky Man (1973), and ended with Britannia Hospital (1982). Anderson's films were surreal and took swipes at all the stupidity and hypocrisy of society. No one was spared: politicians, clergy, business, trade unions, scientists, education, all were targeted with biting class-based satire.

That great British character actor Graham Crowden plays a mad scientist Professor Millar who was introduced in O Lucky Man, a wonderful, sprawling, surreal film with the best sound track ever (by rocker Alan Price). The role was expanded in the final film from which this scene is taken.

December 31, 2010

Casino Jack

A scene from the new film Casino Jack about lobbyist Jack Abramov, in which the filmmakers cleverly use a moment's fantasizing by the title character to reveal the real corruption in government. Too bad it doesn't happen in real life.

Kevin Spacey is a wonderful actor and although I haven't seen the film, I hope that after a long time he has a role worthy of him. Here's the trailer.

December 29, 2010

Film review: Clockwise (1986)

I just saw the comedy Clockwise starring John Cleese. Here's the trailer:

Cleese is one of my favorite actors and here he is playing a role that is perfectly suited for him, that of an authority figure frustrated when things don't go the way he wants them to, as in this scene from Life of Brian

His character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is another example of his manic comedic touch.

In the film Clockwise he plays a punctuality-obsessed, super-organized principal of a school invited to give the most important speech of his career to an elite organization of school principals. He starts out in the morning to take a three-hour train ride to give the speech but due to a misunderstanding he misses his train. The entire film is about his efforts to find alternative ways to get to his destination on time, with every plan ending in disaster.

This is a role that is tailor-made for Cleese and so you would think I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I found the film to be only mildly amusing. I think the problem may lie with me and not the film itself. I don't enjoy comedies in which the premise is someone trying desperately to achieve some important goal and being thwarted every step of the way. This is why, for example, I did not like Ben Stiller's Meet the Parents, because you knew from the beginning that the film would be about how he would fail in every effort to please his future in-laws.

There are two reasons for my lukewarm response to such comedies. One is that if the main character is sympathetic, I want the person to achieve his or her goal and be successful and having their hopes repeatedly dashed makes me feel sorry for them rather than want to laugh at their plight. The second is that I tend to plan things somewhat carefully and usually have a backup plan in case things go wrong. When things fall apart, I tend to stay calm, analyze the situation, examine the alternatives, and select the best rather than panic and grab wildly at the first option that presents itself, the way that the characters in these kinds of films do. So while I can enjoy this set up in a short sketch comedy, in full-length features I tend to get annoyed with people for repeatedly acting so stupid and that spoils the fun for me.

In an interview in the extras section of the DVD, Cleese makes an interesting observation about a difference between British and American humor audiences that may explain why Clockwise was not a success in its American release. He says that he thinks that the British find absurd situations funny in themselves (which is why farces are so popular over there) while Americans seem to require actual jokes and wisecracks to make them laugh. He may have a point.

October 19, 2010

Pope Joan trailer

Apparently the German film about the female pope may get a US release soon. Here's the trailer (thanks to reader Norm).

August 25, 2010

Film Review: The Lives of Others and Quantum of Solace

It's been a couple of decades since I watched a James Bond film. I saw almost all of the Sean Connery originals, then a couple of the Roger Moore versions, and then gave up on the franchise, thus missing out on what George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan added to this iconic figure of cold war fiction.

But the book Bottlemania, this years' common reading choice at my university that deals with the crisis of water, mentioned that Quantum of Solace (2008) starring Daniel Craig had as its villain someone who was trying to corner the supply of fresh water and so I decided to check it out to see if it had any possibilities as a program to tie in with the book.

If Quantum of Solace is any indication of where the Bond franchise has gone since the Moore days, then I have clearly not missed anything by giving these films a wide berth. Ian Fleming's stories were always highly improbable but Quantum of Solace raised the improbabilities by several orders of magnitude, substituting non-stop action for storytelling and making the film laughable. The film has a grand slam of chases, involving separate ones for cars, on foot, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes, the first four occurring within the opening half hour. All this left almost no time for any dialogue, let alone plot advancement, but did leave room for plenty of corpses, mayhem, and destruction. The amount of broken glass alone was astounding. When the pace slackened a bit later, the film improved but by then it was too late. I had started laughing at the film's absurdity, like with No Country For Old Men, and once that happens it is hard to take the film seriously. Like the characters in No Country, Bond seems to have discovered the amazing healing power of new clothes.

The old Bond films with Connery had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality with humorous banter leavening the action. The Moore Bond went even further and became somewhat campy, with a sly wink to the audience that the film was not to be taken seriously. Craig's Bond, on the other hand, is dead serious, never cracking a smile let alone making a joke. The filmmakers seem to have decided to strip out everything that stands in the way of action and the film is a lot poorer for it.

The plot, such as it is, consists of the usual evil arch villain seeking to corner the market on some commodity, in this case fresh water in Bolivia. On top of this is slapped a thin veneer of geopolitical clichés and world weary cynicism about the corruption of governments, no doubt to give the film a patina of gravitas. There is also double-crossing galore so that you are never sure on whose side anyone is, not that anyone seems to care. To make it worse, the villain looked like a weenie and resembled New Orleans governor Bobby Jindal, so that at any minute you expected to hear him talk about what the gulf oil spill was doing to the shrimp industry

The apex of absurdity, the jump-the-shark moment in the film, occurred when the villain and his fellow plotters hold an important meeting. Where would be a good place to discuss their top secret plans? What could be better than during a live performance of the opera Tosca? There they all are, dressed in tuxedos, scattered all over the concert hall, and talking to each other through wireless transmitters while the opera is going on. Really, I kid you not. The whole point of this seemed to have been to show Craig in a tuxedo. Of course, Bond immediately figures this out, gets hold of one of the devices and listens in, spoiling this plan.

Here's the trailer for the film:

I watched this waste of time the day after seeing The Lives of Others (2006), a German film that takes place in 1984 (before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) and tells the story of a playwright and his actress girlfriend and the member of the East German secret police Stasi who is monitoring their lives through the bugging devices scattered all over their apartment.

It is an excellent film that won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

What is interesting is that unlike Quantum of Solace, how suspenseful this film was. For all its fast-paced action, the Bond film had no drama. You knew how it was going to end and who was going to win. There was no mystery. Each character's motivations were obvious and their actions predictable. One did not feel any connection with any of them.

In The Lives of Others on the other hand, there was no fast-moving action or physical violence or even the threat of violence. There was no ominous music signifying impending danger. But there was a lot of suspense as you wonder what the characters will do as they are placed in increasingly complex morally challenging situations. Will they stay true to their principles and their friends and lovers or give priority to their careers and the government and the state? The viewer is drawn in and made to empathize with all three main characters as they grapple with decisions about what to do, and you constantly wonder what you might do if you were placed in such situations.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare films made for purely mindless entertainment like Quantum of Solace with serious films like The Lives of Others. They are made for different audiences and the only reason I compare them is because I happened to see them on consecutive days. But they do illustrate how important it is to have the audience care about the characters and the issues involved. The kind of plentiful action that Quantum of Solace had was, quite frankly, boring, whereas watching the main characters in The Lives of Others struggle with moral dilemmas was deeply engrossing.

POST SCRIPT: If real life had a soundtrack…


Ominous Music Heard Throughout U.S. Sends Nation Into Panic

August 09, 2010

Film review: No Country for Old Men and the Coen brothers' oeuvre

You have to grant writers-directors-producers Joel and Ethan Coen one thing: they make interesting films. Not for them the formulaic, genre-tailored approach to filmmaking. Not for them endless sequels to hits or even to follow up a hit film with one similar in style. Each film seems to go off in a different direction from the previous one and stands alone. They take risks and for that quality alone one has to respect them.

Having said all that, the results are a mixed bag and I cannot say that I have enjoyed all the films that I have seen of their oeuvre: Raising Arizona (1987), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and A Serious Man (2009).

I tend to prefer the more lighthearted films in that list. Raising Arizona (made before Nicholas Cage became insufferably annoying) was good, as was The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading. The Hudsucker Proxy was passable but A Serious Man was a serious disappointment.

One thing about their films that I dislike, especially the later ones, is their tendency to end abruptly, leaving multiple story threads unresolved. I know that real life does not have everything tied up neatly at the end like an Agatha Christie novel, and I can live with some level of lack of resolution but No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man all left me feeling annoyed at the end at their seeming pointlessness because even the main storyline is unresolved. (I should have really liked the last one because the main character is a physics professor and I could actually understand the quantum mechanics equations that he wrote on the board. But even that feeling of smug superiority was insufficient to make me like the film.)

Some of their films, especially Fargo and No Country for Old Men, had some seriously violent scenes that don't appeal to me but the former film was much better in that it had a much better story and more plausible characters. I had avoided seeing No Country for Old Men for a long time because of its reputed violence and also because it was based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. The latter fact was greatly emphasized in advertising for the film because McCarthy is an acclaimed writer for his depictions of the modern American southwest. But I had read his highly praised novel All the Pretty Horses and did not like it at all and had to really struggle to complete it. But I finally decided to watch the film since people were speaking so highly of it.

My misgivings were justified. No Country for Old Men is a pretty bad film. After seeing it, I had the same feeling as after seeing the highly touted Pulp Fiction (1994), a film that turned me off Quentin Tarantino for good. Both films were praised by critics as masterpieces but I thought both were awful. What was the point of all that blood and gore? Just to sicken viewers? While violence does not appeal to me, it is not an automatic disqualifier. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) was actually pretty good because the violence was necessary to drive the story forward.

I have mentioned before that one thing that really annoys me is implausibility, and violent films are particularly prone to this failing because the characters have amazing self-healing capacities. Lead characters may be beaten to a pulp but the wounds and bruises disappear remarkably quickly. I can overlook this if the films are really well made but if not, they quickly degenerate into farce.

It seems like filmmakers have found the secret to rapid recovery from life-threatening trauma: put on a new set of clothes. In No Country for Old Men, the Josh Brolin character is shot and is bleeding profusely, is nearly dead, but manages to make it to a hospital. After being treated, he immediately discharges himself, staggers out, goes to a store, buys new clothes, and within hours is walking around without any hint that he had almost died. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, playing a psychopathic killer and drug dealer chasing the Brolin character, is shot in the leg and is bleeding badly. He limps into a pharmacy, and while everyone is distracted by an explosion he created, swiftly collects all manner of medicines and bandages, goes back to his motel, and treats his own injury by giving himself anesthetics and antibiotics and even extracting the bullet. (It was incredible that he knew exactly what medical items he needed, where to find them on the pharmacy shelves, and what he should do to treat himself. Is he supposed to have gone to medical school before becoming a killer?) Then a few hours later he also gets a new set of clothes and resumes his murderous spree without any sign of discomfort. It was at this point that the film jumped the shark and I could not take it seriously anymore.

In another implausibility, the Bardem character leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake, many of them killed using a device used to slaughter cows that requires him to carry with him a bulky metal cylinder that presumably contains compressed gas. And yet he moves openly, even going back soon to the scenes of his previous murders, without even being pursued by police, let alone confronted by them. He was supposed to be an evil and sinister man who has no compunction about killing but the whole thing was so over the top that towards the end of the film I started laughing at its absurdities, never a good sign for a film that is supposed to be serious. Or was it the intention of the filmmakers to make a tongue-in-cheek spoof of violent films?

(Oddly enough, just the day before I had watched Bardem play the milquetoast highly romantic lead in Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The contrast in roles was striking.)

Will I watch the next Coen brothers' film that comes out? It depends. I think the Coens have a great eye for the absurd and for unusual and quirky characters. In No Country for Old Men, they let excess lead to unintended absurdities and self-parody. But since they do not repeat themselves, I am hoping that this misstep does not occur again.

POST SCRIPT: Annoying actors

In the above review, I mentioned in passing that Nicholas Cage is insufferably annoying. His appearance in a film makes it very likely that I'll give it a miss. There are other actors who fall into the same category: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, and Renee Zellweger immediately come to mind.

I am curious if readers of this blog have similar strong dislikes. If so, please post them in the comments.

I must emphasize that what makes these people annoying is their on screen persona and not anything to do with their lives off-screen. For all I know, the people I listed may be exemplary human beings, perfectly charming in person and kind to children and animals. Conversely, Mel Gibson seems like an absolutely appalling person and yet he is not annoying on screen. Tom Cruise seems a little weird but has an agreeable on-screen persona.

March 10, 2010

Film review: Up (no spoilers)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Up is a truly outstanding film that I can strongly recommend to anyone.

This latest animation coming out of Pixar Studios tells the story of Carl, a 78-year old curmudgeonly man who, on the verge of being forced out of the home he lived in with his beloved late wife Ellie and sent to a retirement home, decides to carry out their unfulfilled joint childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer who disappeared long ago in South America in search of a mystical place called Paradise Falls that harbors an exotic bird that no one else believes exists.

The explorer used a blimp to travel and this inspires the old man to attach a huge number of helium balloons to his house and use it too as a blimp to get to his destination. But a complication arises when a little boy named Russell, a novice member of a children's explorer's club, accidentally ends up as a stowaway on his journey.

You get a good sense of the set up of the film from the trailer below, though it does not hint at what happens later.

The film has comedy and adventure in abundance and never drags. After watching it, it struck me how much superior it was to the film Avatar, despite all the hoopla generated by the latter. (See my review of Avatar.) Both films are fantasy adventures. Both have highly predictable storylines, Up even more so than Avatar. You have no doubt that both will have happy endings with some bittersweet elements thrown in. Both use computer graphics extensively, though Avatar is far more advanced and has 3D.

So what makes Up so much better? The answer is simple: it has a much better story, writing, and characters with depth. It does not hurt for a dog-person like me that it also has lots of dogs. Even though the main characters are a grizzled old man and a rotund little boy, you soon find yourself really caring about them in a way that you did not about the much better-looking lead couple in Avatar. There was one short and silent sequence early on, showing the life of Carl and Ellie from childhood to old age, that was extraordinarily beautifully done. I am not usually emotional while watching films but this sequence was so exquisite and poignant that it brought tears to my eyes.

It seems to me that it is the creators of animations that are making some of the better films these days. I recently saw another excellent animation Ratatouille and that managed to make a rat (a rat!) a highly engaging character. And going back to 1967, Walt Disney's Jungle Book has remained one of my favorite films of all time, combining great songs with humor and suspense. Perhaps the reason that animations tend to be among the better films is that the creators of animations know that they cannot depend on film-star power and sex and violence to overcome a weak plot or clunky dialogue. The story, writing, and direction are always the keys to good films, and for animations they are even more important.

A good guide to how good a film is is the extent to which I pay attention to implausibilities, incongruities, and inconsistencies. In the case of Avatar, several such elements struck me even while watching the film, as I noted in my review. But while watching Up I simply did not care if there were any. Looking back, Up had a lot more plot holes than Avatar but I still don't care. Maybe the reason is because it was an obvious animation while Avatar looked more realistic, and one gives animations more slack. But I think another important reason is that when you get absorbed in a film and its characters, one does not want to let small things destroy one's enjoyment.

I have never quite seen the appeal of awards and so am baffled that there is so much anticipation about the Oscars and that people actually watch over three hours of the awards show. Having said that, I am glad that Up won for best animated feature film and was also nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. If that gets more people to see it, that is a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: On being an art critic

"People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanour, not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform.... In the same way, really fine artists inspire me with the warmest personal regard, which I gratify in writing my notices without the smallest reference to such monstrous conceits as justice, impartiality, and the rest of the ideals. When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion: the passion for artistic perfection - for the noblest beauty of sound, sight and action - that rages in me. Let all young artists look to it, and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances. Now this, though well for art and for the people, means that the critics are, from the social or clubbable point of view, veritable fiends. They can only fit themselves for other people's clubs by allowing themselves to be corrupted by kindly feelings foreign to the purpose of art."

- George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 126

February 19, 2010

Film review: The Invention of Lying

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In a series of recent posts titled The Noble Lie (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I explored the idea of whether lies can have some positive benefits. The highly enjoyable film by comedian Ricky Gervais adds interesting perspectives to this question. (Note: Almost everything in this review about the film can be seen in the trailer below, so there are no real spoilers.)

For those not unfamiliar with the film's premise, it uses the alternate reality concept that starts by assuming that the world is pretty much the same as it is now, except for one key feature: people don't tell lies. Everyone tells the truth. The concept of a lie is unknown to them. As a result, people live miserable lives because there is no escape from reality. The idea of a 'white' lie, told with good intentions to cheer someone up, is totally absent. People tell each other the truth about what is on their minds, however brutal and unkind it might be, such as that they are ugly or losers or that they hate them. Old people in nursing homes, for example, are told that they are going to die soon. What would seem to us to be cruel or callous behavior is normal in this world.

Invariably telling the truth also leads to some comical setups. For example, there is no such thing as fiction or feature films or TV programs as we know them. They do have films and TV but all they show are people reading scripts that describe actual historical events. They don't even have re-enactments of real events. The stars of these films and TV shows are the readers and the scriptwriters. The 'advertisements' of products are hilarious because they tell the truth about them. For example, a spokesman says that Coke is nothing but brown sugared water and causes obesity but that he hopes people will continue to buy it.

The film starts with Gervais' character Mark Bellison being fired from his scriptwriting job because he had the misfortune to be assigned to write scripts about the 14th century and the depressing events of that period about the plague and so on did not attracts lots of viewers. He is also not physically attractive, being fat with a snub nose, as the attractive woman he is wooing repeatedly keeps pointing out to explain why she cannot have a relationship with him.

Unable to pay the rent and in danger of being evicted, he goes to the bank to withdraw the last of his money. The computers are down and the teller asks him how much he has in his account. As he is about to answer truthfully, there is a misfiring of synapses in his brain and he blurts out a figure that is way more than he knows he has. Although the computers start working at that point and give a much lower figure, the teller assumes that the computer must be wrong and he is right, and gives him the larger amount he asked for.

Stunned, Bellison tries to digest what had just happened and tries out various lies on people to see the effect. He finds that he can be successful and make other people happy by, for example, telling his depressed and suicidal neighbor that things will get better. He spreads sweetness and light all around by telling the kind of white lies that we all tell to those we know and love: that they look good, that their clothes suit them, of course they have lost weight, and so on. So these lies have a positive effect and Bellison enjoys spreading joy.

Here's the trailer:

What the trailer does not hint at is that the second half of the film has a lot to say about religion. It happens because Bellison's attempt at spreading joy by telling little white lies snowballs into eventually telling people the Christian myths about heaven and of god as an omnipotent invisible man in the sky, although of course he does not use the words 'heaven' or 'god' because those words and concepts did not exist prior to his invention of the myths. When the people are told for the first time about the invisible man in the sky, they ask obvious questions, such as: Where in the sky? In the clouds? The troposphere? Deep space? Bellison makes up stuff as answers and the people believe him.

Gervais is making some interesting points with this film. One is that although Bellison's lies result in something that resembles the claims of the religions we have today, the big difference is that in our reality, children are indoctrinated with these stories at an early age and are discouraged from questioning them, so that as adults they either unquestioningly accept them or accept 'answers' that are riddled with contradictions, and told to have faith that it will all make sense after they die. A second point is that although little white lies can bring about happiness, the big lies about heaven and god eventually lead to unhappiness as people now focus on the promises of heaven and how to get there, rather than living in the here and now.

The Invention of Lying is a very clever film. It is not easy to make alternate reality films that change just one key element of life as we know it now without creating gaping plot holes or inconsistencies but Gervais manages to pull it off pretty well. The film makes important points about religion while not losing sight of the fact that it is a comedy. It stays funny and does not become preachy. The fact that I agreed with the point of view of the film about the essential falsity of religion undoubtedly increased my enjoyment of it, and people who are religious may not like it as much.

But it was refreshing to see a film that treats religious beliefs without bogus or fawning reverence. The Invention of Lying tells the truth.

