Monday, September 29, 2008

The Thing (1982)

(Movie Review)

When I was watching the director’s commentary of “Planet Terror” (see previous post) Robert Rodriguez kept talking about how he was trying to imitate John Carpenter movies. And it occurred to me, I had never seen a single John Carpenter movie in my life. So, when I saw this in my video store, I decided to check it out.

Actually this has been kind of halfway on my viewing list for a few years now because:
When I was 13, back when I was a huge fan of classic horror movies, I saw the original 1952 version of “The Thing”, and enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was possible to improve on the classics, but I’ve always been somewhat curious just to see what the 1982 take on it would be. And
This movie stars Kurt Russell, and Kurt Russell holds a certain nostalgia value for me because when I was a child we were forbidden to watch regular TV at my house, and could only watch “The Disney Channel” and “PBS”. So I grew up watching those old Disney Kurt Russell movies rerun over and over again on “The Disney Channel”. (The Disney Channel had a somewhat different line up back in the 1980s than it does today. In those days it was almost exclusively used for showing old stuff from the Disney vault, and I grew up watching re-runs of Davy Crockett, Zorro, and Kurt Russell teen movies).

In fact, I never even knew Kurt Russell had a career as an adult actor, until “Tombstone” became a bit of a dorm classic on my floor freshman year. This was probably because almost all of the films Kurt Russell made during the 80s, like “The Thing” I was forbidden to see at the time.

Anyway…
The DVD at my local rental store was chalked full of extras. A commentary track with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, An 1 hour and a 1/2 documentary on the making of (which unfortunately has too many talking heads and very little visuals, but I guess that’s what happens when you do the “making of” segment 20 years later), and lots and lots of data on the production staff. It made me feel like I had stumbled upon a real classic, and I guess this is a bit of a classic in sci-fi/ horror movie circles.

To my surprise, the story in this movie is significantly different from the 1952 version. But, upon listening to the director’s commentary, I found out that this version is actually truer to the original short story. (I didn’t even know there had been an original short story).

In the 1952 version, the monster is a big lumbering giant, similar to Frankenstein’s monster. In John Carpenter’s 1982 version, the Thing is a shapeshifter that absorbs the bodies of anything it attacks. It can also perfectly imitate people.

Thus, the drama becomes a lot more a cross between “10 Little Indians” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. No one knows who in their midst might have been taken over by the monster already. Paranoia starts to reign.

There’s a fair amount of guts, blood, and gore in this movie. (Very little of it is actually human. Most of the gore is the creature's).
In fact, as I was watching this movie, I suddenly remembered playground conversations from 20 years ago (as long forgotten memories sometimes come back with the right trigger). Some kids who had been able to see “The Thing” were telling the rest of us how gross it was.
(In the Christian school playground atmosphere, those kids whose parents allowed them to see movies like this would quickly assume a “more worldly and sophisticated than thou” attitude towards those of us stuck watching re-runs on the Disney channel. They would always convey their reports on these type of movies with a tone of, “Well, I could just about handle it, but you, I don’t know if you could have taken it. It’s probably best you weren’t allowed to see it”.
….Of course as you can imagine, this just increased my curiosity and my desire to see these movies even more.)

I’m sure if I had seen this movie back in the 1980s, the blood and guts would have really horrified me. But standards change so fast that I think these days most kids have seen it all before anyway. There’s very little in here that would shock an audience in 2008.

I am, however, reminded of something my 7th grade music teacher told us once. She was showing us “West Side Story”, and she was giving us an (unnecessary) apology for the fact that the violence in the movie was all bloodless. But she also said, “In today’s movies, you’re so busy being grossed out when someone dies that you don’t realize, ‘Hey, this person is actually dead!’”.
This, I think, is definitely true of “The Thing”. The first half of the movie you get to know and care for the characters stationed up on a lonely outpost in the Antarctic. But when they start to die off, there’s so much shock value associated with a lot of these deaths that you don’t really feel for any of the deaths. The human characters just become fodder to be ripped apart.

Still, all in all enough shocks and cheap thrills to justify the rental. And as a bonus, after having watched this movie I do finally understand “The South Park” parody of “The Thing” now.

Link of the Day
Iraq: A brief parable.

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music on Youtube

Yo ga aketara by Maki. It's from the mid 60s, and it really does a good job of making you imagine a smoky night club in somewhere in Tokyo.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Planet Terror

(Movie Review)

I’m given to understand, via the magic of wikipedia, that in the U.S. this movie was released as part of a double feature under the name “Grindhouse”. In Japan, both movies were split up into two separate releases. I only saw this movie, so for the moment I’m only reviewing this half.

Watching this movie, I was reminded of words Roger Ebert wrote over 20 years ago when he reviewed the movie “Godzilla: 1985”. (I, uh, I look random stuff up on the internet when I get bored at work. Okay?)

“We all know that there are good movies and bad movies. And everyone is familiar with the convention of a movie so bad that it’s good. But there’s a catch. A movie has to try and be good first. And then the pleasure is in watching the movie try and be something it’s not.” (I'm paraphrasing)

As I watched “Planet Terror”, the Roger Ebert thesis was constantly ringing in my head. Is it possible to make a bad movie on purpose? (Well, obviously it is. But is it possible to make a bad movie on purpose, and then have it turn out to be a good movie?)

Roger Ebert himself, it comes as no surprise, is no big fan of “Planet Terror”. As for me, after debating the Ebert Thesis back and forth in my head, I decided: Kind of. It is possible to make a bad movie on purpose, provided the audience is in on the joke and the movie is chalk full of guilty pleasures. And even then it’s probably only good for one viewing. This is not a movie you’re going to want to own the collectors edition DVD and re-watch every week. Or at least it’s not for me.

For the first time viewing though, I thought it was pretty entertaining. It’s an excuse to engage in all sorts of guilty pleasures, and at the same time be able to laugh at yourself for enjoying these guilty pleasures. And at the same time feel (slightly) intellectual and sophisticated because you’re watching a Tarantino/ Rodriguez metafilm that is itself a commentary and parody of other films.

***********************************************

I’ve watched a lot of junk in my day, but I’ve been searching my memory, and I can’t ever recall having watched a genuine grindhouse film before. Probably very few of us have. That’s the whole point isn’t it? These grindhouse films are so obscure you have to travel out to a grindhouse theater in the 70s to be able to see them. Thus Tarantino/ Rodriguez’s quest to bring the experience to a larger audience.

And yet, large parts of “Planet Terror” evoked vague feelings of remembrance and nostalgia just the same. Probably a lot of little things I imagine. 1970s zombie movies I’ve seen like “Dawn of the Dead”. (I wouldn't consider “Dawn of the Dead” a grindhouse movie. It’s more of a classic. And yet the scenes of Zombies disemboweling people are almost exactly the same in “Planet Terror” as in “Dawn of the Dead”).
Or various B-horror movies I’ve seen. (“Friday the 13th", “Evil Dead”).
Or just all the old movies I’ve seen in general. (Rodriguez said in the directors commentary that he tried to get the lightening just like movies in the 70s, and the film does have a kind of retro 70s look).

