Updates, Live

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Phillly: The Old Theater on Market Street

West Market Street in Philadelphia: a building looking like the old theater from Cinema Paradiso, like the old theater from La Mala Educación. Once there was here a theater, too, with school kids missing from their classes and watching furtively hot movies. with young couples coming here to change kisses in the darkness. Now it is just that, a great image full of nostalgia.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jill Rapaport: Dunbar (after a thought of Apollinaire’s)

It was published in Brooklyn Review No. 16 (a publication of Brooklyn College, City University of New York). Don't try to discover who Dunbar was, or what was the thought of Apollinaire (probably the inspiring thought is from Apollinaire's Collines - as you probably know, from Ginsberg on, all American poets comment exactly these verses:Il vient un temps pour la souffrance
Il vient un temps pour la bonté
Jeunesse adieu voici le temps
Où l'on connaîtra l'avenir
Sans mourir de connaissance)
Rather just enjoy reading the poem of Jill. It has simplicity and it has complexity; because Jill Rapaport lives in the same universe that we live in; only she has a special alphabet to read this universe and to express it; her alphabet has other symbols than ours; her symbols come from a deep culture - she lives what we live, happiness and loneliness, joy and despair, enthusiasm and resignation, and so on. Only among these you'll find her books: by Apollinaire, and Proust, and Ginsberg, and Capote... Among her facts of life there are facts from her authors, and their ideas, and their phrases. I discovered the beauty of the style of Truman Capote through her.

In a flashing sky, Dunbar took my hand.
He knew me from Italy.
We had both read Kidnapped relatively late.

He appreciated my fingers and the way they cut the air.
One identity got both of us by.
We shared one memory and had less to regret.

Alone in a room, I looked out at gray lands.
We both smelled snow, from distant poles.
Dunbar came home at five, with a blue nose.

He said we had to come up with the rent,
I signaled fine with me, glad he was making the decisions.
I put him to sleep on the sofa, in a suit and tie and no socks.
I loved what I pitied, and I pitied Dunbar, as mothers would pity their kids if their kids were born grown up.
Though maybe mother did pity their kids and we didn’t know about it, and that was why they let their kids live.

Dunbar woke dressed and went to work in the darkness.
When he left my antlers drooped and bumped under my chin.
I moved through the rooms, sitting in different positions to become smaller and more
Dunbar came home at noon with a quarter of milk.

When he left again the afternoon grew shorter.
Morning was yellow with blue forget-me-nots. Nights were ringed by hills in which dread lurked, a huge misshapen troll with a bag on his head.

Some nights, I went out without Dunbar’s knowing it; the stars dimmed and hummed.
I believed the night sky was my doing, with no one around to talk me out of inflated beliefs.
Unlit roads led to glittering towns scattered over the countryside.
I got to see into second-floor windows, towers protecting the sea, the stalk of a giant clamshell.

I drank coffee in train stations
and then, with bright eyes and a long ringed tail, went home to the house in time to wake up Dunbar.

He never discovered the prowlings, which became more important than if he had.
One morning in winter, dawn became too faint to light my way home.
I got lost, arrived, woke him late, and he decided to stay home.

That day, with loneliness gone, I watched him sleep and I fretted.
I could not move freely. Day seemed like night and my system was disturbed.
Evening came and he was too tired to make dinner and I didn’t know how.

We rested next to each other, without enough room.
I was too sleepy to go out, too nervous to sleep.
He elbowed my shoulder and my knee hit his chin during thye course of a long, hard night.

From that point on we were off track for months, leading to the imbalance of spring and the undoing of summer, which we couldn’t enjoy, feeling we had sacrificed our right to it by having altered the order of sleeping and waking, which, like dreams, had protected us from who we were.

(Jill Rapaport)


The Photos of Roslan Rahman: Halal

For non-Muslims the word Halal designates what's allowed to eat in Islam. Actually Halal means more: any object or action permissible according to Sharia.

Malaysia offers a contrasting example. Many Europeans or Americans view it as a strong Islamic country, while its presence in the global economy is also strong.

So, is it Malaysia conservative or modern? Is it Halal or secular? Can it be both in the same time? Roslan Rahman is trying to find the answer for us, through his photos.

It is not an easy answer, as each photo captures a fact of life; and any fact of life is, beyond any Islamic or secular interpretation, just that, a fact of life.

And regardless country, or religion, traditional or modern values, any human is like this man in the ocean; facing in any moment the immensity of things beyond his understanding.

(The Photos of Roslan Rahman)


2010 According to Ignatius

David IgnatiusDavid Ignatius in W. Post:

The headlines at year's end conveyed the eerie feeling that the world is running on replay: Terror plots aboard airliners, strikes against al-Qaeda training camps and an Iranian nuclear program that rolls on despite nearly a decade of efforts to stop it.

You never cross the same river twice, as the saying goes. History is always moving and changing. But the problems the United States faced in 2009 in the Muslim world were deep and intractable, and less amenable to solutions than the Obama administration might have hoped. We can remind ourselves that Islam's adaptation to the modern world (which is at the root of much of this violence) has been far less bloody than was Europe's in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that's little comfort in the airport security line.