POST SCRIPT: Upcoming speaking engagements

On Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 10:30 am, I will be talking about the continuing efforts to undermine science to the North Coast Fossil Club at the Cuyahoga County Library in Parma, 2121 Snow Road, OH.

Then on Monday, February 22, 2010 I will be on a panel called Mythbusters: Religion Edition where people from various religions (and myself as the atheist) will briefly speak about one or two major misconceptions about their religions (or atheism), and then answer questions from the audience. This event is at 8:00 pm in the Great Room of House #4 of the Village at 115 (the new apartment-style dorms at Case Western Reserve University) at 1665 E. 115th Street, Cleveland.

Both events are free. The first one is open to the public while the second (Mythbusters) event is for students and faculty and staff at Case.

February 02, 2010

Film review: Avatar (Spoiler alert!)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I suspect that my spoiler warning will not matter much because going by the box office records this film is setting, I may have been one of the last people to see it last weekend.

I don't usually go to see much-hyped blockbusters as they are often overly focused on action for its own sake and thus not the kinds of films I enjoy but I felt that I should see Avatar. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students various questions to help me get to know them better and one of these is their favorite film. Many of them replied that it was Avatar, which made me intrigued as to what was so appealing, especially since some of my faculty colleagues also said it was their favorite film ever. (I also ask students their favorite book and this year for the first time many students said Harry Potter, which suggests that the first generation of students for whom those books were a formative reading experience are now entering college.)

I was also intrigued by reports of the 3D effects and the new special effects using avatars that went into its production. The idea of using computer-generated avatar technology to tell a story about the use of avatar technology was clever.

First the good points about the film. The 3D and special effects are quite stunning. The vistas that we are shown of the fictitious planet Pandora are truly beautiful. I am persuaded that writer-director James Cameron has revolutionized filmmaking, as so many reports suggest.

But while Cameron (none of whose films I have seen before) may be a pioneer in technique, his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Avatar is very long (160 minutes) and weighted down with one cliché after another, coupled with often clunky dialogue. What we have is the well-worn premise of the conflict of civilizations. On one side we have the Noble Savage, a tribe of lithe and graceful (and blue) people known as the Na'vi who live on the distant planet Pandora. The Na'vi blue people are close to nature, worship a tree-god (yes, they are really tree-huggers), use bows and arrows as weapons, ride horse-like animals and pterodactyl-like birds, and kill animals only when they must, and do so with regret and reverence. There is a good deal of talk of eternal spirits that unify plants and animals. Against them is pitted the US military-industrial complex, the 'modern' world, who kill and destroy indiscriminately, callously, and with impunity. To drive home the point, we are repeatedly exposed to juxtapositions of highly sophisticated modern technology at the American base camp with the simple dress and life of the Na'vi.

There is also the cliché of the good-hearted but ignorant and arrogant American who blunders into a culture he does not understand, committing one faux pas after another, grinning all the while, before eventually learning the ways of the natives and gaining their acceptance and eventually becoming one of them. Think of the old cowboys and Indians film clichés, except with the Indians as the good guys as in Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man, and you get the idea.

Cameron heavy-handedly loads the film down with obvious political and social messages, the primary one being the evil of the military-industrial complex. The overwhelming might of the US military is placed at the service of a private company that seeks to mine the precious and rare ore called Unobtainium (really, that's its name) that is available on Pandora. The catch is that the richest vein of ore lies slap in the middle of the area occupied by the Na'vi and their most sacred tree. The stage is thus set for conflict, as the US military unleashes its full power on the Na'vi, even destroying the holy tree, in order to force them to move.

These allusions to the actual history of the US using its massive military to invade defenseless countries in order to secure their raw materials for the profit of private companies are unmistakable. In case you are too dense to get it, one character even refers to the policy as 'shock and awe', which must make that character a military history buff since the events of the film take place in 2154.

The problem is that even if the allusions are valid, the evil characters lack depth and are merely cartoon villains. The colonel in charge of the military is totally heartless and single-minded in his pursuit of victory, a crude caricature of Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. At any moment I expected him to yell out "I love the smell of burning Na'vi in the morning!" He and the soldiers under his command are all stereotypical 'ugly Americans' (except for one) and show no hint of any regret at the slaughter they unleash on people who simply want to live on their traditional lands. The head of the mining company is only concerned about his company's profit report and shows only the slightest hesitation at the thought of the havoc he is about to unleash on the peace-loving Na'vi.

But despite its attempts to expose the cruelty of US policy, there is one American conceit that Cameron cannot bring himself to give up. The leader of the Na'vi revolt that defeats the machinations of the military-industrial complex is an American marine who switches sides. Cameron may have felt that allowing the US to be defeated by a purely Na'vi opposition would lose him audience sympathy (and thus ticket sales). After all, many Americans cannot still accept that the 'primitive' Vietnamese were able to defeat the US. Or maybe even he is unable to conceive of American forces being defeated by non-Americans. So ultimately the film becomes a battle in which the good Americans defeat the bad ones, with the Na'vi in supporting roles. The ending in which the evil colonel and the renegade marine go mano-a-mano is another cliché, but an excusable one.

Apparently some people dislike the film because of its portrayal of an evil alliance between the US military, government, and exploitative companies, even though such an alliance manifestly exists. There is also the inevitable Christian reaction that the film gives credence to pagan religious beliefs like tree gods, and Jesus does not make even a cameo appearance. The renegade marine even ends up praying to the tree-god and his prayers are apparently answered in the usual oblique way that all gods are expected to behave according to their union rules. Of course, the very idea of life on other planets undermines Christianity, so one can see why the fundamentalists might be bothered by the film.

From the point of view of scientific consistency, I found Cameron's futuristic vision to be not persuasive. Pandora and its inhabitants seemed very Earth-like, just a little more exotic. That is fine if he takes the defensible position that only Earth-like conditions can support life. But we are also told that the atmosphere is not suitable for Earth people, which suggest that the wildlife should be more different. Although there is a reference to Pandora's low gravity, people seemed to move around the same way that they do on Earth. If gravity and the atmosphere are different, it is not clear that the military aircraft could function on Pandora. It may have been better to make Pandora's atmosphere and gravity similar to that of Earth to avoid some of these difficulties. What Cameron needed was a science fiction writer of the caliber of Arthur C. Clarke to make his scientific vision better. Stanley Kubrick's decision to have Clarke work on the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey was undoubtedly one of the things that made that film so great.

The weapons used by the military seemed very similar to what are used now, even a little old by today's standards. There were no drones, for example, of the kind being used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now.

One oddity in the film was that the head of the scientific program (played by Sigourney Weaver) was a smoking addict. It was an odd, jarring, and gratuitous touch and one wondered why Cameron included it. It is unlikely that smoking will still exist in 2154, let alone be allowed inside research facilities in distant planetary locations. Is Cameron a smoker, striking a small blow for beleaguered smokers against the current campaign to curb that practice?

Today is the day the Academy award nominees are announced and someone on NPR said that Avatar is a strong contender for winning the best film award. This amazes me. I can see it getting awards in technical categories. I have to give credit to Cameron for using the 3D technology tastefully. We were not constantly exposed to crude in-your-face shocks. Instead it was used to create beautiful images of the planet and its exotic life forms. But I cannot see how people can overlook its weaknesses in the more important areas of filmmaking, such as story, dialogue, and acting.

Halfway through while watching the film, I decided to not let the trite story and the often-painful dialogue bother me, but enjoy the film as I would a wildlife documentary. And for that, it was worth it.

POST SCRIPT: South Park parody of Avatar

You can see the full South Park episode titled Dances with Smurfs here. The episode is also a parody of Glenn Beck and the teabaggers.

February 01, 2010

Film review: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I realized that I hadn't discussed a film that deals with evolution and intelligent design (ID), topics that are central to this blog, so here is my long overdue review.

Frankly, Expelled is a mess. The film is polemical but that is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with having a point of view and making the case for it. The creators of Expelled have a story to tell of a scientific community (especially biologists) acting like a totalitarian cabal that demands Darwinian orthodoxy from all scientists and expels heretics from their midst, by denying them tenure, rejecting their papers, and firing them. All those who would even dare to whisper that evolution may be wrong and that there is a possibility that a designer is at work in life processes are victimized, ostracized, and expelled from the academy.

To tell this story, the narrator Ben Stein basically tries to copy Michael Moore's patented shtick of the bemused Everyman, just a simple guy who has a childlike belief in truth and justice, trying to figure out what's going on, and constantly being surprised at all the chicanery and bad intentions that he stumbles across almost by accident. In Stein's case, he acts like a naïf who assumes that scientists were open to every possibility and every alternative theory and he is shocked, just shocked, at the extent they are willing to go to suppress ideas that they see as contradicting Darwin, and the appalling lengths they will go to destroy the people who are brave enough to do so.

Stein starts off by speaking to five scientists and a journalist who say their careers were destroyed because they criticized aspects of evolution and spoke in favor of intelligent design. I am not going to examine the validity of these claims since they have already been scrutinized here, but will instead focus on the filmic aspects.

The major difference between Moore and Stein is that Moore has a deft touch with comedy. He knows how to make people laugh by inserting verbal, visual, and musical gags that can startle the viewer into laughter while at the same time making an important and serious point. With his huge bulk, disheveled appearance, and trademark baseball cap, Moore comes across as a big lug, a doofus, a regular guy confronting the rich and powerful.

Stein, by contrast, looks throughout the film like an undertaker having a bad day. He seems to never crack a smile and speaks in a monotone. We see a lot of him walking everywhere in a dark suit and sneakers, with an inflectionless voiceover narration, and interviewing people with a dour expression.

The filmmakers have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the word 'overkill' is not in their vocabulary. The tone is set right at the beginning, with stark black and white images of the Berlin Wall going up as dismayed onlookers watch helplessly. The Berlin Wall is a central metaphor throughout the film. (The scientific community wants to prevent the free flow of ideas, just like the Communists, get it?)

From then on, we get repeated black and white stock film footage of Nazi and Communist soldiers marching in formation (the scientific community marching in lockstep, get it?). We also see lots of footage from what seems like old school education filmstrips and newsreels and films, with the grimacing, scowling faces of old wrinkled people (the hidebound nature of the scientific old guard, get it?) and slapstick comedy (the childish arguments against intelligent design, get it?).

And then there is Hitler. There is always Hitler. Religious people never seem to get enough of Hitler. They seem to think he is an argument against evolution and atheism even though Hitler was a Catholic and his entire program of mass extermination was carried out by a nation of presumably devout Catholics and Lutherans. We see images of Nazi death camps and hear much about their eugenics program. The claim is made that the theory of evolution leads in a straight line to eugenics, which in turn leads to not only the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps but also to euthanasia and abortion. In other words, when you accept evolution, you embrace a culture of death. The scientific community apparently just loves the thought of killing people in huge numbers. Oh, and Stalin appears in the film too but Pol Pot does not. He must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The heavy-handed allusions last right up to the end. The film concludes with clips of Reagan making his famous speech calling for the Berlin wall to be torn down, juxtaposed with cuts to Stein concluding a speech to some college students, exhorting them to break free of the chains of scientific orthodoxy and fight for freedom. As the students stand and cheer Stein at the end of his speech, the film cuts away to the Berlin wall being brought down by young people. The take-home message is clear: Stein=Reagan and Evolutionists=Berlin wall. The self-aggrandizement is so painfully obvious as to be cringe-inducing.

The film was interesting to me in that it gave me a glimpse of some of the people in this debate whom I had not seen before. Evolutionist (and atheist) P. Z. Myers, author of the blog Pharyngula that has a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners writing style, comes across as low-key, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered. Mathematician David Berlinski, an apologist for intelligent design, comes across as smug, supercilious, condescending, and thoroughly unpleasant.

Richard Dawkins is of course the person the ID people hate and he gets a lot of questioning from Stein, mainly to highlight the fact that he thinks evolution and science tend to support and encourage atheism. Stein goes to great pains to get Dawkins, perhaps the world's most famous atheist, to explicitly say that he does not believe in any god. In fact, after Dawkins has made it quite clear that he thinks the idea of god is absurd, Stein starts listing the gods of the various religions individually by name, asking him if he believes in each. Dawkins's expression clearly signals that it is beginning to dawn on him that he may be talking to an idiot. He asks, "How could I? Why would I? Why would you even need to ask? Any god, anywhere, would be completely incompatible with anything I've said."

Stein spends a lot of time in the film talking about the origin of life and the fact that we do not as yet have a good theory of how the first self-replicating molecule and the first cell appeared, even though neither the theory of evolution nor intelligent design has anything to say about this question. The reason is, of course, that religious people's last resort is to insert god as an explanation for whatever question science has not yet answered, and the origin of life and the origin of the cosmos is their Little Big Horn, their last stand. But even here, they will meet the same fate as Custer.

One of the chief negatives about ID is that it is a useless theory that does not make any predictions or provide the basis for any research program. The film did not provide any either, because there is none. In the DVD edition though, it promised a bonus segment dealing with the practical applications of ID. This I had to see. It lasted a little less than three minutes and dealt with just two items: a neurosurgeon who looked at how engineers designed buffer systems and used that idea to understand how blood pressure to the brain is modulated, and another person who said that he thought a part of a cancer cell looked like a turbine (which is of course designed) and used that idea in his research.

That was truly pathetic. Scientists borrow ideas from other areas all the time. The fact that you got an idea from something that was designed and used it to understand the workings of a biological system is not evidence for the truth of ID. Doing science means postulating mechanisms that enable one to predict new outcomes and do experiments to test hypotheses. After all these years and all that money, ID still has not done any of that basic science and this is the truth that they cannot hide from.

ID is rejected by the scientific community because it has failed as science, not because of any grand conspiracy to keep it from exposing the weakness of evolution. This film is, at the end, a confession of this failure.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's disingenuousness

In his State of the Union address, Obama said the following concerning the current health care reform plan being discussed by Congress, whose weaknesses I have discussed here and here:

"[I]f anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I'm eager to see it."

Really? He hasn't heard of the single payer option, the Medicare-for-all option, and the public option? All of these things would achieve all his goals and have been widely discussed. It was he and his cronies in Congress who went out of their way to make sure that they were never seriously considered.

To pretend that he is open to better ideas is simply a flat out lie. He sold out to the health industry and all his fine words cannot hide that ugly truth.

January 19, 2010

Film review: Rashomon and The Outrage

Rashomon is the classic 1950 film by the then unknown but later highly acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, that first brought him to the attention of the western film world. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award (Oscar) for the most outstanding foreign language film released in 1951.

The story is set in 11th century Japan and is about the death of an aristocratic man and the rape of his wife by a notorious bandit in a secluded grove in a remote area of Japan. The events are told in a series of flashbacks, by a bewildered woodcutter and a priest to a cynical thief they meet while huddled for shelter in an abandoned and dilapidated building during a fierce rainstorm.

Their stories recount the testimonies given to a court or tribunal by four people: the bandit who raped the woman, the woman, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and the woodcutter himself, who was also the one who found the dead body. These testimonies are spoken directly to the camera, placing the viewers in the position of the unseen and unheard judges.

But the testimonies don't quite match, leaving the viewer at the end uncertain about exactly what happened and, more importantly, about the motives of each person. Kurosawa himself talked about the film this way:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.

The trailer for the film captures the atmosphere well.

The Outrage is a 1964 remake of the Kurosawa film, except that it is shifted to the US west in a time just after the Civil War. It has an all-star cast of Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Lawrence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson, and a young William Shatner (before he took over the helm of the Starship Enterprise)

The director Martin Ritt had worked with Newman before in such films as Hud, The Long, Hot Summer, Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, and (later) Hombre.

Given the proven quality of the director and the cast, why did the remake end up (in my opinion) to be so bad? It was not because Ritt had broken a cardinal rule of remakes, which is that you should never remake a good film because you can only end up looking worse. That rule does not apply when it comes to remaking foreign films where few people in the west are unlikely to have seen the original. After all, Kurosawa's 1954 film The Seven Samurai was also remade by director John Sturges as that excellent 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. Similarly Kurosawa's (1961) Yojimbo was also successfully remade as the 1964 western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, that catapulted starring Clint Eastwood into stardom.

So what went wrong here? There were many problems with the Rashomon remake, starting with the casting.

Paul Newman was simply over the top as a brutal and coarse Mexican bandit. Grimy, with a drooping mustache, speaking in bad guy clichés with a broad accent that reminded me of Chico Marx, it was a performance that reinforced all the stereotypes one might have about Mexican baddies. At least the film was in black and white so we were spared the further incongruity of Newman's famous ice-blue eyes. Newman is one of my favorite actors and I desperately wanted him to succeed but I just could not take him seriously. By contrast, in Rashomon, another fine actor Toshiro Mifune played the bandit as almost animal-like in his wildness, and while his performance too occasionally risked crossing over into parody, he was able to pull back in time.

Lawrence Harvey as the murdered aristocratic man, has a cold and wooden acting style that worked well for him in The Manchurian Candidate and also helps him somewhat here, but he never quite grips you with his performance.

To my mind, the raped woman is the center of the story. In the original, she is an enigma and one is never quite sure what she actually did and what her motives are and with whom her loyalties lie and that is the central ambiguity. In the remake, Claire Bloom is given many more words to say and a bigger role but while this makes her character and her relationship with her husband more transparent, it also makes her less sympathetic and less compelling, a case of more is less.

The basis for Rashomon was a short story In a Grove by acclaimed writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). In the story, even the question of who actually committed the killing varied according to the testimonies but Kurosawa made one significant change from that story by wisely (in my opinion) removing that ambiguity, and focused his film on the ambiguity of the motives of the people involved, thus lifting it up above the genre of a mere whodunnit. The Outrage unfortunately did not follow Kurosawa's example.

See the trailer of The Outrage:

Another problem with the remake may have been the period. Instead of taking just the central concept of Rashomon and re-visioning it to the new time and place as the other successful remakes of Kurosawa did, this remake stuck very closely to the original screenplay. But what seems plausible in 11th century Japan may not be so in the 19th century American west. Take for example, the testimony given by the dead man through the agency of a medium. While one can conceive of judges in Japan in the dark ages taking such testimony seriously because the existence of spirit worlds were a basic part of their beliefs, I cannot imagine a judge in the US in the late 19th century doing so. The sight of an Indian shaman, gripped in a trance, and speaking in the voice and words of a dead man to a judge in a frontier court setting was just too much to take.

Also the shock and disbelief of the woodcutter and the priest at the differing testimonies they heard, and their bafflement as to the motives of the people, seemed much less convincing in the later film. In both cases, the priest's faith in humanity is so threatened by what he sees as human evil that he is willing to renounce his calling. But while that seemed to make sense in the context of a remote part of Japan and strong ancient Japanese traditions of honor, it was much less so in the context of the American west where murder, rape, brutality, and lying must have been facts of life that would not be unfamiliar to a priest.

In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that The Outrage was simply an enormous waste of talent.

October 19, 2009

Film review: Capitalism: A Love Story

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I finally managed to get to see Michael Moore's new film Capitalism: A Love Story after travel and other duties prevented me from seeing it as soon as it came out. I am sorry that I waited so long. It is a film that must be seen.

Unlike most feature films where once you have seen the trailer you pretty much know what the entire film is about, the trailers and what you read in articles and in mainstream media commentary about Moore's film capture only a tiny slice of it. The film is much richer.

There are Moore's trademark funny stunts (trying to make citizen's arrests of Wall Street executives and roping off their headquarters as crimes scenes) and these tend to be shown in highlights but the strength of the film (for me, at least) was in his always dead-on portrayals of ordinary people struggling to live their ordinary lives, only vaguely aware of the powerful forces that treat them like chattels, squeezing as much work as they can out of them for as little as they can pay, and then discarding them when they are of no value anymore, literally throwing them out of their homes and their jobs and onto the streets. The invisible hand of the market that Adam Smith wrote about has become a claw wrapped around the neck of most people, squeezing the breath out of them.

