Sushi, Without the Extras

How do you think he got the ideas for the Prince? From his cat, of course.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas musings

Security class opened today with a feature on Hamas winning control over the Palestinian Authority, and I think the event got short shrift during the ensuing discussion. A colleague counselled maintaining the current policy of wait-and-see what the crazies are going to do and posited that they'd moderate their policies because they can't afford to lose backing from the countries around them that do business with us or even from the country that supplies nearly a quarter of the world's economy. The next argument was that Hamas would have to tone down its activities in order to stay in power. There seemed to be some consensus that Hamas had "shot its wad" by getting elected.

I'm not so convinced by either of these positions. Hamas has the wide majority of seats in the legally elected government, so it does not need to deal with other forces at work within the country. There's also the distinct possibility that Hamas decides that the best way to remain in power is to continue its activities against the Israelis because failing to do so might jeopardize its legitimacy. In fact, Hamas could regard its election as a mandate and attempt to ally with Ahminedjad in order to oust Israel from the West Bank. I'm not saying this would be a good idea, as open warfare would be counterproductive, even for Hamas' goals, but it is a possibility.

Even if Hamas does step down slightly, there's so much bad blood between Hamas and Israel, that it's unlikely that the Israelis will tolerate a Hamas-controlled government. Israel's already in a difficult position what with the Sharon mess. The peace process has been stalled at the very least, and at the worst, violence could break out that would destabilize the region, yet again. Only this time, we have a hardline conservative in Iran who's looking to nuclearize and not one but two occupations by the United States in the region, which are already problematic. I don't like those odds. With a violently anti-Israeli and anti-American government in power, in all probability, the world is holding its breath to see not only what Hamas will do but what Americans will do.

In a certain sense, Hamas has played the American game and won. The U.S. has held itself out as the champion of democracy, even going into Iraq under the pretense that democritization of the country would benefit everyone there. The Palestinian Authority is a "democratic" Arab nation, and the Palestinian people sent a clear message to the world that "democracy" and "American ideals" are not equivalent. As Farley pointed out in class, there's an even darker element to this equation: what happens when Iraq's democratically elected government elects another Ahminedjad? I'm not comfortable with that either.

So, how do I think about this? I can think about this as a class of values. Americans have traditionally equated "democracy" with the "American way". Clearly this is not true, and we should have known better. It's been posited that democracies don't fight democracies, and again, I'm not really certain that I believe that either. Certainly, democracies rage economic war against each other why couldn't two democracies with conflicting values make war upon each other, particularly if there's a perceived threat to something of value: on one side oil security and on the other a deeprooted belief that the other value-system is inherently antithetical to one's own.

Furthermore, we've lost an important card--that of a certain amount of moral superiority. "We're better than that because we're a liberal democracy." By pushing for democracy in threat-nations we may have undermined that element of soft-power that we've been playing as a trump card since WWII.

There's a lot I'm trying to work through here. There are elements from economic statecraft--trade is good, money is good, efficiency is good; we all need each other to trade, historical issues--"God, Money, and the American way". Security issues, clearly and finally issues surrounding how we're going to negotiate a path that's become even trickier.

I wonder what will happen when Israel asks for help dealing with the new problem, and who are they going to ask? The United States.

I feel wonderfully underqualified to even be thinking about this problem as it's stretching me rather uncomfortably. I clearly don't know enough about history or political science to follow this post through.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thucydides I

Monday in class, Farley posited a question that struck me as odd. "Why do we read Thucydides--why should we?" My initial reaction was, "Because he's important, duh." However, that wasn't exactly articulate. Farley went on, pacing around the room, jabbering about anti-intellectualism, but I was still hung up on the question. Why do we read Thucydides? He's not really a historian, so we can't rely on the exact facts in his narrative. I thought--it's the same reason we read literature, to see what the society consideres valuable and important so that we can better direct the state in its interaction with its individual members and other states. Unfortunately, that's only part of it.

Why go back and read the classics? Personally, I think there are fundamental questions that we, as humans, constantly re-evaluate, and getting older perspectives on these questions is helpful. I'm thinking about questions such as "what is it to be good" or "what is the best state", not "what should I have for dinner"-type questions. I also think these works frame how we approach problems because they've been the framework for the questions for so long, and finally, I also believe that there's something ineffable that still gives the works an appeal. Why do I read Shakespeare? Why do I read Chaucer? Because they speak to something inside me. Do I have the same values and ideas they do? Probably not. Times have changed and so have we. However, both the Bard and Chaucer still managed to put their finger on a chord that still runs through me...somewhere.

I'm going to have to think on this one.