It was telling to read the comment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, about how tougher policies might have stopped accused Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: I'd rather, in the interest of protecting people, overreact rather than underreact. Honestly, isn't that something Dick Cheney might have said back in 2001?

Here are some of the puzzles I'll be trying to understand better in the year ahead:

-- Are we beginning a new counterterror war in Yemen? The answer seems to be yes, but the Obama administration is wisely following the model of Afghanistan 2001 by using proxy forces (in this case, the Yemeni government) to attack al-Qaeda. That's a lot better idea than sending in U.S. combat troops.

The partnership with Yemen is delicate, which is why U.S. officials have said so little about it. But there's a growing American program to aid Yemeni counterterrorism forces, and it appears that U.S. precision-guided weapons were used in a Dec. 17 attack on three al-Qaeda hideouts, killing 34 operatives. This is precisely what America should have done against Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, before Sept. 11, and it's the right policy now.

Yemen is the scene of a second proxy war, this one by Saudi and Yemeni forces against the al-Houthi rebels along the northern border, who have Iranian support. Again, the sensible U.S. course is to help others do the fighting.

-- Can we curb Iran's nuclear program? The clock on President Obama's timetable for engagement was supposed to run out New Year's Eve. But the administration is adding a little extra time by keeping the door open for talks before a vote on new U.N. sanctions, probably in March or April.

Diplomacy shows little promise of stopping Tehran, but neither does anything else. So the administration has encouraged Turkish mediation efforts to find a compromise on the Oct. 1 plan for enrichment of Iranian fuel outside the country, which Tehran appeared to accept and then rejected. The White House has also approved Sen. John Kerry's idea of visiting Tehran, but Kerry has wisely dropped that for now, when the Iranian regime is killing protesters.

Is regime change in the air in Tehran? Last weekend's demonstrations revived that hope, but it's premature. The regime is expanding its network of repression while the opposition -- lacking a strong leader -- remains unable to mount sustained, organized protests.

-- Will Iraqi democracy be 2010's big success story? Visiting Anbar province several weeks ago and listening to the governor of Ramadi talk about his big development plans, I found myself wondering if maybe the cruel Iraq story might have a happy ending after all. This was the province where al-Qaeda declared its first emirate, just a few years ago, and now the governor is handing out a special Financial Times report on business opportunities there.

When I meet Iraqis these days, they all want to talk politics: Which party is ahead in the March parliamentary elections? Can Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani or Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi unseat the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki? It's the kind of freewheeling political debate you can't find anywhere else in the Arab world. I want to believe it's real, even as the terrorist bombs continue to explode in Baghdad and other cities.

What I know about 2010 is that it will be another year of ebbs and flows in the Middle East. It will be another year of American expeditionary wars and anti-American bombings. If there's one perverse positive sign out there, consistent over most of the past decade, it's the failure of al-Qaeda's extremist ideology. We have an enemy that makes even more mistakes than we do.

(Please send your comments at davidignatius@washpost.com)

(Zoon Politikon)


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Eve in China of the Thirties - a Gift from SHUESIK

After a Russian movie from the fifties, telling the story of a Carnival Night in the Moscow of 1956, here is another 2010 New Year gift for all of you.

This video is authored by SHUESIK. He mixed sequences from four Chinese movies of the thirties:



Carnival in Moscow, New Year 1956

It's Moscow and 1955 is approaching its end. Everybody thinks at the New Year's Eve. A carnival would take place at the Culture House. The director is old school; he cannot imagine anything but boring. A group of young amateur artists will do their best to make the Carnival Night unforgettable. And so the night toward New Year 1956 will bring to all C Новым Годoм, C Новым Cчастьeм - New Year, New Luck.

Карнавальная Hочь (Carnival Night), the movie of Eldar Ryazanov featuring a very young Lyudmila Gurchenko; one of the movies of my adolescence: this is my New Year's gift to all of you.

And don't worry if you don't know Russian. I also know just a little bit. Just enjoy the movie: it's fun, it's full of music. And it's a nostalgic window to those times, when today's grandfathers were just youngsters dreaming love. There are today other rhythms, and the way people of 1956 were dressed is just funny. It doesn't matter: young hearts are the same.

Well, and I found also a copy with English subtitles!

(Russian and Soviet Cinema)

Labels: ,

Let's Meet With Bangalore

Some of my best friends live in Bangalore, a great city, striving of modernity, offering also hidden spots of charm and relaxation.



Monday, December 28, 2009

Remastering a Masterpiece

Zsigmond is a student in Budapest, passionate about remastering great movies. Here is one of his videos: it is a study on Man with a Camera, the masterpiece of Vertov. The video was kept deliberately mute. Image from the movie of Vertov is joined by its corresponding image built by Zsigmond. The movie of Vertov was black and white. The corresponding images are color.

The result is touching, a great tribute to the master.