Moore shows that this is not because of the actions of evil people but is the inevitable result of capitalism. Capitalism has an internal logic and dynamic that, in its early and healthy stages, produces competition and the manufacture of useful goods, resulting in growth and prosperity for large numbers of people. But in its later decadent stages, when wealth has become concentrated in a few hands, it results in a few people making money (and lots of it) not by producing any useful goods and services but by manipulating their money to make more money, which is what 'derivatives' and 'credit default swaps' are all about. It is all about taking bets (literally) using other people's hard earned money stored in pension funds and the like. Wall Street is a casino.

As we know (and I have discussed exhaustively in my series, The brave new world of finance), this process of decay is now in the end stages in the US where the financial interests have essentially taken over the government. Moore's film masterfully shows how Goldman Sachs now pretty much runs government economic policy and that they have both parties almost completely under their thumb.

I learned a new word from the film: plutonomy. It is a word coined in a secret internal Citigroup document in 2005 to describe a country that is defined by massive income and wealth inequality and it is only what the wealthy do that matters to the economy. The memo says that this is what the US has become, in which the top 1% of people have more wealth that the bottom 95%. In such an economy, the needs of the bottom 95% can be ignored because they do not influence anything. This is why we now see the stock markets rebounding and the news media cheering as if things are great, although unemployment is growing, people are increasingly in debt, and foreclosures keep coming thick and fast. Moore says that ordinary people are treated like the peasants in the final stages of the Roman empire, kept amused by spectacles of no value to distract us from the decay that is all around us. And yes, as I learned from the film, we are thought of, literally, as peasants by the plutocracy.

Only a few people in congress, notably Ohio congresspersons Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich are willing to speak openly about what is essentially a coup d'etat by the wealthy that has taken control of the country, rushed through the near trillion-dollar bailouts of Wall Street in secret deals behind closed doors, and then railroaded Congress to approve it.

What the wealthy fear most is true democracy, because the vote of a poor person counts as much (in theory, at least) as that of a rich person. That is why the election system has to be stacked in other ways to ensure that money plays the dominant role, so that no one who genuinely represents the interests of the poor will get into any major office. Barack Obama is as much in the grip of these powerful people as was George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. The USA is a one-party plutocracy.

What the plutocrats fear is a mass revolt as people realize that the rules and the laws are stacked against them, and decide to take unilateral action. The high points in the Moore film are when workers in a factory who have all been abruptly fired and ordered to leave the premises immediately decide to illegally sit-in in defiance of the police. And when a small community challenges an eviction notice for one of their neighbors and forces open the padlocked door to let the family back in and forces the sheriff to back off. And when a sheriff in another county refuses to enforce eviction notices because he sees them as unjust.

These small victories are won by people saying, in effect, to hell with the laws and the rules, all of which are designed to favor the interests of the rich. We know what is right and what is wrong and we are going to fight for it. But as one young woman factory worker plaintively said, why must we have to fight so hard to get what people should be entitled to as the normal course of things?

Moore points out that a lot of poor and middle class people misguidedly sympathize with the rich and against those just like them because they have been deluded into thinking that they too can one day be rich, although the odds against that happening are huge. Such is the power of propaganda.

Moore also shows some workplaces that are run by the workers themselves and the kind of positive spirit that prevails there, where people look out for each other and put in their best work because they know they are benefitting the lives of themselves and their co-workers and their communities, not some distant shareholder whose only concern is profit margins and distant executives whose only concerns are to get a huge salary and stock options and bonuses.

I loved the film. While it was funny (because Moore deals with serious issues, people often overlook the fact that he has a deft touch with comedy) and heartwarming, it also made me angry at what is being done to defenseless people. I hope you see it and that it makes you angry too.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore interview

Moore is interviewed on ABC.

August 06, 2009

Film review: Woodstock

Next week marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock folk festival. I was not in the US at that time and my only encounter with it was reading about it in the newspapers and seeing the documentary when it came to Sri Lanka some time after 1970. Since Sri Lanka did not have TV until 1977 (we skipped the entire black-and-white age and went straight into color) documentaries like this were the only means by which we could see rock musicians playing, so the film was quite an experience.

Even if I had been living in the US I would not have gone to the festival. My parents would never have agreed to let me go, besides which I was too strait-laced and would not have relished the drug use and the thought of camping out in a muddy field with filthy toilets.

But the film was fun to watch then, both for the music and to vicariously experience hippies having a good time.

I watched the film again last week. There is a new director's cut that has added 40 minutes more so that the film, already long, now runs to almost four hours.

I did not enjoy the film that much the second time around. It seemed to drag. Some of the musical sets, especially the one by Jimi Hendrix, went on way too long for my tastes and I was never a fan of his style of guitar virtuosity to begin with. This is a common problem with 'director's cut' versions of films. They are too self-indulgent. My lowered enjoyment is also probably because the experience of rock concerts is not the same when you are old.

But I thought that that I would share those moments that still had magic.

Richie Havens got the festival off to an electrifying start with his Freedom/Motherless Child.

A favorite moment in the film was a very young Arlo Guthrie singing Coming into Los Angeles, and using the quaintly dated slang of that time when he talks to the concertgoers.

Country Joe McDonald and the Fish singing the Vietnam protest Feel like I'm fixing to die rag was also another high point.

One of the oddest acts was a very brief song by the 50's nostalgia group Sha Na Na, which seemed totally out of place.

Their campy performance reminded me strongly of the Village People who came along about a decade later.

I have posted this last clip before, of Joe Cocker's rendering of the Beatles' A little help from my friends, a gentle song sung by Ringo Starr, which Cocker turned into an over-the top, weird, air-guitar-playing, frenzied, incoherent performance that looked like he was having some kind of seizure. Throughout it, you kept wondering what the hell he was singing since the lyrics seemed to have only a passing resemblance to the original.

Some helpful soul has now provided captions for Cocker's words.

It all makes sense now. Or maybe not.

February 23, 2009

Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.

I could see its appeal to some readers in the West. They would find interesting and amusing the superstitions of the villagers described in the book, with its many examples of how 'primitive' people believe the most absurd things about omens and the like. It would never strike such readers that their own religious beliefs are as absurd as those of the villagers. This is because they do not apply the same rigor to their own familiar and comfortable religious beliefs as they would to those that are unfamiliar to them.

I did not particularly care for the book. There is a genre of books that deal with the developing world that I am finding increasingly annoying. Another novel is The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton that deals with the efforts of a New Yorker to set up a mobile library using camels to take books to remote villages in Africa. The third is a non-fiction memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin which described the heroic efforts of Mortenson to build schools in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these books tread the well-worn path of contrasting the affluent sectors of the developed world with the poverty-stricken life of the rural poor in the developing world, and thus may reinforce the misperception that the developing world is made up entirely of poor and illiterate and backward people. Although these books are well-meaning and sympathetic to the people they portray, they ignore the fact that although such deplorable conditions exist, the developing is also comprised of very modern cities and advanced technological societies.

It is not uncommon that such books and films about the developing world are praised in the developed world but are often disliked by those living in those countries. For example there have been protests in India over the film Slumdog Millionaire, because it apparently only shows the worst slums of Bombay and not its other highly modern sectors. As I said, I have not seen the film and am dependent on the reports of those who have, so stand to be corrected.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad's skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad's novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad's many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

POST SCRIPT: The need for green spaces

If I were given some of the stimulus money to spend, I would use it to create lots more green spaces in the poorest neighborhoods and in the inner cities. I would tear down abandoned building and build parks and playgrounds, and plant trees and bushes and grass all over so that the people who live in those areas would be able to enjoy the outdoors. I would also sponsor concerts, sports leagues, and other cultural public events for the communities.

Some may see such things as luxuries, to be done only after basic needs like food and shelter and health care are met. That is a strong argument. But I think giving people pleasant neighborhoods to live in as a sign of the respect that we have for them, that they too deserve the finer things in life, and is an important aspect of people's sense of dignity.

And the two positions may not be as incompatible as they seem on the surface. Some studies indicate that creating green spaces reduces the health gap between people.

January 01, 2009

And now for something completely different…

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

I like comedies. And within that genre of films, I particularly like parodies. The best ones are those that are based on clichés of particular genres or specific stories that are well known, since a successful parody depends crucially on the ability of the audience to immediately recognize allusions to the original

A parody idea is not hard to come up with. What is hard is to be able to sustain the conceit over the length of a film. Even in the written form, short article parodies are difficult (I know because I have tried and failed miserably) and only a skilled writer can pull it off. I often come across attempts at parodies that seemed to have started out as a single good idea but the writer could not sustain the conceit and it soon becomes painful to read. The ability to maintain a light tough and not to belabor the point is a skill that only a few seem to be able to master. Stephen Leacock and S. J. Perelman are two writers who were good at it. As a very young boy I read Perelman's Somewhere a Roscoe, a parody of the hard-boiled detective story, and I was hooked on parodies for life.

So here are some of my favorite film parodies. If you haven't seen any of them, you should check them out.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a parody classic of Camelot. There are so many good scenes in it that it is hard to choose, so I went with Dennis the Peasant.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) is a superb parody of life in the time of Jesus. Here is one of the funniest scenes in it.

And since you can never have too much of Monty Python, here is another one from that same film.

Mel Brooks is undoubtedly the master of the film parody and has produced some of its finest examples. Brooks has the ability to insert a parody of one genre into a parody of another. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993), one of the funniest scenes is where comedian Dom de Luise does a dead-on parody of the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather.

In Spaceballs (1987), Mel Brooks took on the mighty Star Wars franchise.

In Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks turned his attention to the western and showed his ability to use anachronisms to good comedy effect.

And of course, the monster horror film genre was ripe for Brooks' plucking with Young Frankenstein (1974).

Woody Allen scored a direct hit on the epic Russian psychological novel style of writers like Dostoyevsky with his wonderful Love and Death (1975), which to my mind is his best film.

A little-known but funny parody that I heard about just a month or so ago is Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton stars as both Don Diego (the canonical Zorro) and Bunny Wigglesworth, his twin brother who was sent to England as a child and returns home just in time to substitute for his injured twin. Bunny has, shall we say, a more discerning taste in clothes than his brother and disdains the simple black outfits that he favors. In this scene, Ron Leibman in over-the-top acting mode plays the despotic Alcalde as he starts hearing reports of Bunny's exploits.

I had not thought of George Hamilton as a comedic actor, or even much of an actor at all and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to pull off camp comedy. I knew him as merely the famed possessor of the most perfect year-round tan, which made him a surprise choice to star as a creature of the night, the vampire Dracula in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), which was unfortunately rather uneven in quality.

I have not as yet come across good parodies of the James Bond series. Austin Powers seemed strained to me, too annoyingly caricatured, and I only watched the first one. The original Casino Royale (1967) brought together a whole series of famous actors and was a disaster. Even Peter Sellers and Woody Allen could not salvage a truly ghastly script. The only reason to watch this film is to see a colossal train wreck of a film, and the immense waste of talent.

POST SCRIPT: Happy New Year!

It is unfortunately going to be a difficult year for most people for reasons that do not need to be spelled out. The only good news on the horizon is that in three weeks we see the end of the worst presidency ever. It would be even better if Bush and Cheney were tried and convicted for war crimes.

I would like to wish all of the blog's readers the best wishes for the new year.

2009.jpg

June 30, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey

The American Film Institute recently ranked the top ten films in each of ten genres. All such 'best of' rankings are, of course, just for fun and meant to provoke vigorous debate about films that did not make the cut as well as the unworthy ones that did. They are not meant to be taken more seriously than that. I was puzzled, however, as to why comedies were not included as a separate genre, the closest category being the vaguer 'romantic comedies.' The omission of musicals as a genre was also puzzling. Maybe those lists will come out later.

I had only two major objections. I was shocked that Walt Disney's Jungle Book did not even make it into the list of best animations, even though to my mind it is easily the best of that genre, and one of my favorite films in any genre. That favorite of film critics Pulp Fiction of course made the list in the gangster category, although I hated the film, with its gratuitous violence and racially offensive language. I vowed never to see a Quentin Tarantino film again after that.

It turns out that I have seen a lot of the top 100 films (63), a sign of a happily wasted life. I recall one year when I was about 16 when I kept a log of the all the films I had seen that calendar year. I counted over one hundred, or on average one every three days, all in the movie theater. I was able to do this because the theater was walking distance from my home and the manager was a friend of my father and gave us a pass to see films free. Since my parents did not stop me from this indulgence as long as I was keeping up with my schoolwork, I saw almost every film that was shown. I have to admit that I saw a whole lot of lousy films. Time seems much more precious to me now and so I am much more choosy about what films I watch.

I have seen all ten of the top animations listed by the AFI. The other genres that I have seen most of were westerns (8), mystery (8), and courtroom dramas (7), while the least was fantasy (4).

I have seen all of the #1 ranked films except for The Searchers in the western category, which I plan to see soon, and City Lights in the romantic comedy category. I have always been a fan of good westerns, many of which had strong stories and characters and promoted values of honor and justice.

While one can quibble with the top rankings in each genre, the one film whose #1 will be unquestioned is 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction category.

I recall seeing it in a wide-screen theater when it was first released in 1968 and it stunned me with its brilliance. My impression of it was so vivid that I did not want to see it again on the small screen using videotape or DVD. Instead I waited and waited for it to be re-released on the big screen, to capture again the awe of space that it inspired. There had been rumors of this being done in 2001 but that did not occur. I then thought that it might happen this year on its 40th anniversary but when that did not seem likely to happen, decided to give up and watch the DVD.

There is always danger in re-watching a film that one has fond memories of from the distant past, the fear that one will be disappointed. 2001 is not one of those films. Watching it again, even on a small screen, was a wonderfully rewarding experience. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke combined to make one of the truly great films of all time, something that lifted science fiction films from cliché-ridden, quasi-horror, gimmicky films with cartoon-like aliens creatures into a true work of art.

What impressed me is how well the film stood up 40 years later. Not only did the science still remain credible, the special effects were also wonderful, which is amazing when you consider that Kubrick did not have the benefit of computer graphics, and all the visual effects had to be captured directly on film.

The film may not appeal to modern filmgoers, jaded by the action fantasies of films like Star Wars. In 2001, the plot is simple and there is no frantic action, no explosions, no shoot outs with laser guns, no light sabers, no love story, no sex, not even human conflict. 2001 played down these traditional film staples. In fact, all the actors seemed to be deliberately underplaying their roles, leaving the enigmatic computer HAL 9000 that runs the spaceship as the most interesting character. And yet, all these things that sound like negatives actually combine to make the film utterly engrossing.

Although 2001 grabbed the imagination of two young boys George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as to the tremendous possibilities of science fiction film making, their own films in this genre went off in different, and in my view, inferior directions.

2001 is a highly visual film, almost ballet-like with its minimal dialogue. The first half-hour is totally word-free, leading up to one of the most memorable visual transitions in the history of filmmaking. The last half-hour is also wordless. Kubrick does not rush scenes or have frequent jump cuts, exploiting the seemingly slow pacing and the ambient sounds of breathing to capture the silence and immensity of space. The attention to detail of how things work in space (how people can walk when weightless, how to simulate weak gravity on a spaceship, how to eat and drink, the difficulty of using toilets, etc.) gives the film a scientific credibility and timelessness that will ensure that it remains the top film for the next hundred years.

The film was not well received when it first came out. Its measured pacing bored some who were used to the action clichés of the older films in this genre and the famous enigmatic ending confused the general public as to what was going on. But science fiction fans had hours of fun debating what it all meant.

I also recently watched another science fiction film that I had never heard of previously, and that was Colossus: The Forbin Project which also deals with a computer that decides to take control, this time on Earth. The film was interesting mainly because of its probing, like 2001, of what might result if a computer becomes a truly intelligent, self-aware, self-learning device, and raises the notion of the nature of consciousness and whether computers will be able to create it. The excellent website Machines Like Us probes just these issues and its editor was the one who tipped me off to the existence of this film.

Watching Colossus so soon after the re-watching of 2001 was perhaps a mistake. Although the ideas the former film explored were intriguing, the quality of the filmmaking was nowhere close to that of the latter. The execution of the idea needed the genius of a Kubrick to really do it justice.

If you have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you have missed a treat. It is a landmark in filmmaking.

POST SCRIPT: How to avoid discussing the election

October 19, 2007

Soaps and Soap

For a very brief time in my life, about one week actually, I got hooked on daytime TV soap operas.

It happened in December of 1978. I had received a phone call that my father had died suddenly of a heart attack back in Sri Lanka. I was in graduate school in the US, far away from my family, and thus away from the kinds of support networks and rituals that help one get through such times of grief. I could not concentrate on my studies or reading or other things to distract my mind so turned for solace to watching TV all day, as so many do in such situations when seeking escapism through mindless activity.

In those pre-internet and early cable days, your TV choices were largely limited to just the three networks CBS, NBC, and ABC and during the day all three served up a diet of talk shows, game shows, and soap operas. Although I wasn't at all interested at first, quite soon I was quite absorbed in the various stories that made up the soaps. For those not familiar with the genre, these daytime soap operas involve multiple intersecting story lines involving quite a large cast of characters of usually middle class or rich people, with a few low-lifes thrown in to spice things up. The tales involve love, jealousy, intrigue, adultery, murder, larceny, backstabbing, lying, cheating, and other strong human characteristics.

These programs can be quite addictive and develop faithful followings as can be seen from the longevity of soaps like Days of Our Lives, All My Children, The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns, all of which have lasted over three decades.

Although I stopped watching after a week, these shows gave me a greater appreciation for the riotously funny weekly prime-time sitcom Soap, which was a parody of the daytime soaps, and ran for four seasons during the years 1977-1981.

The basic story of Soap was that of the intersecting lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells, where the two mothers Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell were sisters. The best way to describe Soap is as daytime soap opera on steroids. Where the daytime soaps stories proceeded excruciatingly slowly, with long pregnant pauses in the dialogue, lengthy meaningful looks, and dragged-out plot developments, Soap went at break-neck speed with plot twists occurring in rapid-fire succession. All the standard complex plotlines of the daytime soaps were present and then made even more extreme in Soap by adding outlandish things like UFOs, alien abductions, demon-possessions, guerillas, gangsters, blackmail, kidnappings, exorcisms, brainwashing by a religious cult (led by the Reverend Sun whose followers were called "the Sunnies"!) and so on. Storylines that would be sufficient for a full season on the regular soaps were crammed into just a few episodes of Soap. This breathless pace was compressed into weekly half-hour programs, each episode beginning in classic soap style with a voice-over announcer saying what had happened in previous episodes, and ending with a dramatic cliff-hanger, followed by the announcer hyping up the suspense for the episodes to come.

What really made Soap one of the funniest TV programs was clever writing coupled with one of the best ensemble casts ever put together, easily triumphing over those of the more-heralded Seinfeld or Friends casts. Katherine Helmond as the ditzy Jessica (whom men found irresistible) and Cathryn Damon as Mary were the anchors that held the two families (and the show) together as increasingly bizarre things happened all around them. Some of the funniest scenes were when the two were sitting around a kitchen table, each trying to bring the other up-to-date on the latest bizarre happenings in their families and, in a perverse way, competing to top each other's stories.

Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell (Mary's working class husband) was superb in his physical comedy, his body and face seemingly made of rubber, responding spasmodically to his nervous energy. Billy Crystal (a newcomer then) appeared as Jodie (Mary's son) in what may be the first portrayal of a gay person on TV that got laughs out of being gay while remaining a sympathetic character and avoiding becoming a caricature. Robert Guillaume as Benson, the sardonic back-talking butler for the rich Tates, was another actor who managed to take what might have become a stereotypical role (black servant of a rich white family) and infuse it with dignity and humor. In fact Crystal and Guillaume were perhaps the most sensible (or at least the least eccentric) of the entire Tate-Campbell menagerie.

