Friday, March 28, 2008

A craft no longer.


Like a well-structured essay, a great film creates an argument using its acting, directing, cinematography, and plot. A great filmmaker knows how to effectively mould these elements so that his final product has visual, aural, and argumentative coherence. Neither innovative cinematography nor great acting alone can elevate a movie into the realm of greatness. Although not every speech will be momentous or every shot groundbreaking, every scene must contribute toward the film as a unified whole.

It is in this balance where Ridley Scott failed but the directors of The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Scarface succeeded.

American Gangster is a flashy big-budget portrayal of Frank Lucas’ rise to power in New York’s underworld. Though supposedly a portrayal of real characters, even Frank Lucas has admitted only around 20% of the movie is true. In any case, the level of realism has little matter in this critique of American Gangster; it only serves to demonstrate that any faults in the movie do not lie in its attempted portrayal of real events, as The Godfather, Scarface etc. are entirely fictional movies.

American Gangster is the type of movie that trailer directors dream of; there is no shortage of tag-line dialogue, enticing grandiose scenery and hard-core action. These are the constituents of a film that intends to eclipse box-office receipt records rather than achieve new ground in filmmaking as craft. It is unfortunate that the audiences of such media as the above have devolved into awarding eye-candy rather than artistic brilliance. There is now a formula to making money on the silver screen that does not involve craft, but flash. The medium has become a marketer’s dream rather than an artist’s palette.

The Godfather became successful due to Coppola’s sheer mastery of the craft, and his ability to draw the audience into the humanization of the gangster lifestyle. Michael Corleone’s rise to power is not a matter of his bad-ass attitude, but of his callous, pragmatic innocence. He is best suited for the role of Godfather as he is an outsider to the criminal element of his family. Unlike his brothers, he is not blinded by the toughness of the gangster mentality, or the servile nature of an underling. Yet despite his distance from the criminal element of his family, it becomes clear that in some ways, Michael is no different from Sonny, Don Corleone or any others. Although some of the most memorable scenes are shocking and quotable: that of the movie producer waking up in bed with a horse’s severed head, or the lines “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” the film’s true magnificence is in the consistency of immaculate quality, in the clear, concise and focused image Coppola set to achieve, and in the details of film making.

My favorite scene in the movie involves no memorable lines, no action sequence and very minimal set or cinematography; in fact it is the final scene of the movie. It is the afternoon, Michael is in his office and is confronted by Kay. She asks him if he did it, if he had his sister’s husband murdered. Michael responds by saying he has told her to never to ask him about his business. After more pressure from Kay, he decides that this one time, he will let her ask him a question about his business. She repeats herself. He looks her in the eye and tells her he has not killed his sister’s husband. Kay says she believes him. Next we see Michael still in his study leaning on his desk as Kay is in the foreground washing dishes. Kay looks in Michael’s direction as some of his men come into the scene and shake and kiss his hand. The door to Michael’s office closes, Kay looks back at the dishes, and then turns back one more time to where Michael was. She knows he has lied to her.

The scene represents the culmination of Michael’s loss of innocence. The War Hero has become Godfather. It is during the incipit moments of the film, at Michael’s sister’s wedding, where his innocence and integrity are still intact, that he tells Kay “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me”. The finality and polish of the movie are evident, without dialogue, but through acting, cinematography, directing and a well-refined plot, Coppola has created one of the finest endings in all of cinema. Kay realizes Michael is a Corleone, it is his family, and it is him.

I cannot think of a single remarkable scene from American Gangster. Every other scene attempted to be grandiose, trying to be that one groundbreaking image that would last in the minds of its audience, but instead were just lost amongst one another. The problem is that a movie can only have such scenes when everything else is said and done, the above Godfather scene serving as a case in point.

As today’s heralded movies demonstrate, Edward R. Murrow was right.

While speaking about Television (but by extension any medium),

"To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box… "

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

A recent article published in the Vancouver Sun entitled “Florida Passes Droopy Pants Law” inspired today’s rant.