(Dziga Vertov)


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dziga Vertov: Kino-Glaz

Кино-Глаз (Kino-Eye), made by Dziga Vertov in 1924, announces already his masterpiece, the Man with a Camera. Of course, it's far from the great perfection of the latter, it's much more agit-prop, and so on; but it has the same alertness, the same freshness and optimism, the same great eye for making a detail relevant (the doggy that is seen just a second near the table of drinkers). And the same courage to experiment: here in Kino-Glaz it's about the reverse shooting.

This video makes a synthesis of the whole: the movie is 78 minutes long. A documentary centered on a group of Pioneers (the Communist version of Boy-Scouts): their enthusiastic activities link together various short sequences, edited forward and backward, just to sustain a lesson of Marxist political economy. Look what Yuri Tsivian has to say about, in his monumental study of Vertov's art (included in Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema, editor Ted Perry):

Why is shopping at the Red Supermarket better than buying the same piece of meat at the market? This has something to do with its quality, or sanitary control, or prices, our consumer instinct prompts us. Wrong answer. The true nature of meat, as of any commodity (Marx dixit, and Vertov believes it), is defined not by qualities inherent in the end product, but by the character of labor involved in its production.

And the enthusiastic Vertov makes the demonstration by using his experiments in reverse editing, taking the packages of beef meat and going back to the slaughterhouse, putting the entrails back to the bull, skinning him, bringing him back to life, and carrying him back by railroad to his herds.

(Dziga Vertov)


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dziga Vertov

I will start a series about Dziga Vertov with an animation made by him in 1924: Советские игрушки (Soviet Toys). It is a perfect example of Constructivist movie, and as any Constructivist artwork it is doing Communist propaganda: the avantgarde of the 20's, totally committed politically; they were viewing their art as a basis for the creation of a new world. Their art was simple, direct, resolute, optimist, radical. Then came the 30's.

(Filmele Avangardei)

(Suprematism and Constructivism)

(Russian and Soviet Cinema)


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Photos of Roslan Rahman: Bhakti in Bali

Roslan Rahman made these photographs on the island of Bali: Hinduism is practiced by a small minority in Indonesia, while the largest Indonesian Hindu community is located in Bali (more than 90% of the population there).

Now, what is Bhakti? The short answer would be that Bhakti is a form of collective devotion, but it means slightly different things for different branches of Hinduism. Anyway, any attempt to translate this word from Devanāgarī looses some of its meaning.

(The Photos of Roslan Rahman)


Boston: The Sevens on Charles Street

I entered here only once, it was long, long time ago, maybe in '97?


Labels: ,

Nikkos Kabbadias: Ena Machairi

I found the image and the verses on smiley's web site.

I always carry tightly under my belt
a small African steel dagger
-- like those that Blacks are used to playing with --
that I bought from an old merchant in Algiers.

I remember, as if it were now, the old shopkeeper,
who looked like an old oil painting by Goya,
standing next to long swords and tattered uniforms,
saying in a hoarse voice the following words :

This here dagger that you want to buy
legend has surrounded with eery stories,
and everyone knows that those who owned it at some time,
each has murdered one close to him.

Don Basilio murdered Donna Julia with it,
his beautiful wife, because she was unfaithful.
Conte Antonio, one night, his wretched brother
was slyly murdering with this here dagger.

A Black his young lover out of jealousy
and some Italian sailor a Greek boatswain.
From hand to hand it passed and into mine.
Many things my eyes have seen, but this one makes me quiver.

Come close and look at it, it has an anchor and a crest,
it's light, why take it, it's not even a quarter,
but I would advise you to buy something else."
-- How much? -- Seven francs only. As long as you want it, take it.

A small dagger I have tightly in my belt,
that a whim made me make it my own;
and because I hate no one in the world to kill,
I am afraid lest some day I turn it against myself ...

(Nikos Kabbadias)


A Poem by Nikos Kabbadias

(video by RaspK)

The Sailor's Prayers, a poem by Nikos Kabbadias. It doesn't matter you don't know Dimotiki (neither do I), the music is great.

Nikos Kabbadias was born in 1910 in a small town in Manchuria near Harbin, by Greek parents from Cefallonia. When he was very young, his family returned to Greece.

They lived in Cefallonia for a few years and later from 1921 to 1932 in Pireas, where Nikos Kabbadias finished elementary school and then the Gymnasium. He wrote his first poems as a pupil at the elementary school. In 1929, he started working as a clerk in a shipping office and a few months later he went on board a freighter as a sailor. Over the next few years he continued to travel on the freighters, returning home wretched and penniless, only to take off again shortly after. This went on until he decided to get a diploma as a wireless operator.

At first he wanted to become a captain, but he had already lost too many years wandering around and the wireless operator's diploma was the quickest way out. He got it in 1939 -- but World War II started, he became a soldier and fought in Albania, and, throughout the German Occupation he lived in Athens, landed.

He embarked again in 1944 and traveled continuously, as a wireless operator, all over the world, until November 1974 -- three months before the fatal stroke he suffered on February 10, 1975.

