Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The New Luddites

I thought I'd close of the old year with some thoughts about what I think of as the new Luddism. In the popular mind, Luddites are anti-technology. I think this misrepresents the purpose of the original Luddites who make their mark in England some two hundred years ago when industrial techniques were first introduced.

The original Luddites were craftsmen such as weavers etc who broke the power looms that were dispossessing them of their livelihood. They were opposed by the powerful and slandered as being haters of technology and Bonapartist spies. Over the years, the Napoleon calumny has died away, but the notion of them being anti-technology lives on.

In fact these craftsmen couldn't have been anti-technology. They used technology in their daily lives and their work. They often constructed and maintained their own equipment and indeed were probably more technically adept than their contemporaries. What motivated them was the issue of who was in control of technology. They wanted to maintain control of their work and its organization and realized that with the introduction of industrialization, they would lose this control.

So who are the new Luddites? It's not those who oppose technology but the hackers who dedicate themselves to making devices such as smart phones do their bidding rather than remaining under the control of their manufacturers. 'Jail breaking' is the term used and it often comes up in the press. Here's an announcement of the successful jail break of an Apple device.

I'm sure there are people who explicitly identify these hackers with the Luddites of old, but they seem to be extremely rare. Yet the Luddites of old and the hackers share the same motives: keeping the control of technology from slipping into the hands of others.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Coffee Klatch at Kiki's

The high point in my social calendar for this week came early. I was invited to the home of Kiki Suarez for a coffee klatch on Wednesday afternoon. Coffee, cakes and some stimulating company sitting around a table in front of a warm fire on a surprisingly chilly day. I'd never been to a coffee klatch so I wasn't sure what to expect. I had in mind one of the 'wednesdays' from a Proust novel, and though the events of the novel were far away and long ago, the day at least, Wednesday, was the same. I think Kiki also managed to capture the same spirit of elegant hospitality evident in the best motives of Proust's hostesses.

Kiki Suarez was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany and came to San Cristobal decades ago. In San Cristobal, she has been working as a therapist and hotel and restaurant owner. She's a prolific artist and also tirelessly supports the local scene by providing gallery space to artists and arranging free lectures and film screenings. She is a singular person and I feel privileged to know her.

Want to meet Kiki? The best I can do is to introduce her website. There are lots of paintings, photographs and stories. Her interests are wide ranging and there's something for everyone. Meet Kiki here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chaos and climate change

Complexity is a branch of mathematics that deals with phenomena that are not random but not predictable. It's a relatively new study that came into being back in the 1960s as a result of using computers to forecast weather. We all know how a pendulum works. It swings back and forth in a routine and predictable manner. Scientists for centuries have thought of nature as working in a similar way. Complexity, or chaos, on the other hand can be neatly exemplified by this counter intuitive computer animated model of a slight wrinkle on the simple pendulum, the double pendulum.

Not random, but not predictable. That's the essence of complexity or chaos theory, and it's popularly captured by the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent setting off a cyclone on another. Compare this to the old Newtonian conception of nature where every action is followed by an equal and opposite reaction.

I've been following the 'debate' over climate change and have been surprised at some of the arguments put forward by self-styled skeptics. I've seen a lot of people rejecting climate change because while CO2 gas continues to be emitted into the atmosphere, temperatures over the past 15 years or so have not appreciably increased. The very same people often also reject climate change because of the failure of the computer models to predict this 15 year hiatus. I don't take this objection very seriously because using computers to accurately predict the weather or climate is probably one of the most mind numbingly difficult intellectual challenges we have ever faced, and the failure of computers to accurately predict the weather or the climate is nothing new; it's been the norm ever since the problem was first taken on. To reject climate change out of thwarted expectations that computer models would suddenly give accurate predictions seems either naive or disingenuous.

The other objection, that we've been continually emitting billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere without any appreciable increase in temperature over the past 15 years, is more interesting. I think it comes from a linear, Newtonian mind set that underestimates the complexity of the climate and the physics of the atmosphere. It's intuitively satisfying that every billion tonnes of gas emitted should raise the temperature by some fraction of a degree, in some kind of lock step, action/reaction fashion, but our double pendulum showed us that intuition will only take you so far, and perhaps in the wrong direction.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A new computer, a timely inheritance

My old computer finally had to be replaced. Its keyboard had started to lose keys; the CD player, wireless modem and microphone had never worked well and it was highly susceptible to over-heating. The battery had long ago died and could not be replaced. I was still happy to use it until for some reason the power consumption dimmed the screen brightness to something like half the original level. This solved the over-heating problems, but also meant I had to increase the font size to 24 before I could read anything on the screen. A very awkward situation.

Along with my slightly used new computer came some exciting new choices. I needed to partition it and get a hold of a linux OS and a windows OS. I'd been using Slacko Puppy linux which is a mere 100 MB in size. I was very happy with this version, which installs in about 15 minutes. But I thought with a properly working more modern machine I could go for a larger, more complete operating system. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu (because of its 'Asian language support') and the latest Mint. Both are about 700 MB. I tested both and rejected Ubuntu because of its awful user interface - I couldn't even find a command line terminal, and accepted Mint, which happily had no problems displaying Asian languages.

I ran into problems when it came to obtaining and installing windows. The computer didn't come with a windows CD so I had to look for windows to download. I chose two versions of xp pro and tried to install via usb memory stick. No luck. After burning to CD, one of the versions seemed to work. At least it installed without any error messages. The problems came later, no wifi capability, and no sound. There are probably other problems I haven't yet discovered. At the moment I'm downloading a 3.1 GB version of windows 7 and will try that once it arrives. Maybe by that time, I will have decided I can do without a windows partition on my computer.

Special thanks go to my late brother-in-law Kwon Young-oo, who died earlier this year. It's his computer I'm using now, and I appreciate the care with which it's been treated. I hope to continue to put it to good use.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Angel Baby

I heard this song as a part of the sound track to the less than superb sequel to the superb film Goin' Down the Road. I watched the sequel on an airline as I returned to Korea. When I got back I found the song on the internet, downloaded it and have kept it on my MP3 player ever since.

My wife Flora is soon taking a trip herself, and I feel it's time to share this song of love and longing.

I wish Flora a safe and successful trip and I hope she understands that wherever she goes and whatever she does, she has my support and I'll be there with her in my thoughts.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Chronic Unemployment and some appropriate new policies

I came across this article from a Czech website about Andre Gorz and a few other European thinkers that don't have much exposure in the English speaking world. It quotes Wassily Leontief, a nobel laureate in economics:

Adam and Eve enjoyed, before they were expelled from Paradise, a high standard of living without working. After their expulsion they and their successors were condemned to eke out a miserable existence, working from dawn to dusk. The history of technological progress over the past 200 years is essentially the story of the human species working its way slowly back into Paradise. What would happen, however, if we suddenly found ourselves in it? With all goods and services provided without work, no one would be gainfully employed. Being unemployed means receiving no wages. As a result until appropriate new income policies were formulated to fit the changed technological conditions everyone would starve in Paradise. 
 Gorz argues that since WWII full employment has become incompatible with increasing productivity, thanks mainly to the reliance on automation. He backs it up with some studies done in Germany:

 Here are some figures about the economy in formerly communist Saxony. In 2004, after investment of 1.41 billion euros in the region's 300 chemical factories, the region was producing about the same volume as it had in 1989. Only a tenth of the number of employees were required.

Another study of the number of jobs created by investment in industry in West German shows a similar trend:

1955-60 1 billion DM invested 2,000,000 jobs created
1960-65               "                    400,000 jobs created
1965-70               "                    100,000 jobs destroyed
1970-75               "                    500,000 jobs destroyed

What sort of "appropriate new income policies" does Gorz advocate? A reduction in working hours. How much of a reduction? In the case of Saxony, a 90% reduction seems called for. Gorz also calls for a social wage or universal dole to be paid to everyone regardless of employment status or merit. It seems to make sense, yet no politician I'm aware of is calling for such measures. I don't think there is much call from the public for them either.

