Category Archives: cinema

Rushdie on Slumdog Tourism

In a dyspeptic disquisition on screen adaptations from books in last Saturday’s Guardian, Salman Rushdie coughs up some colorful bile in the general direction of the recent Oscar favorite.

It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it’s still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead. In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away.

via LaurenceJarvikOnline

Like most Oscar winners, Slumdog had not yet enticed the Outliers to make an effort to go see it in a movie theater. Nor is it likely now to find a place in our never-very-long Netflix queue. We’ve already seen, courtesy of Netflix, Thom Fitzgerald’s award-winning, disgusting, poverty-porn movie, The Wild Dogs (2002), which views Romanians as nothing but beggars, con-men, sex workers, or dog catchers—and compares them with heavy-handed symbolism to the wild dogs of Bucharest, which the government is determined to euthanize. All foreigners there (or at least all Canadians!), on the other hand, are either corrupt exploiters or naive do-gooders. And the path from exploiter to do-gooder requires finding your own personal beggar to support: the Canadian ambassador’s wife takes on a legless beggar boy, who follows her around like a puppy; the Canadian pornographer tries to redeem himself by repeatedly giving stuff to a reverse-kneed, hand-walking beggar, whose companions promptly steal it from him; and the Romanian dog-catcher tries to redeem himself by creating a refuge for dogs he was supposed to have euthanized, only to be arrested and have his dogs taken away. I fully agree with the reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes, whose review (no longer available online) includes the quote, “No one in this sterile film is redeemed, condemned or even particularly humanized…. Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s gutless film is a muddled, grotesque travelogue.”

Sorry. Next time I’ll tell you how I really feel.

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Filed under anglosphere, Canada, cinema, economics, India, Romania, travel, U.S.

China Diary, 1988: The Allure of Hong Kong

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

When all of China converts to daylight savings time during the summer, Zhongshan stays on Hong Kong time. To people in Zhongshan, Hong Kong and Macau seem at least as important as Guangzhou and Beijing.

It takes about two hours by hovercraft from Zhongshan Port to Hong Kong. There are two boats per day to Kowloon and two to Hong Kong. They are always full. There are also larger, slower, and cheaper ferries between Zhongshan and Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone directly across the border from Hong Kong.

So when you buy vegetables at markets in Zhongshan, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you find “Golden Boat Gift Shop, New Territories, Hong Kong” written on the plastic bag the vendor puts the potatoes in. (The fact that the vendor supplies the plastic bags is unusual enough in China.)

Private Savings Bank, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongBut there is even more traffic across the airwaves. Fewer than ten percent of households throughout China own TV sets, but it seems as if ninety percent do in Zhongshan. Many are tuned to Hong Kong. The special antennas and signal boosters needed to pick up Hong Kong cost extra money but are not hard to get. Televisions imported from Hong Kong have a special switch that toggles between the different audio channels used by Hong Kong and China.

Hong Kong stations present their weekly broadcast schedules on the air. So viewers who don’t read Hong Kong newspapers are still able to keep well abreast of upcoming specials. Rambo, First Blood was a big hit in Zhongshan.

Beauty shop, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongThe commercials shown during English-language broadcasts give a strange picture of the desires of English-speaking consumers, many of whom pass through Hong Kong, few of whom live there. A great many ads are for luxury products: cigarettes, watches, furs, cars, fashions, perfumes, electronics, the sorts of things advertised in airline magazines. And the ads themselves are glitzy and expensive-looking.

But if you watch the Chinese-language programming directed at residents rather than travelers, you can witness the Hong Kong equivalents of American low-budget ads for car dealers and furniture stores.

In October 1987, the government launched a campaign to discourage viewers, especially party members, from watching Hong Kong TV. The authorities didn’t want people tuned to Hong Kong while government stations were broadcasting the 13th Party Congress from Beijing in October or the 6th National Games from Guangzhou the following month. The campaign had some success. Everybody watched the National Games. The athletes from Guangdong Province won the most prizes.

In the months before we left, the provincial government was interfering with the Hong Kong TV signals and trying to bring in more clearly the provincial and national broadcast channels from Guangzhou. Some people told us that the officials in charge of public security thought Hong Kong TV helped keep people glued to their TVs and out of trouble, while those in charge of political education thought Hong Kong TV politically unacceptable.

Dragon Tiger Phoenix Restaurant, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongAlthough Macau TV is less attractive, the city of Macau is even easier to get to. It takes less than an hour by bus from the center of Zhongshan City to Gongbei, the border town in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone. Every day thousands of people cross the border, carrying fresh food and Chinese medicine to Macau, and returning with as many goods and cigarettes as they can hide in their bags and clothing. Empty cigarette cartons litter the floor inside and outside of the restrooms that stand between the duty-free shops and Chinese Customs.