Vardia, his only novel, was published for the first time in 1954. His collection of poems Marabou was published in 1933, Pousi in 1947, and Traverso in 1975. His short stories Li and Of the War/On my Horse were published in 1987. Li was produced as a film in 1995 with the title Between the Devil and the Deep Blue

(A Life in Books)


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Photos of Roslan Rahman: Bars and Malls in Kuala Lumpur

The images belong to Roslan Rahman: he made these photos for NY Times. An article there, signed by Naomi Lindt, who keeps kind of a travelogue: his visit to Kuala Lumpur follows a trip to Hanoi in April, and one to Siem Reap in Cambodia, December last year.

Sky Bar

Sky Bar is on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel. The space is dominated by a pool; the windows offer a great view of the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world.

No Black Tie Club

No Black Tie offers a casual spot for very sophisticated people. It's a jazz club and Japanese gastro bar, hosting beside jazz cabaret performances and poetry nights.

Kuala Lumpur is a Mall Town

Kuala Lumpur is, like all Asian cities that exploded in modernity, a mall town, and many places of note are located in malls, like Enak KL (a restaurant for Malayan cuisine lovers), placed in Starhill Gallery. I was many times at the Pentagon City Mall, near Washington, and I would say that Starhill Gallery looks more impressive. Is that because of the gorgeous photo of Roslan Rahman? This guy knows so well to catch the perfect angles!

Starhill Gallery

And the last image for this post: Sungei Wang Plaza, the teenagers' mecca. A universe that calls in mind some movies by Wong Kar-Wai, like Chungking Express, or Fallen Angels.

Sungei Wang Plaza

But the movie that comes to mind more is maybe Gone Shoppping, made by the Singaporean Li Lin-Wee. It's weird: actually I didn't see it, as it was screened in DC only once, on a Friday evening, within a festival of Singaporean movies at Freer Gallery; and I miss it!

Well, my history of Gone Shopping deserves another post:)

(The Photos of Roslan Rahman)


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Photos of Roslan Rahman: Kashmir

Isn't it gorgeous?

Roslan Rahman: it is illegal in India to exclude all or part of Kashmir in a map; it is also illegal in Pakistan not to include the state of Jammu and Kashmir as disputed territory, as permitted by the UN.

(The Photos of Roslan Rahman)


The Photos of Roslan Rahman: Muslim Punk in Kuala Lumpur

Roslan Rahman
is a documentary photographer who sometimes forgets - happily - about the universe he's studying, as he discovers the beauty of a small detail. In such moments he creates masterpieces.

(The Photos of Roslan Rahman)


Monday, December 21, 2009

The Bible: Letter and Spirit

Christine and Dennis Wiley are the pastors at Covenant Baptist Church. It is the only traditional black church in DC to perform same-sex unions. This is a very controversial issue within American churches, and the two pastors explain their position in today's W. Post. I would like to copy here only one fragment, where they discuss what the Bible has to say about:

When issues of gay rights and gay marriage come up, the first question many black people ask is, what does the Bible have to say about it? This seemingly innocent question doesn't acknowledge that when we approach the Bible, our perspective has been shaped by where we were born, by whom we were raised, what Grandma taught us, where we went to school and what our pastor preached in church -- usually conservative ideas on matters such as homosexuality. Therefore, we tend to interpret the Bible not objectively, but through the lens of our cultural and historical context. The conservative strand of black religion is evident in what Harvard professor Peter Gomes calls bibliolatry -- the practice of worshiping the Bible rather than worshiping God. It is also found in a literal interpretation of the Bible that focuses more on the letter of the text than on its spirit, and concentrates on passages about domination, oppression, hierarchy, elitism and exclusion rather than on the major themes of love, justice, freedom, equality and inclusion that run throughout the Bible.

This fragment reflects very well the views of the two pastors, and people of faith with their courage deserve admiration. I think however that bibliolatry is a too heavy word: deity and sacred book should not be put in opposition. I know that Protestant culture puts an emphasis on the dangers of idolatry: any human activity, any human value can become an idol, i.e. a fake god. Even organized religion, including its authorities, rites and traditions. People need however a guide: hence the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Well, Protestants went further. If any human endeavor hides a possible idol, the same should be said about sacred books. Here the Protestant solution was, yes, we know that even Bible can lead to idolatry, however we need to take this risk, otherwise we wouldn't know any way toward God. In other words, fear of idols should not go so far as to suspect even the way toward God. It seems that some contemporary Protestant theologians started to nuance even more, between letter and spirit. It is a very difficult issue and different Christian churches come with different views on this subject.

Speaking about letter and spirit in the Bible, we went away from the main topic of the article from Washington Post: the same-sex marriage. There is a fact: there are religious people who consider that inclusiveness must prevail in all matters; there are religious people who consider the same-sex marriage as blasphemy. It is as simple as that. Each camp has legitimate concerns, and the controversy should be treated with moderation and mutual respect. And each camp has the legitimate right to have the own church.