Here it is public. Can't say now you've never come across this solution to chronic unemployment.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Women, work and wages

There's an interesting claim made by U.S. President Barack Obama recently:

It seems to be true, and nobody is disputing this, though there are many who take the trouble to explain the figure. They take a number of different approaches, but all of them seem to follow roughly this explanation given by economist Gary Burtless:

"Women have shorter job tenures than men because they have more work interruptions than men, usually because they have children and assume heavy responsibility for rearing those children," Burtless said.
 Worth noting as an aside that Burtless says that it is women who have children, ignoring the fact that they can't do this without at least some input by men. But there is a grain of truth here: a women's greatest productive capacity, her most important and indispensable contribution to society, lies in her ability to bear and raise children. This is a capacity that is not rewarded in the market place. A woman can spend her entire productive life raising a brood of children without receiving a cent in wages.

Now, when a woman wants to receive wages, she goes to the job market and sells her labour, typically at 77 cents to a man's dollar. Why is her labour discounted? As Burtless says, it's because of the responsibilities in fulfilling her role as a child bearer/rearer. At home, she receives no wages. In the market place her greatest productive asset is transformed into her greatest liability in gaining equality with men.

She's double screwed is one way to look at it. Or is it triple screwed? Twice figuratively, once literally.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Visit to Luduke

What is the appropriate response when you encounter an error on radio or TV? Some weeks back listening to an interview with historian Michael Burleigh about the Vietnam war on BBC radio's Night Waves, I heard him say that the Chinese built a railway to Hanoi. This is incorrect. It was the French who built the railway, from Haiphong to Kunming, at the height of their empire in Southeast Asia a little more than a hundred years ago. It's a wonderful narrow gauge line that runs through some of my favourite parts of the world. I've travelled on it and through a good deal of the surrounding countryside.

So what is the most appropriate response? My reaction was to send an email to Michael Burleigh with information about the railway and the surrounding area that I'd learned during my travels. He may have read it, but I received nothing in return. While writing this email, I searched the internet for 'Luduke,' a tiny village in Yunnan that I have twice visited. The French had visited earlier, around the time they were building the railway, and had left behind a Catholic church, and memories in the villagers that remain today. I wrote about my first visit to Luduke and posted it years ago on the internet. My search revealed very little and it seems that my little travelogue has disappeared. My visit was only possible because of my curiousity and persistence. It seems a shame that historians or anyone else is not able to benefit from my efforts. I think the most appropriate response may be to revive this piece and post it again to give anyone interested in this part of China a chance to read my hard won account of a visit to Luduke.

I knew there was a church in the village. What I didn't know was whether or not it still had any meaning to the people who lived there. Decades of suppression may well have destroyed its influence. Once over the pass, we continued along the roughly cobbled trail into the valley and soon the village came into sight. As we approached, the tinkling of cow bells that had accompanied us faded and I had my answer. Clearer and clearer came the sound of singing from inside the church.

I first heard about the village, Luduke, from the curator of the Wenshan prefectural museum in Yunnan, China. A display of local hill tribe costumes had caught my eye. There were about thirty on show, and the curator told me that the display was just a small sample; the costume of each tribe varied slightly from village to village. As an example, he told me of Luduke, where several families of the Yi tribe live. Like the Yi in other parts of Yunnan, they wear a coat embroidered with many colours, and studded with silver buttons and coins. The clothing of the hill tribes reminds one of the days when they were the family's most valuable possession.

The interesting feature of the Luduke Yi clothing was the cross sewn onto the back of the coat. It reflected the influence of French Catholic missionaries who had once lived in the village. Luduke was not too far away, but getting there would involve a three-hour bus ride west from Wenshan followed by a three-hour walk along mountain paths. Most of the inhabitants of Luduke were not Yi, but Hmong, a people who live in some of the most remote valleys of Southeast Asia. I was told that the church still stood and in 1986 the prefectural government had designated it as a historical site. Catholic churches are not common in China, and churches in obscure villages are even rarer. I decided to pay them a visit.

The journey was tiring but uneventful. From Wenshan, a bus took me to Pingjiu. There I met local officials who introduced me to a farmer who could guide me to Luduke. His field of hot peppers waiting to be picked meant that his services wouldn't come cheaply. After some haggling we arrived at the amount of Y100 (US$12), a price four or five times higher than guides would demand at less busy times. We set off together and made our way over the hills. In the distance I heard the sound of blasting. The minerals that had brought the French to the area during the last century still lay under the mountains in quantities large enough to interest modern miners. These days though, the minerals are sent north to fuel China's industrial development. The French built rail link between Kunming, the provincial capital, and Hanoi today provides the French (and other tourists) only the chance to take in the beautiful scenery.

When I arrived in Luduke, I headed straight for the church and my guide returned to his peppers. The singing I'd heard was part of the schooling that the church provided during the day. Only forty families lived in the village and a government run primary school behind the church competed for students. Children could attend either or both of these schools and there can't be many Chinese villages so well endowed with educational institutions. Roman letters on the blackboard at the back of the room made me think that some sort of crazy English lesson was being taught until I realized that the language was Hmong. Interestingly, the teacher used the International Hmong script rather than the one promulgated by the Chinese government. This is undoubtably due to the fact that the bible and other religious works are published in Thailand in International Hmong and almost nothing is available in Chinese Hmong. Children were taught religion and the Hmong language. Selections of their homework, essays on Christian morals in Hmong and Chinese, were posted on the compound walls.

Villagers speak of a temporary church that stood until 1906 when it was replaced by the one that stands today. Many of the windows are broken and small plants sprouted from between the cracks in the blocks, but the structure still seemed sound. Inside was clean and the floor was smooth concrete. A dozen or so low benches and tables faced the altar, a high table decorated with a vase of plastic flowers and a candle stick. On the walls were Chinese posters of Jesus and Mary, and on the wall beyond the altar was a large red cross made of paper. A small booth served as the confessional. It was comfortable considering that in another church I had visited, the confessional was outside in a storage room and the faithful had to confess amongst piles of pumpkins. The steeple was eight metres high and was the tallest structure in the village. Of course in a place where the average income is Y200, there are no banks or commercial institutions to compete. The top of the steeple was empty, as the bell it once housed was confiscated by the government in 1963. Its whereabouts today is still a mystery. The church forms one side of the compound. At the back there is an office, private rooms, and a kitchen/dining room. Opposite the church is a storage room and the front of the compound is walled off with an ornate gate admitting entry. The courtyard in the centre is paved with stones and swept clean. Women drape their laundry to dry over the flowering bushes.

The teacher took me to the office where I met the village headman who was also responsible for the church. I signed a guest book and had my photograph taken. The only name that I recognized as foreign was that of a priest from Malaysia who had visited during the previous year. When I asked about documents left behind by the priests, I was shown a photograph of a young bearded French priest, Father Ma as he was known to the villagers, who had served the village for thirty years. His long black robe made him look like a wealthy Chinese merchant of the time as much as anything else. He died in 1940 and is one of two priests buried in Luduke. The first priest had come in the 1880s and a succession of six priests served the village until 1951 when the last was sent packing by the government. The village is still without a priest, but since 1980 when the ban on religious activity was lifted, a priest from Kunming comes once or twice a year to give communion, hear confessions, perform marriages and so on.

We had to go out and do some walking to see further evidence of the priests' work in the village. From the room where we talked, I could see a large gathering of children in the courtyard surreptitiously watching me. The population of Luduke and other villages in the area was either very young or very old. Everyone else had left the village to work for wages. Whenever I established eye contact with the children they'd quickly look away or move out of sight. But once they saw us get up to take a walk, they lead the way to tour the sights.

We walked along part of the five kilometres of path cobbled under the priests' supervision, past the wells that they had dug to a remote part of the valley where the two priests are buried. A tall stone cross stands over the mountain side gravesite overlooking the cornfields. A close examination reveals the repairs made after the cross was damaged by a Red Guard raiding party that visited the village. During the cultural revolution, anything deviating from the teachings of Chairman Mao was strictly banned and religious activity in the village had to be conducted at home in secret.