…Either that, or it’s the Jungian collective subconscious at work.

*********************************************************

The film is such a mixture of genres that it seems to lack balance. Is it supposed to be a campy horror movie, or a campy action movie, or what?
In the directors commentary, Rodriguez says he killed off the kid and dog because grindhouse movies were famous for the director doing things you weren't supposed to do in a movie just to shock the audience. And yet when all the characters are magically reunited at the climax (including throw away characters like the crazy twin babysitters, and unlikely characters like the sheriff father) it seemed to me more reminiscent of a typical Hollywood twist of events. And the final happy ending also seemed quite Hollywood.

But, I’m sure Rodriguez would say a grindhouse film is supposed to be a sloppy mix of genres. That’s the problem with reviewing a movie that’s supposed to be bad on purpose. Any faults you find with it can be explained away with a shrug of the shoulders and the explanation, “Well, it’s supposed to be a bad movie”.

Link of the Day
Bleeding Afghanistan

Bonus Link: More Japanese music on Youtube

Speaking of the cheesy music (see previous post) this has always been another one of my favorites. "Kiiroi Sakuranbo" (Yellow Cherry) by The Three Cats
It's from the late 50s, and the first few times I heard it I could just imagine it coming over an old crackly radio on a Saturday night somewhere in the Japanese countryside. Or you can imagine the 3 girls singing it on an old black and white TV in Tokyo somewhere.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lions for Lambs

(Movie Review)

This movie is just now hitting the new release section of my local video store out here in the Japanese countryside. And so here I am with my review. As always, by the time I get around to reviewing a movie in Japan, it is old news in America.
(Old, old news. Remember this movie? It seems like it was another lifetime ago when it first came out in the United States.)

Besides the time delay, another factor of living out by myself in the Japanese countryside is I tend to do all my movie watching and reviewing in a vacuum. I have not talked to another living soul about their opinion of this movie. I haven’t bounced my opinion off of friends in coffee shops, like I would do back home. And I certainly haven’t talked to the activist gang at media mouse to find out what the cool “radical chic” response to this movie should be. I’m sure this movie has already been talked to death back home, but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts as I see things from my couch.

I remember reading a couple reviews on-line when this movie first came out that complained that the movie was just people sitting around talking. I don’t remember who those reviewers were now, but clearly they were in the wrong theater. If you’re the kind of person who regularly enjoys faire like “The Princess Dairies” or “American Pie 3”, then this movie is not for you.

If you’re a political junkie though, and if you perhaps have fond memories of staying up until late in the night debating politics in your college dorm room, then I can guarantee this movie will at least keep you entertained for the time you’re watching it. And that’s reason enough to justify the price of a movie rental right there.

(Although to be fair to the above unnamed critics: granted your investment is a little bit different for a video rental than for a night out a movie theater. If I had made advance plans to see this movie with friends, gone out of my house and driven to the theater on a cold day, waited in line, bought a huge bucket of buttery popcorn and coca-cola, and then settled down to watch this movie, I might have been a little bit disappointed myself. As a rental though it works quite nicely).

It is clearly (as my old professor who was fond of quoting Candide would say) not the best possible movie in the best possible of worlds. If I wanted to take it apart with a red pen I could point to a number of parts where I disagreed with the point a character was making, or where one character was making a point that never got adequately rebutted by another character (even though it should have been).
But, such is also the case with any real life political talk show. It doesn't stop us political junkies from watching them.

Okay, having established that this film is entertaining (for at least a subset of the population) let’s move onto the next question. Does it have any sort of larger redeeming value?

As a lot of critics have already pointed out, there’s not a lot new in this film. I certainly didn't walk away from it saying, “My whole way of thinking about the war has been completely changed.” In fact I’d be hard pressed to name any new facts or information I gained from this film.

But, it would be expecting too much of the film to ask it to do this. The film’s not going to create a new matrix for looking at the war on terror. There’s nothing new under the sun, and there’s nothing you can say that can’t be said.
And even if there was, that’s what books and newspapers are for. It’s certainly not going to be in a Hollywood movie that takes who knows how many months from conception to final editing and release.

And it also should be admitted that this is not the kind of film Noam Chomsky would have created if he had been on the writing board. The scope of the discussion is limited to a bland kind of liberalism. The suffering of the people in the two countries the US army is occupying is not shown. In fact it’s not even mentioned or even alluded to. The merits or demerits of the war are measured in terms of the suffering to the US. The good intentions of the US government are assumed throughout, even though it’s admitted mistakes have been made along the way.

Despite all this, the film is interesting as a kind of a barometer of the limits of discussion being allowed in the main stream media. There was a time when the war began when big media companies like “Clear Channel” would ban all anti-war songs on their airwaves. Now public dissatisfaction with the war has grown to such a point that we have a mainstream Hollywood movie, with big name actors, that played across all the major cinemas with the standard red carpet release, which openly says the war is a mistake, and its objectives are unachievable.

I’m sure conservatives will claim (have claimed) that this is elite liberal Hollywood, and doesn't represent the real American opinion, but if I’m not mistaken opinion polls show this movie, and the concerns it raises about the war, are well in line with majority public opinion.

To the best of my knowledge, there was never a major studio film like this produced during the Vietnam War. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong. But the only topical movies I can think of produced during the actual war are films like John Wayne’s “The Green Berets”. And if you watch “The Green Berets”, and compare it to this film, the contrast is pretty amazing.
(Of course the Vietnam War era had thousands of people on the street demonstrating. Our generation has Hollywood movie stars and lots of people who do their protesting on blogger and facebook, raising the question of whether our new media savvy has served to decrease, rather than increase, activism. But that’s a whole other subject for a whole different post).

If journalism is the first draft of history, contemporary movies are the first draft of interpretation. Once the War is over, we may be able to see even more critical movies re-examining the conflict, as was the case once the Vietnam War ended. For now, this is the best Hollywood is able to give us. In 100 years, who knows?
(Actually, probably in 100 years this will be one of many American failed imperial enterprises that is quietly swept under the rug. Just like past ventures, such as the Philippine War, have been quietly removed from the history books).

Additional thoughts:

When people complain that the film is all talk, it’s worth remembering the incredible financial obstacles an anti-war film faces. U.S. government policy is that any film that portrays the army in a positive manner, and whose script is approved by the pentagon, gets free [read, tax payer funded] use of army equipment, soldiers, and advisors to help in the production of their movie. An anti-war movie gets none of these advantages. So keep this in mind the next time someone complains that anti-war movies are too talky.