(Church in America)

The Photos of Roslan Rahman

Roslan Rahman is a young photojournalist (26 years), based in Kuala Lumpur and interested to understand, through his photography, what is it about his country and his region: not easy task - a region full of contrasts, offering in each moment a different synthesis. It's Islam, and modernity, and effort to integrate in the Western values, and pride in conserving traditions, and sudden bursts of violence, a success story, and huge poverty; it is a mix of cultures, Islamic, Chinese, Indian (by the way, here are the languages Roslan Rahman is speaking: English, Bahasa Malay/Indonesian, Hokkien with a little bit of Mandarin, French, Tamil, Arabic).



Friday, December 18, 2009

Printesa Ghika, pictata de catre Printul Montparnasse-ului

Cronica prietenului meu Dan despre vizita pe care a facut-o la Muzeul de Arta din Hiroshima, m-a condus la o intalnire neasteptata: am intrat pe web si am descoperit in colectia de acolo un portret pe care Dan nu il vazuse: portretul Printesei Ghika. Autorul este Jules Pascin. Internetul imi media o intalnire la Hiroshima cu o printesa dintr-una din marile familii boieresti din istoria noastra, iar printesa era pictata de un artist care isi petrecuse cativa ani in timpul copilariei pe meleagurile noastre.

Sa ii luam pe rand. Printesa intrase in familia Ghiculestilor prin casatorie. Era nascuta in Franta in 1869, se numise Anne-Marie Chassaigne, avea sa isi schimbe numele in Liane de Pougy, iar la cumpana dintre veacuri era considerata una din marile frumuseti ale Parisului. Nu mai era foarte tanara cand l-a cunoscut pe printul George Ghika, fiul diplomatului Grigore I. Ghika (din ramura Brigadier a familiei). S-au casatorit in 1910, iar evenimentul a fost de notorietate, consemnat si in New York Times. A fost un mariaj dificil, printul avea mari calitati si defecte pe masura, aveau pana la urma sa se separe, iar dupa moartea fiului ei din prima casatorie Liane avea sa se intoarca spre biserica: a devenit tertiara in ordinul calugaresc al dominicanilor si s-a implicat in activitatile de ocrotire a copiilor nascuti cu malformatii. Ne-au ramas dela ea cateva carti, dar in primul rand istoria unei vieti tumultoase, plina de legaturi amoroase, amintirea uneia din curtezanele vestite ale vremii sale.

Hai sa vorbim acum cateva cuvinte si despre autorul tabloului. Jules Pascin poate fi revendicat si de bulgari (s-a nascut la Vidin), si de evrei (dupa tata), si de sarbi si italieni (dupa bunicii materni, unul sarb, celalalt italian), si de romani (familia lor s-a mutat la un moment dat in Romania), dar mai ales de lumea Montparnasse-ului: dupa ce a studiat Artele Frumoase la Viena si Munich, s-a mutat la Paris, unde avea sa ramana (cu o intrerupere de sase ani, cand a trait in America). Era supranumit Printul Montparnasse-ului, pentru felul generos in care se purta in localurile de noapte, cu prietenii, cu barmanii si ospatarii, de multe ori cu alti clienti intalniti intamplator. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway i-a dedicat un capitol: With Pascin At the Dôme. Va voi vorbi odata si odata si de capitolul acesta.

(Intalniri neasteptate cu Romani)


Yegor Gaidar Passed Away

Yegor Gaidar passed away at the age of 53. Death was due to pulmonary edema caused by his heart disease.

During the nineties Mr. Gaidar was the main architect of the shock therapy in Russia. Many of his compatriots associate him with the miseries of that decade. Maybe some day Russian society will realize that Yegor Gaidar did what should have been done, and did it with courage, determination and wit. Says Washington Post, he freed prices, knowing that some people's meager savings would be wiped out, because there was no other way to get goods to market; he favored rapid privatization, knowing that the only people with capital to invest were, by Soviet definition, criminals, because he had faith that property-holders would begin to understand the importance of the rule of law; he always defended his program with logic and honesty against enemies who bothered with neither; his program brought less success than similar policies applied in Poland and other central and eastern European countries; he made mistakes, of course; but he also faced ferocious opposition from unrepentant communists and inconstant support from Mr. Yeltsin; having spent a generation longer under communism, Russia had a deeper hole to dig out from; and while outposts of the Soviet empire could blame Russia for their unhappiness during the difficult transition to capitalism, Russians, having no such ready scapegoat, found it convenient to blame Mr. Gaidar. Says Andrei Ostalski from BBC, there were only two solutions - either introducing martial law and severe rationing, or radically liberalizing the economy; the first option meant going all the way back to the Stalinist system of mass repression; the second meant a colossal change, a journey - or, rather, a race - through uncharted waters with an unpredictable outcome.

What happened in Russia after the nineties? Vladimir Putin (favored by soaring oil prices) spurned Gaidar's views and embraced nationalism and authoritarian governance. Still, says Washington Post, it would be wrong to label Mr. Gaidar a failure. The middle class he dreamed of has indeed emerged in Russia, and it enjoys a kind of personal freedom unknown in previous Russian history.