By the time we got back to the church, supper was ready. I was invited to join the headman and his family in the compound dining room. A prayer was said, I could recognize the Hmong words for "Maria" and "Amen", and we sat down to eat. Supper was a modest feast consisting of pork fat, pumpkins, some greens, and rice laced with corn kernels. Our meal reflected yet another aspect of the priests' efforts. Almost all the crops of Yunnan, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and tobacco, were introduced from the West. The rice was a treat in honour of my visit. Poor soil and an altitude of two thousand metres meant that all rice had to be bought at the Pingjiu market and brought back to Luduke. Incidentally, on Fridays the villagers abstain from eating meat, following a custom now abandoned in the West.

After supper, we chatted in the courtyard and I quickly ran out of cigarettes. In China it is considered rude to smoke without offering to the other men present and I was the only one in the village rich enough to buy cigarettes. Just as the sun set, a bell was struck signalling that the evening service was about to begin. About thirty people showed up and as they entered the church they crossed themselves and genuflected before they sat, women on the left and men on the right. The teacher I had met when I arrived sat in front and lead the congregation in prayer, reading by the light of a coal oil lamp. Everyone seemed to be wearing crucifixes around their necks and many carried flashlights in preparation for the walk home. Morning and evening prayer services had been held in the church every day since the lifting of the ban on religious activity.

One of the men I had been speaking to before the service beckoned me to go outside. He'd arranged one of the women of the Yi nationality to dress in her finest clothing for me to see. Her back did indeed have the cross on it, even though the ten Yi families of the village no longer followed the Christian faith. I was told that they had worn this design since the priests came and continued to wear it right through the turmoil of the cultural revolution. The Hmong also wore a cross on their backs, but it was not so striking as that of the Yi. While I was in Wenshan I met a manganese dealer from Beijing and I told him about my plans to visit the church in Luduke and what little I knew of the place. He said it was inconceivable that the villagers would have been allowed to wear the cross during the cultural revolution. I can only assume that the Red Guards must have been blind to such subtle expressions of faith.

In a village without electricity, there is not much to do at night except sleep. With a feeling of trepidation, I went to the rat infested storage room that was to serve as my bedroom for the night. It wasn't the rats that worried me however. I brought along a Hmong phrasebook and leafing through it, noticed that the word for "lice" has two definitions in Hmong, one for head lice, and the other for body lice. I feared that the Hmong must be on very intimate terms with these parasites to honour them with their own distinct names. But the bedding was spotlessly new and I had a comfortable night's sleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup, I accompanied the headman back to Wenshan where he had some errands to take care of. On the way back I thought about the remarkable survival of the church. The building continues to stand, and in every sense is still the centre of the village. Isolated from the Catholic community, oppressed by the government and terrible poverty, the villagers had every excuse to abandon their religion. But they kept their faith and the church flourishes.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hollywood Vegans

Hmmm, vegan!

Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie where the police chief was not an ill-tempered black man? You probably have, but not recently. Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie where the vegan didn't prepare and serve inedible food and wasn't a fussy and fanatical hypocrite? You probably haven't, ever.

The stock character has been with us long before movies were made in Hollywood. Vegans, meanwhile, are a relatively recent addition to the scene. How did they get such an overwhelmingly bad reputation so thoroughly so quickly? They are fussy, it must be conceded, but I think the key to the question lies in their example making others confront habits and thoughts they'd prefer were left unquestioned. That is never a pleasant thing. Does the target audience of these films find some pleasure in putting these vegans in their place? A guilty conscience is quite capable of shooting a messenger. Especially a fussy messenger.

Vegans I've met have been thoughtful people and their food is tasty and nutritious. Their depiction in the world of film is false and undeserved. I suspect the Hollywood image is the result of laziness and willingness to pander to a complacent audience. Maybe even cave in to pressure from a wealthy and politically active meat industry. My advice? Speak out against these negative characterizations and don't let these stereotypes take root.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

More Fiction of the 21st Century

I've been writing for the past month or so about some authors of the new century that I've discovered. Only four names have emerged which I can recommend without reservation. There are other books though that I've come across that stand out and merit a mention. I can refer here to actual books specifically rather than the author's work in general because having enjoyed these books I've gone on to read other novels by the author and I've found them disappointing or unremarkable, or found other reasons not to pursue the author's work.

I'll start out with Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. This is a dystopian science fiction story about an aging, lonely man, Lenny, a lover of books in a society where youth and celebrity is prized above all and the smell of an old paperback book is thought to be disgusting. America has become a police state and the Chinese are busy buying up anything of value. Can Lenny and Eunice find happiness in this world? Get ready for some super sadness.

I already quoted a selection of Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic; or, The Sexual Intellectual in a previous posting not long ago. As I think I mentioned, it's little more than a series of rants on a large and sometimes surprisingly diverse series of topics. Eventually, it gets exhausting though in parts it is fresh, informative and fun. If I ever come across any of Theroux's other novels, I'd be happy to give them a look, but his work is relatively obscure.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke's first novel is a fantasy about witchcraft and witches in early 19th century England. Fantasy is not something I typically read, and I doubt I'll be on the look out for Clarke's next work, but the author is a highly accomplished writer and has given us something which surpasses Tolkien (and that's not saying a lot) in imagination and story telling. Those who have a higher tolerance for fantasy should find this novel immensely enjoyable.

Finally, I should add a couple more novels that are notable for their mixing of fact and fiction. 2003 Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is one, and Ian McEwan's Solar is the other. Both mix fiction with polemics: thoughtful meditations on animal rights in the former, and energy in the latter. I will probably get around to reading more of both these authors eventually, but I'm in no hurry. There's still lots to be read of the previous century as well as novels of this century by novelists I've long been familiar with. Right now, with my exploration of new novelists of the 21st century at a close, I'm returning to new works by old favourites. I'm a good way into Murakami Haruki's 1Q84. Too early yet for a definitive recommendation, but at just over 200 pages into an 1,100 page book, I'm giving 1Q84 a provisional thumbs up.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

David Mitchell

David Mitchell may be famous these days as author of Cloud Atlas, the expensive Hollywood spectacle released last year. I thought Cloud Atlas (the book) was a fine piece of fiction. Good enough for me to go on to read his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Cloud Atlas is composed of 6 very loosely interlocking stories set between the 19th century and some point in the Star Trekish future. Each story gets some 50 pages devoted to it, is then abruptly cut off and the next story is taken up. Once this is finished we cycle back in much the same format and the stories are concluded. It's an ambitious work and Mitchell is able to pull it off. There is a convincing feel for setting, detail, character and dialogue. It was much more absorbing than the disappointing movie version - television pacing, attention deficit disorder editing, full of explosions and car chases.

While Cloud Atlas was half historical fiction and half science fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is wholly historical. It's set entirely in and around Nagasaki, Japan about the year 1800, when the Dutch maintained a trading post there, and the aristocracy of Japan were beginning to question the old regime and push for modernization. The hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a young clerk sent by the Dutch East India Company to Dejima. He spends several decades there, becoming entwined in various intrigues. Again, Mitchell shows great ability in depicting the times and place. I'm not a fan of historical fiction, but it is clear that Mitchell has done his homework. I lived in Edo Machi, Nagasaki, just across the river from the one time artificial island, Dejima, which during the period of the novel was Japan's sole outlet to the larger world. I know the town and history well, and Mitchell has done them justice.

I'm not sure that I'll be looking forward to Mitchell's next work. but what I read of his did stand out among the dozens of other novels I looked at as polished and compelling pieces of fiction. It may not last, but it will do for now. Here's a short excerpt from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

There is a wide square of sand and grit, deserted but for a few soldiers. This plaza is named, van Cleef told him, Edo Square to remind the independent Nagasaki populace where the true power lies. On one side is the Shogunal Keep: ramped stones, high walls and steps. Through another set of gates, the retinue is submersed in a shaded thoroughfare. Hawkers cry, beggars implore, tinkers clang pans, ten thousand wooden clogs knock against flagstones. Their own guards yell, ordering the townspeople aside. Jacob tries to capture every fleeting impression for letters to Anna, and to his sister, Geertje, and his uncle. Through the palanquin's grille, he smalls steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast and rotting seaweed. He glimpses gnarled old women, pocked monks, married girls with blackened teeth. Would that I had a sketchbook, the foreigner thinks, and three days ashore to fill it. Children on a mud wall make owl-eyes with their forefingers and thumbs, chanting 'Oranda-me, Oranda-me, Oranda-me': Jacob realizes they are impersonating 'round' European eyes and remembers a string of urchins following a Chinaman in London. The urchins pulled their eyes into narrow slants and sang, 'Chinese, Siamese, if you please, Japanese.'

