Archive for March, 2012

The Hunger Games

March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in which a group of teenagers are forced to fight to the death on live television. One of the interesting things about this film is its implied criticism of so-called “reality” TV shows. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel on which this film is based, has said that she got the idea for it when she switched from a reality TV show to coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She said the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way”. Indeed, the Iraq invasion was covered somewhat like a reality show. The military and the media colluded, for example, in concocting a fake “dramatic” story about a female army private being held prisoner by the Iraqis. This took place in a context in which innocent civilians were killed. The Hunger Games presents a future in which state-sanctioned murder has become a form of entertainment.

This is a well-made film that is superior to your usual Hollywood blockbuster. It features complex characters and strong performances. I must say, though, that I found some of the fight scenes hard to follow. Also, I would have liked to learn more about the politics of this future world. How does the regime justify itself ideologically? There are extremes of wealth and poverty. Clearly there is exploitation here, but how is it carried out? Perhaps we will learn more about this is the promised sequels.

Early on in The Hunger Games, we see a government propaganda film that starts out by decrying the horrors of war, which then leads into a justification of the blood-letting in the games. This is an interesting portrayal of how, in politics, idealistic language is often used to justify monstrous behavior.

Stand Your Ground

March 25, 2012

Trayvon Martin

The murder of Trayvon Martin has drawn people’s attention to a peculiar law that exists in Florida. Called the “Stand Your Ground” law, it states that one can use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony”. What I find disturbing about this law is that it diminishes the importance of objective truth. From a legal standpoint, what actually happened is no longer important, only what one person perceived to be happening.

A recent court case in Miami illustrates the problem:

    As critics assail Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in the wake of the killing of an unarmed Miami Gardens teen in Sanford, a Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday cited the law in tossing out the case of a man who chased down a suspected burglar and stabbed him to death.

    Greyston Garcia was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of Pedro Roteta, 26, whom he chased for more than a block before stabbing the man.

    The case illustrates the difficulty police and prosecutors statewide have experienced since the 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of danger, putting the burden on a judge, not a jury, to decide whether the accused is immune from prosecution.

    In Sanford, police have cited the Stand Your Ground law in their decision not to arrest a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17. A Seminole County grand jury will decide on whether the man who shot Trayvon, George Zimmerman, 28, should face homicide charges.

You see, Garcia claimed that he thought Roteta was about to stab him.

A man chases another man down the street and stabs him to death, and a judge considers that to be “standing his ground”.

We are living in dark times.

Rick Santorum

March 21, 2012

I suspect that Rick Santorum may have made a fatal error in saying that he wants to outlaw pornography. This could be a mistake on the same level as Rick Perry saying that he wants to scrap Social Security. It could cost Santorum the college frat boy vote. The two main voting blocs of the Republican Party are old people and college frat boys. It’s one thing to deny contraception to college women, but God forbid you should deny porn to college frat boys.

Peter Bergman (1939-2012)

March 19, 2012

I know this is a bit late, but I feel obligated to write about the recent death of Peter Bergman. He was one of the four members of the Firesign Theatre. (The others were Philip Proctor, Phil Austin, and David Ossman.) I listened to their records when I was in high school. They had a strong influence on my sense of humor and, in a way I find hard to explain, on my world-view as well. Their records employed a multi-layered, non-linear style of storytelling that was unlike anything I had ever heard before, or since for that matter. It was sometimes said of them that they made the long-playing album into a narrative art from. (They advertised themselves as “the rock band that doesn’t need instruments”.) They also peppered their work with all sorts of allusions to literature, philosophy and popular culture. I honestly believe that the Firesign Theatre made The Simpsons possible.

The Firesign Theatre’s humor was strongly rooted in the 1960’s. They didn’t seem quite as funny in later years. I saw them perform in Boston once, and I found the show a bit disappointing. They mostly did old material, and they didn’t use the stage very well. (Their medium was radio, after all.) I did get to shake hands with David Ossman, however, which was cool.

Still, they made a unique and lasting contribution to comedy. Bergman will be remembered as an innovator.