2. That being said...for a movie entirely composed of people sitting around talking, it’s amazing how poor the writer’s ear for natural conversation seems to have been. There were several times when I thought to myself, “Oh come on! Nobody talks like that in real life.” The most glaring example being the classroom discussion scenes, but there are many close seconds, such as the dialogue between Robert Redford and his slacker student, Meryl Streep singing "The Who" to her editor, et cetera.
I guess this is some of the slack you have to give a movie. If action movies can contain feats of physical impossibility, then maybe talky movies can contain scenes overloaded with verbosity if the writer is trying to get a point across.

One last thought:
As someone living overseas, I can't tell you how happy I am to have this movie in the Japanese video stores. I think anyone who's been living overseas the past few years can vouch for the fact that America's image has become more and more bloodthirsty and warmongering recently.
Since the war began, I couldn't begin to tell you the amount of Japanese people who are absolutely stunned to find out I don't like war. Some of them act like they've found a two headed dog. "You don't like war? But you're an American!?" (And this isn't even counting all the flack I get from Europeans).
Well, I'm trying to change the image of Americans one conversation at a time over here in Japan. In the meantime, despite the flaws of this moive I'm glad it's on the rental shelves, to help show people in Japan (and other rental stores around the world) that not all Americans blindly support the war.

Link of the Day
Rep. Ehlers Targeted with Petitions against Big Media

Bonus Link: More Japanese music on youtube.

Part of the fun with old Japanese music is just the pure cheesiness of it. Especially when it is a cheesy Japanese remake of an American song that was cheesy to begin with. For that reason, I absolutely love this Japanese version of "The Locomotion" from the early 60s.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paine by John Vail

(Book Review)

This book on Thomas Paine is yet another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series which I picked up from Oita library on my last trip into Oita City.

Thomas Paine is a fascinating figure, and someone I've always wanted to know more about. (In a past post, I put him on my top 10 list of biopics I would like to see Hollywood do). Ever since my 7th grade history teacher mentioned that Thomas Paine was the penman of the American Revolution, and then went on to become the penman of the French Revolution, I’ve always been intrigued by that one man link between both revolutions.

At Gifu library, they used to have the complete works of Thomas Paine on their shelves. It ran several volumes, as I remember, so I never read the whole thing through, but being a geek I would pick it up and leaf through it whenever I was in the library. I remember randomly coming across Thomas Paine’s speech at the debate over whether or not to guillotine King Louis XVI, and I remember being impressed by the simple elegance of his arguments.
“If on my return to America, I should employ myself in a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors dictated by humanity than one inspired by a justice too severe.”
(That quote, by the way, is also reproduced in this book by John Vail on page 82).

Like all the other books in this “World Leaders: Past and Present” series, this book has whetted my appetite to find a fuller and more in detail biography of Thomas Paine. (I was listening to Christopher Hitchens talk about his new book on Thomas Paine on NPR, and that sounded interesting).
However, this little volume served as a great introduction to the life of Thomas Paine. I knew so little about the details, that many things surprised me.

For example, I did not know Paine was not an American citizen, but grew up in Britain and only moved to America when he was 37 years old.  It was also interesting to learn that after the American Revolution he returned to England for a period to continue his republican agitation there, and only barely escaped from the British government. He was warned by none other than William Blake that he “must not go home, or you’re a dead man.” Paine instead left for France, narrowly escaping arrest.

I also was surprised to learn that he spent most of his life impoverished, and for all his fame he hardly made any money off of his writings. And how after the revolution he complained to the founding fathers about his lack of compensation.

“For all his fame and prestige, Paine enjoyed little in the way of material fortune from his eight-year stay in America. After the American victory at Yorktown, Paine wrote a long letter to Washington complaining of his impoverished condition. ‘While it was everybody’s fate to suffer,’ he said, ‘I cheerfully suffered with them.’ But now that the financial crisis had passed and the country was moving into prosperity, he thought it only fair that something should be done on his behalf.” (P. 47)

It’s hard not to admire Paine after reading this book. He comes through as an honest person who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty.

Paine’s devotion to honest government got him in trouble with the Silas Deane affair. Silas Deane was an American diplomat who used his position to line his own pockets in 1778. (It’s sad how soon a brand new government already begins to be filled with corrupt politicians). Paine used his position as secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs to expose Deane, but as a result made a lot of enemies among Deane’s supporters. It caused Paine to lose his job at the time, and many years later, during the Terror phase of the French Revolution this resulted in Paine languishing in a French prison with no help from the American government. The American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, had refused to help Paine because Morris had been a supporter of Silas Deane.

In fact, Paine only escaped the guillotine by the most miraculous twist of fate.
Paine escaped the guillotine purely by chance. Each evening, the guards chalked a cross on the doors of the prisoners who were scheduled to be executed. One night, Paine left his cell door opened outwards and the guards mistakenly placed the chalk mark on the inside of his door. When Paine and his roommates returned to their cell, they shut their door for the night, so the mark went unobserved. When the guards made their midnight rounds, they fortuitously passed by Paine’s cell.” (P. 95).

****************************************************************

I think Thomas Paine can safely be called one of America’s founding fathers. It’s always interesting to read about the founding fathers, because their views have become sort of like the bible of American government. Whether it’s right or not to constantly refer back to the views of the founding fathers is another question, but anyone familiar with American political discourse knows you can add a lot of weight to your argument by having a founding father on your side.

(Although the founding fathers are often cited by people who have little idea what they actually said. Just like the Bible. Back in my Calvin days, I can’t tell you the number of times a conservative Christian would try and justify the death penalty to me by quoting from the Bible “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It used to drive me crazy because (as anyone whose actually read the bible knows) Jesus specifically repudiates this in Matthew 6:43 “You have heard that it was said ‘Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Don not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also….”
I’m digressing here I know, but this is one of my pet peeves. )

I don’t think Thomas Paine, and his friend Thomas Jefferson, would have approved of future generations constantly referring back to the founding fathers. Paine is quoted in this book as writing, “No generation has the right to impose its choices upon posterity; whatever government or form of society was right for one generation might be totally unsuited to the differing needs of another.” (p. 36).

However if one is going to constantly refer back to the founding fathers, the impression I got from this book was that Paine would be very comfortable on the liberal wing of Democrat party.
Paine not only asserted the superiority of republican government but also offered a breathtaking vision of how a republican government could begin to ameliorate poverty within England. He proposed a series of public policies—progressive income taxes, government grants to the poor for education and housing, unemployment relief and public jobs, maternity grants and child allowances and old age pensions. He insisted that his program was not a utopian pipe dream but could be accomplished if the government simply stopped fighting foreign wars and ended its financial support of the aristocracy. The needs of the many, Paine argued, could be satisfied if the selfishness of the few was restrained.” (p. 71)

…No doubt, Thomas Paine would be turning over in his grave if he knew how much the US government is currently spending fighting foreign wars.