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jonathan Lethem

Of the handful of authors I've discovered in the past year or so since I started exploring the fiction of the 21st century, Jonathan Lethem is the one I can enthuse over with the greatest passion. His novels, like those of Tom McCarthy, are verging on science fiction and are influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and P.K. Dick. Lethem adds his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, New York and his appreciation of popular culture. His feel for character and setting, and the English language is stronger than either Vonnegut or Dick.

I first came across Lethem reading his latest novel Chronic City. The main character is a quasi-celebrity, an ex child actor in a TV sitcom who is now married to an astronaut stranded on a crippled space station orbiting the earth. The drama makes excellent fodder for obsessive news/gossip coverage and his waning celebrity status has been given a boost. He is befriended by an obscure part time writer of DVD liner notes and full time conspiracy theorist. He's drawn into a new circle of acquaintances and finds himself at the edge of a new unreality. How far does he descend into the rabbit hole, and what's at the bottom? That's the story of Chronic City.

Fortress of Solitude is a bit of a departure for Lethem. It's semi-autobiographical with only some of the fantastical elements of his other work. We follow the main character from the age of six when his bohemian parents move into a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, anxious to push the logic and idealism of racial integration to its conclusion. The boy makes friends, both black and white, and gets caught up in the worlds of comics and graffiti art. At the end of the book, the hero is in his forties, living in California, working in the music business. Fortress of Solitude is about race relations, particularly, how the hero copes with the almost daily racial hazing he is subject to as a child. He is never actually hurt physically, but he's humiliated, shamed and forced to hand over whatever coins he's not secreted away. It's also a story of his neighbourhood and its gentrification, begun with his parents' decision to make it their home. At the end of the book as he visits, he finds the streets full of French restaurants and bistros. Those of his black friends who didn't flee or end up in prison are marginalized.

Here's a couple of paragraphs from near the beginning of his latest, Chronic City:

“But I know your secret.”

I was startled. Did I have a secret? If I did, it was one of the things I’d misplaced in the last few years. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten from there to here, made the decisions that led from my child stardom to harmlessly dissipated Manhattan celebrity, nor how it was that I deserved the brave astronaut’s love. I had trouble clearly recalling Janice, that was part of my sorrow. The day she launched for the space station I must have undertaken to quit thinking of Janice, even while promising to keep a vigil for her here on earth. I never dared tell anyone this fact. So if I had a secret, it was that I had conspired to forget my secret.
Perkus eyed me slyly. Perhaps it was his policy to make this announcement to any new acquaintance, to see what they’d blurt out. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he told me now. “You’re in a position to learn things.”

What things? Before I could ask, we were off again. Perkus’s spiel encompassed Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the Mafia’s blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of The Gnuppet Show, Frederick Exley, Jacques Rivette’s impossible-to-see twelve-hour movie Out 1, corruption of the arts by commerce generally, Slavoj Zizek on Hitchcock, Franz Marplot on G. K. Chesterton, Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer on graffiti and the space program, Brando as dissident icon, Brando as sexual saint, Brando as Napoleon in exile. Names I knew and didn’t. Others I’d heard once and never troubled to wonder about. Mailer, again and again, and Brando even more often—Perkus Tooth’s primary idols seemed to be this robust and treacherous pair, which only made Perkus seem frailer and more harmless by contrast, without ballast in his pencil-legged suit. Maybe he ate Jackson Hole burgers in an attempt to burgeon himself, seeking girth in hopes of attracting the attention of Norman and Marlon, his chosen peers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Julian Barnes

According to Wikipedia, Julian Barnes has been publishing since 1980, but it was only last year, on the heels of his being awarded the 2011 Booker prize, that I got around to reading anything of his.

The book in question, A Sense of Ending, is not typically my cup of tea. It's a short book, divided into two parts. The first part introduces the main character and his adolescent school mates. They grow up, get girlfriends, and drift apart. One of the gang, the most intelligent and sensitive, commits suicide. In part two, the main character is older - retired and looking back on his life as somewhat of a disappointment. He receives a letter from a lawyer informing him he's received a bequest, bringing back the days of the first part, causing him and us to look at them (and him) in a new light.

As I say, it's not something I would ordinarily read or find myself recommending to others, but the novel is very well constructed with a strong narrative. There's no question that it deserved the Booker award. It led me to read Arthur and George of 2005. It's moderately fictionalized account of a true set of events in England around the year 1900. Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and inveterate rider of hobby horses. George is George Edalji, young solicitor in Birmingham, son to an Indian countryside clergyman and his Scottish wife. George is the target of an anonymous barrage of hate mail and is eventually sent to prison on very dubious grounds for slashing local farm animals. Arthur steps in and campaigns to clear George's name. Again a well constructed novel with a strong narrative, vivid characters and a solid grasp of the period and setting.

I'm not sure whether Barnes will be remembered a hundred years hence, or that he's doing much these days to push the novel into new directions. He does, however, stand out among his contemporaries as a highly accomplished and capable novelist. He's a couple of paragraphs:

The asylum sent Arthur his father's sketchbooks. Charles Doyle's last years had been miserable, as he lay unvisited at his grim final address; but he did not die mad. That much was clear: he had continued to paint watercolours and to draw; he also kept a diary. It now struck Arthur that his father had been a considerable artist, undervalued by his peers, worthy indeed of a posthumous exhibition in Edinburgh - perhaps even London. Arthur could not help reflecting on the contrast in their fates: while the son was enjoying fame and society, his abandoned father knew only the occasional embrace of the straightjacket. Arthur felt no guilt - just the beginnings of filial compassion. And there was one sentence in his father's diary which would drag at any son's heart. 'I believe,' he had written, 'I am branded as mad solely from the Scotch Misconception of Jokes.'

In December of that year, Holmes fell to his death in the arms of Moriarty; both of them propelled downwards by an impatient authorial hand. The London newspapers had contained no obituaries of Charles Doyle, but were full of protest and dismay at the death of a non-existent consulting detective whose popularity had begun to embarrass his creator. It seemed to Arthur that the world was running mad: his father was fresh in the ground, and his wife condemned, but young City men were apparently tying crepe bands to their hats in mourning for Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tom McCarthy

This first novelist is unique among the writers I found for not having published during the 20th century. Tom McCarthy is a good introduction to fiction of the 21st century. There are three novels of his, and I've read C and Remainder. C, I thought, was the better book, and it led me on to Remainder, which I enjoyed less. He was also co-writer, along with director Johan Grimonprez, of the intriguing film Double Take. Check it out if reading's not your thing but still have some curiosity about McCarthy.

In Remainder, a young man has been involved in some sort of accident for which he is compensated with a very large cash settlement. We never learn the nature of the accident; his silence on the subject is part of the settlement. The trauma from the accident causes the hero to feel he has lost his sense of authenticity. He discovers that this authenticity can be recaptured and his sense of reality regained for a few moments in elaborately staged re-creations of otherwise trivial events and sensations from his memories. As the story progresses, he turns to increasingly violent re-creations from the stories in the news

C is the story of another young man, born to a land owner and radio wave tinkerer at the close of the 19th century. We follow the boy as he's educated and sent off to war in France to serve as an observer in the air corps. He develops a taste for cocaine and heroin and these determine his subsequent wanderings through the theatrical floating world of London in the 1920s. He kicks his habits finally and is recruited as spy to keep an eye on the installation of radio transmitting towers in Egypt.