Nixon in China

March 18, 2012

The Eugene Opera Company recently staged a production of John Adams’s Nixon in China. It was daring for a small company with limited resources to stage a work like this. It was nevertheless a handsome production with good performances. I must say, though, that the opera itself is a curious and unsatisfying piece. As the title indicates, it is about Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. It is an opera about politics that largely avoids the topic of politics. In an interesting moment in the first act, for example, Mao tells Nixon that he prefers right-wingers to “doctrinaire Marxists”. One would like to hear him explain why he feels this way, but instead he quickly moves on to another, less interesting topic. (I can’t remember what it was.) To be fair, opera is not the most ideal medium for discussing complex political ideas. But in that case, why make an opera about Nixon’s trip to China? Peter Sellars, who originally conceived the idea for this work, said that he was interested in this event because it was both “a ridiculously cynical election ploy … and a historical breakthrough”. Nixon’s “breakthrough”, by the way, actually consisted of the fact that he simply ended the US’s irrational policy of not recognizing the Chinese government. In any event, the opera never really explores this seeming contradiction. Indeed, it’s not clear what this work is trying to say.

An interesting question is how did Mao and Chou rationalize meeting with a man who waged a savage war against a Communist country? And how did a rabid anti-Communist like Nixon bring himself to get all chummy with Chou-en-lai? Clearly there were geopolitical motives here, but the opera doesn’t even address these issues. Instead we get Nixon reminiscing about his days in the army during World War II (who cares?), and Mao and Chiang Ch’ing talking about how happy they were in the days before the revolution (again, who cares?). Adams and the librettist, Alice Goodman, have said that they wanted to make these people seem human. Yet what is important about these people is not that they were human, but that they made decisions that had dire consequences for other people.

The opera’s portrayal of the Nixons is not really believable. Pat Nixon, for example, is portrayed as fun-loving and free-spirited. That’s not the impression I got of Pat Nixon. I don’t see how a fun-loving free spirit could have remained married to such a relentlessly grim person as Richard Nixon. The latter comes across as amiable but a bit dumb. This certainly doesn’t fit with what we know about Nixon.

The best part of the opera is the ballet scene in the second act, if only because something interesting is actually happening on-stage. Aside from that, it is only because of Adams’s music that this opera keeps our attention. The term “minimalist” is often applied to Adams, but that term is misleading. One of the striking things about his music is his varied and imaginative use of tone color. He subtly uses different instruments to indicate the changing moods of the characters. It’s too bad that there isn’t a more compelling story to go along with this.

The Adventures of Tintin

March 9, 2012

In The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg has given us a visually hectic and sometimes confusing film that fails to capture the flavor and charm of Hergé’s comic books. Spielberg crams so much visual busyness into each scene that the story and the characters are sometimes overwhelmed. Although the film is less than two hours long, you weary of it well before the end

Hergé prided himself on his attention to detail, expressed through his clear line style of drawing, yet there is a lack of attention to detail in this film that is annoying at times. When, for example, Tintin and Captain Haddock need to get into a sultan’s palace, they suddenly appear inside without any explanation as to how they got in. Later, when they are chasing bad guys, Captain Haddock pulls out a bazooka, which he inexplicably got off a palace guard. Why would a guard be carrying a bazooka? What’s more, the film appears to take place during the 1930’s, before bazookas were even invented. Another anachronism occurs when Thomson and Thompson are referred to as being members of Interpol, although that agency was referred to as the International Criminal Police (ICP) at the time. And when Bianca Castafiore is introduced to the sultan, she says, “This is my first visit to the Third World.” This line makes no sense on any level, especially since the term “Third World” wasn’t used until the 1950’s.

The film’s ending promises a sequel, but I honestly don’t think that Spielberg should bother. It’s much more fun to read the original Tintin books.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

March 2, 2012

I was not certain whether I should go see the recent film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, since I vividly remember the television mini-series that starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley. I was afraid the film would not live to up that, but I found it entertaining. Tomas Alfredson has directed a highly polished film that features strong performances. It is perhaps unavoidably a bit hard to follow at times, since it squeezes John le Carré’s sprawling novel into a two-hour film. (Here is the one area where television has an advantage over cinema: one can tell a story over a longer period of time.)

Gary Oldman is good as Smiley, although I prefer Guiness’s performance. Oldman makes the character seem a bit too much like Obi-Wan Kenobi (who was played by Guinness, interestingly enough), a wise old father figure. Guinness did a better job of conveying the character’s insecurities and moments of self-doubt.

In case you don’t know, the film, which takes place during the Cold War, is about a retired intelligence agent, George Smiley, who is called back into service to uncover a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the top level of Britain’s intelligence service. I might have liked this film better if it had dealt more with the political issues of the Cold War. When, for example, Smiley finally confronts the mole, the latter gives a vague explanation of his betrayal. He says the West has “gone to Hell”, although he doesn’t say why he thinks this. One does get the impression that le Carré himself took a lesser evil view of the West. The Soviet agents in this film torture and kill people, whereas the British agents are merely bullying and deceitful.