August 2004 Archives
During the 1990s the U.S. government quit engaging in old-fashioned cultural diplomacy. With the Cold War over, it proceeded between 1993 and 2001 to cut the State Department budget for cultural and educational programs by 33 percent, dismantle the U.S.Information Agency (USIA), and close American libraries and cultural centers from Vienna to Ankara, Belgrade to Islamabad.
At the same time, the U.S. exported popular culture, especially movies, big time. Between 1986 and 2000 the fees generated by American exports of film and tape went from $1.68 billion to $8.85 billion, an increase of 426 per cent. Not only has foreign box office revenue grown faster than domestic, it is now approaching a 2-to-1 ratio.
In other words, while the big State Department was dozing at the wheel, the "little State Department" (the nickname, since the 1940s, of the Motion Picture Export Association) was busy prying open new markets all over the globe.
Which brings us to the present moment: "Fahrenheit 9/11" is now playing in theaters in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and on DVD in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. According to the New York Times, the theaters are packed. And the message, diplomatically speaking, seems twofold: First, people are struck by "how the American adminstration was able to manipulate the American people." And second, they "want to know more about the reaction to the movie among Americans, who have bought more than $103 million in tickets."
In other words, American democracy is still being showcased overseas, only now the image is of mindless mob being manipulated by demagogues. We could be sanguine and assume that this is OK, it shows that we are free to disagree. But if we keep in mind the classic and contemporary critique of democracy as...well, as a mindless mob being manipulated by demagogues, then this new cultural diplomacy looks less appealing. Maybe the old USIA wasn't so bad, after all?
I wouldn't have rented this one, but when I saw the stunning opening sequence on HBO, I stayed for the rest.
The opener begins with a cliche: a zoom shot from outer space through the earth's atmosphere down toward North America and finally into good old gridlocked Mahattan. But the cliche is nicely souped up, as we are also pulled into an ocean of humming frequencies: millions of people talking on their cellphones.
Then we are prancing down Broadway with Stuart (Colin Farrell), a slick, obnoxious would-be talent agent shouting ridiculous promises into two different cellphones while a young sycophant juggles two more.
You won't like Stuart, but stay with him, because he's about to undergo an amazing transformation. By stepping into a beat-up phone booth to call a young woman he's trying to hit on, he also steps into an evil trap.
Or maybe it's a good trap? Leaving the booth, Stuart hears the phone ring and out of curiosity picks it up. Then he is stuck, because high in one of the surrounding buildings is a sniper who not only knows Stuart's soul but intends to save it -- by any means necessary. Every pseudo-artist claims moral ambiguity as a theme, but few actually pull it off. This one does.
If you have read this before, apologies. I am moving Video Virgil into the main weblog, because Virgil does not like being sidelined. After the first couple of postings we will move into new territory.
If this political season is making you feel a bit cynical, then I have just the thing for you. If you like smart cynicism instead of dumb, and don't mind being reminded of the comic helplessness of elected officials pitted against the vast bureaucracy of the modern state, then by all means rent the terrific British TV series "Yes, Minister." It is witty, insightful, occasionally side-splitting, and (except for certain references and some appalling 1980s eyeglasses) as timely as tomorrow's op-eds.
Two tips: Ignore the ugly animated drawings that precede each episode, and ignore the clumsiness of the opening episode, in which newly minted Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) first encounters his nemesis, Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (the incomparable Nigel Hawthorne) and Sir Humphrey's earnest apprentice in the art of house-training new ministers, Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds).
Once the situation and characters are established, the comedy starts to simmer. Then it bubbles, and by some miracle performed by the writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, it keeps boiling for nigh unto four full discs. I never tired of it, even though the joke remains pretty much the same throughout. Who would have thought that so much hilarity could be brought forth from the proposition that government exists not to do anything but to perpetuate itself?
What a strange movie. Without ceremony, The Story of the Weeping Camel plunks you down in Southern Mongolia, in a part of the Gobi Desert that makes Death Valley look inviting. There you witness the daily round of a nomad family who live entirely off their small herd of sheep and camels. And while these people are quite appealing with their thick colorful garments, their capable calloused hands, and their tender but unsentimental tending of both beast and kin, you still wonder what you are doing there.
Then the story kicks in. I use the word "kick" advisedly, because if you are squeamish about the hindquarters of large animals, you will not enjoy the sequence where a pregnant camel walks around for the better part of two days with the legs of a gawky half-born albino colt sticking out of her rear. As you might imagine, she is not comfortable. Lying down, rolling over, getting up and walking around some more, she cannot get the colt to come out.
Finally the people grab the legs, yank really hard, and pull the colt out. The mother is so relieved, she trots away, leaving the colt to fend for itself. She doesn't want it, and although it whimpers pitifully, and the people try everything to get her to nurse it, she couldn't care less. At one point she even kicks the poor little thing in the head.
If you are not already engrossed, you will be when the two youngest boys ride camelback 50 kilometers to the nearest town, where they hire, of all things, a musician. While in town they also encounter bicycles, satellite dishes, TVs, and slouching teenagers in Western dress. But curiously, the movie does not seem to be about the usual clash between tribal purity and modern corruption. On the contrary, the boys' other errand is to buy batteries for their grandfather's radio -- a detail that suggests these two worlds have been coexisting for quite some time. If this is one of those films about how wonderful life was before modern media, it's pretty subtle about it.
Then you forget about such abstract themes, because the musician rides out to the nomad encampment (on a motorcycle) and plays his instrument, accompanied by the singing of the boys' mother. Charmed by the music, the neglectful mother allows the baby to nurse, weeping great Mongolian camel tears while she does so. If this doesn't cause you to shed a few of your own, then you are even more ornery than a dromedary. Which is mighty ornery.