I have to confess I've only given each of these books a single read, but they were strange and enthralling and I will get around to, sooner or later, giving at least C a second read. I've made a mental note to pick up his other novel, Men in Space, if I can my hands on it. Some of the first books I remember loving were those of Kurt Vonnegut. Tom McCarthy reminded me of those times, updated to a new century with a more acutely philosophical focus.

His work is rather challenging and is often puzzling. Here's a short excerpt from near the beginning of C.

Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for more directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont strides across the lawn and steps through this third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived. The large, lightly sloping gravel path he descended with Mr. Dean is now on the orchard's far side, half-hidden by the conifers; a smaller footpath, on which he's now standing, lies perpendicular to this, between the garden's outer wall and the orchard's lower edge. The children are still there, wrapped up in their mute pantomime. Learmont runs his eye beyond them: the rows of small, white-fruited trees give over to an unkempt lawn that, after sixty yards or so, turns into a field on which the odd sheep grazes. The field rises to a ridge; a telegraph line runs across this, then falls down the far side, away from view.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fiction in the 21st Century

I remember following a discussion on the internet some time last year about the greatest works of fiction. There were no real surprises in the discussion until I realized that all the novels that were mentioned were written during the 20th century. It seemed as though a dozen years had passed since the millennium without producing any work worthy of attention.

How does this compare against the last century? Looking at some of my favourites, one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad was doing some of his strongest work. Jack London, Thomas Mann, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Leo Tolstoy were publishing. In 1913, Sons and Lovers and Swann's Way both appeared. I suppose the next dozen or so years of that century are better remembered today, but this is not a bad collection of novels. It struck me that we ought to have something written by now, in this century, that warrants a mention in a discussion of great novels; something that will be remembered a hundred years hence.

Trouble was, I couldn't think of anything I'd put forward as a candidate. A lot of my favourites from the 20th century were still publishing worthy novels, such as Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood. Some, like Don DeLillo, were running out of steam. Others, like David Foster Wallace, were running on empty. I wanted to find someone new, to me at least, or if possible, several new authors. I started reading, almost exclusively, new novels by authors unknown to me. Some fifty or sixty novels later, I'm almost ready to report.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I'll finish the series I've been writing on East European films of the 1960s with another selection from the USSR. though again, not a European film, but one made in Kyrgyzstan, again far to the east of Europe, in the mountainous republic bordering on China. The actors and writer/narrator are Kyrgyz but the directors are Russians. There are interesting Russian films made during the period that I could have chosen to write about, but these are relatively well known and have their audience. I wanted to write about Dzhamiliya because it's still obscure and worth watching.

It's also a war movie, set at the time of the second world war, and it's notable for treating the war so lightly. Granted, the front is a very long way off, but the difference between it and other war films of the period is startling. There's none of the grim horror that typifies other Russian war films. "Come and See", "The Ascent", and "Ivan's Childhood" are typically harrowing, and by the way are all available for downloading via bittorrent. Even compared with other war-time romance films such as "Ballad of a Soldier", Dzhamiliya stands out. We're told, for example, in the first minutes of The Ballad of a Soldier that Alyosha doesn't make it through the war and dies while liberating Europe. Obviously this casts a pall of doom over the film. In Dzhamiliya, we don't get any taste of the horror and sacrifice of the war. Many of the young male characters in the film are wounded and disabled, but Dzhamiliya, played by Natalya Arinbasarova, mocks their disability and questions their manhood.

The story of Dzhamiliya is told by Seit, the young brother of her husband, charged by his family to keep an eye on her and protect her from suitors while he is at the front. He's just at the age when becoming sexually aware and she inspires his first artistic endeavors. Seit's character, much older and now a successful artist, is also the film's narrator, played by Chingiz Aitmatov, the writer of the screenplay and author of the original novel. Incidentally, later Aitmatov would become a diplomat representing the post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan in Europe.

It's not an artistically innovative or politically daring film. It borrows liberally techniques used in Western films like, rarely seen these days, freeze frames and solarization. It borrows liberally from Soviet tractor operas as well. There are some very nice montages of Kyrgyz poetry, song and landscape that in themselves should make the film worthwhile. The story is conventional, but the narrator, giving an adult voice to a child who struggles to understand the confusing and sad world of adults, adds a dimension of lost innocence, and his discovery of his place in a world of wonder raises the film a notch or two above the conventional love story.

Dzhamiliya is available at the Pirate Bay for downloading.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Holy Moocher

With this post I will mark the Easter weekend and start a shift from my look at movies, which is coming to an end, to books. Today I want to quote a rather long passage from a novel I recently read, Laura Warholic or The Sexual Intellectual, by Alexander Theroux. I don't recommend the book. It's almost one thousand pages of rants on various topics: Why San Francisco is a grossly overrated city. Why Democracy is a grossly overrated political system. Why women fail as artists and intellectuals. There are many many more, and details escape me. It was exhausting. I thought however this rant about Jesus was worth repeating. It struck me as having the unusual power to shock and outrage even an audience of today. We can get an inkling of how those who read the anti clerical rants of Voltaire or de Sade might have felt.

Feast at the House of Levi - Veronese

“Christ was a sponge!" deblaterated fat Warholic, angrily leering, his face going heavy, with folds, like a bull's scrotum. He aimed a cold eye. "He was a fucking mendicant! A pet! A leech! A deadbeat! He was always walking around inveighing against ill-gotten riches and corruption by way of private property, but what did the guy ever do to pay his own way?" Inflamed with revenge, Warholic was ready to launch. Emotion made him impolite, and his bigoted fury prepared. A fierce thorn impaling him gave him unappeasable anger, a black, annihilating hatred of Christianity that allowed him the change he relished acutely to deliver the darts he would.

“Of the million subjects available to Christ, his second favorite to discuss, after the Kingdom of God—it is scripturally proven—was cash," barked the detracting editor. "Long green. The ol' do-re-mi. Spondulicks. Money! But, tell me, did he ever have any money on him? They had to bring the damned fool a denarius—Matthew 22:14—to make that obvious point about Caesar and God. He owned nothing. He borrowed everything. You people turn this into a virtue? He cadged. He wheedled. He bullied. It was not his own stable at birth. It was not his cross at death. The tomb he was buried in was not even his own. Live free or die, the good old New Hampshire state motto, right?"

Warholic was under full steam. Having been bested in such arguments before, he had done his homework, and it was bring it on.

“He was always hungry. Ever notice? He spitefully withered a fig tree for bearing no fruit just when he petulantly wanted something to eat (Matthew 21:19). Don't go trying to make me look like Mickey the Dunce. We learned all this crap seated at long wooden tables from Horev to Yavneh—Jew school to you jamokes, OK?—under the knuckle-knocking zaddiks in shul. What, you don't think we know our enemy? 'Where's the grub? Where's the grub?' he complained, starved for food when leaving Bethany and then frustrated, spitefully took it out on that tree. 'May no one ever eat from you again!' he cursed, blasting the tree with the prosecution of a poison finger. The very day before that, not twelve hours before, spitting in fury because of an empty stomach, he barged into the holy temple on his big feet and furiously punted over all the tables. That's not food rage? That's not a glaring example of hunger-spite? This scavenger is your messiah, Discknickers? Your savior? Mr. Big? He defended David's right to go barging into the house of God and blasphemously wolf down shewbread. The apostles and disciples themselves were always starving. The poor ignorant fools were driven like ravenous giraffes to have to snatch and munch handfuls of wheat in the fields, crumblestumble they had to glom from the fucking yarrowstalks through which they walked (Matthew 12:1-2)! Check your own bibles! Face it, Christ was the ultimate parasite and invitee. A dinner dog! He attended huge sumptuous banquets at a certain Levi's wearing costly apparel and gulping from flasks of date spirits and eating fig cakes, herbed cheese, and salted meat with rich, overindulged tax-collectors—Luke 5:29—but with a visible weakness for social climbing and parvenuism was constantly queening it at long groaning tables with pompous and wealthy snobs every chance he got! It was if he were born to the manor. Disgusting! Take a look sometime at that famous painting Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese which depicts exactly what I'm talking about where you can see this so-called ascetic of yours with perfumed hair all farputst and sporting exquisite silks and sitting center-stage in an expensive marbled atrium in the company of a whole passel of performing buffoons, noshers, red-nosed drunkards, upstart coons, pimp hustlers, fawning hangers-on, and a zooful of malignant dwarves without so much as a hint of anything spiritual. No elevated ideals at all. Scatheful! Devouring! Rude!