An humble suggestion

As I was wandering over the news feeds this morning, I noticed a smallish hyperlink in the corner that read: "Alito Has Senate Backing." Appalled by my fellow man, I immediately clicked upon it to read what new horror had been heaped upon the American people and withdrew in disgust.

Then, I had a revelation.

The hardworking men and women of the United States' Senate were, in fact, looking out for the best interests of the country. They've found a way to both reduce debt and satisfy a vocal religious right, and because they're too shy to take credit for it, I'll outline it here.

Backing Alito means backing the reversal of Roe v. Wade for all intents and purposes. Once Roe has been eliminated, the states will once again be free to pass anti-abortion laws, making any abortion illegal but for medical reasons, and some will do just that, rendering it far more difficult for women to secure safe, healthful abortions. Normally, I would shudder at such an idea, but then I remembered that most western European countries have populations that have fallen below the rate of reproduction necessary to sustain the population numbers. I then looked to America's debt, which is growing at an astronomical rate, and it came to me.

What our good elected officials mean to do is take a page from Swift and turn excess progeny into economic gain. The solution is blindingly simple: we're going to sell the unwanted babies to Europe. In essence, ladies, we're going to get pregnant for America because with every new baby donated to the cause, we'll be securing much needed revenue for the eagle's coffers. We'll also be re-establishing good relations with our European colleagues because who can hate the nation that's taking over the stork's duties? We're the source of their children, so they're likely to defend us in the event of further attacks by terrorist organizations.

In fact, the market for babies will be so extensive--think of it, having a child without all the misery of childbirth or the fears of diseases that third world children bring--that even those states that do not pass abortion laws will eventually come around, if only for the revenue from the sales tax for children.

I can see it now. Every city will have a donation clinic, where women can drop off their unwanted children and finally reap the rewards experienced by most men, who have become accustomed to the easy revenue provided by sperm clinics. Women will be able to fund education for themsleves, be better able to support their existing children, and help drag the United States out of its unfortunate debt, all by fulfilling the duties imposed upon them by God.

Men will benefit as well. Once the clinics are open, they will no longer be plagued by pesky paternity suits that damage both bank balances and marriages. Questions of custody will be more easily solved by the sale of the infant as both partners will be able to split the proceeds. The prices of sperm will go up as even infertile women seek to profit from the equipment with which Nature endowed her.

I can imagine no more perfect solution to the problem.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Underworld Evolution

Let me preface these remarks with the statement that this is not a good movie, but that's not why we like it. This is not a film that will redefine a genre or radically impact the way in which we think about cinema, but it is an entertaining film.

Let me start with what I didn't like about this film, so we can get the bad news out of the way. Call me old-fashioned, but I do tend to like dialogue in my movies. When the characters talk, they tend to get a lot of what we like to call plot out of the way. Underworld Evolution seems to eschew this idea. In fact, the script for this movie cannot possibly have exceeded eight pages, and Scott Speedman must have thought to himself upon reading it, "Oh, good. I don't have any lines to memorize." Once again, Michael Corvin takes a back seat to Selene, even letting her drive in most of the sequences involving transportation. Selene does most of the talking as well, by the way, what little there is of it, and interestingly enough, Michael experiences the problem more traditionally reserved to female scifi/horror characters: he can't seem to keep his clothes on his body. I'm not complaining, mind, but I am a tad disappointed. The brief character development sequence comes at the very beginning of the movie when Corvin and Selene are in a safehouse. She tells him that he needs to drink blood to survive and apologizes, while he quickly forgives her and agrees to let her go on to the Evil Vampyre Mansion (I'm sure those pretentious bloodsuckers spell it with a "y"). Personally, I think it's a shame because there's something so interesting about the vampire/lycan hybrid, and I would have appreciated more than the nod in the direction of the traditional angst of the newly turned vampire. Corvin tries to eat something and then manages to throw it all up as his body rejects normal food, but after that, we don't really see much more of Corvin's need to feed.

The film also features a creature that's a cross between a bat and some sort of insect, that we're supposed to accept as the last remaining elder vampire. He just happens to be a power-mad twin who's trying to rescue his brother so as to create an army of hybrids and DOMINATE THE WORLD even BECOMING A GOD. Here, I have to ask...why do all the male vampires get to be rather greasy and nasty looking while the female vampires have to be lovely? Beckinsale, despite the bad hair and fondness for pleather, makes quite the attractive vampire, and the woman who plays the silent Amelia is quite a stunning creature. Markus just looks homely in comparison. My other driving question is "When did bats develop stabbing probosci?" Markus' hybrid package comes with wings, a bat-inspired head, and random appendages that exist for no other reason than to stab his intended victims while he woodenly delivers some badly scripted threat.