Perhaps the most eccentric character was Bert's son Chuck who always went around with his ventriloquist dummy Bob. Chuck acted like Bob was a real person and would hold conversations with him while Bob would insult everyone and leer at women. The humor arose because other members of the family also sometimes ended up treating Bob as a real person and speak and argue and get angry with him, while not holding Chuck responsible for Bob's words. (It is an interesting thing to speculate as to what you would do if someone you knew acted like Chuck did. In order to spare his feelings, wouldn't you also treat his dummy like a real person, even if you felt ridiculous doing so?) In one such scene, Chuck plans to go out on a date leaving Bob behind but Bob harangues him until Chuck agrees to take him along. When they both finally leave, Mary asks Bert (who have both been watching this) whether they shouldn’t get professional help for Chuck, to which Bert replies, "Chuck doesn't need professional help, he should just learn to discipline Bob more."

The reason for these fond reminiscences is that I just discovered that these old programs are now available on DVD and I have been watching them again. There is always a danger in doing these kinds of trips down nostalgia lane because one's memories of old books, films and TV programs often make them seem better than they actually were. I was a little fearful that Soap would disappoint were but it passed the test handily. It is still laugh-out-loud funny.

The added bonus to watching on DVD is the absence of commercials. I also noticed how the opening and closing credits were more leisurely than they are now, allowing one to actually read the names of the actors and crew without distracting sidebar promos for other shows. The running time of each half-hour episode then was also 24 minutes and 30 seconds. I suspect that nowadays this has been reduced to allow for more commercial breaks.

There were other good TV comedies at that time, like M*A*S*H and Newhart, but I would not seek out DVDs of them the way I did with Soap.

Soap was a comedy classic and if you get the chance you should see it. And make sure you watch it in sequence.

POST SCRIPT: Class politics

Here's another provocative clip from the 1998 film Bulworth (strong language advisory).

October 17, 2007

Film shorts

There are some things that really annoy me when watching a film (or play).

The most annoying are when people act idiotically, not at all the way that normal people would. I described one such annoying plot device case earlier when I pleaded for no more daft women!

Another example is the absurd miscommunication device, where one person misunderstands the actions or motives of another person and because of this, endless complications ensue. This occurs in two versions. In one the person trying to explain some very important thing that would clarify everything has, for some reason, only a limited time to do so and either babbles incoherently or digresses so much or is so unclear that the other person goes off with the wrong impression. In the other, one person is trying to explain but the listener is so impatient or exasperated or in such a snit that she (I have noticed that it is usually a woman who does this) refuses to listen, either walking away or banging down the phone.

In both cases, a few moments of calm speaking and listening would have cleared up everything satisfactorily, but this does not happen because of these people's irritating mannerisms. My question is: Do real people ever behave like this? Have any of you ever been in such a situation? I cannot conceive of not even listening when someone is trying to explain something to me, especially if it is important. I may not agree with what is said but I cannot imagine slamming the phone down or otherwise closing the door on such communications before that person can even begin to speak.

Another plot device that annoys me is when people jump to idiotic conclusions. Although I like Shakespeare in general, two plays that really bug me are among those that are considered his greatest, Othello and King Lear. Whenever I read Othello, I always think that the title character acted like an idiot. How could he not see that Desdemona was a wonderful and faithful wife and that there must be something wrong in what Iago was implying? Why didn't he ask her a few simple questions that would have cleared up everything? I understand that Shakespeare was trying to show that jealousy can overcome love and reason and even sanity, but this just wasn't plausible. Sorry, Will, we need a rewrite.

Lear also strikes me as an idiot, so easily misled by flattery that he makes a series of disastrous decisions that lead to death and misery all round. What is amazing was that the three main people he misunderstood were his own daughters, people whose characters he would have been able to observe over many years. And yet, on the basis of a few statements, he dumps the nicest and most loyal daughter in favor of the two schemers. Was he some kind of absent father that he had no sense of the characters of his own children?

Jurassic Park has to be one of the most absurd films ever made. I don't mean the central scientific concept of someone finding a way to recreate dinosaurs from their DNA trapped in amber. That part if fine. Writers and filmmakers have to be allowed to be able to stretch the bounds of reality so that they can create a workable premise. And the special effects with dinosaurs were very well done. What really annoyed me about that film was how the characters behaved, completely at odds with any normal person's behavior.

For example, what does the person who has made an amazing, Nobel-prize winning quality scientific discovery by creating dinosaurs do? Announce in a press conference his spectacular result? No, he decides to build a dinosaur theme park in secret!. And despite hundreds of scientists and technicians and construction workers going in and out of the facility being built, it remains a secret. But that's not all. The owner then sends his fond niece and nephew on an unprotected train ride through the region where the deadly animals roam and sure enough, they get terrorized by the some vicious specimens. Wait, there's more! After making their escape and managing to get some rest by sleeping in a treetop, the children wake up to find a dinosaur at their head level looking at them. After their previous night's experience, you would think they would freak out. Instead, they calmly pat it on the head, somehow knowing that these particular animals are friendly. I cannot begin to list all the other things about Jurassic Park that really annoyed me.

And while I am on the topic of annoying things in films, I hate it when the credits continue well into the films. You get absorbed in the story and then they still break into it with more credits. One of the nice things about very old films is that they open with the credits, get them done in about thirty seconds, and then get on with the story.

Then there are actors who simply annoy me simply by their very presence. I cannot really explain why. Off the top of my head, here are a few: Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, the later John Wayne when he stopped being an actor and became merely a macho symbol, Nicholas Cage, Renee Zellweger, and Tom Cruise. Seeing such people in the cast is enough to make me try and avoid the film.

There are other actors who I think are over-rated such as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Scarlett Johansson. (I think I am in a distinct minority on this one!)

But there are also actors whom I like, whose names on the credits are enough to make me seriously consider watching a film even if I don't know much else about it: Burt Lancaster, Alec Guinness, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Peter Sellers, William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, Susan Sarandon, Cary Grant, John Cusack, Peter O'Toole, Michael Caine, Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Gregory Peck, Julie Christie, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Paul Newman, Peter Sellers, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Charlotte Rampling, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Bacon.

All these lists are off the top of my head and I am sure I can add to them as other names strike me.

Those who like political films should see the excellent Warren Beatty film Bulworth (1998). The main plotline is far-fetched and the best parts of the film are the scenes about the underside of the political process, the powerful role of money, and how politicians pander to their various target audiences. Here's a nice clip from it.

Another good political film I saw recently was the fascinating documentary Street Fight (2005). Made by first-time filmmaker Marshall Curry, it tells the story of 32-year old Cory Booker's attempt in 2002 to unseat four-term incumbent Sharpe James as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. It is raw, bare-knuckle, down and dirty, street-level politics, with the 66-year old incumbent using all the power of the city against his young challenger. As a city council member, Booker had tried to tackle the serious issues of city hall corruption, crime, and drugs and in the process angered many powerful people who were benefiting from those things.

While the filmmaker's sympathies are clearly with Booker, James does not help his cause by deliberately shutting him out and very roughly too. If you see the film on DVD, make sure you watch the extra interview with the director as he discusses what happened in the years following that election.

The influential The Black Commentator website has strongly criticized Booker, arguing that he is completely in the pockets of rich, right-wing, white, power brokers who are pushing school vouchers and seeking to co-opt the next generation of black leadership to serve their needs. Whatever the merits of that charge, watch out for the name Cory Booker in national politics. I think we are going to hear a lot about him in the next 5-10 years.

October 15, 2007

In praise of parodies

I like comedies. And within that genre of films, I particularly like parodies. The best ones are those that are based on clichés of particular genres or specific stories that are well known, since a successful parody depends crucially on the ability of the audience to immediately recognize allusions to the original

A parody idea is not hard to come up with. What is hard is to be able to sustain the conceit over the length of a film. Even in the written form, short article parodies are difficult (I know because I have tried and failed miserably) and only a skilled writer can pull it off. I often come across attempts at parodies that seemed to have started out as a single good idea but the writer could not sustain the conceit and it soon becomes painful to read. The ability to maintain a light tough and not to belabor the point is a skill that only a few seem to be able to master. Stephen Leacock and S. J. Perelman are two writers who were good at it. As a very young boy I read Perelman's Somewhere a Roscoe, a parody of the hard-boiled detective story, and I was hooked for life.

So here are some of my favorite film parodies. If you haven't seen any of them, you should check them out.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a parody classic of Camelot. There are so many good scenes in it that it is hard to choose, so I went with the killer rabbit.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) is a superb parody of life in the time of Jesus. Here is one of the funniest scenes in it.

And since you can never have too much of Monty Python, here is another one from that same film.

Mel Brooks is undoubtedly the master of the film parody and has produced some of its finest examples. Brooks has the ability to insert a parody of one genre into a parody of another. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993), one of the funniest scenes is where comedian Dom de Luise does a dead-on parody of the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of it was in German, so here is a different scene involving the title song.

In Spaceballs (1987), Mel Brooks took on the mighty Star Wars franchise.

In Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks turned his attention to the western and showed his ability to use anachronisms to good comedy effect.

And of course, the monster horror film genre was ripe for Brooks' plucking with Young Frankenstein (1974).

Woody Allen scored a direct hit on the epic Russian psychological novel style of writers like Dostoyevsky with his wonderful Love and Death (1975), which to my mind is his best film.

A little-known but funny parody that I heard about just a month or so ago is Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton stars as both Don Diego (the canonical Zorro) and Bunny Wigglesworth, his twin brother who was sent to England as a child and returns home just in time to substitute for his injured twin. Bunny has, shall we say, a more discerning taste in clothes than his brother and disdains the simple black outfits that he favors. In this scene, Ron Leibman playing the despotic Alcalde, starts hearing reports of Bunny/Zorro's exploits.

I had not thought of George Hamilton as a comedic actor, or even much of an actor at all and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to pull off camp comedy. I knew him as merely the famed possessor of the most perfect year-round tan, which made him a surprise choice to star as a creature of the night, the vampire Dracula in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), which was unfortunately rather uneven in quality.

I have not as yet come across good parodies of the James Bond series. Austin Powers seemed strained to me, too annoyingly caricatured, and I only watched the first one. The original Casino Royale (1967) brought together a whole series of famous actors and was a disaster. Even Peter Sellers and Woody Allen could not salvage a truly ghastly script. The only reason to watch this film is to see a colossal train wreck of a film, and the immense waste of talent.

Another genre that I have not seen a good parody of is the gangster film. It seems like The Godfather series needs a parody of its own, more than just a brief scene in Robin Hood, Men in Tights

Any suggestions for good parodies that I might have missed?

June 22, 2007

Film reviews: Network and Matewan

Here are two more reviews of old films that are worth seeing.

Network (1976)

This film is a brutal satire on the TV news business and, sad as it is to say and even harder to believe, the kinds of attitudes it satirized in 1976 has only gotten far worse in the subsequent three decades.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky uses the story of Howard Beale, a network news anchor who has a mental breakdown when he is told that he is being fired because of his low ratings, to show what really drives TV news. When Beale starts saying the truth on air about how things really work in the news world and the contempt that the people in TV have for the intelligence of their viewers, he starts getting audience attention and his ratings start going up again. He starts to pick up steam by voicing the frustration and sense of powerlessness that people feel.

The people in the entertainment division of the network see the chance to gain huge ratings by converting the news into a kind of entertainment, complete with segments involving soothsayers and the like, the whole thing showcased by Beale, now nicknamed 'the mad prophet of the airwaves', ranting on some topic, as can be seen in this clip, where he denounces the dangerous control that TV has on the minds of the public.

(Nowadays, nowhere is this film's critique of how 'news' has become trivialized more apparent than in the ridiculous amount of coverage given to Paris Hilton. The best commentary on the media frenzy about the non-event that was her recent jailing was that given by Tommy Chong in an interview with Stephen Colbert.)


The film is immensely helped by the performances of two wonderful actors (William Holden and Peter Finch) in the twilight of their careers, aided by two other fine actors Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall who were at their peak. Finch won an Academy Award for his performance but died before he could accept it.

Although Chayevsky a tendency has sometimes to give his characters (especially the one played by Holden) set-piece speeches on life and love and death that give the film a somewhat stagey-look, his writing is so good that he gets away with it. There are some interesting side-plots involving urban guerrilla chic and radical black activists of that time. The film shows how, in the end, everyone is corrupted by the allure of fame and money that TV exposure brings, and are willing to be manipulated by the TV executives to achieve that goal.

Network is one of those films that I saw when it first came out and is still good after all these years. It is a film that has become a cultural touchstone, with the line "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" familiar to people who may not know from where it originated.

Matewan (1987)

Matewan is another fine film by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It is based on the true story of the struggle of coal miners in the West Virginia town of Matewan to obtain better condition by forming a union, and the fierce attempts by the mine owners and their thugs and goons to prevent it. Seeing films like this makes me appreciate so much more the efforts of the early efforts at unionization, fought by workers and their families at great cost and danger to themselves, which now give us the kinds of working conditions and safety that we take for granted.

Sayles's first film was The Return of the Secausus Seven (1980), the story of a group of high school friends who reunite for a vacation ten years after graduation. It was shot on a low budget with an unknown and almost amateur cast. The much better-known The Big Chill (1983), which has almost the same story, looks like an unacknowledged remake of Sayles's film.

Sayles has since gone on to make more commercially successful films (you can see a list of the films he as made here) and has been able to attract better known actors along the way, with some of them, such as Chris Cooper and David Strathairn, appearing repeatedly.

Sayles epitomizes the true independent. Many filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh who began as independents went the big budget Hollywood route after they achieved commercial success. Sayles refuses to do so. Even after he has shown himself to be a critical and commercially successful filmmaker, he refuses to seek funding from the big studios because they would require him to relinquish control over the final product. He says:

I want to direct films that no one else is going to make. I know if I don't make them, I'm never going to see them. Of course, I hope some people will want to see my movies as well, but I won't pander to the public. I won't try to second guess what a Hollywood studio would like to see in a low-budget film, so that they will hire me the next time around. I know I will always do better work if I do projects in which I really believe. And if I never get to direct again, I will have made some movies I can feel proud of.

Sayles is very good at capturing the mood of a time and an event, and does not shrink away from showing the politics of race and class. For him, what a film says is more important than how it looks. As he said, "I'm interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible but I'm not interested enough to lie. . .[A movie] may not look the way we'd like it to look or sound the way we'd like it to sound or get seen by as many people as we'd like to have see it but at least it will say the stuff we want it to say."

June 20, 2007

Film reviews: Hearts and Minds and Medium Cool

Film reviews are usually about films that have been newly released. Since I am almost never the first to see any film, my reviews deal with very old but good or interesting films that people may have not seen the first time around but can do so now, thanks to the easy availability tapes and DVDs. I see these reviews as pointing out films to those who may not know what they are missing.

Here are reviews of two old films that I saw recently that dealt with the time during the Vietnam war.

Hearts and Minds (1974)

This has to be one of the best war documentaries ever, winning an Academy Award in 1975. It was filmed during 1972 and 1973, at a time when American combat troops had been largely withdrawn from the battlefield and 'Vietnamization', the process by which the South Vietnamese army was being built up and trained by the US to replace it in fighting against the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army, was well underway. The editing of the film was completed in 1974, just before the complete collapse of that US-trained army began, and was released late in 1975, the year in which South Vietnam was completely overrun, Saigon captured, and the country unified under the government in Hanoi.

At the time the film was being made, US public opinion had turned against the war and the US was clearly facing defeat. Director Peter Davis said that he set out to address three questions: "Why did we invade Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the war do to us?"

The director deliberately omitted a voice-over narration, to avoid the 'voice of god' effect common to documentaries As a result, there is little explanatory filler material and this might make the sequence of events a little hard to follow for people for whom the Vietnam war is ancient history and the people interviewed (such as Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Daniel Ellsberg, William Westmoreland) are unfamiliar. This would have not been a problem when the film was released since the events were fresh. But since the film is largely about the effects of war rather than a historical analysis, this lack of detailed information does not affect the film's power.

When I first saw the film (in 1976, I think) it made a huge impact on me. The immense tragedy of the wanton destruction of a people and a country and the passionless cruelty of the bombing and the napalming showed an ugliness to war that left a searing impression. During the Vietnam war, news crews were free to roam the battlefield and so you had plenty of footage of the effects of the bombing and the shattered lives and property of the people at the receiving end of it. You also saw the casual brutality of the occupying forces towards the people of Vietnam.

The US military learned from that experience not to allow journalists such free access in future wars and nowadays, with 'embedded' journalists, one gets largely the sanitized point of view of the military, boasting about the sophistication of its weaponry, and avoiding showing what a devastating effect war has on ordinary people, killing people, destroying homes, and tearing apart entire communities.

I was doubtful if the film would have the same impact on me thirty years later but it did. The interviews with villagers whose family members had been killed, their mud and thatch homes set on fire or brought to rubble by high altitude bombings were heartbreaking. The sequence near the end of a little boy's grief during the funeral of his father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was almost unwatchable because of the naked emotion on display. The interviews with the US soldiers and bomber pilots who fought in the war, some now sad and angry and bitter at what they had done, what they had become, and what had happened to them, others still gung-ho, showed the effects of war on those who carry out the orders to fight.

In the end, the film provides answers to the questions "What did we do there? What did the war do to us?" but the first question "Why did we invade Vietnam?" remains unanswered, even to this day, just like the question "Why did the US invade Iraq?"

In fact, the parallels with Iraq are eerie. By 1968 or so, it was clear that US policy makers had realized that Vietnam was 'lost.' But rather than admit it and stop the war, they hoped to create some distance from the looming defeat by withdrawing US combat troops and replacing them with South Vietnamese forces so that when the end came, the US might avoid being seen as the loser. But in order to provide cover for the withdrawal, they unleashed a massive bombing campaign (including the infamous 'Christmas bombing' of Hanoi that destroyed hospitals and other civilians targets) that created enormous additional casualties and destruction. The film argues that this bombing was largely meant for US domestic consumption, to signify that the US retained muscular power, although the US the government had already accepted the fact that the forces opposed to them would never give up until they achieved full victory.

We can see the same thing happening in Iraq now. I suspect that the US government has realized that Iraq is 'lost' and is desperately seeking a way to disengage from the fighting while still maintaining a significant military presence in the massive permanent bases it is building there. The training of the Iraqi forces and the "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" mantra are the equivalent of 'Vietnamization'. There is also currently a escalation of the bombing campaign in Iraq, largely unreported in the US, creating an increasing number of civilian deaths. Even railway stations are being bombed. As William S. Lind observes, increased bombing is usually a sign of failure: "Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing. If anyone still wonders whether the "surge" is working, the increase in air strikes offers a definitive answer: it isn't."

Hearts and Minds is a landmark film and should be seen by everyone. I was so startled that it could provoke such strong emotions in me after so many years that I did something I never do, which is watch the film yet again, this time with the director's commentary on, to see what went into the making of it.

Medium Cool (1969)

The other film that dealt, although not directly, with the Vietnam war was Medium Cool. This film tells a Chicago TV newsman's story in the turbulent year 1968, which saw the Tet offensive in Vietnam, massive antiwar protests in the US that led to President Johnson's decision not to seek re-election, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Chicago's mayor Richard Daley essentially created a police state during the Democratic Party convention, complete with tanks and armored carriers patrolling the streets, and riot police clashing with demonstrators. The film captures the contrast between what was going on in the convention hall with balloons and streamers and party hats and speeches, and the pandemonium and mayhem in the streets just outside.

The film tries to capture the mood of the times, when TV was becoming ubiquitous in people's lives. Its director was Haskell Wexler, the acclaimed cinematographer, and it was natural for him to try to portray the events of that time through the eyes of a TV journalist.