“On the cross itself he was still whining—I am thirsty!' Get me a Fresca! Why even after he dies, it is duly recorded by the four fabulists that he suddenly appears like Banquo's ghost, pale as paper, and what's the very first request from this universal bailiff of poverty and toiling in the vineyard? Exactly. 'Do you have anything to eat (Luke 24:41)? Will you tell me something, does a dead man have an appetite? Hunger pains? Belly cramps? 'Bring me some of the fish you have just caught,' he demands as if he had just sat down to table (John 21:10). Once again it is back to food, strapping on the feedbag, banging his tin cup up and down for a waiter. And so what happens? They throw the goldbricker a boiled fish! I told you, we had to memorize all this shit in yeshivots, twice a day. Christ then proceeds to tell the apostles or the epistles or whatever they were, 'Come and have breakfast, 'John 21:12 in the godbook, if you're interested. He tears into a hank of bread, then wolfs down a haddock or two. This is, what, an hour or two after he has been just raised from the dead? Unearthed from the dark tomb, folks, trailing his filthy graveclothes behind like a mud-mummy? Had he even a stomach?"

Indignant, Discknickers struggled to go after him, but Spalatin grabbed the accountant and said, "No point, he's on a roll."

“Tell me, who paid for all of Christ's lodgings? When he went roaming about the countryside with that circus troupe of his, all of those performing monkeys, wandering through Galilee, Caesarea, Sidon, Philippi, Carphanaum, and Bethpage, had the man a fucking shekel? Answer?" Warholic mockingly put an open hand to his ear. "I don't hear anything." He paused. "Had he a seashell?" He fake-looked up at the ceiling and hummed. "Cloudy with showers?" With a big grin, he stood back in triumph. "Don't all of you mevshavs look so shocked. Are you afraid you'll be hit by lightning and barbecued? These are facts, not fictions. My old rabbi who knew from Christian ugly and scorn and never failed to warn me not to trust a smiling Gentile—he came from an impoverished little dorp in Russia called Motol where the uncircumcized putzes all treated him like donkeyballs—used to quote Proverbs 30:15: 'The leech has two daughters. "Give! Give!" they cry.' I know I'm correct in saying that the figure the reb had in mind was nobody but your greedy Middle Eastern carpenter!"

“Swine," shot Discknickers.

Warholic shoved his face forward. "This was not a chiseler, a mooch, a beggar, a schnorrer figuring how to live off other people?"


“Do you happen to remember how one day just roaming around the countryside he spies that rich little shitpad, Zacchaeus, and walking right up to the guy, buttonholes him with, 'I must stop at your house today' (Luke 19:5). What is this rubbish, I must? I must reach into your deep pockets and grab some cash, you gullible nudnicks? He brazenly walks—walks—into the houses of strangers and commandeers their rooms as if he fucking owned them (Mark 7:24-25)! Drop what you're doin, bublik, I don't give a shit what, and wait on me! What poor slob had to pay for the luxury of the Upper Room into which this bearded nuchshlepper walks with all of those stinking, illiterate fisherfolk for companions (Matthew 26:18)? He appropriated some perfect stranger's room for Passover the same way because that was his habit! Beggary! Who paid for the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem? Clyde Beatty? Robert Ruark? Buffalo Bill? The Ringling Brothers? A delegation of suits from the Moose Club of Nazareth? He then proceeds to order some of his lackeys to go into town and snag a colt and a donkey—a donkey he royally insists, notice, that no one has ever ridden—giving these same obedient dumbbells by way of permission in taking these animals the lame excuse to pass on as an explanation, 'The Lord needs them.' The Lord—! The Lord, my ass! Hey, the Lord needs someone to settle my gas bill! The Lord needs someone to buy my lunch! How about to float my loans and to pay my taxes and to cover my mortgage? Why not simply come out and declare without the flannel, 'We, the Gestapo, take what we want'?

“He was always riding in someone's boat, ordering one of his pursuivants to pour him a cup of water, demanding that milling crowds be parted for him to walk through, insisting they throw their cloaks into the roads, badgering someone to feed him, commanding someone to wash his feet or to fetch him this or that. These were just plain scams, out and out. I've often wondered whether research into the old police records of Jerusalem, if such still exist, would not reward the industrious investigator with proof that as a deadbeat Christ the check-kiter didn't spend some serious time in the clink, wearing cast-iron leg-chains for all of those pea-and-thimble tricks he pulled on the innocent and unsuspecting. Expensive oils and unguents were always being lavished on him (Matthew 26:7) which of course he assumed were his due. Had he and his family already been so badly spoiled by the Magi's extravagant offerings given him at birth which he felt were owed him and which his parents clearly cashed in in order to travel to Egypt? Had he no ethics? Nothing stopped the man. He kept it up day after day. All sorts of people were pissed off, of course. The Pharisees. The Essenes. The Roman authorities. Did that make him rein it in? Not a bit. The dude never quit. No, I can see nothing in his character to persuade me that any indignation a flout of his might arouse would have driven him from a place he did not want to leave. There were too many good pickings there! He turned his disciples and dogsbodies into beggars. Remember how he told all of them whenever they were setting out to bring nothing but scrip and staff?"
 Seeing as how Jesus was offering those who followed him a ticket to eternal life in Heaven at the feet of God, only a cheap charlie could begrudge him a meal. Still I confess to feeling a frisson of sacrilegious guilty pleasure on reading the rant. The content is true, after all, yet until reading this I've never seen Jesus portrayed as a mooching beggar. Why do we avoid the obvious? His entourage, the apostles were drawn from the lowest orders of society. The main woman in Jesus' life was a prostitute. A begging Jesus would not be out of place. Spiritual practitioners of other times and places have often taken up begging to get their daily bread. Buddha and his begging bowl is one example; there must be countless others. I think we owe this frisson of almost blasphemous pleasure not to any teachings of Judaism which the Warholic character supposedly follows, but to a heritage of Calvinism. This is the doctrine where religious devotion is expressed by our works here on earth - the protestant work ethic. Against the teachings of Calvin we should set those of Jesus... Matthew 6:20 - "But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." Sound advice, maybe, but what and where is heaven?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ucho (The Ear)

I've already looked at one Czech film of the 1960s here, Sedmikrasky, or Daisies, but the output of during the period was so prodigious, and Ucho is so singular an example, that I feel I should include it. It's actually dated by some sources as 1970, but it was made at least partially in 1969 and never shown publicly until 1989, just months before the velvet revolution, so I take the liberty or including it here. Besides, of all the films I've featured, Ucho is by far the most explicitly political, confronting head on such taboo issues like Stalinism, repression and antisemitism.

According to the interview with Peter Hames, a British expert on Czech cinema, the director of Ucho, Karel Kachyna, and the writer, Jan Prochazka, enjoyed a long career together collaborating on films. Prochazka was a communist and had many contacts with the party elite, including an acquaintance with the president. Their films together were seen as bearing the stamp of officially approved criticism. Ucho was made after the Prague Spring had ended, apparently with Soviet troops marching on the streets outside their studio, and on completion it was withheld by authorities. Prochazka died the next year, but Kachyna seems to have accepted the dictates of the regime and continued to make uncontroversial and unremarkable children's films, and even continued his collaboration with Prochazka, filming some of his scripts, though a 'front' was given credit.