Public health poster, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongOfficials responsible for political education are hard put to counter the allure of these two enclaves of rampant capitalism. A recent film, Escape to Hong Kong, deals directly with the issue. It tells of four people who escaped from Shenzhen during the Cultural Revolution. The only woman among them is forced into prostitution when no one will ransom her from the gangsters who hide the four in Hong Kong. Her husband finds work as a day laborer, they sleep in shifts, and he eventually kills himself. Another escapee finds respectable work as a chauffeur, and the fourth achieves some worldly success, but at the cost of marrying his boss’s idiot daughter.

Many Zhongshan schools bought tickets to this movie for their entire student body. The accompanying short subject had a complementary political message. It was a documentary—with plenty of bare skin and bulging muscles—about New China’s first-ever body-building contest, held in Shenzhen.

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Judt on German Terrorist Empathizers in the 1970s

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 472-473:

Reitz and Fassbinder were among the directors of Deutschland im Herbst (‘Germany in Autumn’) a 1978 collage of documentary, movie clips and interviews covering the events of the autumn of 1977, notably the kidnapping and killing of Hans Martin Schleyer and the subsequent suicide of Ensslin and Baader. The film is notable not so much for its expressions of empathy for the terrorists as for the distinctive terms in which these are conveyed. By careful inter-cutting, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic are made to share a family resemblance. ‘Capitalism’, ‘the profit system’ and National Socialism are presented as equally reprehensible and indefensible, with the terrorists emerging as latter-day resisters: modern Antigones struggling with their consciences and against political repression.

Considerable cinematic talent was deployed in Deutschland im Herbst—as in other contemporary German films—to depict West Germany as a police state, akin to Nazism if only in its (as yet unrevealed) capacity for repression and violence. Horst Mahler, a semi-repentant terrorist then still in prison, explains to the camera that the emergence of an extra-parliamentary opposition in 1967 was the ‘anti-fascist revolution’ that did not happen in 1945. The true struggle against Germany’s Nazi demons was thus being carried through by the country’s young radical underground—albeit by the use of remarkably Nazi-like methods, a paradox Mahler does not address.

The implicit relativizing of Nazism in Deutschland im Herbst was already becoming quite explicit in intellectual apologias for anti-capitalist terror. As the philosopher Detlef Hartmann explained in 1985, ‘We can learn from the obvious linkage of money, technology and extermination in New Order Nazi imperialism … (how) to lift the veil covering the civilized extermination technology of the New Order of Bretton Woods.’ It was this easy slippage—the thought that what binds Nazism and capitalist democracy is more important than their differences, and that it was Germans who had fallen victim to both—that helped account for the German radical Left’s distinctive insensitivity on the subject of Jews.

On September 5th 1972, the Palestinian organization Black September attacked the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics and killed eleven athletes, as well as one German policeman. Almost certainly, the killers had local assistance from the radical Left (though it is a curiousity of German extremist politics of the time that the far Right would have been no less pleased to offer its services). The link between Palestinian organizations and European terrorist groups was already well-established—Ensslin, Baader and Meinhof all ‘trained’ at one time with Palestinian guerillas, along with Basques, Italians, Irish Republicans and others. But only Germans went the extra mile: when four gunmen (two Germans, two Arabs) hijacked an Air France plane in June 1976 and flew it to Entebbe, in Uganda, it was the Germans who undertook to identify and separate the Jewish passengers from the rest.

If this action, so unmistakably reminiscent of selections of Jews by Germans in another time and place, did not definitively discredit the Baader-Meinhof gang in the eyes of its sympathizers it was because its arguments, if not its methods, attracted quite broad consent: Germans, not Jews, were now the victims; and American capitalism, not German National Socialism, was the perpetrator. ‘War crimes’ were now things that Americans did to—e.g.—Vietnamese. There was a ‘new patriotism’ abroad in West Germany, and it is more than a little ironic that Baader, Meinhof and their friends, whose violent revolt was initially directed against the Germany-first self-satisfaction of their parents’ generation, should find themselves co-opted by the reverberations of that same nationalist heritage. It was altogether appropriate that Horst Mahler, one of the few surviving founders of Left terrorism in West Germany, should end up three decades later on the far Right of the political spectrum.

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Titanic Fever Hits Talibanistan, 2000

From A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Books, 2007), pp. 269-270

In the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third and worst year.

In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds of nomadic communities, always moving, searching for water and green pastures for their livestock. When they found neither, when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came to Kabul. They took to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshift slums, packed in huts, fIfteen or twenty at a time….

That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan—sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.