Speaking of which, Thomas Paine is also quoted in this book as writing, “If there is a sin superior to every other, it’s that of willful and offensive war.” (p. 20)
That ought to be framed and put on the wall of the oval office. Our Presidents have a habit of forgetting that one.

Paine’s reaction to the Conspiracy of Equals phase of the French Revolution is also interesting:
Paine wrote Agrarian Justice in the winter of 1795-96. The essay was written in the wake of the suppression of the Conspiracy of Equals led by Gracchus Babeuf, a failed radical coup d’etat that became known as the first communist movement of the modern era. While Paine wholeheartedly condemned Babeuf’s uprising, it nevertheless provoked him to reconsider his own political views. Paine argued that political equality could not be eradicated so long as economic inequality persisted: He maintained that the first rule of civilization should be “that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.”
“Paine retreated from Babeuf’s radical solution to economic inequality, namely the abolition of private property, for he doubted that an equal distribution of property was either possible or desirable. Yet his denunciation of poverty and human misery was never more passionate or forceful. “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust,” he wrote. “It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye is like dead and living bodies chained together.” (p. 103).

In short, this was an absolutely fascinating little book. I'm not 100 % Thomas Paine qualifies as a “World Leader” but I’m glad they gave him the benefit of the doubt and included him in this series because I really enjoyed reading about him. I hope to someday find a more in-depth biography of this fascinating individual.

Link of the Day
The Hijacking of Public Space

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music on Youtube
This is perhaps my favorite Japanese song ever (in so much as it is possible to have a favorite song, since it always depends on your mood at the time.) Yoyake o tsugeni by Off Course.
I have this song on one of my mixed tapes, and when it's one of those songs where when I'm driving, I'm constantly stopping the tape and rewinding so I can hear it just one more time.

It's not a very famous song. The group Off Course was moderately famous in the mid 70s, but this song was from their early days before they took off. In fact you can see someone wrote a comment in Japanese which reads (losely translated) "What? Why would anyone upload this obscure song? What kind of person are you?" (Everyone on the Internet is a critic).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thoughts on the Financial Crisis

I guess by now everyone has seen the price tag attached to the planned financial Bailout plan. Which, added to the 500 Billion dollars we've spent on the Iraq War, is going to add up to over a 1 trillion dollars increase in the national debt.

It's difficult to know how worried to be about this. The media is proclaiming gloom and doom, but then the media is always telling us the world is coming to an end. I don't know about you, but in the past few years with Y2K, terrorist attacks, anthrax, Sars, Bird Flu, et cetera, I've been scared into thinking it's the end of civilization several times, and I'm beginning to get a bit numb to the chicken littles.

On the other hand, I've been reading editorials by economists for years which have been worried about the enormous government debt, and the disastrous effect it would have on the economy. This extra trillion dollars is not going to help things at all.

I remember a lecture I went to in Japan once, where an older gentleman was talking about his many years in Japan. "I love Japan," he said. "The only time I didn't really like was in the 1980s, because then the Japanese people were really arrogant. They thought, like so many other people have thought at one time or another, that America was left on the dustbin of history, and that the future belonged to them, and they were very arrogant about it at the time." He paused, and then added, "They're not so arrogant anymore."

I always kept that quote in mind over the years I was in Japan. Anytime there was a minor disaster, or anytime there was the slightest blip in the economy, a Japanese person would often hint to me that it was the beginning of the end for US dominance of the world. And I always told them not to get excited yet, and that the US had a lot of good years left. Being a history major, I knew we wouldn't last forever. But I figured we probably had about another 150 years.

Now though, with this financial crisis, and the huge debt, and the energy crisis, and peak oil, and global warming, and having our army bogged down in two separate (expensive) wars, the history major inside of me is starting to think that historically, empires have been brought down by a lot less.

Link of the Day
Random Thought and
Farewell My Lovely Economy

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bakunin, An Invention by Horst Bienek

(Book Review)

A while back, I was surfing the net, and following random impulses (as you do). I was looking for interesting reading material when the question popped into my mind: Hey, I wonder if there’s any sort of historical fiction about the life of Bakunin. That would make for some interesting reading.
(Mikhail Bakunin, for anyone who doesn't share my obscure interests, is widely regarded as the founder of the anarchist movement (and Karl Marx’s rival for control of The Workingman’s Internationale).)

I did a couple of searches on Amazon, and this is the only thing I came up with. So I decided to give it a try and ordered it.

It is....an interesting book, if nothing else. It’s so full of randomness, it’s a bit difficult to describe succinctly. The cover jacket contains a quotation reading, “This is not just a documentary, not research, nor is it a novel.”
The quotation which Bienek uses to open the book probably sums the whole book up as well as anything. “The story of this book amounts to this: that the story it was to tell doesn't get told.”

This book is not the story of Bakunin, but rather the story of a man who wants to write a biography of Bakunin. Although even then, the word “story” is misleading because it implies some sort of narrative structure. Perhaps more accurately, this book is a series of random glimpses into the thought process of a man who is trying to write a biography of Bakunin.

Bakunin’s biographer is never named, but only referred to by the pronoun “he”. This occasionally causes confusion, because the book will jump back and forth in time without transitions, and sometimes I wasn't sure if the “he” being referred to was Bakunin or his biographer.
It’s possible some of this could be a result of the translation (the book was translated into English from the original German) but I suspect the ambiguity is somewhat intentional. This is one of those books where not everything is revealed to the reader, but where the reader must use their own imagination and insight to complete the brief glimpses the author gives.

Bakunin’s biographer is primarily interested in Bakunin’s later years. In particular he focuses on the botched revolt in Bologna in 1874, when Bakunin was 60 years old, and on Bakunin’s retirement from the Jura Federation (and from activism) the same year.

Bakunin’s biographer (who, from the brief glimpses we get of his personal life, we infer is a middle aged activist himself) is interested in the life of a revolutionary as he gets older.

No, he [the biographer] had never intended to write a biography of B [Bakunin], not from the very beginning; it was solely the later B who interested him. An ageing Revolutionary: there is nothing more tragic, and at the same time more ridiculous.” (p.39)

And on the following page:
“This picture, he said once more, just imagine it; B, the revolutionary, tormented by cardiac asthma, old, with a bad bladder, deserted by his friends, alone with passionate and still fanatic hate which he cries out in his letters to a distant friend in London…” (p. 40)

The biographer will occasionally let his mind wander and reflect on his own life of activism, and the way he feels cut off from society. He is both proud of his alienation from bourgeois society, and at the same time desperate to be included, and he sometimes infers this inner struggle onto his sketches of Bakunin

(I’d be curious to know how much of this book is autobiographical. It certainly has an authentic feel to it, and the little bit of information about the author, Horst Bienek, included on the cover jacket tells us that Bienek himself has a political history, and was about 40 by the time this book was published (1970—in the original German). However with no more information to go on, I suppose the golden rule of reading is always to assume it’s not autobiographical unless you have concrete proof otherwise.)