Like most cinematographers, Haskell Wexler's name is largely unknown to the general public but he has been behind the camera of so many high-quality and well-known films that he has to be ranked among the best at his craft.

I would not call this is a great film. But it captures a slice of life during a very turbulent time in the US.

March 15, 2007

The Power of Film

Films can have an enormous emotional impact on a viewer, swaying them emotionally in ways that their intellect would oppose. I was reminded of this recently when I watched two films from the silent era, Buster Keaton's The General (1927) and D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation (1915). The latter was one of the earliest American feature films (the first being made in 1912) with the very first being made in Australia in 1906.

It was purely a coincidence that I happened to watch two films from the silent era so close to each other because the reasons were quite different. I had always wanted to see a Buster Keaton film because I had read that he was a pioneering genius of the silent film comedy genre. I watched Griffiths' film as part of the College Scholars Program that I help teach.

Coincidentally, both films involved the Civil War and were told from a viewpoint that was sympathetic to the Confederacy. The first thing that struck me about both was how modern they were in the way they told their stories. They did have obvious signs of being old, such as the lack of sound and color and special effects, and poor quality film stock. But apart from these purely physical factors, the narrative structure was surprisingly familiar with flashbacks being the only modern feature of films that was missing.

Because of the lack of spoken dialogue, the actors had to exaggerate their gestures a little in order for the viewer to get a sense of their emotions and what they were saying, but apart from that, these were both films that kept the viewer engrossed in their respective stories. Despite the fact that the films had no spoken words (or because of it?), they were both fast-moving and kept the viewer engaged.

But there the similarities ended.

The General is a comedy in which the two warring sides were just a backdrop for a simple story of a train engineer (Buster Keaton) whose girl friend and train (named The General) were captured by the other side. The entire film dealt with the engineer's foray into enemy territory to get them both back home.

This is not a political film. The entire film could have been done with the two sides interchanged and all that would have been necessary would have been to switch the army uniforms. The fact that it was the Civil War was also immaterial. Any two warring factions would have served equally well. In fact there was not a single black person in the whole film (at least as I recall). The fact that the engineer and girl were from the South was seemingly due to the idea for the film coming from an actual incident in the war. This film is worth watching, if only to see how well Keaton did all the stunts himself.

Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, is a very political film, determined to drive home a very specific message. I had heard of the film before and the comments were of two kinds: (1) that it was a landmark in the development of modern film; and (2) that it was terribly racist. After seeing the film, I have to agree with both judgments.

The film (which runs a little over three hours, surprisingly long for that period) consists really of two parts. The first part starts just prior to the Civil War and deals with events leading up to its end and Lincoln's assassination. The second part deals with the period of Reconstruction in the south immediately afterwards.

The first part starts with an idyllic portrayal of life before the Civil War, with the stories of two large happy white families - one from the north, the other from the south – who are friends and visit one another, and the budding romances of one son and daughter from one family with son and daughter from the other. The war then pits the boys against each other in battle and produces deaths in each family.

This first part of the film is not too offensive and if the film had ended at this point there would not have been much controversy. The chief criticism that would have been leveled at it would have been the portrayal of all blacks as 'happy slaves,' either cheerfully loyal to their masters as house servants or happily working in the cotton fields and waving to the masters as they walk by. Lincoln is portrayed as a good man who did not want to seek vengeance in the South after the North's victory.

But the second part is set entirely in the south and deals with the Reconstruction following Lincoln's death. This is where the film's highly disturbing treatment of race becomes manifest. This period is portrayed as a time when blacks took complete control of life in the South, shutting out white voters in elections and thus getting majorities in the legislatures. The southern whites are portrayed as a horribly oppressed people, being pushed aside by blacks in the streets and suffering various other indignities. The blacks are entirely caricatured, with white actors in blackface portraying them as lazy and drunken and evil, shuffle-dancing in the streets, lecherously leering at the demure white women, and always rubbing it in to the whites that they were now the bosses. Only the faithful house slaves stayed loyal to the whites, to the extent of rescuing them from black mobs at great peril to themselves.

The first part of the film, by showing scenes of these two loving, courteous families, with children playing and puppies and kittens frolicking, suffering the tragedies of their family members being killed in the war, etc., had already created sympathy for them in the minds of the viewer. The only black people who emerged as recognizable characters appeared in the second part, and were two-dimensional portrayals of evil so that the viewer had no sympathy for them at all.

But the real shocker is that the film portrays the creation of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction as a response by these decent, law-abiding whites to the lawlessness created by black rule. It is started by one of the family members we have already identified with, who is appalled by the breakdown of order and merely seeking to right wrongs. The KKK's reign of terror is also not portrayed. Only one black person is shown being 'tried' and found guilty by the KKK and has his body later dumped at the home of the evil black leader. Instead the people of the KKK were protrayed like comic-book heroes, 'respectable' citizens who adopt secret identities to fight crime and injustice. Only in this case the costumes that hide their identities are the notorious white sheets.

There is no surer way of gaining an audience's sympathy than setting up a scene in which a plucky little band of good people (including the elderly, women, children, and pets) heroically fight overwhelming odds against an evil and faceless enemy. This is a time-tested method of swaying the viewer's sympathies and is a staple of cowboy films. Griffiths heavily exploits this towards the end of Birth of a Nation. So powerfully had the deck been emotionally stacked in favor of the white families that in the climactic scene, when the tiny group of white people is trapped in a small house and surrounded by a large number of advancing hostile black Union soldiers, I found myself rooting for their rescue, even though the rescue was going to be by the KKK.

The spell cast by Griffiths was broken whenever the scene cuts to show the KKK riding in to save this group because the sight of people covered in white sheets now has an overwhelmingly negative emotional impact. But one can imagine how in 1915, just fifty years after the Civil War ended, this film could be seen a huge propaganda coup for the KKK, showing them in an entirely positive light. Although the KKK had been dormant for some time, 1915 saw the second resurgence of this group and the timing of that had to have something to do with the release of this film.

The fact that Griffith was able to portray a group like the KKK in such a sympathetic light is a warning about the dangerous power that films can have in shaping attitudes and sympathies. It illustrates the importance of having people realize that films and other forms of video can never be taken as the only source of knowledge. We cannot avoid the hard work of reading about and around important events, both historical and contemporary, if we are to piece together a reasonably accurate understanding of events.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity returns

Mr. Deity is taken on a tour of hell by Lucifer.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

March 08, 2007

A low-brow view of films

Although I watch a lot of films, I realized a long time ago that my appreciation of films (or plays or books or concerts) was decidedly at a 'low brow' level. To explain what I mean, it seems to me that there are four levels in which one can appreciate a film (or play). At the lowest level is just the story or narrative. The next level above that is some message that the writer or director is trying to convey and which is usually fairly obvious. People whose appreciation does not get beyond these two levels are those I call low-brow. And I am one of them.

But I am aware there are higher levels of appreciation and criticism that can be scaled. The third level is that of technique, such as the quality of writing and things like acting and directing and cinematography and sound and lighting. And then there is the fourth and highest level, which I call deep meaning or significance, where there is a hidden message which, unlike the message at the second level, is not at all obvious but which has to be unearthed (or even invented) by scholars in the field or people who have a keen sensitivity to such things.

I almost never get beyond the first two levels. In fact, if the first level does not appeal to me, then no level of technique or profundity will rescue the experience. This does not mean that the items in the third level do not matter. They obviously are central to the enjoyment of the experience. It is just that I rarely notice the third level items unless they are so bad that it ruins the storytelling aspect. If the dialogue or acting (for example) is really rotten, then I will notice it but if I don't notice these things at all, then it means that they were good.

But I don't even consider these things unless the first two levels are satisfactory. If the first two levels are bad, nothing at the higher levels can salvage the experience for me. I never leave a film saying things like "The story was awful but the camerawork was excellent."

As an example, I really enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's films and have seen nearly all of them, many multiple times. But I just enjoy the way he tells the stories. Since I enjoy reading about films after I have watched them, I often find people pointing out subtle effects of technique such as how he uses lighting or sets up a camera angle or how he creates a mood, and so on. While I enjoy having these things pointed out to me, I would never notice them on my own.

The same thing holds with the music soundtrack. When friends tell me that they enjoyed the soundtrack of a film that is not a musical, my usual response is "what soundtrack?" The only films in which I notice the soundtrack are those in which there are obvious songs, such as in (say) The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy, the latter having a wonderful theme song Everybody's Talkin' by Harry Nillson and a beautifully haunting harmonica score that so pervades the film that even I noticed it.

The same happens with the fourth level of analysis, which is even more inaccessible to me. Just recently I read that in several of Hitchcock's films, he was exploring homosexual themes. I had no idea and would never have figured that out on my own. While I have no talent for exploring these deeper levels of meaning, I appreciate the fact that there are people who can do so and are willing to share that knowledge. Reading them and talking about films with such knowledgeable and keenly observant people is a real pleasure.

I once had pretensions to 'higher criticism' (which deals with the third and fourth levels) myself but that ended one day when it became dramatically obvious that I had no clue how to do it. It was in 1975 when I watched the film If. . . (1968) by director Lindsay Anderson. I like Anderson's films a lot. He creates strange and quirky films that deal with class politics in Britain, such as This Sporting Life (1963) and O Lucky Man (1973). The last one has an absolutely brilliant soundtrack and I noticed it because it consists of songs sung by British rocker Alan Price and he and his group periodically appear in the film to sing them, so you can't miss the music. It is one of the rare CDs I bought of a film soundtrack, it was so good.

Anyway, my friends and I watched If. . . and we noticed that while most of the film was in color, some of the scenes were in black and white. We spent a long time afterwards trying to determine the significance of this, with me coming up with more and more elaborate explanations for the director's intent, trying to make my theories fit the narrative. By an odd coincidence, soon after that I read an article that explained everything. It said that while making the film, Anderson had run low on money and had had to complete shooting with cheaper black and white film. Since films are shot out of sequence, the final product had this mix of color and black and white footage. That was it, the whole explanation, making laughable my elaborate theories about directorial intent. It was then that I gave up on the higher criticism, realizing that I would simply be making a fool of myself.

There are some films that are self-consciously technique-oriented, and I can appreciate them as such. For example Memento and Mulholland Drive are films that are clearly designed by the director to have the viewer try and figure out what is going on. They are like puzzles and I can enjoy them because they are essentially mystery stories (one of my favorite genres) in which the goal is to determine the director's intent and methods used. Both films were a lot of fun to watch and grapple with.

But except in those special cases, I leave 'higher criticism' to those better equipped to do so. That is the nice thing about creative works of art. One can appreciate and enjoy them at so many different levels and each viewer or reader can select the level that best suits them.

Next: A low-brow view of books.

February 20, 2007

Peter O'Toole

Seeing as I have been spending my time watching old films, for the first time in some years I have not seen any of the films that have been nominated for this year's Academy Awards. But that does not mean that I don't have a preference in at least one category, and that is for best actor. At the risk of offending purists who believe that the awards should be based strictly on the performance in the film for which the person has been nominated, I hope, for purely sentimental reasons, that Peter O'Toole wins the best actor award this coming Sunday for Venus, just because he is one of the greatest actors ever.

I have been a big fan of Peter O'Toole ever since I saw him in the stunning Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was his big break as a star. I watched the film again recently when it was re-released as a DVD in the 'director's cut' version. The power of the film can be measured by the fact that it runs almost four hours long and for some reason I started watching it at about nine at night, thinking I would stop halfway and continue the next day, since I usually am in bed before 11:00pm. But once I had started, I just could not tear myself away and had to see it through to the end, hardly noticing the time. It is undoubtedly director David Lean's masterpiece, and O'Toole's performance was amazing. I wish it could be shown on the big screen again (perhaps at the Cleveland Cinematheque?) because Lean's panoramic sweeps in the magnificent desert scenes really deserve to be seen in their full splendor.

After that, there were other fine performances from O'Toole in dramas such as Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). And if you want to see an absolutely brilliant satire of the hypocrisy and decadence of the British upper classes, The Ruling Class (1972) cannot be beaten.

O'Toole also showed a deft touch in light comedies like How to Steal a Million (1966), and that very silly and funny film What's New, Pussycat (1965).

After a period of decline, partly due to his heavy drinking, he returned to give an acclaimed performance in The Stunt Man (1980) (which is one of the few good films of his that I have not seen yet but will soon) and a wonderful performance in My Favorite Year (1982) where he played an aging, drunken, erratic, womanizing, fading star of swashbuckling films (supposed to be based on the life of actor Errol Flynn) who is invited to appear on a live TV variety show in the 1954. The show's producers assign a young writer to watch him like a hawk to make sure that he arrives on the set sober and on time and his desperate attempts to rein in the star's penchant to get into trouble forms the basis of the film. O'Toole clearly relished playing a caricature of himself and this made for a very endearing film.

When his old drinking friend Richard Harris died, O'Toole was considered to take over his role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was eventually passed over for Michael Gambon and although Gambon is a fine actor, I think O'Toole would have been better suited. O'Toole brings with him an air of frailty and yet wiry strength, sternness and yet with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a voice that can be soft and yet commanding. When I read the Potter books, the mental image I had of Dumbledore matched O'Toole almost exactly. Gambon seems just a little too vigorous and robust for my tastes.

Although O'Toole has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor seven times before (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, and My Favorite Year) he has never won.

It is time for him to get his due.

POST SCRIPT: And now, awards for the Bush Administration

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, there is no question that the current Bush Administration can sweep the historical awards for politics. I think that there can be no doubt that members of the current administration are the clear winners in the following categories:

Worst President Ever: George W. Bush
Worst Vice-President Ever: Dick Cheney
Worst Secretary of Defense Ever: Donald Rumsfeld
Worst Secretary of State Ever: Condoleeza Rice
Worst National Security Advisor Ever: Condoleeza Rice

Rice winning in two separate categories is a record unlikely to be ever broken.

Perhaps these awards should be called the Bushies in their honor.

How low Bush has sunk in the public esteem can be seen in the most recent results of the Pew poll (scroll down) that asks people (without prompts or a list of options) to suggest one word that they feel describes Bush. It seems like a free-association test.

The general dissatisfaction with the president also is reflected in the single-word descriptions that people use to describe their impression of the president. While the public has consistently offered a mix of positive and negative terms to describe Bush, the tone of the words used turned more negative in early 2006 and remains the case today. In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as "arrogant," "idiot," and "ignorant." Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as "honest," "good," "integrity," and "leader."

As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is "incompetent." By comparison, from 2000 through 2005 "honest" was the word most frequently volunteered description of the president.

The detailed results of the poll over the period 2004-2006 can be seen here. One thing that I noticed was that the description 'Christian,' which usually had a fairly good showing in the past, has disappeared completely in the latest list. I am not sure what that means.

February 14, 2007

The Western and the Courtroom

In my pursuit of seeing all the old classic films, I recently watched Stagecoach, the 1939 film directed by John Ford that catapulted John Wayne from B-movie actor to a major star. This film signaled the beginning of the glory days of the western film, a period that lasted until the 50s, though the 'spaghetti westerns' of Sergio Leone gave them a brief resurgence in the 1960s.

I have long had a soft spot for westerns, and even now two of my favorite films of all time are High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). Both these films were made at the height of the McCarthy-era witch hunts in which many people were hounded by the government and lost their jobs or were sent to prison or forced into exile (or sometimes all three) purely because of their beliefs and associations. These two films, and especially High Noon, with their themes of individuals standing up to powerful and evil forces in the face of public apathy and cowardice, can be seen as allegories for the situation at that time.

My affection for westerns may seem strange since I grew up in Sri Lanka and TV did not come to that country until the late 1970s. (The country skipped entirely the black-and-white TV era and went straight to color.) But as a young boy, I lived in England for three years at the end of the 1950s and that was a time in which it seemed like the TV schedules there featured one western after another. I would come home from school and watch all of them – Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Hopalong Cassidy, Wagon Train, The Cisco Kid, Rawhide, The Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Roy Rogers, and Rin Tin Tin. Such was my faithful devotion to these shows that to this day I know the words to those theme songs (the ones that had lyrics) and can still sing them though, alas, there are not many requests for this particular talent of mine.

Stagecoach had many features that have since become western clichés - the prostitute with a heart of gold, the drunken and dissolute doctor who can still retrieve his skills in an emergency, the pompous and officious dignitary with an unsavory secret, the sharply dressed and smooth talking gambler with a shady past, the climactic showdown between the good and bad guys, the outlaw who was unjustly accused, the impassive and menacing Indians who swoop down from the hills in an attack, and the sound of bugles signaling the arrival of the US cavalry to the rescue.

Given my addiction to this genre and my deep familiarity with it, I could see all these plot turns coming a mile off. But the film was still absorbing, mainly because the focus of Ford's film is less on action, apart from a long single attack sequence, and more on the characters and the changing relationships among them as the nine of them are confined to a stagecoach as it traverses the isolated and beautiful and dangerous country.

It says something about the quality of John Ford's work that despite the fact that the themes he introduced have sincee been so over-worked, I still found the film well worth watching.

Another old film that I had long wanted to see was Anatomy of a Murder (1959) starring James Stewart and directed by Otto Preminger. It deals with another favorite genre of mine, the courtroom drama. As longtime readers of this blog would have guessed, the law has always fascinated me and if for some reason my first love (physics) had been impossible for me as a career, I would probably have gone into law.

The film is surprisingly long for that time (2 hours, 40 mins), such lengths being reserved for certifiable Charlton Heston epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. But the film is engrossing and one does not feel the time passing. For me the best part was that about two thirds of the film took place in the courtroom as the opposing lawyers sparred with each other and the witnesses.

James Stewart, who is one of the most likeable of actors and always a pleasure to watch on the screen, plays a small-time lawyer who is retained to defend an army lieutenant who has shot and killed the person who is alleged to have raped his wife. The screenplay managed to avoid setting up a simple good-bad tension. While one always wants to see James Stewart win, this film complicated things by making his client (the army officer) an arrogant and sneering and thoroughly dislikable person, the client's wife as a beautiful but highly flirtatious woman, and the rapist also as a complex person. The prosecutors are also not caricatured as evil people out to get a conviction at all costs. As a result, one's sympathies continuously shift, from wanting Stewart to win, then wanting to smack his client for his insufferable smugness, liking his wife and wanting to believe her story but then not quite sure if she was actually raped or was falsely claiming it, and so on. It was this shifting of loyalties due to the complexity of the characters that made the film so gripping.

There were a few surprises in the film. Duke Ellington composed the score for the soundtrack and had a cameo appearance in a bar, and there is an extremely cute little dog.

An interesting bit of trivia about the film. The judge in the trial was portrayed as an old-school, avuncular type, politely appealing for decorum from the lawyers and gently chiding them when they overstepped their bounds. He was so courtly in his manner that he had a private conference with the lawyers to see if they could find an alternative to the word 'panties' during the rape testimony, thinking that it would be too indelicate.

There was something vaguely familiar about the actor playing the judge that I could not quite pin down so afterwards I went to the IMDb website to see who it was. It turns out that the judge was played by Joseph Welch who was the lawyer retained by the Army during the Joseph McCarthy Senate hearings on Communists in the Army and who in 1954 delivered the famous rebuke to McCarthy that I had seen and heard before in film and audio clips.

The famous exchange happened when McCarthy gratuitously exposed, on national TV, a young lawyer in Welch's firm named Fred Fisher as having been a member in the Lawyer's Guild, an organization that was alleged to be a Communist front, something that was not relevant to the proceedings. McCarthy's public revelation of Fisher's past was an act of spite against Welch.

At which point, Welch, in his distinctive voice, delivered these famous lines in a tone of sorrow and quiet anger which were seen and heard by millions, and were what triggered the memory in me as I watched the film. (Go here to hear the exchange.)

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this Committee, I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim, "Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like." He chose Fred Fisher, and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night, when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case is about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men, "Boys, I don't know anything about you, except I've always liked you, but if there's anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick."