(Zoon Politikon)


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Decade of Dread

Harold Meyerson in Washington Post:

This decade began and ended in dread. It began with Wall Street -- the World Trade Center -- targeted for mass murder. It ends with Main Street fearful and reeling from economic reverses that Wall Street helped create.

It was the decade of distraction. While the U.S. economy bubbled and then crumbled, the president for eight of the decade's 10 years embroiled us in a grudge match with Saddam Hussein and then persisted in throwing lives and money into the chaotic conflict that (as many predicted would happen) ensued. The decline of the American middle class was nowhere on his radar screen.

The stocks bubble of the late 1990s was succeeded by a bubble in housing; these were the engines of our economic growth. America's production of goods no longer received the level of investment that had made it the engine of our economic growth from the mid-19th century through the 1970s. The change began at the outset of the Reagan years, when the percentage of corporate profits retained for new investment dropped sharply. A report from the International Labor Organization published last week shows where the money went: to shareholder dividends, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. In the prosperity years of 1946 to 1979, dividends constituted 23 percent of profits. From 1980 to 2008, they constituted 46 percent.

Finance boomed. The gap in annual wages between workers at financial companies and workers at non-financial companies, the ILO reports, grew from $11,000 in 1989 to $40,000 in 2007. The financial sector defended this shift by arguing that it had created many innovative financial products -- the very financial products that managed to turn downturn into Great Recession. In an interview in Monday's Wall Street Journal, former Fed chief Paul Volcker said that he has found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy. He went on to say: All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations.

The dread in the land today isn't just a fear of losing your job -- or of your spouse, sister, father or child losing his or hers. It's a fear that America has been hollowed out, that we don't have a sustainable path back to mass prosperity, let alone to economic preeminence. A poll taken last month for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) shows that 44 percent of Americans considered China to be the world's leading economic power, while just 27 percent thought the United States still held that throne. Such fears can only be intensified by public policies that fail to champion America's national interests by fostering the flight of investment abroad.

Overcoming some of our national phobia about having an industrial policy, the Obama administration has rightly targeted the renewable energy sector for investment -- a long overdue shift back to real, rather than financial, production. But we don't yet have policies to ensure that the real production we're fostering is done at home. As Joan Fitzgerald, director of the Law, Policy and Society program at Northeastern University, notes in a recent article, 84 percent of the $1.05 billion in federal clean-energy grants distributed since September has gone to foreign wind turbine manufacturers. Unionized, high-wage Germany and non-unionized, low-wage China both have thriving wind-power industries that profitably export their products to us. We have shunned policies that bolster domestic production, which is why more Americans are betting on China's economy than on our own.

The problem is that America's economic elites have thrived on the financialization and globalization of the economy that have caused the incomes of the vast majority of their fellow Americans to stagnate or decline. The insecurity that haunts their compatriots is alien to them. Fully 85 percent of Americans in that CFR-sponsored poll said that protecting U.S. jobs should be a top foreign policy priority, but when the pollsters asked that question of the council's own members, just 21 percent said that protecting American jobs should be a top concern.

The moral world that we see in that poll is the moral world of Charles Dickens. Of the elite of his day, he wrote in Bleak House, there is much good in it. . . . But, he continued, it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun. It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes unhealthy for want of air.

America, at the end of this dreadful decade.

(You should send your comments to the author, at meyersonh@washpost.com)

(Zoon Politikon)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

News from Hirshhorn

I was so many times at Hirshhorn; on any given Sunday I was spending there one or two hours in the afternoon: the Black Box in the basement, with the amazing videos of Kimsooja, and Ori Gersht, and Van der Verwe; and paintings by Chuck Close and Jasper Johns on the walls there, in the basement's lobby; and the Hyper-Realist exhibitions; on the first floor the small art bookstore, with albums and DVDs; on the second floor exhibitions of Conceptual Art or challenging contemporary short movies; and the sculptures of all the masters of the vanguard; and the third floor with rooms devoted to Clyfford Still, and Calder, and de Kooning, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly; the room where Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol were together; and the Sculpture Garden, in front of the museum, with Rodin, Bourdelle, Moore - Brancusi is just a little bit in the museum, he has a place of honor at the National Gallery.

Gordon Bunshaft created the building of the museum, with a great Sci-Fi allure: a building that is perhaps distant, while fascinating, giving the impression of an inter-planetary station. A building that can send you to the atmosphere in the movies of Antonioni, of a petrified world, or to the novels of Lem, or Clarke, or the Strugatkys, the gate to leave the Earth for ever, to start your cosmic adventure: Antonioni or Clarke, death or renewal, depending on your mood.

Now the director of the museum, Richard Koshalek, decided to add a huge conference hall to this building. Diller Scofidio & Renfro (known for their interdisciplinary approach, mixing architecture, installation art, video and electronic art) designed a huge inflatable hall with a bulge at the top. Nicolai Ouroussoff has a review in today's NY Times. I took the two images from there.