The book is filled with quotations and excerpts from a number of different sources. Many of these quotations aren't even related to Bakunin, at least not directly. Most of these quotations share a common theme, but are often inserted abruptly into the book without much transition, giving them a feeling of randomness. For example, pages 17-19 are filled up with an excerpt from Vera Figner's memoirs (Vera Figner was one of those involved in the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II). A couple pages later, page 21 is filled with slogans written on the walls of the Academy of Arts in Munich on July 17, 1969.

The longest quotation is 8 pages of excerpts from “Rules for Revolutionaries”. The authorship of this document is somewhat in dispute, either written by Bakunin, or by his disciple Nechaev, or by them both in collaboration. After mentioning briefly the controversy behind the authorship, the nameless biographer proceeds to quote large sections of it, while wondering to himself whether he could ever live up to the incredibly high standards set by this revolutionary catechism.

He looked in amazement at the sentences piling up before him. He would not have been capable of this asceticism and devotion. They were rules for the ‘Order of Priests of the Revolution.’” (p.71)

This book was written during the height of the New Left in Europe, and it contains brief references to student protests in Munich, Jimmy Hendrix, and figures like Danny Cohn-Bendt and Rudi Dutschke. But these are very brief references, and the book avoids becoming boxed in as a time piece.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts is when the biographer imagines Bakunin’s life as a Hollywood movie:

“It won’t be much longer until Hollywood films the life of B. What a subject! B in the salons of Berlin, at Tieck’s, Varnhagen’s, at Schelling’s, B hikes with Herwegh and Weitling through Switzerland. B visits Marx and Proudhon in Paris, he participates in the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris, goes from there to Breslau to be closer to the insurgent Poles. He is in Prague for the Pentecost Revolt—he had come as a delegate to the Congress of Slavs, now from Clementinum he is leading the resistance to Schwarzenberg’s troops. In the May Revolutions of 1849 in Dresden he again mounts the barricades, he belongs with Heubner, Rockel and Richard Wagner among the most active revolutionaries. He is arrested in Chemnitz. The Saxon and Russian prisons, the Siberian exile. The flight across Amur to Japan. B in Europe again, he goes to Herzen in London. His activity in the Internationale, in Zurich, Geneva, in St Imier, the clash with Marx and the schism. B in Lyons and Marseilles. B in Bologna for the revolt that fails before it even really begins. His flight, his resignation, his illness, his death in Berne…
“Doesn't that sound fantastice, he head shouted…, he even had a title for it already: A LIFE FOR THE REVOLUTION or even better THE SATAN OF REVOLUTION, what a box office hit. Enough time had passed now to welcome a rebel home to bourgeois society by means of the cinema. Yes, yes, but there were still afraid of Dutschke…”

Indeed, put like that, it does sound like there could be more than enough exciting material for a good Hollywood biopic, if someone ambitious wanted to bite off the project. Although it’s now 40 years later, and Hollywood still isn't showing any signs of interest in Bakunin’s life story.

…Still, in a world where Jack Reed, Abby Hoffman, The Chicago 10, and Che Guevara, The Black Panther party , and others can all get the Hollywood biopic treatment, why not Bakunin?

Link of the Day
http://my.barackobama.com/page/outreach/view/main/pbratt

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music on Youtube
Although most of the Japanese music I listen to is oldies, this song "Tokyo" by Hirakawachi 1-chome is one of my favorites even though it is a bit more recent.
I first heard this song over the loudspeaker when I was in the CD rental shop, and immediately fell in love with it. I rented the CD they were advertising, copied the song onto one of my mixed tapes, and then returned the CD back without bothering to write down the name of the artist.

I regreted that for a long time afterwards, because I really liked the song, but I could never track down the artists. (They were popular in Japan, but they never got super popular. And there are tons of songs named "Tokyo" which makes it difficult to sort through).

As a result for a long time I'd be playing the tape in my car, and people would say, "hey, this is really cool. Who is this?" And I'd say, "I don't know."
But, with the magic of Youtube, I was able to track them down again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

(book review)

And I’m back with another book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, after:
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents,Monstrous Regiment ,Interesting Times ,Night Watch ,The Color of Magic ,Thief of Time ,Going Postal , The Truth , and Soul Music.
I gave a rather tepid review of the last Discworld book I read (“Soul Music”) but this book finds Pratchett back with his usual genius.
(Although technically this book was written before “Soul Music”. I’m reading these books out of order again.)

As I mentioned before, one of the interesting things about reading these books out of order is you start to see the pieces gradually fall in together. This is the 9th book in the series, and the one that is responsible for introducing the “Night Watch” of Ankh Morpork. And the characters of the “Night Watch”, go on to pop up in just about every subsequent book since, so it was interesting to see how they got started.

I was once talking to someone in a bar in Japan, and they said “Guards! Guards!” was the funniest book they've ever read.
---I’m not sure I’d go quite that far myself. I’m not sure I’d even say it was the funniest book in the Discworld series. (I mean it’s good, but there are a lot of funny books in the Discworld series). But it was a very entertaining read.

It also managed to make a few insightful comments about human nature in a way that is both morbidly funny and depressing at the same time. At one point in this book, a dragon is crowned king of Ankh Morpork, and the citizens debate the merits of having a dragon as king. The dragon demands a human sacrifice once a month, but the some of the citizens conclude that one human sacrifice a month is actually doing pretty good compared to some of the other rulers they have had in the past.

The dragon itself is appalled when it finds out the true nature of human beings. “We’re dragons,” it says. “We’re supposed to be cruel. But we never kill and torture people and pretend we’re being ethical.”

Link of the Day
Mocking Obama

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ベルサイユのばら / The Rose of Versailles

(Japanese Video Series)

Continuing on my journey through Japanese pop culture, here’s another anime series.

This series takes place during the French Revolution, so it allows me to combine Japanese studying with my interest in European history.
However this isn't just some obscure anime series I dug up to satisfy my own geeky interests. On the contrary, this is perhaps the most famous Shojo anime series ever. (In fact a “Daily Yomiuri” article recently called it the most influential Shojo miniseries).

Anecdotally, I can say that whenever I’m discussing the French Revolution with Japanese friends, this anime series almost always gets brought up. And it seems to me that a lot of Japanese people, especially a lot of Japanese woman, have gotten all their knowledge about the French Revolution exclusively from this series.

Strange that one of the most popular Japanese anime series should be about the French Revolution, but I guess that’s just the kind of international world we live in now. Just as one of the highest rated miniseries in U.S. television history is about the Japanese Shogun.