And Fred Fisher said, "Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school, and for a period of months after, I belonged to the Lawyers' Guild," as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, "I am Secretary of the Young Republican's League in Newton with the son of [the] Massachusetts governor, and I have the respect and admiration of my community, and I'm sure I have the respect and admiration of the twenty-five lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr." And I said, "Fred, I just don't think I'm going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out, and go over national television, and it will just hurt like the dickens." And so, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston.

Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
. . .
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. . .You've done enough.

And then he spoke the words that were the coup de grace: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

This shocking public rebuke to a US Senator, delivered by Welch in his sad and gentle voice, was a pivotal event that exposed McCarthy to the whole nation as an overbearing, reckless, and lying bully and started his rapid decline. The Senate censured him in December of that year and he began to be avoided by his colleagues and the press. His alcoholism increased and he died in 1957 of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48.

The judge portrayed in the film seemed to be exactly like the person who gave this speech in real life. Whether he was selected for this role because he so fitted the part or because of gratitude for helping end the force behind the blacklist that drove so much talent out of Hollywood, I do not know.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity Super Bowl Extra

Mr. Deity reappears to hold a press conference just before the Super Bowl.

January 31, 2007

Film talk-3: The film ratings mystery

In watching Oh! Calcutta!, I started thinking about the effect on film quality of the abundance of sex, nudity, profanity, and violence in films that are released these days. I personally find violence the most distasteful of all of these things and will avoid films that are advertised to have excessive amounts of it. When judging a film, the question for me is always whether these elements are essential to the film or, if not and are just added to attract audiences, the film would still be worth watching without those elements, or at least a substantial part of them. A good judge of whether this is the case is what I remember about a film long after I have seen it. If I find it hard to remember if there was any sex or nudity or violence or profanity, it means that the film stands on its own.

This is one reason that I will not see another Quentin Tarantino film. Although Pulp Fiction was hailed by many as a masterpiece (which is why I watched it), all I can remember about it is the over-the-top gratuitous violence and profanity, and copious use of the n-word. That is reputed to be his trademark and it is enough for me to swear off watching any more of his output.

The ratings system also baffles me somewhat. I remember seeing a little gem of a film called The Castle, which had an R rating. This film is an absolutely delightful little low-budget comedy with an almost completely unknown cast from Australia. It features a slow-witted but earnest family that finds surprise and enjoyment in what the rest of us would consider mundane. They own a house right by the Melbourne airport, with the runway ending just across their garden fence. Unlike most people, this family sees this as a very desirable feature because they enjoy seeing planes taking off and landing and can walk to the airport when they need to take a flight or meet someone. When the airport wants to expand, they try to resist having their home taken by the state and that struggle forms the basis of the film.

So why did this film rate an R? There is absolutely no sex, nudity, or violence. As far as I can see, the only reason is because three times in the film, characters use the f-word. But even then they do not use it gratuitously or offensively out of anger, but out of frustration like when the photocopier gets jammed at a critical moment. This is exactly the kind of situation when most people swear, so it was perfectly understandable use. One character even apologizes for using it when he realizes that an elderly female neighbor is present. And yet this wonderful film gets the same rating as Pulp Fiction, which seems to glory in violence and profanity just for its own sake. It hardly seems fair. The Castle is a great film for family viewing but many people won't watch it because of the rating.

I am looking forward to seeing on DVD the documentary This film is not yet rated, which is an expose of the secretive group that rates films in the US and the mysterious criteria used by them to classify films.

One of my other peeves about films deals with the way they begin. I notice when watching very old films how briskly they run through the opening credits, which is something I appreciate. In the old films from the1940s like Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, the film begins with the opening credits which are quickly got out of the way in about a minute with just the main people (actors, producer, director, screenwriter, music director, cinematographer) listed, leaving the more detailed credits to the end. And even then, the number of people are far fewer than nowadays. This is one of my favorite things about old films, the fact that they get down to the business of telling the story so quickly and without fuss and pretentiousness.

In the 1960s with films like Fail Safe, they sometimes had a brief opening sequence before going to the quick credits and then getting back to the film proper. This is fine too.

What I can't stand nowadays are those films that drag out the opening credits interminably, interspersing each and every name (and there are many more names now) with a brief segment of the film, so that it seems as if by the time the director's name mercifully comes on, we might be ten minutes into the film. I find this annoying and distracting and wish film makers would stop this practice.

On the other hand, there are some modern films that have no opening credits at all or just the title of the film, leaving all the credits to the end. I think that both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series were like this. You might think I would prefer this, but I don’t. The reason is that I tend to remember actors' faces and find it distracting when I see a character appear onscreen whom I know I have seen before somewhere and cannot remember the name. When I read the opening credits for actors and see a familiar name, that prepares me for when the actor appears and thus don't get distracted trying to remember what his or her name is or previous films were.

Sometimes the opening credits are like a short film in its own right and this can work, especially for comedies. For example, the Pink Panther or the Ice Age series opening animations are like cartoon shorts, and that's fine. My complaint is with what appears to be opening credits run amok, serving no purpose than to draw attention to the person creating the credits. The opening credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are a wonderful spoof of this mentality, where the credits creator inserts text about his sister being bitten by a moose, and gets fired.

I realize that not everyone will share my pet peeves but here is my appeal to film makers: Stop with the long and elaborate opening credit sequences that do not really add value to the film and get the main names out of the way as soon as possible. Thank you.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on the dialogue about terrorism

What promises to be an intriguing documentary titled What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism is going to be shown in two parts on successive days at two different locations in Cleveland. Director Bassam Haddad will be available to answer questions after both screenings, which are free and open to the public.

Part I: Tuesday February 6th at 6:00pm in the Dively Community Seminar Room, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, UR 112,Cleveland State University, 1717 Euclid Avenue.

Part II: Wednesday February 7th at 5:00pm
in Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University, 2125 Adelbert Road.

Sponsoring organizations:

Case Western Reserve University: Center for Policy Studies, Share the Vision Committee, Case Democrats, Middle East Cultural Association, Muslim Student Association, Undergraduate Student Government,

Cleveland State University: Cultural Crossing, Dean of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, Middle Eastern Studies Minor Program.

For more information, see the website for the film or contact Dr. Neda A. Zawahri 216-687-4544 or Dr. Pete Moore 216-368-5265.

January 30, 2007

Film talk-2: Beatty, Hitchcock, and Oh! Calcutta!

I have been using the Case film library to catch up on some old films that I had always meant to see but missed when they first came out, either because they were made before I was born or because they did not make it to Sri Lanka.

I saw two Warren Beatty films, the comedy Shampoo (1975) where he plays a Beverly Hills hairdresser who sleeps with all his clients, and the drama Reds (1981), based on the life of a radical and idealistic American journalist John Reed, whose eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution was told in the book Ten Days that Shook the World.

I like Warren Beatty and find his films always enjoyable, but as I watched these two older films it struck me that although the settings and stories of his films differ considerably, he is always pretty much playing the same character, an appealing and well-meaning person who is never quite in control of his own life's direction but instead is buffeted by the events and people around him. This is true whether he is playing a gangster in the drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967), an old West entrepreneur in the drama McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), a football quarterback in the comedy Heaven Can Wait, a disillusioned politician in the comedy Bulworth (1998), a hairdresser in Shampoo, or a World War I-era radical journalist in Reds.

Perhaps he stepped outside these characterizations in the films I have not seen but since these are his best-known films, his cinematic persona seems pretty much set. Of all these films, Heaven Can Wait is my favorite, a very good comedy that has, as a bonus, a fine turn by one of the great actors, James Mason.

I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Although I am a fan of Hitchcock and have seen nearly all of his directorial works, I did not think this one of his better films. It may be that I am not a fan of overtly propagandistic films and this film had elements of that. It was filmed in 1940, after World War II had started in Europe and prior to the US entering it. The film clearly aimed at getting Americans to be more alarmed about the state of affairs in Europe but the way it did this was a little too ham-handed. The opening scene which is a paean to the work of foreign correspondents and the closing scene in which the correspondent in London appeals to Americans for action while the lights around him go dark because of the bombing, were both too obvious for my taste. And even the closing credits just after that scene had the Star-Spangled Banner as the soundtrack.

There is nothing wrong with art having a political message and one could argue that all art is political. In fact, I like political films a lot and have already written about my enjoyment of The Manchurian Candidate (the original one, not the ghastly remake) and V for Vendetta. Reds is another political film that I found quite enjoyable,

But the problem I had with Foreign Correspondent is that the politics is not well done. To be fair, though, it was only at the very end that Hitchcock got preachy but that was enough to leave a sour aftertaste.

The final film I watched recently in my old-films binge was Oh! Calcutta! (1972). This was a filmed version of a musical comedy sketch revue that featured a lot of nudity and sexual content and created a sensation when it was first staged in the late 60s. Of course, such plays and films would never be shown in Sri Lanka, which created a great sense of curiosity there about it, so I finally decided to see it.

The film is awful. I found the music uninspiring (even though the credits included John Lennon and Peter ("PDQ Bach") Schickele), the comedy was only mildly funny and that too in parts, and the dances were just ok. In short, it was clear to me that the claim to fame of this production was that it was pushing the envelope of sex and nudity of that time. Now, much of it comes off as just crude, and there is little sense of shock anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Battle in Najaf

The reports of the battle that took place over the weekend in Najaf have some strange aspects to it. Initial reports say that Iraqi forces supported by US tanks and helicopter gunships killed 250 militants in a fierce battle that lasted many hours. There seemed to be very few casualties on the US and Iraq side. Some Initial reports describe the dead as 'militants', members of a Sunni apocalyptic cult that was seeking to kill prominent Shiite clerics in that city. Others argue that it was a Shiite group. The invaluable Juan Cole tries to disentangle the conflicting narratives.

Why an armed militant group would take on the Iraqi military in a relatively open area as a date palm orchard where they could be easily picked off by the supporting helicopter gunships seems puzzling. There seems to be a whole lot of confusion about who the dead were and what they represented.

In any conflict, I tend to view with great suspicion any reports of 'fierce' long battles in which one side sustains huge numbers of casualties and the other side next to nothing. These kinds of lopsided death tolls usually are signs that the side with low casualties is hiding their losses or that mostly civilians were killed, even though there may have been actual militants also among them. Initial reports of battles almost always come from the official military, which has a vested interest in minimizing civilian deaths. I usually suspend judgment on such stories until reporters and medical personnel and human rights workers are able to reach the areas and provide independent and relatively unbiased reports.

Meanwhile, some idea of the methods used by the Iraqi security forces in patrolling Baghdad, and their relationship to the US forces, can be obtained from watching this British TV report. It contains some rough scenes but sadly we have become accustomed to seeing dead and wounded, and people being assaulted. (Thanks to Glenn Greenwald.)

January 29, 2007

Film talk-1: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Despite the heading on this blog, I realized that I had not been writing about films for quite a while. The reason is simple: I had not been seeing films over the past few months. This was because I was reading a lot of books as part of serving on the Common Reading Book Selection Committee. This is Case's committee to select the book that will be sent to all incoming students in the summer of 2007 and the selected book also forms part of the basis for orientation, fall convocation, and the First seminars.

This is a great committee to serve on because you get together with other students, staff, and faculty, all of whom love to read and talk about books. In serving on this committee over the past few years, I have been introduced to a lot of great books that I might not have read otherwise. This year saw a particularly good selection which I will write about once the final choice is made. But because the books were so good, I found it hard to tear myself away to my other love: films.

But in the last two weeks I watched some old films that were worth writing about.

Fail Safe is a great 1964 film based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. I have never understood how two people can collaborate on a novel because a novel seems like such a personal creation. But I digress.

I had read the book back in the 70's but had never seen the film. Its premise is the same as that of the much-better known Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, which also came out the same year. I wonder how it came to be that two studios decided to make two films with such similar themes in the same year. It seems weird to me. But I digress again.

Both films deal with the situation that arises during the cold war when a US nuclear bomber squadron begins a mission to attack the Soviet Union. In Fail Safe the cause is malfunctioning equipment while in Dr. Strangelove the cause is a psychotic US General who wants to start a nuclear war. But in both cases, technical malfunctions and cold war paranoia (at least initially) between the US and Soviet political and military leaders hinder attempts to get the fleets called back, despite their joint frantic efforts once people realize the seriousness of what is going on.

They are both wonderful films, though quite different in their approach to the same scenario. Dr. Strangelove, which I have seen numerous times over many years, is the ultimate black comedy, getting laughs from a potential nuclear catastrophe, with director Stanley Kubrick getting brilliant performances out of Peter Sellers (in three roles, Dr. Strangelove being one), George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden.

Fail Safe, on the other hand, plays it straight and there is not a laugh to be had in the whole film. Instead director Sidney Lumet, with a small cast, created a small, tight film that kept me completely absorbed throughout, even though I knew how it would end because I had heard that it was faithful to the novel. In the film, the US president (played by Henry Fonda) and his Soviet counterpart and their respective military and civilian advisors find that, even after overcoming their initial mutual suspicions and starting to cooperate, it is hard to reverse events that could lead to a nuclear catastrophe. Their machines of war have taken on a life of their own that relentlessly drives events.

Both films are anti-war in the best sense of the word. In Fail Safe, the US and Soviet leaders and most of their advisors are portrayed as thoughtful, humane, reasonable, and intelligent people, and yet they cannot control events. It made me think of the present. The current leadership in the US, Israel, Iraq and Iraq can none of them claim to have any of these desirable qualities and yet they are the ones we have to depend on to try and avert a catastrophe in the Middle East. It does not give one hope.

If any of you have not seen Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, you should check them out. They are true classics, in that they are timeless.

POST SCRIPT: The battle for Haifa Street

I wrote recently about how disturbing it was that nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq, US and Iraqi forces were still fighting pitched battles on a boulevard right in the capital Baghdad. According to Lara Logan of CBS News (who has done some terrific reporting), that battle raged for two weeks and may even still be going on. She appealed to her colleagues to spread the word about the video, which shows and important battle that is symptomatic of the stalemate that exists there. (You have to watch a commercial first.)

November 24, 2006

No more daft women!

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from April 4, 2006, slightly edited.)

Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.

I don't know if you recall the movie. There's a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, "Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?'' I said, "Well, yes,'' and he said, "Is she daft? Why doesn't she wake him up?''

I remembered this story when I was watching the film The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Kidman character accidentally overhears something at the UN that puts her life at risk. After she complains to government agent Penn that no one seems to be bothered about protecting her from harm, Penn puts her on round-the-clock surveillance. So then what does Kidman do? She sneaks around, giving the slip to the very people assigned to protect her and refuses to tell Penn where she went and to whom she spoke and about what, causing herself and other people to be put at risk and even dying because of her actions. Hitchcock would have said, "Is she daft?"

This is one of my pet peeves about films, where the female character insists on doing something incredibly stupid that puts her and other people at peril. Surely in this day and age we have gone beyond the stale plot device of otherwise smart women behaving stupidly in order to create drama? Surely writers have more imagination than that? Do directors really think that viewers won't notice how absurd that is?

According to Hunter, Hitchcock was always exploring the motivations of characters, trying to make their actions plausible. Hunter says:

[Hitchcock] would ask surprising questions. I would be in the middle of telling the story so far and he would say, "Has she called her father yet?" I'd say, "What?'' "The girl, has she called her father?'' And I'd say, "No.'' "Well, she's been away from San Francisco overnight. Does he know where she is? Has she called to tell him she's staying in this town?'' I said, "No.'' And he said, "Don't you think she should call him?'' I said, "Yes." "You know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' Questions like that.

(Incidentally, the above link has three screenwriters Arthur Laurents, who wrote Rope (1948), Joseph Stefano, who wrote Psycho (1960), and Evan Hunter reminiscing about working with Hitchcock. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how a great director envisages and sets about creating films. The last quote actually reads in the original: "Yes, you know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' I changed it because my version makes more sense, and the original is a verbatim transcript of a panel discussion, in which such kinds of punctuation errors can easily occur.)

More generally, I hate it when characters in films and books behave in ways that are unbelievable. The problem is not with an implausible premise, which is often necessary to create a central core for the story. I can even accept the violation of a few laws of physics. For example, I can accept the premise of Superman that a baby with super powers (but susceptible to kryptonite) arrives on Earth from another planet and is adopted by a family and needs to keep his identity secret. I can accept of Batman that a millionaire like Bruce Wayne adopts a secret identity in order to fight crime.

What I cannot stand is when they and the other people act implausibly, when the stories built on this premise have logical holes that you can drive a Batmobile through. The latter, for example, is a flashy vehicle, to say the least, easily picked out in traffic. And yet, nobody in Gotham thinks of following it back to the Batcave, to see who this mysterious hero is. Is the entire population of that city daft?

And how exactly does the Bat-Signal that the Police Commissioner lights up the sky with supposed to work? You don't need a physics degree to realize that shining a light, however bright, into the sky is not going to create a sharp image there. And what if it's daytime? And if there are no clouds? (It's been a long time since I read these comics. Maybe the later editions fixed these problems. But even as a child these things annoyed me.)

And don't get me started on Spiderman going in and out of his apartment window in a building in the middle of a big city in broad daylight without anyone noticing.

As a fan of films, it really bugs me when filmmakers don't take the trouble to write plots that make sense, and have characters who don't behave the way that you would expect normal people to behave. How hard can it be to ensure this, especially when you have the budget to hire writers to create believable characters and a plausible storyline?

If any directors are reading this, I am willing to offer my services to identify and fix plot holes.

So please, no more daft women! No more ditzy damsels in distress! No more Perils of Pauline!

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I saw this film (see the post script to an earlier posting), just before it ended its very short run in Cleveland. It looks at what history would have been like if the south had won the civil war. Imagine, if you will, an America very much like what we have now except that owning black slaves is as commonplace as owning a dishwasher.

What was troubling is that although this is an imagined alternate history presented in a faux documentary format, much of it is plausible based on what we have now. What was most disturbing for me was seeing in the film some racist images and acts that I thought were the over-the-top imaginings of the screenwriter about that might have happened in this alternate history, and then finding out at the end that theyactually happened in the real history.

Although the film is a clever satire in the style of This is Spinal Tap, I could not really laugh because the topic itself is so appalling. It is easy to laugh at the self-absorption and preening and pretensions of a rock band. It is hard to laugh at people in shackles.

But the film was well worth seeing, disturbing though it was.

September 19, 2006

Film: The Road to Guantanamo

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a "harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival."

The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a "voice of god" voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.

So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.

There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say "surprising" because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat "liberal" in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week's series of posts on the media.

Connors' review said the following:

[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled "factual," they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.
. . .
Winterbottom's film tells [the young men's] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers -- say, human rights groups or journalists -- or rebuttals from the British or Americans.

But Winterbottom doesn't make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games
. . .
Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) -- all signal "news" to audiences. He mixes these with "dramatic reenactments" of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of "Crime Stoppers."

Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration's arguments that in this "war on terror", anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.

Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side.

The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as "interrogation") just because their story has "holes" is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration's rhetoric of the "war on terror" to cow even "liberals" to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?

This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns "weigh heavily on the other side" as Connors asserts. The administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.

Connors sums up: "Whatever one's views on the war or one's political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible."

Unforgivably irresponsible? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an 'evildoer' or 'bad guy' or 'terrorist'. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as "irresponsible." This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for 'balance'. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.

Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony 'balance', which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government's version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.

The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes (September 18, 2006 in the New York Times - sorry, no link available) the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:

According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ''stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours''; the ''cold cell,'' in which prisoners are forced ''to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,'' while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ''the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,'' then ''cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him,'' inducing ''a terrifying fear of drowning.''

And bear in mind that the ''few bad apples'' excuse doesn't apply; these were officially approved tactics -- and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I'm ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I'd be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured -- and I'm not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)

These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.

This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the "objective" media.

See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.