Derek Jacobi also makes an appearance as Alexander Corvinus, the tortured father of the film's two monsters: Markus and William. He and Selene have a brief spat over Corvinus' unwillingness to stop his sons, and that is apparently what passes as the film's pathos. Despite Jacobi's ability to breathe brief life into what is otherwise fairly paintful dialogue, he just can't save the film's text. Unfortunately, he perishes as Markus reveals his Secret Evil Plan and aspirations to godhood. Then, poor Jacobi delivers the lamest line of the film, something to the effect of, "You'll never succeed." He also gets the second lamest line of the film, by the way. Selene asks, "What will I become?" Corvinus answers, "The future." How's that for writing?

The next sequence involves very little dialogue and a whole lot of shooting, as Selene pushes on to save the world. It even features a physics-defying helicopter crash sequence that serves as the impetus for the film's bloody finale. Selene's transformation is hardly significant. There seem to be some hints at her greater strength, and apparently, the shift in contact color is supposed to be significant. Normal vampire eyes are electric blue, but Selene manages to go from blue to white. Boo yah.

Now, what did I like about the film? Wiseman managed to avoid the desire that strikes most directors making a sequel with a larger budget than the preceeding film, which is to needlessly elaborate on costumes. Selene wears her same outfit, and well, Michael doesn't manage to wear enough clothes throughout the film for it to really apply to him. The bodies of the elder vampires all feature the same outfits they wore. Of course, I personally think he was just conserving money to spend on the gallons of red paint the film required, but that's it.

You do get all the monster gore you could possibly ask for, though, and fans of werewolves will be pleased to note that Wiseman creates and maintains a very animalistic fighting style for Corvin. He tends to claw, grip, and rip important limbs from his victims as any self-respecting werewolf should. This film contines the escalation of violence seen toward the end of the first movie, taking it to new, graphic levels.

We do get the backstory for the development of the races in the second movie, but unfortunately, it's not nearly as interesting as the first.

Also, while most of his role can be summed up in the word "ROAR!", Speedman does provide some nice eyecandy as he spends most of the movie shirtless. I still don't understand why he feels compelled to remove his shirt before going all monstery on us since he doesn't really change size the way his lycan brethren do, but I'm not complaining. Kate Beckinsale also does her turn in the buff, as during the love sequence, her flat stomach features rather prominently. I feel a tad bad for poor Speedman, however. Surely when Wiseman and Beckinsale pitched this to him, he must have been thinking "Wait, you want me to have sex with your wife while you film it? I'm not sure this is the kind of movie I signed up for."

I similarly appreciated the fact that in this film, you see vampires and lycans juxtaposed with human characters, meaning that the audience has a greater appreciation for just how powerful these beings are. That was something decidedly lacking in the other film but for the sequence where Selene hoists Corvin over her head. There is some minimal exploration of Corvin's strengths and weaknesses as a hybrid, and he does manage to save Selene on two occasions, which would seem to create a bit of balance between the two, which was not present in the first film.

I like the fact that Selene has a dominant role in the film without emasculating Corvin's character. It's logical for Selene to drive as she knows where most of the film's landmarks are located, and Corvin's comfortable with that reality. There are moments where he's capable of decisive action, so Speedman seems to be doing a good job with acting through his actions more so than his words. Frankly, that saves Michael Corvin from being a complete wallflower during the film.

Finally, there's a curious strangeness to the location of the film. During the first film, shot in an unnamed city, there's no real feel to the actual city. Wiseman takes that a little further by suggesting oceans, mountains, and forests for the second film; the castles clearly indicate that the story takes place in Europe, but it's exact location is unknown. Corvin stumbles into some sort of workers camp where the language is clearly something slavic, and Beckinsale's knowledge of Russian comes in handy when she steals a truck. However, not long after, we find her speaking French to a dock guard. In part, some of this could be chalked up to bad writing and the convenience of Beckinsale's knowledge of languages, but I prefer to think of it as Wiseman's way of indicating that the world shared by the vampires and lycans is not our own. It's a world that's separated from the everyday world of mortal man, a species which figures even less prominently in this film than it did in the last.

Overall, I liked the film. I didn't find it as effective as the first, but neither do I wish for the two hours of my life spent in the theatre to be given back. Will this be added to my personal DVD collection--only if someone gives it to me as a gift, or if it's really cheap...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Last night was an evening of dinner and a movie with some friends, though half of us went to see something else, mostly due to a box office sell-out, which is something I never anticipated would happen. Being in the unprepared contingent, I ended up going to see Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a film I've been wanting to see and lacking an excuse to do so.