Like a lot of popular Japanese animation, this story has gone through several mediums. It started out as a manga, then was converted into an animation, then a movie, and is currently still being performed as a popular musical in Japan.
And as always, the story gets slightly altered at each transformation. I've been told the original manga is more historical accurate, but I've only seen the anime, so I’ll have to confine my review to that.

In “Shogun”, author James Clavell spent years researching Japanese history, and then in the end decided to write a novel that was not purely historical, but instead mixed large amounts of fiction with Japanese history.
By the same token, Ryoko Ikeda, the author of “The Rose of Versailles” (who published her story in the mid 70s, about the same time as “Shogun”) obviously spent a lot of time researching French history, and is knowledgeable about a lot of small details. But then she decided to write a story freely mixing historical fact with large amounts of fiction.

The story revolves around the fictional character of Oscar François de Jarjayes . On the night of her birth, Oscar’s father was desperately hoping for a son, but got another daughter instead.
So, he decided to raise Oscar as if she were his son. The adult Oscar becomes a soldier who can ride, fence, shoot, and fight as well as any man can. In her soldier’s uniform, she is often mistaken for a man by those who don’t know any better.

This is a surprisingly common theme in Shojo [girl's] anime and manga. Some elements of this were even present in “Romeo X Juliet”, where the princess Juliet was raised as a boy to hide her true identity, and she also fought injustice disguised as a man in the costume of “The Red Wind”.
And in fact, I could list several other Shojo series where the main character is able to disguise herself as a man and operate successfully in a man’s world.

...To the extent that popular entertainment represents wish fulfillment, this probably says something interesting about the desires of the average Japanese woman, Japanese society, and women’s place in that society. But I’ll leave that question to the sociologists.

Also, as you might expect given this scenario, the sexuality gets a little bit confused in this story. Oscar is a beautiful woman, who many men fall desperately in love with over the course of the series. And she herself loves some of them back. (The story follows the commonly established pattern, where Oscar falls in love with brave and dashing men, only at the end to realize her true love is the boy next door who has been right in front of her eyes the whole time).
However at the same time Oscar also appears to be coveted sexually by several of the women in the Versailles court.

Again, assuming this type of entertainment represents a certain degree vicarious wish fulfillment, and keeping in mind that “The Rose of Versailles” is one of the most popular Shojo series in Anime history, one wonders what this might say about the sexual desires of the average Japanese woman (or woman in general?). I’m sure Dr. Kinsey would have had something interesting to say about this. But again I’ll leave that question hanging for people more qualified than me to analyze.

Oscar becomes the captain of Marie Antoinette’s guards, and is responsible for safeguarding Marie Antoinette’s safety. The series begins with Marie Antoinette entering France, and follows over the course of forty(30 minute) episodes the 20 years leading up to the storming of the Bastille. The series ends at the battle of the Bastille, although there is a 15 minute epilogue that recounts the fates of the main characters following the fall of the Bastille.
(According to Wikipedia, Ryoko Ikeda wrote a sequel that follows the events of French history through the Directory and the rise of Napoleon, but this sequel hasn't been made into an anime, and is only available in Manga form).

During the course of these 20 years, the anime series follows Marie Antionette's life through crisises both historical and imagined. Marie Antionette’s rivalry with Madame du-Barry and romance with Count Fersen are both re-counted in this series.

(Some of this is very similar to the Kirsten Dunst “Marie Antoinette” movie version, such as the ongoing battle of wills between Marie Antoinette not to speak to Madame du-Barry, and Madame du-Barry’s backstage politicking to force Marie Antoinette to acknowledge her. Also Marie Antoinette meeting Count Fersen at a masked ball.
I guess the similarities shouldn't be a big surprise since both are based on the same historical source material. And I couldn't help but wonder if the producers of the Kirsten Dunst movie had seen “The Rose of Versailles”, or had been influenced by it a little.)

During this same period, to keep up the excitement, there are numerous fictional cloak and dagger plots against Marie Antoinette’s life, which Oscar must uncover and foil.

One of the main subplots of this series is a story that could have been straight out of Charles Dickens (speaking of another writer who mixed facts with fiction when writing about the French Revolution). In the slums of Paris, a poor dying mother is trying to raise two daughters of completely different temperament. One daughter Jeanne, who is greedy and rebellious, goes off to seek her fortune among the aristocracy. Through a series of lies and deceptions she becomes integrated in aristocratic society, and, as one greedy plot piles on top of another, she eventually becomes the Jeanne of the infamous “Affair of the Necklace”.

The other daughter, Rosalie, stays behind to loyally tend her sick mother, but eventually finds out she was adopted, and that her true mother is Lady Polignac (one of Marie Antoinette’s inner circle, who in accordance with popular perception, is portrayed in “The Rose of Versailles” as a corrupting influence on Marie Antoinette.)
(Rosalie is also one of the women who briefly falls romantically in love with Oscar).

The revolutionaries appear in the story as well. For the first several episodes, we see and hear nothing of them, but they creep into the story slowly to represent the changes that are going on in French society away from Versailles.

Maximilien Robespierre first appears as a young student giving a speech at King Louis XVI coronation ceremony. (A fact true to history, although the historical 17 year old Robespierre stood out in the rain and delivered his speech as the king’s carriage drove by. In “The Rose of Versailles” anime, Robespierre is inside the coronation hall giving his speech before the assembled ministers.)
We next meet Robespierre when Oscar goes on a trip out to the countryside, and meets Robespierre as a young lawyer working for the good of the common people.

Robespierre appears more and more frequently as events progress towards Revolution, although he is often represented not as one demagogue among many, but as all the historical French Revolutionaries rolled into one.

Saint-Just often appears at Robespierre side, at first as a disciple of Robespierre, but he later openly defies Robespierre and starts to represent the radical side of the revolution that Robespierre can not control.

The series then jumps off from the historical rails completely when Saint-Just becomes a masked terrorist setting off bombs and assassinating aristocrats.

The 3rd member of the revolutionary trio is entirely fictional: a journalist named Bernard, who starts out as one of Robespierre’s followers, then has a brief career as “The Black Knight”, a sort of Robin Hood type figure who steals jewels from the aristocrats and gives them to the poor, until he is unmasked and defeated by Oscar and her sidekick Andre. Finally he becomes one of the leaders of the common people, marries Rosalie, and becomes an ally of Oscar and Andre as the two of them decide to join with the people during the battle against the Bastille.

This anime was made in the late 70s, and it’s showing it’s age a bit now. The animation is a little stiff and jerky. It bothered me at first, but it was one of those things that after a few episodes I stopped even noticing.