September 06, 2006

The entangled media, business, and political monopolies

In many ways the monopoly media in the US reflects the monopolistic political system that exists here. For all the talk about being a two-party system, there is very little difference between the parties. This is not to say that they are identical, but we cannot understand how the media reflects the political system if we have an exaggerated idea of the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

It is more accurate to say that what exists in the US is not a two-party state but a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions. The two parties share a common interest in promoting business interests and the interests of the well-to-do over that of the people in general and workers in particular. This pro-business attitude by both parties extends to both parties being pro-war because wars are, almost always (especially in the short run), good for business, especially certain kinds of businesses, those famously warned of by President Eisenhower when he referred to the 'military industrial complex.' It is interesting to note that he raised this issue in his farewell address in 1961 just three days he was due to leave office after completing two terms. In other words, he knew how things really worked but could not speak the truth until he was able to avoid any political repercussions.

Once one understands the pro-business nature of both major parties, it becomes easy to understand why our elected representatives have opposed things like single-payer health insurance plans (because these would go against the interests of the insurance companies), why they have opposed exploration of alternative fuel sources (because they go against the interests of the oil industries), why they have opposed better fuel standards for cars (because they go against the auto industry), and why they oppose raising the minimum wage (because it raises the cost of business)..

But for the purposes of analyzing the media, the most important fact is that the government has steadily allowed increasing monopoly ownership of the media, by removing the restrictions that used to exist limiting the number of television station and radio stations and newspapers that a single corporate entity could own in a single market. What we now have is a situation where just six big corporations dominate the media landscape. See this chart for how this interlocking web of interests operates. And since many of the same people populate the boards of these corporations, the homogeneity of the media is enhanced even more. Furthermore, these media conglomerates have strong ties to other business sectors. For example, one media giant is General Electric, which is also a powerhouse in the defense contracting industry, and thus directly benefits from wars.

So the media is closely intertwined with a wide network of business interests. These news media conglomerates are generous contributors to politicians who promote their interests. Only a very quixotic politician will speak out against them. Most of our elected legislators are more beholden to these interests that underwrite their campaigns and can lavishly entertain them, than they are to the voters who put them in office. The popular idea that these media giants became what they are because of free-market competition is a myth. As media analyst Robert McChesney says:

This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of "free enterprise." These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that individual journalists are aware of all of these ties and consciously write in ways that avoid offending powerful interests. A few unprincipled careerists may do so but I suspect they are fairly rare. It is very hard for most people to believe in one thing and, on a daily basis, to conform to a culture that requires adhering to a completely opposite set of values. Doing so is perhaps a sure path to a mental breakdown.

One should also not assume that there exists a direct line of orders coming down from high to journalists as to what the news should be. In other words, it is not as if the CEO of General Electric tells the head of NBC to tell the head of the news division to tell the executive producer of NBC Nightly News to tell anchor Brian Williams that he should promote a new war with Iran because General Electric's aircraft engines division needs to make more profits.

Fox News is one organization that actually does try to direct journalists in such brazen ways. It is no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox's parent company News Corporation takes a keen interest that the editorial content of his media empire serve his own business and political interests. There was some embarrassment in 2003 when a former staffer at Fox revealed that every day, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel (FNC), would send out a Daily Memo that told the journalists what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct
. . .
[T]he roots of FNC's day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel's daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.

Fox's operation is a very crude propaganda model. Some countries, especially those with a totalitarian structure have used it but it is rarely effective in the long run because the news consumer quickly catches on to what is going on and starts to discount the news or look for alternative, even underground, sources. In the US, because of the obviousness of Fox's actions, some people already realize that Fox News is determinedly pushing an agenda, though many still accept at face value its "fair and balanced" slogan.

A more sophisticated propaganda model is one in which everyone involved in the media, including journalists, believes they are reporting impartially without fear or favor, while at the same time serving the corporate interests of the owners of their media. The real success of a good propaganda model, such as exists in the US, is when people do not realize that this is what is in place but think that the news they get from the mainstream media is objective.

Next in the series: How a sophisticated propaganda model is created and operates.

June 27, 2006

Lagaan and the Bollywood film tradition

In watching Lagaan, I was reminded of the increasing interest in the west in Bollywood films. For those not familiar with it, 'Bollywood' is a generic term for films produced mostly in the prolific studios of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), an industry that rivals Hollywood in size. But a Bollywood film is not merely defined by where it is produced but also by the nature of its content. (A caveat: I have never been a fan of Bollywood films and my following comments should not be too taken seriously because I have not seen many such films, and the few I did see were many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka. It is quite possible that my perceptions are out of date and that these films have changed and improved considerably over time.)

Bollywood films were immensely popular in Sri Lanka despite being in Hindi (a language not spoken there) and with no subtitles. The lack of understanding of the dialogue did not seem to pose a problem for audiences because the strict formula and conventions of these films made the general features of plot transparent and the details immaterial. The formula required many things. The films had to be long, at least three hours. Cinema was the chief form of popular entertainment and poor people wanted their money's worth. The films were also outrageously escapist. The male and female leads were invariably young and good looking and middle or upper class, with lifestyles beyond the reach of most of their audiences. The plot was always boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-lose-each-other, boy-and-girl-overcome-problems-and-get-married.

The plot usually involved some misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved if someone had simply spoken up at the right time, but inexplicably does not. A daft woman was often the culprit. Providing light relief and humor is a comic sub-plot, usually involving servants or working class or stupid people, that runs in parallel with the main story line. The villain in the film usually has no redeeming qualities. In fact, the main romantic leads and the villain lack complexity and depth of character, being just types. This makes it easy to root for the heroes and hiss the villain. It is usually the supporting characters who are allowed to display some complexity and development. And a Bollywood film must end happily, with the villain getting his (it is usually a man) just desserts.

And of course, there have to be songs. Lots of songs. Combined with dancing. Lots of dancing. These are combined into big production numbers that break out often for no discernible reason and seem to go on and on and serve no purpose in the story other than to jazz up the proceedings. The song-and-dance scenes usually involve rapid changes of clothes and location. Just within one song, the couple might be singing wearing one outfit in their local town, then the location will shift to London in another outfit, then to the Alps, then Tokyo, and so on. Why? No dramatic reason. Just to give the audience the sheer escapist pleasure of seeing the world's tourist spots. The romantic leads sing and dance in parks and play peek-a-boo behind the trees.

The songs, songwriters, and the singers of the songs (called "playback singers") are the actual stars of a Bollywood film. They are not seen and the actors lipsynch to them, transparently so. Little effort is made to match the actor's own voice with that of the playback singers. It is not unusual in a big ensemble song-and-dance scene for several characters who have vastly different speaking voices to 'sing' different lines, while the same playback singer is used for both. Verisimilitude is not a high priority for Bollywood film audiences, who seem to subscribe to Duke Ellington's dictum: "If it sounds good, it is good."

Lagaan sticks to the Bollywood formula in many areas but deviates from it in significant ways. It is very long but it is a tribute to the screenwriters and director that I did not feel it dragging at all. There is no comic sub-plot. The song-and-dance numbers are still there but thankfully much fewer (I think there were only six) and they were integrated into the story and advanced the plot. In fact, the last song, a devotional one sung by the villagers during the night before the third and final day of the match when they had their backs to the wall and were asking god to help them, was extraordinarily beautiful and very moving.

One Bollywood tradition that was retained in Lagaan was that the male and female leads must always be good looking and well-groomed and very buff, whatever the circumstances. Here they play two young people in an impoverished village that is baking in the heat, suffering from drought, and the people close to starving. You would expect such people to look somewhat emaciated and haggard, and yet the two leads always look like they have just come from a spa, with hair in place, clean-shaven, clean clothes, and make up done just so. Only the supporting characters sweat and wear torn and shabby clothes.

Another tradition that was retained was that the villain had no redeeming qualities. Here the villain was the British Captain Russell who offered the wager that could not be refused. He always has a sneer on his face and never seems to miss an opportunity to be nasty. In order to do a trivial favor for the raja (prince), he insists that the raja (who is a vegetarian) must eat meat. He kicks and beats with a whip a villager who accidentally hurts his horse while shoeing him. He yells at a subordinate because he did not seem him salute. And he kills a deer and rabbit for fun. You can be sure that the director chose those particular animals for their cuteness appeal and to increase the repulsion of the audience. The closeups of those two animals just prior to their death show them looking like Bambi and Thumper. I am surprised that Russell was not shown kicking a puppy.

But all that pales before the unmistakable sign of Russell's bad character, which is that he indulges in unsportsmanlike behavior at cricket! In British tradition, cricket is the ultimate venue for fair play and anyone who does not play by the spirit of the rules, let alone the letter, is undoubtedly a bad person. George Orwell in his essay Raffles and Miss Blandish highlights this peculiarly British belief that someone who is good at cricket and upholds its spirit of sportsmanship is automatically assumed to be a good person, whereas someone who acts unsportingly, let alone (gasp!) cheats at the game, is considered a bounder, a cad, a scoundrel, a blackguard, completely beyond the pale. (Raffles is a fictional character in British literature, a thief who uses his acceptance in high society and invitations to their parties to steal people's valuable possessions from their homes. No one suspects him because he played for the English national cricket team so how could he possibly be a thief?) To do something, anything, that is branded as 'not cricket' is to be accused of violating the spirit of fair play.

Although Lagaan retains some of the Bollywood and cricket clichés, it is a tribute to the film that it is also able to rise above them and tell a good story well.

Next: Cricket and the class system.

POST SCRIPT: So that explains it

New Scientist magazine reports on the results of a new study that finds that "Overconfident people are more likely to wage war but fare worse in the ensuing battles". It also finds that "Those who launched unprovoked attacks also exhibited more narcissism."

The study, done by Dominic Johnson of Princeton University involving 200 volunteers playing war games, was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Bertram Malle of the University of Oregon says that "the study raises worrying questions about real-world political leaders. "Perhaps most disconcerting is that today's leaders are above-average in narcissism," he notes, referring to an analysis of 377 leaders published in King of the Mountain: The nature of political leadership by Arnold Ludwig."

Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut comments that "One wishes that members of the Bush administration had known about this research before they initiated invasion of Iraq three years ago," he adds. "I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of political scientists is that the Bush administration was overconfident of victory, and that the Iraq war is a debacle."

I think it is naïve to think that things might have been different if the Bush administration had known of this study. I can't recall the source now but there was an earlier study that found that the prime reason that some people are so incompetent is that they are unaware that they are incompetent! They do not think that negative indicators apply to them and thus do not seek to improve themselves. Such a lack of realistic self-awareness seems to be a hallmark of the current leadership.

June 26, 2006

Lagaan

I recently watched the film Lagaan (2001) (Hindi and English with English subtitles) on DVD and was very impressed. Although the film is very long (3 hours, 45 minutes!) it did not drag at all which, for me, puts its director (Ashutosh Gowarikar) in the same class as David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai) as one of those rare filmmakers who can make me overcome my feeling that films should not exceed two hours, and preferably should be 90 minutes.

Lagaan takes place in a remote village region in India in 1893 during British colonial rule. The area has been hit by a drought for several years and the impoverished villagers are unable to pay the tax ('lagaan') to their British military rulers.

In seeking relief from the tax, some of the villagers try to ask for a temporary amnesty, but run afoul of the local British military head Captain Russell who, in a fit of pique because of a prior run-in with one of the villagers (the hero of the film) actually doubles the tax instead. When the appalled villagers protest, Russell raises the stakes even more. He says that he will now triple the tax but offers them the following wager: he will exempt the village from any tax at all for three years if the villagers can field a cricket team that beats the team comprised of the British military officers. Since the British officers grew up playing the game and even in India play cricket all the time, while the villagers have never even seen the game, the villagers seem doomed. But having no option but to agree to this unbalanced wager, the villagers set about trying to learn to play cricket within the three months allocated to them, and this preparation and the actual climactic game forms the main storyline of the film.

The villagers who form the cricket team are made up of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, handicapped, and members of the so-called 'untouchable' caste, and they have to learn to overcome their traditional animosities for the sake of the village. This rag-tag group, lacking proper equipment or coaching (except for some guidance from the sympathetic sister of Captain Russell who is appalled by her brother's cruelty), have to resort to unorthodox training methods, such as catching chickens to improve their reflexes and fielding technique.

Clearly the cricket match is a metaphor for the independence struggle waged by India against the British, which resulted in the British being forced to leave in 1947. That struggle was a landmark in national liberation struggles, with people like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi successfully managing to forge a highly diverse and large population, riddled with religious, ethnic, language, caste, and class differences, into a cohesive force against a common enemy. Unfortunately, that unity was short-lived with ongoing Hindu-Muslim clashes, the partitioning into India and Pakistan, the Kashmir area still under dispute, Sikh dissatisfaction, the isolation of the so-called 'untouchable; caste, and so on. But they managed to work together enough during crucial periods to make continuing British control impossible. Like the village cricket team being forced to learn how to play the game of their oppressor, the Indian independence leaders had to learn the 'game' of British politics and public opinion in order to advance their goals.

Cricket as a metaphor for the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle against the British is extended when we realize that the demise of the British Empire after World War II correlated with the decline in the dominance of their cricket. Now India and Pakistan are dominant cricket nations, regularly beating England in international contests (called 'Test' matches), and two current players who are easily among the best batsmen of all time (Sachin Tendulkar of India and Brian Lara of West Indies) come from former British colonies. Sri Lanka also fields competitive international teams. While in Lagaan the villagers were totally ignorant of the game and amused by the Englishmen's passion for what they considered a childish pastime, nowadays the Indian subcontinent has arguably the most enthusiastic cricket fans in the world and there is probably no corner, however remote, where children are not enthusiastically playing it.

You don't really need to understand cricket in order to appreciate this fine film, but in a later posting, I will provide a Cliffs notes version for those who are bewildered by the appeal of this very strange game.

(Note: If you are a member of the Case community, you can borrow the Lagaan DVD from the Kelvin Smith Library.)

Next: Lagaan and the Bollywood film tradition.

POST SCRIPT: The real reason why the attack on Iraq was wrong

Periodically, some defender of the invasion of Iraq will resurrect the idea that Iraq did possess so-called weapons of mass destruction. The latest people to do this are Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, whose claims have been disavowed even by Defense Department officials and Fox News.

Although their claims have been discredited, it is easy for such discussions to obscure an important and fundamental fact. The immorality and illegality of the invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with whether such weapons existed or not so whether they are found or not is not central to the issue of whether the attack was justified. The war was wrong because Iraq had neither attacked nor even threatened to attack the US. What the US engaged in was an unjustified war of aggression.

What the lack of discovery of weapons shows is that the Bush administration lied even about their unjustified rationale for the attack.

April 10, 2006

The politics of V for Vendetta (no spoilers)

I believe that V for Vendetta will go down in film history as a classic of political cinema. Just as Dr. Strangelove captured the zeitgeist of the cold war, this film does it for the perpetual war on terrorism.

The claim that this film is so significant may sound a little strange, considering that the film's premise is based on a comic book series written two decades ago and set in a futuristic Britain. Let me explain why I think that this is something well worth seeing.

The basic premise of the film (I have not read the original comics so cannot compare to them) is that England has become governed by a High Chancellor, an authoritarian leader who seized power in a landslide election as a response to a biological attack that killed many people. The ruthless leader has arrogated to himself all powers and considers himself to be above the law. The leadership is virulently homophobic and is in league with Christian extremists and corrupt clerics. Arbitrary arrest, denial of due process, and torture is routine, and simply owning a copy of the Koran is liable to get you executed. People's privacy is routinely violated by sophisticated listening devices that can even capture the conversations of people in their homes. Television news and programming are controlled to keep people amused with silliness while at the same keeping them in a state of constant fear. There are color-coded curfews enforced by secret police goons.

Ordinary citizens are told that all these intimidatory and intrusive measures are necessary to protect them from harm from terrorists and that they should trust their leaders. This message is wrapped up in patriotic slogans and flag-waving, and repeated ad nauseum by bloviating pundits in the media.

Any of this seem remotely familiar?

There suddenly emerges a mysterious man named V, a throwback to an earlier era with his costume of a mask with a mocking grin, cape, tights, boots, and long-haired wig, who is highly skilled with knives, classical swordplay, and martial arts. V seeks to awaken the public, to prod them to realize what is happening and rise up and overthrow this oppression masked as benevolence. He does this by spectacularly blowing up London landmarks to the strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Naturally, the authorities immediately label V a terrorist and remind people that this is why they need to have even more faith and trust in the government.

The main plotline is the engrossing cat-and-mouse game between V and the High Chancellor and his agents. Think Batman versus a Cheney/Bush hybrid.

V is an enigmatic character, to put it mildly, and not merely because of his mask. Although ruthless in his methods, he is also a courtly romantic who likes to watch the 1934 swashbuckling film The Count of Monte Cristo starring Robert Donat, listen to romantic songs on his Wurlitzer jukebox, and surround himself with books and traditional artwork.

I think that this film will serve as a touchstone. Those who see the current encroachment on civil liberties and the creation of a government that considers its leaders above the law as a dangerous thing will like the film because it serves as a warning that if they do not take back the government, they will face the same situation as the people in the film. Those who think that Bush is next to god in terms of infallibility and benevolence, and should be given all the powers he asks for (and even those he doesn't ask for but merely takes secretly) will hate the film. [UPDATE: For a view from someone who hates the film's message, read this. Unfortunately there are a lot of spoilers, so it is better read after seeing the film. But in my view, if a film can elicit this kind of response in such people, it must be really good.]

Since the plot is based on a futuristic comic book, its basic premise is fantastic and has to be simply accepted as a metaphor for the larger political point the film is trying to make. What made this film so compelling was that the characters so gripped you that you were willing to suspend disbelief. And the film kept moving so fluidly that you never felt your interest flagging. There were action scenes (with some violence) but these were not allowed to dominate, the focus always being on advancing the story.

The cast was superb, with good performances from Stephen Rea as the Police Commissioner and Stephen Fry as a TV variety show host. Hugo Weaving as V managed to convey emotion even behind a mask, and Natalie Portman, whose path accidentally crosses that of V and thus gets drawn into the action, had a much better vehicle for her performance than the previous films in which I've seen her, Star Wars I and Closer.

There were some interesting philosophical issues raised, such as the role of violence. Is V a revenge-seeking monster or a righteous seeker of justice? Or both? Is he a 'terrorist' as the authorities claim him to be? Or is that merely a convenient label to be used by governments to demonize those who challenge its exclusive use of force? And what of V's politics? He is an anarchist of sorts who never really articulates a political philosophy of his own except that he hates what exists and what the authoritarian rulers did to him personally. The film offers no pat answers to these questions.

(For an excellent review of the film, read James Wolcott. For a good analysis of the film by someone who has actually read the original comic book series, see here but be warned that you should only read the latter after seeing the film, as this analysis contains a lot of spoilers.)

Two lines of dialogue stood out for me as capturing the basic political message of the film. One was when Portman quotes her father: "Artists use lies to show the truth, while politicians use lies to cover it." The other was when V says: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." The latter is the tagline of the film.

The Wachowski brothers who wrote the screenplay also created the Matrix films. I saw only the first film in that earlier series and was not impressed, except for the special effects gimmickry. The story seemed unnecessarily confused, contrived, and mystical. With V, the screenwriters seem to have wisely focused on creating a strong narrative arc and characters who were believable, once you accepted the comic book premise. I don't know the politics of the writers and if they were deliberately trying to draw parallels with the Cheney/Bush regime, but that message was there for anyone willing to see it.

I am anxious for the film to come out on DVD to see it again. If it is still in theaters near you, I encourage you to see it.

POST SCRIPT: The Shooting Party

While on the subject of political films, over the weekend I also saw on DVD the1984 film The Shooting Party starring James Mason and John Gielgud. This is a Merchant-Ivory-style slow tempo examination of British upper-class life and mores.