In brief, it explained that Florida has passed a law outlawing the sporting of pants that hang below the bum in its public schools. Sponsored by Orlando Democratic Senator Garry Siplin, he commented “the fashion statement has a back story – “it was made popular by rap artists after first appearing amongst prison inmates as a signal they were looking for sex.”

(source: http://archimedes.galilei.com/stlcofcc/blogimages/baggy-jeans-2.jpg)
How erroneous, how simple-minded. What many might perceive as a small trivial matter, something that might appear in Reuters “fun fact of the day”, should in fact be allocated more time and thought.

Baggy clothing has a myriad of originations. Perhaps its most famous proponent was Michael Jordan, NBA superstar and one of the most influential players on and off the court. His Airness has been credited with being the first to wear shorts extending past the upper thigh, to the knee area. “He has said that the extra length allowed him to bend at the waist and tug at the hem for a good resting position…the trend toward the baggy shorts was started and the entire league and sport would follow.”

(source: http://espn.go.com/media/nba/2006/0106/photo/jordan_268x411.jpg)
(source: http://i.a.cnn.net/si/2007/basketball/nba/04/23/halsberstam.magic.bird/Bird_Magic.jpg)

It was in the late 80s and early 90s that the likes of Ice-T and Too Short first established the association between baggy pants and hip hop. Ice-T, aka “OG” (original gangster) has been considered the godfather of “gangster rap”, producing some of its quintessential albums and helping engrain some of its central tenets, such as the introduction of the C-Walk to mainstream gangster hip-hop. His street credibility and his gangster style have lent themselves well to the propagation of such things as baggy pants.

Ice-Ts influence does stem from the Prison system, however, it is not the result of anything sexual in nature, but of the lack of well-fitting prison uniforms. In an institution where an ill-fit (and no I don’t mean a good fit) cannot be belted due to scare of suicide, it would seem that having one’s underwear show is an unavoidable consequence.

It is ironic that through legislation, the state is trying to change a trend it had its own hand in creating through its own shortcomings.

This law is by no means unique, as many cities around the United States have adopted their form of anti-baggy pants legislation. For example: “The Florida city of Riviera Beach passed its own saggy pants law Tuesday, with a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail for repeat offenders.” Need I point out the obvious paradox associated with this?

Rather than use the strong-arm of the law, wouldn’t it be more prudent to address issues such as those associated with poverty, elevated crime rates, crowded jails and drug problems? That is, address the issues that rendered these people in jail in the first place.

It is difficult to disassociate such a law with its “target market”. Baggy pants are a fashion statement, which as Senator Siplin has said himself, were first made popular by rap artists. Though hip-hop is an art form that transcends ethnicity, it has a distinctly undeniably colored origin and fan base.

I cannot equate such a law with any racist regime, this law does not compare to such atrocities, however, when Kanye West says “George Bush hates black people” there is some truth to his words. Such legislation is only further exemplification of the disregard the state has shown towards certain elements of its population. Like how it failed to provide water to the people of New Orleans for weeks after Katrina, it is failing to realize significance and impact of its law. For a country that upholds such high standards of free speech (Since the late 80s and early 90s, it has been understood by the Supreme Court, that non-speech acts are included under the umbrella of free speech), they are failing miserably. In fact, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index created by Reporters Without Borders ranked the US 48th out of 168 countries. Isn’t such a law a violation of the constitutional rights of its citizens? To many, showing one’s underwear may be poor taste, yet I fail to see how it can be considered in the same realm as racism, Howard Stern, or the Westboro Baptist Church when it comes to pushing free speech to its limits.

(source: http://a.abcnews.com/images/US/ap_sagging_pants_071015_ms.jpg)
Though the linkage is extreme, there are certain images conjured by the idea of state-imposed fashion. Think China circa 1969-1976.