Also the pacing of this anime started to get to me after a while. There are a lot of action scenes, to be sure, but there’s also a few too many scenes of characters looking lovingly into each other’s eyes while romantic music plays in the background.  

I mentioned earlier that “Romeo X Juliet” was a Shojo anime that the 12 year old boy inside of me didn't mind a bit. But in “The Rose of Versailles” the Y chromosome in me was getting a little restless during some of the sappier scenes.

Still, all in all, a mostly entertaining series, and a good way to combine Japanese language study with French History.

Link of the Day
FBI to Get Freer Rein to Gather Domestic Information

Monday, September 08, 2008

Napoleon by Leslie McGuire

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series which I picked up from Oita Prefectural Library on my last trip down to Oita City.
This was a very brief summary of Napoleon’s life aimed at the young adult audience, but the gaps in my historical knowledge are such that I still learned tons from it. And I found it fascinating reading. I hope to someday find a full length biography of Napoleon, but for now this will have to do the trick.

I think everyone who ever reads a biography of Napoleon comes away astounded by what he was able to accomplish, and perhaps slightly appalled by the tremendous amount of death and bloodshed that was necessary to satisfy his ambition.

Considering Napoleon started out as nothing but the son of a petty Corsican noble who couldn't even speak correct French, and then was later had his military career almost finish before it even started because of his association with Robespierre, what he managed to accomplish was truly amazing. He inherited a situation with France in disarray and under attack by all of Europe, and he was able to beat all of Europe back 3 out of 4 times.

The Napoleonic wars are something I still don’t know about, and this book does a good job of summarizing it. It’s a bit confusing though, since in a relatively short period of time there were 4 coalitions of European powers united against Napoleon.

The scope of the Napoleonic Wars is somewhat astounding as well raging, as it did, back and forth across Europe several times.
To the extent that European wars are sometimes called “World Wars” (World War I at least can be thought of as primarily a European War in which the colonies also took part), the Napoleonic Wars can almost be thought of as 4 World Wars in a 20 year period of time.

One of the things I remember from my Calvin history classes was the paradox of how Napoleon both ended the French Revolution by establishing autocratic rule, but at the same time also cemented the advances of the French Revolution by spreading an enlightened (non-feudal) code of laws and administration throughout Europe.

In some of her last few paragraphs, Leslie McGuire attempts to sum up Napoleon’s mixed legacy:

Some consider him the enlightened bearer of revolutionary ideals; others regard him as a forerunner of 20th-century dictators.
It is hard to asses his role. He redrew the map of Europe several times. He brought lasting reforms to the legal, administrative, judicial, and educational systems of an entire continent. He revolutionized warfare. But the political and social upheavals such as the French Revolution, that shook France and the rest of Europe would have happened without him.
Many of his actions brought unintended results. He paved the way for the unification of Italy and Germany. He helped make the United States a world power by selling the Louisiana Territory. His war with Spain gave the countries of Latin America an opportunity to fight for their independence. He strengthened the pope and the Catholic church despite his attempts to do the opposite.
Napoleon left behind a powerful legend that grew to enormous proportions after his death. His son, Napoleon II, never ruled France. But in 1852 his nephew, Louis Napoleon, traded on the popularity of his name to proclaim the Second Empire, and took the title Napoleon III. Bonapartism-the belief in a strong, authoritarian ruler appointed by the will of the people-continued to cast its spell over French politics for years and remains a tangible force even today
.” (P.106)

A few notes:

* Leslie McGuire claims that: “As head of [the committee of public safety] Robespierre was responsible for the deaths of some 50,000 people during the Reign of Terror”. (P. 24)
This differs slightly from the other books I've been reading recently. Other books in this same series put the figure much lower. In the book on Robespierre, S.L. Carson gives a figure of 2,596 (p.20). Frank Dwyer in his book on Danton says, “during the period known as the “Reign of Terror”, more than 2,300 people were guillotined” (p.16). Guy Endore in “The Werewolf of Paris” which (although not really a serious history) also quotes 2,596.
I’m no expert myself, but I’d be curious to know where McGuire gets her figures from, and why it’s different than the other figures. Is she adding in the deaths caused by the September massacres and the civil war? If so, is it fair to lay all of those deaths at the feat of Robespierre?

* As these are young adult books, they are filled with illustrations, as well as various captions, quotes, and other information filling up the margins of each page.
This adds a lot to the enjoyment of these books, especially for those of us with short attention spans. Although I wish the editors had done a better job of lining the illustrations and quotes up with the main text. Often a picture caption will give away information that won’t be revealed in the main text for a couple more pages.

* And speaking of which, one of the quotations in the margins of the page gives a very graphic portrait of Napoleon’s view of the German Empire.
“The Empire is an old serving woman who is used to being raped by everyone.”-Napoleon Bonaparte speaking with reference to the German Empire.
Although that does provoke a very vivid image of the political situation of the time, I’m a bit surprised that the quote made it into a young adult book. Especially since it was just used as one of the superfluous quotes on the side margins.

Link of the Day
YAFers sought elective office in August

Saturday, September 06, 2008

StarDust

(Movie Review)

This wasn't a great movie, but I found it to be a very pleasant waste of time.

Part of it might just have been the mood I was in. I was exhausted from a day of hiking around and swimming, and I wanted to just sit in my apartment and watch a light adventure story--Something that wouldn't make me think to hard, but something that might excite the imagination just a little bit.

This fit the bill. It was fun, and imaginative, and whimsical.

There are a lot of bad fantasy movies out there, but I’m a great fan of the genre when it’s done right, and this was done right. Like all great fantasy movies, it doesn't rely simply on big battle scenes, but also manages to convey a sense of wonder about a strange new world.
The film tries to create the feeling of a fairy tale, and I think it succeeds. It boarders on being a little bit too sappy at the end, but on the whole it strikes a good balance.

There’s a lot of black humor mixed in as well, which threw me off at first but once I got used to it I started to enjoy that as well.

As a fan of “The Office” and “Extras” I enjoyed seeing Ricky Gervais in this movie, although I wish he would have had a bigger role. In my opinion he is (once again) criminally underused. Although during the time he is on screen, he plays a character very similar to his character in “The Office”, which perhaps is just one big inside joke. People who have seen “The Office” will think it’s funny, people who have not might not get the humor.

My only regret is that once the movie was over, I saw on the ending credits that it was actually based on a book by Neil Gaiman. Maybe I should have read the book first before watching the movie.
….Oh well, with my memory, I’m sure by the time I get around to reading the book in a couple years I’ll have forgotten most of the movie anyway.

Link of the Day
Antiwar Group Raises Questions about Afghanistan War

Thursday, September 04, 2008

No Country For Old Men

(Movie Review)

In order to try and make my movie viewing more of an interactive activity (and less of a passive mind-numbing one) I've decided to review everything I watch on this blog. And, because I can be pretty rigid about something once I've put my mind to something, for over a year and a half I've managed to review absolutely every movie I've seen during that time.