And now, Hirshhorn became the true gate toward Cosmos.

(Hirshhorn Museum)


Monday, December 14, 2009

Brazil's Headaches

Sebastian Mallaby in Washington Post:

The country of the moment is Brazil, that melting pot of almost 200 million people. A thriving democracy, it has a hugely popular president and rapidly falling poverty. It recently won contests to host soccer's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. It is opening diplomatic missions all over the world. Its economy was one of the last into the financial crisis and one of the first to escape. And yet Brazil's achievements are vulnerable. To keep its marvelous success on track, Brazil may have to do something that horrifies its diplomats: Confront China.

Brazil's vulnerability comes from its currency, the real, which has jumped by a third against the dollar in the past year. A further rise could undermine exporters and make it impossible for domestic producers to compete with cheap imports, puncturing the vitality on which the Brazilian miracle is predicated. And a further rise seems all too possible. The forces driving up the real are not about to reverse themselves.

The first driver is the fragility of the U.S. economy, which causes the Fed to hold down interest rates, inducing capital to seek higher returns elsewhere. Brazil is a favorite destination: Its interest rates are high and financial conditions inspire confidence. Most forecasters expect the U.S. recovery to remain sluggish for the foreseeable future. So the logic of low U.S. interest rates probably won't change, and the upward pressure on the real is likely to continue.

The second force driving up the real is China. If economic logic prevailed, the real would fall against the Chinese yuan: China has a vast current account surplus, while Brazil has a deficit. But last year China re-pegged its currency to the dollar, so the yuan has followed the dollar down, hammering Brazil's ability to compete against Chinese producers. Meanwhile, the illogically weak yuan hurts producers in other countries, encouraging central banks to keep interest rates low and driving yet more capital into Brazil. This pressure from China is likely to grow along with China's economy.

What can Brazil do about its rearing currency? It could cut interest rates to deter money from coming in, but Brazil's economy is hot and lower rates would risk inflation. It could fight capital inflows with taxes -- it has already experimented with this option -- but such restrictions tend to leak like umbrellas made of icing. It could intervene in the foreign-exchange market, selling reals and buying dollars, but then scarce Brazilian savings would get tied up in the depreciating greenback. Or Brazil could protect its industry with tariffs. But protectionism could spark a cycle of retaliation.

The grim truth is that Brazil's domestic tools aren't powerful enough to stop its currency from threatening its success. So what about diplomacy? Asking the United States to raise its interest rates and take pressure off the real is a non-starter. With U.S. unemployment around 10 percent and an additional 7 percent of the U.S. workforce obliged to get by on part-time jobs, there is no way the Fed can raise interest rates to rescue Brazil from its predicament.

That leaves the option of talking to China. Unlike the Fed, China's central bank has good reasons to raise interest rates and abandon its peg to the declining dollar. The peg is distorting the Chinese economy and causing the nation to amass dollar reserves that are destined to lose value. Admittedly, China's political leaders have overruled the technocrats who would like to modify the exchange-rate peg, and they have ignored appeals from the United States and Europe. But the Chinese leadership might be more open to arguments from a successful emerging economy such as Brazil, especially if the Brazilians rounded up support from other middle-income members of the Group of 20.

Unfortunately, Brazil has no stomach for arguments with China. Its diplomats prize solidarity among the emerging "BRIC" nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), even when that solidarity could threaten the growth on which Brazil's BRIC status is premised. And for the moment, Brazil's currency squeeze is not quite severe enough to scream for attention. The economy is expected to grow by a respectable 3.5 percent or so next year, and Brazil has done so well of late that it seemingly has no time to worry about problems.

On a recent Sunday in Sao Paulo, when Brazilians were reveling in the final day of the soccer season, a gang tunneled into the building of an armored-car company and blew open a safe, making off with nearly $6 million. Security guards heard the explosion but did nothing, assuming the noise came from soccer fans celebrating a goal with particularly tremendous fireworks. Perhaps there is a lesson here. Moments of rejoicing can be moments of trouble.

(Zoon Politikon)


Arctic Surfing

For Wolfgang, he loves extreme sea sports.

(Wolfgang Held)


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Japanese Jingle Bells

(video by Yokomaririn)

It's the spirit of Christmas in Kyoto: the spirit of joy and of fun, of imagining a young world. It's the world of the videos of Yoko.

(The Thousand faces of HANAFUBUKI)


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Julie & Julia

(video by ClevverMovies)

The most famous cookbook is Romania is the one of Sanda Marin; even people who never entered a kitchen heard about. I always wondered who that Sanda Marin was. When I found her biography on the web I realized that she couldn't have been another kind of person: a very kind woman, enjoying the life near a very kind husband, and surrounded by very kind friends, passionate to try in the kitchen new dishes, taking it easy for the inevitable culinary accidents, eager to share her culinary discoveries with her husband, with her friends, then with all Romanian women by writing her cookbook.