(source: http://yongfeng.blogsome.com/images/ipod.shuffle.chinese.cultural.revolution.jpg)
(disregard the ipod)

If I think obesity is obscene, can I pass a law?

Another rant for another day.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Right Down to The Wire


It has been labled the best show on television…ever. Time magazine has listed it in its list of the 100 best TV shows ever, (source: http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1651341_1659202_1652752,00.html) The New York times called it “The best and most dyspeptic police drama on television” (source: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/10/arts/television/10stan.html?scp=1&sq=the+wire&st=nyt) and it has been labeled outright as the best show on Television by the likes of the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, Slate magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Wire is an HBO drama illustrating the drug trade in Baltimore. What has set it apart from other Police dramas is the realism it uses to portray the issues. From it’s accurate portrayal of every player in the trade, to the vivid, authentic scenes it paints, the Wire views almost as an argumentative essay, discussing with its readers the actors, the problems, the solutions and ultimately the perpetual failures of these solutions.

As a result, perhaps the most honest praise for The Wire’s realism has been in its use as a tool by real gangsters in avoiding arrest... (source: http://www.nytimes.com/) and the continuing cycle of drugs, violence and poverty in the ‘hoods of America.

On Sunday, March 10th, HBO presented The Wire’s final episode. Unlike many other TV shows that continue until viewership drops below a profitable margin, The Wire has lasted primarily due to its critical acclaim. Further, rather than outstay its welcome, the show has set itself clear goals in all of its 5 seasons. Despite having a sustained plot line throughout, each season of The Wire was themed to portray one primary aspect of the issues; Season one portrayed the inner-city ‘hood, season two discussed the role of the ports, season three the government, season four the children and season five the media. It’s hard to think of what was missed.

In his 9 part blog entitled “What do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?”, Colombia Sociologist, Sudhir Venkatesh, discovers little was missed. After asking his “thug” acquaintances what they would have included, he is told The Wire failed to deal with prostitution, the role of women and the suffering and human side of gangsters living in the streets. (check it out here: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/the-wire/ ) In part 9 of his blog, With two episodes remaining in the season, he learns that the “thugs” do not wish to see any more episodes. While effectively preemptively ending his series, it is appropriate that they missed the final episode. “we’ve seen this sh—t already” he is told, “I mean, we can walk out the door and see this stuff every day.”



The Wire ended as Jimmy McNulty (pictured above), a police detective, overlooked Baltimore from afar. As he did, the screen flashed to each of the ongoing storylines offering some form of conclusion:

Bubbles, a former crack head, had finally made it off the streets. Having gotten help in previous seasons to beat his habit, he had been given a home in his sister’s basement and has put some semblance of a life together. In the final moments of the show, he is finally allowed upstairs to be included in a family dinner as the progress he has made towards normalcy is recognized.

Duquan, a poor, yet smart teenager had shown promise in using his cerebral abilities to pull himself out of that ghetto abyss. Instead we see him flee that abyss chemically, as he injects himself for the first time with heroin.

One major gangster is taken away from “the game” just to have 10 others step into his place.

An honest police commissioner is replaced by a dishonest one.

One good police is promoted; another is forced to retire from the force.

In short, nothing has really changed.

In offering such a bleak conclusion, The Wire achieved its purpose. It effectively elucidated the need to break the vicious cycle of the streets. In response to Steven Harper’s promise of increased police presence by thousands on the streets of Toronto following the rash of shootings there, David Kennedy, a researcher at Harvard’s School of Government opined, “When there’s a breakout of this kind of violence in some place like Toronto, people act as if nobody has ever done anything effective…They simply go back to their original, essentially uninformed preconceptions and play out the same old tired, ineffective scripts.” (source: Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent) To reiterate the above, the Wire views almost as an argumentative essay, discussing with its readers the actors, the problems, the solutions and ultimately the perpetual failures of these solutions.