The film takes place in 1913 at the country estate of an English lord (Mason) where people have gathered for a shooting weekend. I realized with a start that this is exactly the kind of canned hunt that Dick Cheney goes on, where tame birds are sent into the air to be slaughtered by a line of hunters, some of whom secretly compete to see who can get the most, although such competition is frowned on by 'real' gentlemen. One of the guests, an arrogant but insecure Lord, who was shooting in this 'ungentlemanly' manner, gets so carried away that he ends up shooting one of the party in the face.

Who would have expected Cheney's shooting of someone in the face during a canned bird hunt to have been anticipated more than twenty years ago in a film? Or that the ruling class in twenty first century America would try to recreate the blood sport practices of the decaying British aristocracy of a century ago? What next? Cheney taking up fox hunting?

The shooting of birds in the film is a metaphor for the senseless slaughter that would begin the following year with World War I. Some of people in the shooting party are almost looking forward to the war as an adventure, an opportunity to earn honor, not realizing that in the end wars create their own dynamic and end up as killing fields, bereft of glory, merely sordid tales of blood and grief, tears and bereavement, pain and misery.

I wonder if people like Cheney and his neoconservative allies, who probably saw the invasion of Iraq as a glorious adventure and themselves as conquering heroes, ever see films like this and understand its underlying message, that wars are not like canned hunts, in which the people of the 'enemy nation' are like birds to be slaughtered, with the killers bathed in adulation? Probably not.

James Mason was always one of my favorite actors. Has there been anyone who could convey so much nuance and meaning with that soft, hesitant voice? And his scene with John Gielgud, who plays an animal rights activist who disrupts the hunt, is a little gem, showcasing the talents of two great actors, masters of their craft, casually displaying the talents that made them such a joy to watch.

April 08, 2006

Don't miss V for Vendetta!

I don't normally post on the weekends but last night I saw the film V for Vendetta and it blew me away. It is a brilliant political thriller with disturbing parallels to what is currently going on in the US. It kept me completely absorbed.

I'll write more about it next week but this is just to urge people to see it before it ends its run.

April 04, 2006

No more daft women!

Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.

I don't know if you recall the movie. There's a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, "Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?'' I said, "Well, yes,'' and he said, "Is she daft? Why doesn't she wake him up?''

I remembered this story when I was watching the film The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Kidman character accidentally overhears something at the UN that puts her life at risk. After she complains to government agent Penn that no one seems to be bothered about protecting her from harm, Penn puts her on round-the-clock surveillance. So then what does Kidman do? She sneaks around, giving the slip to the very people assigned to protect her and refuses to tell Penn where she went and to whom she spoke and about what, causing herself and other people to be put at risk and even dying because of her actions. Hitchcock would have said, "Is she daft?"

This is one of my pet peeves about films, where the female character insists on doing something incredibly stupid that puts her and other people at peril. Surely in this day and age we have gone beyond the stale plot device of otherwise smart women behaving stupidly in order to create drama? Surely writers have more imagination than that? Do directors really think that viewers won't notice how absurd that is?

According to Hunter, Hitchcock was always exploring the motivations of characters, trying to make their actions plausible. Hunter says:

[Hitchcock] would ask surprising questions. I would be in the middle of telling the story so far and he would say, "Has she called her father yet?" I'd say, "What?'' "The girl, has she called her father?'' And I'd say, "No.'' "Well, she's been away from San Francisco overnight. Does he know where she is? Has she called to tell him she's staying in this town?'' I said, "No.'' And he said, "Don't you think she should call him?'' I said, "Yes." "You know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' Questions like that.

(Incidentally, the above link has three screenwriters Arthur Laurents, who wrote Rope (1948), Joseph Stefano, who wrote Psycho (1960), and Evan Hunter reminiscing about working with Hitchcock. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how a great director envisages and sets about creating films. The last quote actually reads in the original: "Yes, you know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' I changed it because my version makes more sense, and the original is a verbatim transcript of a panel discussion, in which such kinds of punctuation errors can easily occur.)

More generally, I hate it when characters in films and books behave in ways that are unbelievable. The problem is not with an implausible premise, which is often necessary to create a central core for the story. I can even accept the violation of a few laws of physics. For example, I can accept the premise of Superman that a baby with super powers (but susceptible to kryptonite) arrives on Earth from another planet and is adopted by a family and needs to keep his identity secret. I can accept of Batman that a millionaire like Bruce Wayne adopts a secret identity in order to fight crime.

What I cannot stand is when they and the other people act implausibly, when the stories built on this premise have logical holes that you can drive a Batmobile through. The latter, for example, is a flashy vehicle, to say the least, easily picked out in traffic. And yet, nobody in Gotham thinks of following it back to the Batcave, to see who this mysterious hero is. Is the entire population of that city daft?

And how exactly does the Bat-Signal that the Police Commissioner lights up the sky with supposed to work? You don't need a physics degree to realize that shining a light, however bright, into the sky is not going to create a sharp image there. And what if it's daytime? And if there are no clouds? (It's been a long time since I read these comics. Maybe the later editions fixed these problems. But even as a child these things annoyed me.)

And don't get me started on Spiderman going in and out of his apartment window in a building in the middle of a big city in broad daylight without anyone noticing.

As a fan of films, it really bugs me when filmmakers don't take the trouble to write plots that make sense, and have characters who don't behave the way that you would expect normal people to behave. How hard can it be to ensure this, especially when you have the budget to hire writers to create believable characters and a plausible storyline?

If any directors are reading this, I am willing to offer my services to identify and fix plot holes.

So please, no more daft women! No more ditzy damsels in distress! No more Perils of Pauline!

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I saw this film last week (see the post script to an earlier posting), just before it ended its very short run in Cleveland. It looks at what history would have been like if the south had won the civil war. Imagine, if you will, an America very much like what we have now except that owning black slaves is as commonplace as owning a dishwasher.

What was troubling is that although this is an imagined alternate history presented in a faux documentary format, much of it is plausible based on what we have now. What was most disturbing for me was seeing in the film racist images and acts that I thought were the over-the-top imaginings of the screenwriter about that might have happened in this alternate history, and then finding out that they actually happened in the real history.

Although the film is a clever satire in the style of This is Spinal Tap, I could not really laugh because the topic itself is so appalling. It is easy to laugh at the preening and pretensions of a rock band. It is hard to laugh at people in shackles.

But the film was well worth seeing, disturbing though it was.

March 13, 2006

The politics of terrorism-1: The origins of al Qaida

Documentaries, as a rule, do not have actors and fictionalized events. But they are never just a collection of facts. Like feature films, they have a narrative structure imposed on them that tries to select and order the facts into a compelling story. This always opens them to a charge of bias. But good documentaries are more like a well-reasoned argument that does not bury contradictory facts but weighs them in the balance as well.

Last Monday I went to see documentary film The rise of the politics of fear by Britain's Adam Curtis, which was produced as a three-part series shown by the BBC in 2004. In this and the next post I will describe the message of the documentary, and in the third part I will analyze its strengths and weaknesses.

The documentary itself was fascinating and informative. (See a review of it in the Guardian.) It brought together in a coherent narrative much information that was already available in scattered form. It "connected the dots," to use a current cliché. Although it was three hours long, it was very entertainingly put together and I did not find the time dragging, so if you get the chance to see it, I would recommend doing so.

The main point of it was that al Qaida has been deliberately overrated as a threat. It said there was little or no evidence that it had any kind of organized structure or sleeper cells worldwide or even a militia. The idea that Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri had cadres of militants at the ready to carry out their orders was wrong. It asserted that al Qaida was basically just an idea that had had gained some adherents around the world. As such, believers in its message might carry out attacks but these would be independent of any central command and control structure. bin Laden and his few followers were portrayed as isolated and weak, with only the power to urge others to take action, but not having any actual capabilities themselves. They did not even have the name al Qaida "until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation." So the US government coined the name al Qaida and bin Laden and his followers adopted that name later.

There is some plausibility to this charge that al Qaida is not a vast organized conspiratorial network. Despite a massive and covert surveillance operation that has violated all kinds of civil liberties that we have taken for granted, it is telling that there have been no convictions of anyone for being part of an al Qaida "sleeper" cell. The few highly publicized arrests that have occurred (like the people in Lackawanna) have had the charges quietly dropped or reduced to insignificance.

So why is al Qaida perceived as such a bogeyman in the US? To answer this question, the documentary narrative traces the history of two parallel ideological movements that grew out of the late 1940s. One was an Islamic puritan movement that allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism. The other was the neoconservative movement in the US that allied itself with Christian fundamentalism. Each needed and used the other in order to grow itself.

al Qaida had its roots in the visit to the US in the period 1948-1950 of Syed Qutb, an Egyptian scholar and theorist who came here to study. What he saw of US culture dismayed him. He saw it as decadent and weak and superficial, and on his return to Egypt he saw that secular Egypt was being infiltrated with these same values from the West and also becoming decadent.

In order to combat this, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, to create a society based on Islamic values. He felt that Islam provided the framework for creating a humane and just and moral society. But the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser was determinedly secular and eventually Qutb was arrested and tortured from 1954-1964 for his political activities. This harsh treatment, rather than taming him, radicalized him even more, convincing him that these kinds of evils were the inevitable consequences of having a secular state, and did not dissuade him from pursuing his goals upon his release. He was soon arrested again and in 1966 was hanged.

The Muslim Brotherhood hoped that the killing of President Sadat in 1981 (who took over as Nasser's successor following his death in 1970) by army officers who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the spark the revolutionized Egyptian society and incite the people to spontaneously rise and overthrow its secular structure and embrace an Islamic theocratic state. When that did not happen, they decided that the Egyptian people had become hopelessly corrupted and had effectively ceased to be Muslims. Thus ordinary people were also now fair game for attacks. Ayman al Zawahiri, the current close associate of bin Laden, was an Egyptian doctor who was a disciple of Qutb and was arrested briefly as part of the crackdown on those who had killed Sadat. The documentary has dramatic video footage of him defiantly speaking (in English) while under arrest.

While the ideas embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood had some success initially, they were brutally crushed by governments, in Egypt and Algeria especially, and the movement became fragmented and weak. Eventually, people like al Zawahiri and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan where they became involved in the battle against the occupying army of the Soviet Union. bin Laden was portrayed in the documentary as someone who was welcomed because he had the money to fund groups, but was also portrayed as being used by al Zawahiri, who seems to be the brains and theorist.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 was an effort by them to give the Muslim world a dramatic example of striking at the heart of the West and it was hoped that this would galvanize Muslims around the world to spontaneously rise up and seize their countries from their governments, throw out all western influences, and convert the countries into theocracies. But here too their hopes were dashed, just as they had been for the aftermath of the killing of Sadat.

Tomorrow: The rise of the neoconservative movement in the US as a mirror image of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

POST SCRIPT: The closing of Abu Ghraib

The Daily Show comments on the closing of the torture factory that is Abu Ghraib.

January 31, 2006

Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood remaking films that were excellent in the original. What was the point, I asked? How could the remakes not come out looking worse than the originals?

Calming down from that exhilarating bout of righteous indignation, I wondered if I may have been too overwrought and overestimated the quality of the original Manchurian Candidate. After all, I must have been in my early teens when I first saw it and I have often had the experience of revisiting books and films that I enjoyed when younger to find them disappointing the second time around. I had no such qualms about Charade, having seen it several times, most recently a few years ago. It is a certifiable classic, a must-see for anyone who loves films.

So I checked the original Manchurian Candidate out again to see if my memories were reliable. I can report that the original is still excellent and far superior to the remake. But it was interesting to me that my appreciation of it was very different this time around.

The first time, I saw it as a straightforward thriller and enjoyed it as such. This time around, I was much more taken by the political elements that it portrayed. This change in sensibility is understandable, given that in my teens I was not as interested in politics as I am now.

The politics were satirized by having the main political characters be somewhat over-the-top. The Communist brainwashers were portrayed as cold-blooded villains who had no sense of decency at all and killed without compunction, laughing while doing so. In one scene, the Communist brainwashers want to test the effectiveness of their brainwashing by having the brainwashed person kill someone. The Chinese person asks the Russian head of the spy program in America to have one of his agents killed in the test. The Russian head refuses, not because he is horrified at the thought of sacrificing one of his own people, but because he is already currently understaffed and doesn't know if he can get a replacement!

The complexities of the cold war are also brushed over by having the Russians, Chinese, and Korean Communists portrayed as one big happy family engaged in evil against the US, ignoring the ideological tensions that existed between those countries at the time.

Meanwhile, on the American side, one of the evildoers was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as more of a buffoon and less sinister and malevolent than the senator who went on the witch hunt.

I had forgotten how good Laurence Harvey was in the original, giving depth and complexity and even sympathy to his character in a way that the sequel did not. Harvey was often criticized as a somewhat cold and wooden actor, but here he managed to turn that to his advantage and actually eke some good comedic moments from that persona.

What I mainly liked about the original was that all the gaping plot holes in the sequel that made it absurd were explained away by a few lines of dialogue here and there in the original. I hate it when films don't take the trouble to make the plotlines coherent and believable, and assume that audiences won't notice when things don't make any sense.

The only area in which the sequel was superior was in the motivation of the character (played by Janet Leigh in the original) who was the love interest to the Sinatra/Washington character. In both films, the initial meeting of the two was mysterious and seemed to hint at some secret motive for the woman to force her attentions on the man. But in the original that storyline was abandoned and not developed the way that the sequel did.

So after examining the replay, my original verdict stands: Remaking The Manchurian Candidate was a colossal mistake.

POST SCRIPT: Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

Glenn Greenwald over at Unclaimed Territory has another good post supporting my contention (see here and here) that we need to look at the terrorist threat rationally, and not be swayed by the irrational hysteria that is being pumped up.. Greenwald says "The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That's the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism."

He quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis who in a New York Times op-ed says: "My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic...Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so."

December 05, 2005

Hotel Rwanda and post-colonial ethnic conflicts

Over the weekend, I watched the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda. This was a film that I knew from the beginning that I should see and would see, but at the same time dreaded seeing and postponed it for as long as I could. I knew that the film would make me both angry and depressed. Angry at the inhumanity that can be generated when people are stupid enough to take the superficial differences amongst as things that are important enough to kill and be killed for. Depressed because the events in Rwanda remind us once again how the world classifies people, nations, events, and regions into 'important' and 'unimportant' and that these classifications are not based on any measures that are real and tangible, but on how they directly affect the developed world.

But I am glad that I watched the film. It was immensely powerful and well done, with outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and the other (mostly unknown) actors. It is a film that I can strongly recommend. It does not descend into being a political tract but manages to weave a very human story into a political nightmare, without being more graphic than the minimum necessary to convey the horror. As I hate graphic violence, I was particularly relieved about the last point.

For those not familiar with what happened in Rwanda, this was a civil war between two ethnic groups that resulted in an estimated one million deaths. The film chronicles the events in 1994 following the alleged killing of the President of Rwanda (a Hutu) allegedly by members of the minority insurgent Tutsis and the violent rampage that was unleashed by the government, which let Hutu mobs take the law into their own hands and slaughter the Tutsis,

The scenes in which Hutu mobs armed with machetes took to the streets and murdered Tutsis and set fire to their homes while the security forces either took part or stood by and did nothing, brought back disturbing memories of my own experience in Sri Lanka in 1983, though what happened in Rwanda was on a very much larger scale. Still, I could empathize with the feelings of the people in the film when it dawned on them that they had absolutely no protection from the state, that they were completely on their own, and that they had no chance against armed mobs acting with impunity. It would only be sheer luck, and the kindness of friends and strangers, that determined who died and who lived.

What impressed me most about the film was how true it was. Not true in the sense of the literal recounting of facts. I am in no position to judge that because of my lack of familiarity with the details of events in Rwanda. But true in the way that such conflicts arise and the way they are portrayed and dealt with in the developed world. There is one small scene that you should observe closely. In this scene, a foreign TV cameraman (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at the hotel bar and asks a local journalist what the difference is between a Hutu and a Tutsi and how the conflict arose. The journalist replies that Tutsis are supposed to be taller and have narrower noses. He also says that the Belgian colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority and groomed them into an elite. This caused resentment among the Hutu majority, which retaliated when they obtained power after independence. Two women are also seated at the bar and Phoenix asks them and which ethnicity they are. One replies that she is Hutu and the other that she is Tutsi. Phoenix wonderingly muses "they could be twins."

And there you have it in a nutshell. Each group of people likes to think of themselves as somehow special and invent qualities that they think distinguish themselves from others groups, however absurd or irrational the grounds for such beliefs. Then colonial powers, wherever possible, use these perceived differences to implement the tried and true "divide and conquer" policies. They build on any traditional mistrust and animosity between the two groups by giving favors to the minority and winning their allegiance, thus fending off any joint action by the two groups to overthrow the colonial occupiers, but breeding lingering resentment in the majority community. This almost inevitably leads to post-independence settling of resentments.

Look at the post-independence ethnic conflicts in many countries and you will see this pattern repeated over and over, too often to think of it as a weird coincidence. It definitely happened in Sri Lanka with the British, for example. That same conversation in the bar would have been perfectly appropriate for describing the history of Sri Lanka too. For me, the worst thing about colonialism was not the looting of the resources of the colonized countries, bad as that was. It was the deliberate and cynical fanning of mistrust and conflict so that the countries were almost guaranteed to reap a harvest of violence and bloodshed once the colonists left or were thrown out. Then the colonial powers could wring their hands in regret at the inevitable conflict that followed their departure and smugly feel that it was their 'civilizing' presence that kept the lid on the 'savage natives.'

This is not to say that the local population did not share in the blame. There were enough so-called 'leaders' who were willing to build on these inflamed feelings to gain power, and they in turn had enough followers who could be persuaded that meaningless differences generated largely on accident birth (ethnicity, skin color, religion, language, etc.) were important enough to fight one another over.

To be continued tomorrow...

Post Script 1: Take that!

James Wolcott demonstrates the spirit of the current holiday season.

Post Script 2: The future is already here

In a comment to a previous post, Eldan points out that the very thing I had feared (the sponsorship of novels by companies and industries) has already happened. One day, perhaps I will predict a trend before it actually occurs...

November 29, 2005

Hollywood remakes

I don't think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. "Classy" is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean's Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a "trophy."

February 01, 2005

Synthetic rage II

The fact that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not receive any nominations in the major categories for Academy Awards (it did receive nominations for makeup, cinematography, and original score) has created a fresh gusher of synthetic rage.

The inevitable press conferences are being held with the usual suspects denouncing this omission as indicators of the evil-mindedness of people in the film industry (“There’s no question that bigotry and prejudice rank among the liberal elite of Hollywood� - Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition) and alleging that this was another example of how Christians are under siege in the US (“It is well known that the Hollywood community has been anti-Christian for many years.� -Tim Wildmon, American Family Association), which is a curious charge to make in what is arguably the most overtly Christian country in the world, where its leaders (particularly the current president) often make public professions of their faith.

People, people, people, let’s get a grip. We are talking about the Oscars, for goodness’ sake, that annual orgy of self-congratulation by the film world, where success is as much dependent on talent and quality as it is on politicking, schmoozing, money, advertising, reputation, and boot-licking and back-stabbing skills. Why would anyone other than those actually involved in the making of a film much care whether it won awards or not?

And where were all these protesters some years ago when the obviously best film of ALL time, one that featured religion, political intrigue, the Sermon on the Mount, crucifixions, stonings, Roman soldiers, and a Pontius Pilate with a speech impediment, was not nominated for an Oscar in even a single category? Yes, I am talking about Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The many admirers of this landmark film bore this travesty of justice with equanimity. We did not feign outrage. We did not hold press conferences to protest. We were stoic, knowing that history would give Life of Brian the recognition it deserved long after pretenders to greatness like Citizen Kane had faded into obscurity. We are still waiting patiently…