Ucho is the story of a couple returning home after a party at the presidential palace. They discover they have somehow misplaced their keys. Their gate is open in any case, and once inside their house, they discover that the electricity and telephone service are not working. They begin to suspect that somebody had been there while they were out. The husband, Ludvik, is deputy at the ministry of construction and his rather vulgar wife Anna (superbly played Jirina Bohdalova) bicker with each other as they explore their darkened home. It's coincidentally their tenth wedding anniversary, and despite numerous broad hints, Ludvik won't acknowledge the occasion. We switch between the scene at the house and flashbacks of the party where we learn that Ludvik's superior and three colleagues are missing, and presumed to have been arrested. By the end of the film we understand the connection between what we've learned at the party and the strange state of the house. Ucho is a mix of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Kafka. It's a study of a relationship under conventional strains that could affect any marriage, with the added burdens of being subject of surveillance and political repression.

at home - before or behind bars

Ucho gives us an opportunity to see life under surveillance. What I thought was unique is how 'the ear' - those who listen -  is drawn into their personal lives. Anna will be talking to her husband, and when she finds him too obtuse or otherwise objectionable, she will interrupt herself and address the ear directly in cheeky banter. Their casual acceptance of the police state is also evident in their prison-like decor, and in Anna's admission that she keeps her young son locked in his bedroom while they go out. Near the end, Anna courageously rebels against her role as prisoner and warder in her own home, but her freedom is short lived. In the final scene, for the first time she expresses fear, and we see her, also for the first time, silent, deflated and exhausted.

Ucho is available here at the Pirate Bay for download. With a bittorrent client, of course. Be sure not to miss Peter Hames' twelve minute introduction to the film, which is part of the package.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Red and the White

The Red and the White is a 1967 Hungarian Soviet co-production made by Hungarian director Miklos Jancso to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. It was banned in the Soviet Union but shown in Hungary and received recognition by various film appreciation societies, mostly for its direction.

The film concerns a company of Hungarian volunteers fighting alongside the Reds during the civil war perhaps some time in 1918 somewhere south of Moscow near the Volga river, although the film was actually shot, I believe, in the Hungarian countryside.

Anyone interested in the craft of film direction should gain from watching this film. It's comprised of long takes, typically up to 3 minutes in length, which are extremely intricate, showing actions that might start in deep background, approach the camera, switch attention to another character or set of characters all the while panning, tracking and zooming. It shows great control and vision, and is all the more impressive as many of its characters are on horseback. It's amazing to think that over the course of a 3 minute scene an actor (and his horse) can make his entrance, hit his mark, deliver his line, and move along as the camera takes up with another set of actors on another piece of faultlessly executed business.

Like many war films of East Europe and the Soviet Union, The Red and the White is an antiwar film. It may be the most uncompromising antiwar film I've seen. What makes it different from others is the lack of character and narrative. We see faces (no names though) get to recognize them, but they never have anything to say to us and very little to each other. They are almost invariably killed either off screen or in the background. There is not much in the way of battle scenes either. There is so much fluidity to the situation that in one scene the Whites will be subjecting their captive Reds to humiliations and in the next scene, the tables are turned and the roles are reversed. All without much or any shooting, much less explanation. Both sides mistreat the civilian population, themselves and each other; there's really not a lot to distinguish one army from the other. Without narrative or character, an absurd aimlessness is all that remains.

The decision to eschew character and narrative means sacrificing the favour and attention of a good part of the audience. I think it's safe to say that many audience members will find the film boring and alienating. That's evident in the IMDB comments on the film. The slower pace and longer takes of the European style of film making are only the beginning of this film's capacity to alienate. Without a character to identify with or a narrative thread to follow, the audience isn't left with much to hold onto. This is what I meant about The Red and the White being an uncompromising film. Compare it to other antiwar films of East Europe of the same period or even to those of the West, like MASH and Catch 22. In these films, war is elevated as a stage where the characters can express their individuality, heroism or joy for life. In MASH, for example, the doctors take advantage of the chaos and absurdity by asserting their medical and military authority to successfully manipulate whatever and whoever comes before them. There are no successful manipulators in The Red and the White. In Catch 22, one scene has our hero dumping his bombs into the sea, intentionally missing his assigned target. In the Red and the White, an anonymous White soldier ordered to execute a Red prisoner fires from the hip without taking aim. His officer, without a word of reprimand, passes the order to the next soldier who executes it without pause.

Miklos Jancso is still making films today. They lack the grandeur and budget of his earlier work, and I couldn't recommend them with confidence. However, The Red and the White deserves to be seen by anyone interested in film or especially film making. It's available at the Pirate Bay for anyone who has a bittorrent client.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Not so dictatorial

There´s been lots of press coverage of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, since Tuesday, and the funeral today, and most of it fairly negative. It´s not terribly surprising since he tried to alleviate poverty and pursue an independent foreign policy. But I´m not going to defend him or his regime except in one respect. Chavez wasn´t a dictator, as he´s commonly referred to. In fact he deserves some credit for scrupulous adherence to basic democratic principles.

What impressed me was the events around Venezuela´s 2009 referendum on constitutional reform. Chavez wanted it, and once Venezuelans narrowly rejected it, the issue was dropped. Abiding by an unwelcome decision of the public is not dictatorial, it´s democratic.

The reason why this setting aside an agenda for constitutional reform deserves attention is that other nations, never accused of being ruled by dictators, don´t have referendums, and don´t have to abide by the results. Instead they hold ¨never-end-ems¨ where a government that doesn`t get the ´yes´ answer it hopes for, puts money into a yes vote publicity campaign, and goes to the polls again holding another referendum on the same issue, perhaps with slight adjustments. I´m thinking about Denmark, Ireland and Iceland, though I´m sure there are others.

Maybe that´s not dictatorship or democracy. Maybe it´s liberal democracy, where the power of the public is checked and balanced by the power of the government.We never hear Chavez criticized for being too much of a democrat. It doesn´t have the same ring as dictator. But I suspect it was Chavez´s democratic tendencies that earned him the dislike of his critics.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator

That´s ¨Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.¨ in Serbo-Croatian, the original title of Dusan Makavejev´s 1967 film. It has the honour, among the films I´ve been looking at, of being both the film with longest title, and at one hour and seven minutes, the shortest running length. Perhaps this in itself gives us an idea of something that has been lost since the time when the film was made. A time when the makers of this film were not afraid to release something closer in length to a weekly installment of a television series under a title that´s not quite instantly memorable. A time of risk-taking and experimentation.

Love Affair is an example of Yugoslavia´s ¨Black Wave¨ movement of film-making. There are other examples of this style, and all share similar Anarchist or Maoist sensibilities, borrowing from the French New Wave while offering quite explicit criticism of Yugoslavian society. Yugoslavia is unique in Eastern Europe for not having been occupied by the Soviet Union, and maintaining its independence under a socialist regime.

Dusan Makaveyev is famous for his ¨WR: Mysteries of the Organism¨ of 1971. This was made in Yugoslavia, and like many other black wave films was promptly banned there, and many other nations, besides. He went to Canada to make ¨Sweet Movie¨ which was also banned in Yugoslavia, but also Canada, and most other nations. Love Affair was not banned in Yugoslavia, and was shown with only modest cuts in the West.

During this period, Makaveyev was essentially working and reworking the same material in each of his films. Like the other films of his I´ve mentioned, though much less explicitly so, Love Affair is a playfully didactic exposition of the thinking of the German psychoanalyst and communist Wilhelm Reich - the WR of his most famous picture. Reich believed that sexual repression led to tyranny and fascism, and to avoid this fate we had to fully and fearlessly express our sexuality. For his troubles, Reich was expelled from Freud´s inner circle, the communist party and Norway. After a brief stint teaching at the New School in New York with other Jewish emigres, he attracted the attention of the FBI, was fired and died in 1957 while in custody at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, but not before the FDA had burned all his books and papers.

Eva and her other rat catcher 

Love Affair is a tragic love story intertwined with a pastiche of flash forwards, expert lectures on sexuality, criminology and pest control, propaganda broadcasts of anti clerical campaigns and street demonstrations, and poetry. It maintains a light, comical tone throughout, though some of the scenes can be rather gruesome. Eva is a modern girl who works at a switchboard and Ahmed, a rat catcher, is her older, more conservative, lover. They are both good people, and they both love each other. But what chance does love stand in a world where Wilhelm Reich dies in an American prison after fleeing the Nazis?