As one statesman might say south of the border… it is time for “change we believe in”.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

"I got seven mac-11s, about eight, .38s Nine 9s, ten mac-10s, the sh*ts never end"

(Source: http://boxofrain.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/pandas-need-guns1.jpg)

Small arms kill more people every year than conventional weapons. That is guns kill more people than tanks, warships, artillery etc. combined. Hundreds of thousands of people are killed each year by small arms, including “an additional 200, 000 people in ‘peaceful’ nations each year in homicides, suicides, unintentional shootings and shootings by police. In countries like Brazil, USA and South Africa, guns are a leading cause of death among young men.”

(source: international action network on small arms)


Guns Kill.

In recent news, the inspiration for the film “Lord of War” was captured in Thailand.
Viktor Bout has been labeled the “Merchant of Death”. Though this is great in terms of those wishing to control small arms, it is but one little step in what has been a long uphill battle.

As if he was quoting from the above mentioned relevant film, the arrestee’s acquaintance described the government’s portrayal of him. “the way they portray the man, it has nothing to do with reality. Out of a fish, they make a blue whale.”

Strangely, in defending his friend, he accurately describes the challenge facing small arms control; Viktor bout is but a small fish in the ocean of arms dealing.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of Lord of War is at the very end when text explains the following:

“While Private Gunrunners Continue to Thrive, the World’s Biggest Arms Suppliers are he US, UK, Russia, France and China. They are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.”

Unfortunately, the truth is that Mr. Bout’s arrest is unlikely to stop the genocide in Sudan, create peace in the Middle East, or lower the homicide rates of Baltimore.

The combined defense budgets of the world exceed 1, 500 billion dollars. When the above quote is expanded to include other top arms exporters, Canada, Germany and Italy, one can only note that this comprises the top 8 largest economies of the world. With so much at stake financially and geo-politically, it is no wonder that they are considered the greatest arms dealers. When these countries and international organizations and laws struggle to plug legal loopholes or act to achieve peace in the regions of the world the outlook is grim.

When some of these countries fail to deal with their own problems let alone with those abroad, things seem impossible.
The state of Texas has north of 60 million firearms. This is 1/10th of the World’s total. The American south is home to 36% of America’s population, yet 43% of homicides, 44% of aggravated assaults and 42% of violent crime and five of the top 10 most dangerous American cities as ranked by the FBI appear here. (source: Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture From Samuel Colt to 50 Cent) Yet somehow we are told “Guns protect, open access is safer”. However one can only think of cause and effect; stemming the flow of the former to reduce the latter. Maybe Biggie Smalls isn’t right: the Sh*ts can end.



(Source: http://equipaje.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/20011110-guns.jpg)

Monday, March 3, 2008

"Just reach for the skyline where dreams come true..."

Like how we recognize a car by its lines, we recognize a city by its skyline. Of the many things 9/11 changed, one of the most visible was the way it re-drew New York city's skyline.

From:
Source: http://www.deafstuffnmore.com/Merchant2/graphics/00000001/new%20york%20skyline.jpg

To:


Not every city is New York, however, a city shaped by centuries of rich history and heavy usage.

With different economic booms occurring around the world, cities are trying to define, or redefine their identities, often starting with their skyline.

Shenzen is a city located across the boarder from Hong Kong in China. In 1978, it had a population of 20 000 people. Today, there are approximately 8.3 million people living there. In 30 years, it is an understatement to say it has redefined itself.