The film is beautiful. The kimonos are beautiful. The women, despite not being Japanese, are beautiful. A highly recognizeable Japanese actor plays Nobu-san, and despite his disfiguration, he's still beautiful. The dancing is beautiful. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

However, this film is not Japanese. I remember reading about the film's debut in Japan amid much uproar; one commentator noted that it was interesting to see a Western interpretation of Japan's history, which is a subtle way of saying "You didn't get it right, nutty Yanks." It isn't that the Japanese aren't open to the concept of a western film about Japanese events. The Last Samurai grossed more in Japan than it did in the United States, which doesn't surprise me. The very elements that make the film tedious to American audiences would appeal to the Japanese. What we took as cliche references to the code of the samurai, the Japanese saw as a glorification of bushido. What were to Americans flat, uninteresting characters were archetypes familiar to a culture whose storytelling style is highly ritualized, stylized, and simplified. I do not mean to give the impression that Japanese stories are simplistic, by the way. I said they were simple, but they're simple in the same way Hemingway is. They're highly distilled and polished gems, which is a trait that is less prized in our vocal culture.

Geisha failed to capture the Japanese imagination, and that's because Geisha is not a Japanese story but a Western one. On the ride home, my friend and I discussed the concept of evolution of culture, which seemed rather obvious to me, but he, as a biologist, seemed to think somewhat oversimplified. Cultures change and adapt to new environmental factors such as new technology, natural disasters, and contact with other, different cultures. My friend agreed with that idea in principle, but he went on to assert that what actually happens is that all cultures seek to meld with the culture with which they come into contact. Ultimately, his argument was that all cultures leave changed once they interact with another one. To a certain extent, that is true, but it, too, is an overgeneralization of the case. What happens is often that one culture will take elements from another culture and supplement its own by placing the new ideas and concepts acquired thusly in a new context, particulalry unique to the original culture.

The Japanese language is full of examples. The language has incorporated words and phrases from English, German, Portuguese, and who knows how many other languages into itself, but the cocky Westerner should not assume he or she will recognize the context. The Japanese word for "pepper" is piman from pimento, regardless of the treatment of the pepper. It is true that a hamburger and hanbugaa refer to the same food, but any international traveller will discover that hamburgers are not the same the world over. They are altered to fit the palate of the nation in which one finds them. Even the Japanese version of baseball is different. Japanese aren't interested in who wins the game--in fact, they prefer a tie so that neither team loses face. An American sitting in the stands would be horrified, but there are different cultural issues at work.

The same is true of Geisha. The Western director has taken an inherently Japanese idea--the geisha--and incorporated it into a story familiar to Western audiences. There's a woman who finds herself on hard times through no fault of her own. She climbs her way to a higher station by taking advantage of her beauty and her own personal strengths. She survives a war that devastated her former station but surmounts the obstacles to win wealth and and her lover. On the face of it, the story is a cross between Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Gone with the Wind. Neither of these are stories that will really appeal to a Japanese audience because they're about individual desires that either are destroyed by the will of the community or triumphs despite the community, to a certain extent, anyway.

Essentially, what happened was a Western filmmaker used Japanese concepts and ideas and put them into a Western context in order to tell a new story. It's a story about personal strength, survival in adversity, and finally, the triumph of love. However, the uniquely Japanese concept of a "geisha", allows for imperfection. Sayuri can never be a wife, though she achieves a sort of happiness. It's a more human ending than the perfect "Disney" endings we see in other films.

And I'll stop rambling now.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Peach Schnapps revisited

Periodically, I get flashes of inspiration/insight/whatever from watching films. Today, War of the Worlds was playing at the gym while I was running today, so again I was struck by the portrayal of mass hysteria in the film. While Ray is driving his family to the Hudson ferry, the van that he stole as the best means to get away from the Tripods in his neighborhood is mobbed by men desperate to escape annihilation. The worst part is that the violence escalates, resulting in several deaths as soon as the two pistols appear, but while that's awful, it isn't what sticks with me. Rather, the image I have trouble forgetting is the man on the hood of the car using his hands to tear way the glass of the windshield. He's clearly bleeding, or at least Spielberg wants us to believe he is, but he continues to use his bare hands to tear away the remaining shards of glass.

It's hard to accept that human beings would be reduced to that level, to taking transportation away from children, but it's also frighteningly believable, and it all comes down to values. If one assumes that the ultimate value is the survival of the self, then such an action is understandable. If one puts the survival of the species or community before survival of the self, then it isn't rational or something that should happen.

I suppose finding oneself in those kinds of dire straights makes one evaluate what one's values really are and where one's loyalties really lie.

I found myself meditating on the treadmill. Had I been in that position, would I have been the man on the hood of the car tearing away at the windshield? I don't know, and on some level, that frightens me.

Hello World!

Okay, so this is the first post...And remarkably enough, I have nothing to say...