Love Affair is available for download at the Pirate Bay. It comes packaged together with several other titles of his from the same period. All you need is a bittorrent client.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Whip Poor Will - the new neighbour

I´ve been living in a house at the foot of a mountain in Chiapas, Mexico for a year now, but it´s only in the past week or so that I´ve noticed someone else has moved into the neighbourhood. Rather late in the evening, past nine o´clock, a bird starts calling. It´s a very distinctive call but I´d never heard it before. A little searching on the internet revealed it to be a whip poor will.
It´s a beautiful little song they sing, and at nights I listen carefully now, waiting for a repeat performance. I knew about the bird from the Hank Williams song, ¨I´m so lonely I could cry,¨ where the bird gets a rather inauspicious mention. It seems that all the mentions of the bird in song and literature (I checked one or two) are similarly unhappy and even menacing.

How did such an innocuous insectivore get such a bad reputation? It may have something to do with its name being an order to lash a poverty stricken man or boy named William, but I have another theory about this. I think it has something to do with the whip poor will´s onomatopoeic name. The origin of this theory comes from my experience in China where I was staying in the mountains of Yunnan among the Ahka tribespeople. I found that when I asked them their names, they would avoid responding, and when I asked why I was told that it was bad luck to say their own names. ¨The crow calls its own name,¨ they said, ¨and that´s all the reason we need not to do the same.¨ Crowing in English too is associated with vanity and unseemly self promotion. Maybe our disdain for these birds has something to do with our desire to avoid of the hall-of mirrors fantastical qualities of self-reference that I was talking about in The Saragossa Manuscript post. Or maybe that´s just cuckoo.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Saragossa Manuscript

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said in a lecture that there were four procedures found in fantastic literature: the voyage in time, the double, the contamination of reality by dreams, and the mise en abyme - the story within the story. The Saragossa Manuscript relies on all four over the course of its three hour narrative, but it´s the use of stories within stories, and stories overlapping stories that make it remarkable, boldly taking the technique to (and perhaps beyond) the limits of human patience and understanding. It may drive the viewer to distraction, but if you are so inclined, it will amply reward multiple viewings.
                                a little taste of surrealism

The Saragossa Manuscript was made in 1965 by Polish director Wojciech Has and a very large cast of what must have been Poland´s most talented actors. It was almost forgotten until some American celebrities put up the funds to produce a restored version of the film on DVD. The Saragossa Manuscript is adapted from the 19th century novel of more or less the same name by Jan Potoki. He was obsessed by ¨1001 Arabian Nights,¨ gnosticism and the mysteries of the orient. By the way, Potoki is another example of a Pole writing his most notable works in a foreign language.

We open with a comic battle scene in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Two officers from opposing sides come across the eponymous manuscript in an abandoned house, immediately lose interest in the battle and become enthralled with the pictures and the story, which, coincidentally concerns the grandfather of one of the officers, another officer of the guards who has set off over the mountains for Madrid. Suddenly the scene changes to a closeup of the grandfather, Alphonso, a young man here, waking up among the skulls under a gibbet somewhere along the mountainous path. His servants are worried that the place is haunted but Alphonso presses on. Soon he finds an inn, seemingly abandoned, where he plans to spend the night. He´s startled by a hand on his shoulders. A Tunisian woman, one breast exposed, beckons him, telling him to follow downstairs where two foreign women are waiting him to join them for supper. He´s led to a cavernous, magical space below the inn where the girls, two Muslim princesses, proceed to seduce him. They tell him he is their cousin and the last of their family line. It´s his duty to bed the sisters, in a threesome no less, produce an heir, convert to Islam and keep the whole affair a secret. Alphonso agrees and the pact is sealed with a drink from an elaborate human skull chalice. He drinks, loses consciousness, and re-awakens among the skulls where we first met him. The movie continues. I´ve described about the first twenty minutes or so, and the rest of it goes on in the same comic, even farcical vein.

Something that stood out for me was the pervasive, casual semi-nudity. I hadn´t expected to see this in a film made under what I thought to be a prudish communist regime. At about the same time ¨Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf¨ was being made in Hollywood. A great movie and a notorious one which, due to lines like ¨screw you¨ and ¨son of a bitch,¨ tested the limits of the prudish production code. Comparing these two movies, we´d be hard put to choose which was made in a free society and which was made under totalitarianism. It´s conceivably possible that someone without the requisite background knowledge could even make the wrong choice.

Politically, The Saragossa Manuscript is not nearly so adventurous or daring. It does owe its aesthetic to surrealism, a movement which made its bones in the early 20th century by playfully and sometimes bizarrely questioning or undermining the bourgeois conception of reality. Surrealism never really prospered in the socialist republics. Perhaps this film´s questioning of the bland certainties of the Enlightenment was as far as Poland´s nod to the spirit of the 60´s dared to go.

The Saragossa Manuscript is available for download here, via a bittorrent client.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hasan Arbakesh

I started this series on East European film of the 1960s and this film from Tajikistan will be the second installment. I know it's a bit of a stretch, a 10,000 kilometre stretch to count Tajikistan, which borders on Afghanistan and China, as part of Eastern Europe, but Hasan Arbakesh (Hasan the cart driver) is so wonderful, so under-appreciated and still so contemporary, I feel its inclusion is justified. Besides there are large swaths of Eastern Europe - Romania, Bulgaria and surprisingly East Germany that don't seem to have produced any cinema of note during the same period.
Hasan Arbakesh was made on location in Tajikistan, the poorest of the Soviet republics, in 1965 by the director Boris Kimyagarov, a Jewish native of Tajikistan, celebrated today as the father of Tajik cinema. 1965 was a time known as the "Thaw," a narrow window of tie when censorship was relaxed and heretofore forbidden topics and themes were explored. Alexander Solzhenitsyn first came to notice during this period.

It's not a technically or artistically innovative film, but well made in every respect. The director obviously has love for his homeland, its scenery and a good many of its folkways. The star, Bimbolat Vatayev, in his first leading role, is full of charisma, singing, dancing, loving, and fighting as well as any hero can be expected to. Hasan Arbakesh is structured as an epic, echoing the Herculean exploits of the Persian bard Ferdowsi's masterwork, Shahnameh. Hasan's horse is named Rakhsh, after Ferdowsi's hero's horse, although the cart he pulls is a disconcertingly crude contraption. The plot culminates in Hasan successfully discharging his tasks but he is left with only the very dubious rewards on offer by the new Soviet regime.

The film is set some time in the 1920s when the dust of the revolution and the civil war is settling but the Soviet ways are not quite accepted. We see the collectivisation, industrialisation and emancipation the Soviets have brought along them them, and while not explicitly condemned, to our characters, the new era brings bitterness, sacrifice and loneliness. All the qualities that made Hasan a hero count for nothing.

Recently I listened to a lecture on how Stalin incorporated Kazakhstan in the USSR, making the rather perverse effort to shape a clan-based nomadic society into a nation. Somehow, having had a national identity retrofitted, so to speak, for them the Kazakh people could more easily pass on to the higher stage of socialism. Now in Hasan Arbakesh, the only nation building I saw going on was of the Soviet variety, but it's worth noting that Kimyagarov drew on precisely the same sort of epic source material that Soviet historians used for their work in Kazakhstan. It seems that whatever the success the Soviets had in instilling a national consciousness in the people of Kazakhstan, their efforts in Tajikistan were a failure. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Tajikistan was plunged into a vicious clan-based civil war and the non-Tajik inhabitants, predominantly Russians and Jews, fled to Russia.

Perhaps Hasan Arbakesh represents a golden era of Tajikistan, a time of peace, prosperity and artistic license, if not freedom. It also recalls the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, at least as far as the women of Kabul are concerned. In one scene we see the outraged women tearing off their veils and throwing them into a fire! In an era when religious fundamentalism is rising from the Soviet grave, the film has renewed relevance. It´s available via bittorrent by itself which I will try to maintain, or with a group of other central Asian films which I won´t.