From:
(Note: not actually Shenzen pre-1978) source: http://ieas.berkeley.edu/images/gas/Woo_Fishing_Village.jpg

To:
Source: http://www.apexstuff.com/bt/200708/images/skyline_01_th.jpg

Like how we notice a Lamborghini and not so much a KIA, some skylines are forgettable. (sorry Dallas)

Source: http://www.elcawebstatus.org/elcapix/d/316-2/Dallas+Skyline.JPG

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas wishes to blend the mundane with the extraordinary in what is perhaps the world's most changing skyline, Dubai. He wishes to cure cities of what is called the "Bilbao syndrome" (probably a reference to the Spanish city, home to a branch of the Guggenheim museum, note the beginning of "Tomorrow Never Dies" ), which he says "reduces cities to theme parks of architectural tchotchkes that mask an underlying homogeneity."On the other hand, he does not condone the generic functionality that is Dallas (above). Instead he wishes to establish a city that integrates both. "The monotony is broken by mixed-use structures whose immense scale and formal energy draw on mythic examples from architectural history" he suggests. The plan is to create Koolhaas' vision of the 21st century metropolis on a square island on Dubai's waterfront.

Especially in a country with such an extreme dichotomy between the rich and poor, Koolhaas realizes the need to avoid any inkling of a "gated community" or "lofty elite", "a miniaturized version of a city of glittering towers built for the global elite, barricaded against the urban poor and its makeshift shantytowns."

Koolhaas' wishes to achieve this through providing many connections from his island to the mainland in the form of bridges and a connection to the transit system. In doing this, he wishes to create the illusion of integration between his island and the rest of the city.

I am skeptical of his success, as in my head I conjure images of the inner city portrayed in Batman Begin's version of the 21st century metropolis. Here, the bridges and transit system serve as a way to shuttle in and sever all ties with the undesirable parts of society. (until, of course, batman saves the day) With even the greatest cities still suffering their own poor-rich divides (New York for instance, where one of the richest and one of the poorest neighborhoods in America are both found on the same street (5th ave) ), I do not see Dubai avoiding this problem either.

Pretty skyline, impossible dreams.

Sources of quotations and pic: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/03/arts/design/03kool.html?pagewanted=1

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Prince Harry, Nepal, the Geneva Convention. Not exactly what you might think.

A few days ago I was reading about how Prince Harry was reported to have been serving in an active military roll in Afghanistan. To be honest, I don't really care for the Royals, but what caught my eye was a comment "the third in line" made. He mentioned that his Ghurka compatriots thought the term "bullet magnet" was endlessly funny. Really nothing more than an anecdote, it caught my eye because I remembered how when I was young, my dad would read me military stories (how filial eh??), stuff like "All Quiet on the Western Front" or
"And no Birds Sang" (one of my favorite books). It was one of these occasions that he told me about the Ghurka soldiers.

He once recounted a story, on how while serving in India, to prove their military prowess, Gurkha soldiers sneaked into an enemy encampment, killing every second soldier as they slept, using their traditional "Kurki" knives. I had since heard little of them...





Recruited from the hills of Nepal, Ghurkas were introduced to the western world through their adoption into the British military during their colonization of India. It was discovered that the Nepalese were tenacious, loyal and well disciplined, in other words, ideal soldiers. The Gurkhas became an integral part of British forces, serving in many conflicts from the Sikh wars in India to the Falkland Islands War with Argentina.

Gurkha soldiers are not considered mercenaries due to international law stemming from
1949. The Geneva Convention specifies that certain "formed units of troops" (the French foreign legion, the Swiss Guard of the Vatican) serving foreign governments are not considered mercenaries due to their status of having sworn themselves to service in their host country. Further, they are integrated into the chain of command of the country, unlike a Private Security Contingent.

Gurkhas are in Brunei, where the Sultan floats the 40 million pounds annually for their service, and in Singapore as special anti-terror police. There are also Gurkhas in the Indian army. They must be above 5' 2", 110lbs, have perfect, unaided vision, educated and a Chest circumference of 79 cms with a minimum 5cm expansion. Annually there are 20 000 applicants to 370 positions. Their services have become a lucrative export, as their value has meant equal treatment and compensation to their British counterparts. It is said that the Brigade of the Gurkhas "is a significant source of income for Nepal."


Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigade_of_Gurkhas#_note-mod-JW
http://da.mod.uk/defac/colleges/csrc/document-listings/special/05(04)-JW.doc