...Doesn't necessary mean I have something intelligent to say about every movie I watch though.

I always feel intimidated reviewing a Coen brothers movie, because I know film school students and art house movie buffs all over the country are going to be writing (or have already written) their own reviews, and a low brow philistine like myself doesn't have anything intelligent to add to the discussion.

Well, here are my thoughts anyway. Just your average low brow video rental customer’s view from his couch:

*Because I’m so out of touch these days (a by-product of living out in the Japanese countryside) I knew nothing about this movie before I rented it. Which is probably the best way to approach a Coen brother’s movie. From the moment I pressed the play button, I knew nothing about what the plot would be, or what would happen, and just watched everything unfold before me from a starting point of nothing. It was a lot of fun to see where the movie would take me.

*The first couple Coen brothers movies I saw I had a hard time sitting through, because I was very impatient for the story to just get moving. Once I came to accept the fact that the pacing of a Coen brothers film was different, and that the story was just going to meander along on its own time, I started to enjoy their movies a lot more. It’s all a matter of being in the right mind set. You just need to relax and let the movie go where it’s going to go.

* Like a lot of Coen brothers films, this film has an unpredictable feeling. You don’t know who is going to die and who is going to survive. Anyone of the cast feels like they might be vulnerable. Which really adds to the suspense of the whole thing.
The exception to this is the main bad guy, who unfortunately has a bit of “The Terminator” aura around him. He gets in numerous gun fights, gets shot up several times, and yet is always unkillable.
What’s more, the whole plot is structured in such a way that everything revolves around this bad guy, so you know he’s not going to bite it anytime until maybe the end of the film.
….Of course it’s always a lot easier to point out the problem than it is to solve it. I don’t know how you could fix this other than to completely re-write the movie and make a different one. But I think the invulnerableness of the bad guy still took away from the film a bit.

* The movie is set in the SouthWest. It’s one of those movies that does a good job of making you feel the sand in between your teeth. You can hear the sand crunch when a character walks. You can practically feel the hot son. And it has a great cast of cowboy type figures with leathery faces.
Because of the slow pacing of the movie, you get sucked into the setting and you feel like you’re hanging out with these characters; trading Vietnam War stories and wearing cowboy hats as you have another cup of coffee in the diner.
It’s not the world I grew up in for sure, but the movie did a great job of making me feel like I was in the middle of it.

*I think the movie takes place in 1980, if I got the clues right. (At one point a character makes a reference to a 1958 coin as being 22 years old. There’s also a lot of Vietnam Veterans who are middle aged, but not quite old-old yet). The movie never broadcasts the time setting in white letters at the bottom of the screen like another movie might, but makes you work a bit to figure it out. Which I guess is all part of the fun with a movie like this.
--Still, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a reason it was set in 1980. Was there anything about the story line which would have been different if it was set in the present day? Did anyone catch anything?

*The camera is very selective in what it shows and what it doesn't show. Some deaths you see in all their gruesome glory, others are simply implied, and a few you’re left wondering about. Did he kill her, did he not kill her, what actually happened at the end?
This is another one of those films that avoids the typical Hollywood ending, with all the threads neatly tied up. There were a few things I was still wondering about as the film ended.
(Call me a philistine, but I think I might actually prefer the neatly wrapped up Hollywood ending. But it was still an entertaining film.)

Link of the Day
Help Stop a New Atomic Reactor in Michigan

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Danton by Frank Dwyer

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series that I checked out from the Oita Prefectural Library the last time I was in Oita city.

Like the book on Robespierre, this is another book that seeks to navigate all the complexities of the French Revolution for a young adult audience. This book does a slightly better job, perhaps because it’s written by literature professor. This is evident already from the first paragraph, which provides an enticing introduction to the biography but at the same time avoids overloading the reader with information.

“An ingenious and fatal machine casts its long shadow over the pages of this story. It has a tall, strong wooden frame that is grooved along the inside edges to permit the raising and lowering of a heavy blade. The blade is raised by a system of lead weights and pulleys, and is designed to come down quickly, hurled to the base of the frame by its own weight. A movable wooden plank, large enough to lie on, is fitted into the frame close to the base, where two semicircle pieces of wood (the lunette) can open and shut to admit a medium-sized object and hold it in place in the path of a blade. It is a machine for cutting off heads.”

Although brief, there is a lot of interesting biographical information about Danton here, as well as his shifting alliances.

He is portrayed in this book as an opportunist. He began his legal career with a speech, “Woe to those who provoke revolutions, woe to those who make them.” But when he perceived the power of Louis XVI court was finished, he cast his lot in with the revolution.

The author often contrasts Danton, who entered the revolution out of slightly opportunistic reasons, with Robespierre, who entered it for idealistic reasons.
Danton and Robespierre were both brilliant and courageous revolutionary leaders, but their personalities were very different. Robespierre, known as “the incorruptible” for his famed virtuousness and purity, was cold, hard, distant—a man of ideals and intellect. Danton was warm, easygoing, sociable—a man of passions and heart. For now, these natural rivals were uneasy allies in the Revolution.” (p 49)

And on Danton’s taking bribes:
The reality of this bribe taking may not be quite as bad as it sounds to the law abiding citizens of a stable government. Robespierre was called “the Incorruptible” because his integrity was so unique. No one would ever have called Danton “the Incorruptible” and he probably would not have appreciated it if they had.”

Although there is no proof that Danton ever took bribes, the author provides lots of interesting circumstantial evidence that indicates he probably did.

There is also the very interesting allegation that Danton bought his famous military victory against the Prussian duke of Brunswick with a bribe of “The Blue Diamond of the Golden Fleece.” Also the interesting connection that Danton, the duke of Brunswick, and many of the other leading men involved in the battle belonged to the secret society of the Masons.
….Again, no hard proof, but a lot of interesting circumstantial evidence.

When Danton became a rival to Robespierre, he was executed by the Revolutionary Tribunal as part of The Reign of Terror. Danton was responsible for helping to create both the Tribunal and the Terror, and then ironically enough became their most famous victim.

The deputies were forced to create their own Frankenstein, a monster that would eventually murder many of them. Danton’s repentance came too late. “God and my fellow men forgive me,” he said after his fall. “I never meant [the tribunal] to become the scourge of humanity it has. All I wanted was to prevent any recurrence of the September massacres.” He hoped that the Revolutionary Tribunal would replace the unpredictable mob as the protector of the nation from domestic enemies, and believed the tribunal would help to restore order and calm in Paris. Instead, he learned that he and his fellow deputies had given the party—or the individual—in power a swift and efficient mechanism for sending opponents to the guillotine.” (p84-85)

Link of the Day
Dubious Debates: How media moderators lowered the level of Election '08