At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river’s sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas. A particularly persistent beggar began calling himself “Titanic Beggar.”

“Titanic City” was born.

It’s the song, they said.

No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.

It’s the sex, they whispered.

Leo, said Aziza sheepishly. It’s all about Leo.

“Everybody wants Jack,” Laila said to Mariam. “That’s what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead.”

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Two Film Roles: Scottish Moron vs. Stasi Mensch

This weekend, the Outliers went to see the excellent, award-winning German film The Lives of Others. Last weekend, we saw The Last King of Scotland, for which Forest Whitaker won a well-deserved Oscar. In between, we watched the German film Der Tunnel (via Netflix), which inspired in me an inchoate train of thought about people who understand living in a world of sometimes deadly moral compromise and those who don’t have a clue. But it was the sharp contrast between two starring roles in The Last King of Scotland and The Lives of Others that finally clarified it for me.

The fictional character in The Last King that most incensed exasperated me was not the disarmingly witty and manipulative, but increasingly brutal and paranoid tyrant. (I had expected him to be a monster.) It was the bloody fool of a Scottish doctor: a cocky, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, culturally ignorant, sexually predatory, criminally naive moron who endangers more lives than he saves–a type all too common on university campuses worldwide (and, of course, in governments). The doctor finds out too late that others play by different rules with more deadly consequences than he has ever imagined. You’d think a real do-gooder might have exercised a little more caution and self-restraint as a guest in someone else’s house. But he is really an adventurer, not a do-gooder. The world is both his oyster and his china shop, and he manages to destroy three pearls he touches–the health minister, one of the dictator’s wives, and a fellow doctor–while leaving other lives shattered as well. You start out sympathizing with him, but when he finally escapes Uganda, my reaction was “Good bloody riddance!”

The Stasi spook at the center of The Lives of Others presents a stark contrast: a pathologically repressed, anal-retentive automaton whose only emotions are vicarious, the sole purpose of whose odious vocation is to incriminate others, not to heal or rescue them. And yet, this meticulously mistrusting drone knows very well how his world works and where its dangers lie. He studies his quarry long and hard before deciding what action to take (or not), finding ever more reasons to doubt the motives of his bosses and to empathize with his prey. In the end, he manages to carry out an anonymous good deed that allows at least one pearl to form in this slimy milieu of universal suspicion, deception, and betrayal. This repellant slimeball turns out to be ein guter Mensch after all. You start out loathing him, but you end up appreciating the self-effacing derring-do of this spook cum guardian angel, and so does the writer he has spied upon. Even though I had anticipated how the writer would convey his thanks, my eyes still flooded over as the moment arrived.

The story in The Lives of Others begins in 1984, and conveys only too well the Romania I encountered in that same year, about which more anon. It will take some time to compose. In the meantime, let me close with an excerpt from John O. Koehler’s Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (Westview, 2000).

“The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, Austria, who has been hunting Nazi criminals for half a century. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” One might add that the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, whereas the Stasi had four decades in which to perfect its machinery of oppression, espionage, and international terrorism and subversion.

To ensure that the people would become and remain submissive, East German communist leaders saturated their realm with more spies than had any other totalitarian government in recent history. The Soviet Union’s KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi’s case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests.

Like a giant octopus, the Stasi’s tentacles probed every aspect of life. Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants. Without exception, one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo), the People’s Police. In turn, the police officer was the Stasi’s man. If a relative or friend came to stay overnight, it was reported. Schools, universities, and hospitals were infiltrated from top to bottom. German academe was shocked to learn that Heinrich Fink, professor of theology and vice chancellor at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, had been a Stasi informer since 1968. After Fink’s Stasi connections came to light, he was summarily fired. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers, actors, and sports figures were co-opted by Stasi officers, as were waiters and hotel personnel. Tapping about 100,000 telephone lines in West Germany and West Berlin around the clock was the job of 2,000 officers.

Stasi officers knew no limits and had no shame when it came to “protecting the party and the state.” Churchmen, including high officials of both Protestant and Catholic denominations, were recruited en masse as secret informers. Their offices and confessionals were infested with eavesdropping devices. Even the director of Leipzig’s famous Thomas Church choir, Hans-Joachim Rotch, was forced to resign when he was unmasked as a Spitzel, the people’s pejorative for a Stasi informant.

UPDATE: Historians of Africa on the H-Africa discussion list have weighed in with a lot of good critical commentary on The Last King of Scotland. Here’s the best take I’ve read so far, by Brian Coyle at UC Berkeley.

In three recent films about African atrocity, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, and Hotel Rwanda, it interesting what gets said but not shown.

In Hotel Rwanda, an excellent film in my opinion, the conflict’s root cause is briefly posited in a didactic moment among key characters. The fact is given, unquestioned, that Belgians introduced a false distinction within an amorphous African population, granting some the ethnicity Tutsi to dignify a ruling, if non-European, class. The ethnic distinction that Hutu and Tutsi claim to be physical and deep is really a crafty Belgian charade. This neatly fits a dominant paradigm of social construction, but is hardly a scholarly consensus. In Blood Diamond, an average film in my opinion, the European-American-South African root cause is even more pedantically coded, right into the title. Little if any reference is given to the Liberian origin of the conflict, run by invaders from Liberia (though some were Sierra Leonians returning from time spent in the Liberian conflict). The diamond mines were fuel thrown on an already blazing fire. Also, the audience is left to assume that it was diamond-interest mercenaries who finally uprooted the rebels, which is untrue. In Last King of Scotland, a lousy film in my opinion, the English are made unequivocally responsible for Amin’s rise to power, and of course the Scottish doctor plays a key role in causing the deaths of the people we see.

Behind each of these geopolitical explanations is the same dynamic. Causal agency is granted to non-Africans, and removed from Africans. The big-budget films dare to say that the West is the root of African evil, and Africans are history’s mere pawns.

But what isn’t shown? Atrocities. Hotel Rwanda does show scattered corpses, and has a very effective scene where a car rides over bumps that we learn are people. But the Rwandan genocide involved hatcheting people to death, by hundreds and thousands. Film critics agreed the filmmakers chose wisely to refrain from such graphic imagery. Blood Diamond had a brief exposition of chopping off of hands, but the rest of the picture showed splays of machine gun fire and explosions. I can attest, having been in Sierra Leone during the war’s beginning , that guns were plentiful, but not bullets. Children were not given license to waste Rambo-scale rounds of ammunition. The worst violence was again by machete, and again it occurs off camera. In Last King of Scotland, Amin’s atrocities are barely shown. Instead we remain as ignorant as the foolish doctor, getting information from newspaper images he reads.

In all three cases, the films spare audiences from graphic recreations of the actual atrocities. The is rather unusual, since other big-budget movies have no scruples about such displays. Uber-violence is Hollywood’s idea of freedom of expression. Perhaps it takes a special kind of producer/director team to make an African movie, who are temperamentally uninclined to recreate atrocities. Or maybe not. If presented with wide-screen recreations of hundreds of innocents hacked to death in gruesome realistic detail, the audience might “mistakenly” conclude that Africans, by themselves, are capable of epic brutality that stamps history for millennia.

This contrasts sharply with another virtue of many German films like The Lives of Others (or The Harmonists, which we also saw recently): The German films don’t blame everything on the Russians, or the French, or the Brits, or the Americans. They acknowledge that many—if not most—people in East Germany (or Nazi Germany) were complicit to some degree or another.

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Watching Veteran Actors in Midsummer

Over the weekend, the Far Outliers watched the 1968 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (via Netflix). The production itself was not very impressive—with cheap sets, poor lighting, and primitive special effects—but the Bard’s script was outstanding and the troupe of actors was quite remarkable. It was eerie to watch so many now-famous veterans of stage and screen in the prime of their youth.

The leading female roles were played by:

  • Judi Dench as Titania the Fairy Queen, in blueface and barely clad;
  • Helen Mirren as Hermia, a lovestruck 1960s flower child and not at all queenly;
  • Diana Rigg as Helena, as dashing and self-possessed as ever.

The leading male roles were played by:

I must admit I have a soft spot for this play, since I once acted the role of Lysander in high school. But my favorite piece is not the love story, but the witty dialogue and audience commentary during the play within a play in the final act.

THESEUS I wonder if the lion be to speak.

DEMETRIUS No wonder, my lord: one lion may, when many asses do.

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"Poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom"

In today’s New York Times, a 10th-grade history teacher at a public school in
the Bronx reviews Hollywood’s latest inspirational-teacher flick.

The great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job….

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

I won’t argue the need for more of the first two, but I’m always surprised at how, once a Ms. Gruwell wins over a class with clowning, tears, rewards and motivational speeches, there is nothing those kids can’t do. It is as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk or a fancy dinner. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.

It seems to me that Hollywood takes exactly the same short-attention-span approach to foreign policy. Each international crisis is a movie project. Activists devote their attention to it for six months or so, generating media events and raising tons of cash. When that’s done, they take several months off, then they’re ready for new causes, new projects, new scripts, new locations, new casts, new marriages. Nothing can’t be solved by media events, cash, and lots of feel-good self-congratulation. Who cares if their solution bombs with the people it aims to rescue. They’re not really the audience. They’re somebody else’s responsibility. And it was all somebody else’s money to begin with.

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