It is always like that: you cannot write a cookbook if you are not a kind and generous person, with patience in the kitchen to try and fail and try again and discover, with the sense of humor to take it easy when you screw it up, and the wish to express your joy of making good food to your family, to your friends, and eventually to all people. A cookbook is more than a collection of recipes: it is your life there, your patience, your tries and errors and re-tries and it is your joy.

Now, here's the question: can you make an exciting movie about a cookbook? Yes, you can, if you are Nora Ephron, this blessed film director who gave us Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, and now, this Julie & Julia.

Nora Ephron has witt, and humor, and the feel of cinematic rhytm, and a great sense of how to tell nicely a story, and how to make you feel in love with what's there on the screen.

And here, in Julie & Julia, Ms. Ephron followed two parallel stories, that had happened at a distance of fifty years one another: the story of two cookbooks; the French recipes of Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep), and the blog telling the re-creation of those French recipes - Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams), passionate to discover the culinary secrets of Julia Child. And in both stories, a kind woman, with the patience to stay in the kitchen and to try new recipes, the sense of humor to take it easy when you didn't make it, the great joy when you made it, the eagerness to share the discoveries with a kind husband, with nice friends, and then with the whole world. In both cases, the making of the cookbook was a wonderful adventure.

I have my own story of watching this movie: I was terribly tired and I felt asleep, I re-watched the movie immediately and I enjoyed it.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Start of Christmas Time in Lexington

It's December, Christmas time started. The video was recorded in Lexington, MA.

We were to buy the Christmas tree and we went to the Christmas City (if you didn't know, there is such a city in Lexington).

I did not have my camera, so I asked my son Andrei to record the video for me. Thus it's the only video where you can see me too. At the end you can see my two granddaughters, Bianca and Daria.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Hou Hsiao-Hsien on Ozu

In the movies of Ozu family is a backdrop, says Hou Hsiao-Hsien: it's a study of a society in evolution: a daughter gets eventually married; only, this is observed on slightly different historic periods, and the difference is of two or three years, the end of the forties, the beginning of the fifties, the middle of the fifties: the evolution of post-war Japanese society followed very slowly, with great patience and love for the detail.

(Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Labels: ,

Vyacheslav Tikhonov Passed Away

Vyacheslav Tikhonov passed away. The great Russian actor played Prince Andrei in War and Peace, the cinematic adaptation of Sergei Bondarchuk, and also Stirlitz, in the popular Soviet TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring.

(Russian and Soviet Cinema)

November Jams

(video by NBA)

for my friend Dan D.


The Swiss and the Minarets

Switzerland is famous for its mountains; it became recently famous also for its minarets. There are 4 mosques with minarets there and a population of 350,000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo. 13% of these Muslims go regularly to prayer (I took these data from The Guardian). Recently the prime minister of Turkey declared that minarets are the bayonets of Islam; Swiss folks took it seriously and banned future minarets in their country. As I said, most Muslims from there came from Bosnia and Kosovo, which are geographically situated in former Yugoslavia, it means not in Turkey. Here's what Peter Stamm has to say in today's NY Times:

Three years ago I was invited to the Tehran International Book Fair; afterward I traveled around the country. The mosques I visited were so empty as to give the impression that Iran was as secular as Western Europe.

It wasn’t until I took a trip to a place of pilgrimage in the mountains that I saw large numbers of the faithful. The traffic started piling up even before my group reached the town of Imamzadeh Davood. A few of the pilgrims were making the trek on foot, together with the sheep they intended to sacrifice. The narrow streets were bustling just as at Christian places of pilgrimage: booths crammed with junk, groups of teenagers taking pictures of each other, every nook and cranny packed with candles lighted by believers in the hope their wishes would be fulfilled.

I was received by the mayor and invited to dinner — the first Swiss he had ever met. He showed me the mosque and led me to the tomb of the saint. I, the unbeliever, was allowed into places where even pilgrims were not permitted. During my three weeks in Iran, my faith, or rather the lack thereof, was never an issue. However bellicose the political face of Islam often appears, in everyday practice what I experienced was a religion of hospitality and tolerance.

Switzerland, on the other hand, appeared alarmingly intolerant last weekend, when 58 percent of our voters approved a ban on the building of new minarets. When the minaret referendum was proposed by the rightist Swiss People’s Party, no one really took it seriously.

Some consideration was given to having it declared invalid on the grounds that it was unconstitutional as well as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but in the end the government agreed to allow the referendum to go forward, probably in the hope that it would be roundly defeated and thereby become a symbol of Swiss open-mindedness. So certain were the politicians of prevailing that hardly any publicity was fielded against the initiative. As a result, the streets were dominated by the proponents’ posters, which showed a veiled woman in front of a forest of minarets that looked like missiles.

Minarets have never been a problem in Switzerland. There are four in the entire country, some of which have been standing for decades. (One of them is in my city but I’ve never seen it.) And only two other minarets were being planned. Most mosques are in faceless industrial districts where no one notices them. But perhaps that is exactly the problem. Islamic immigrants don’t live with us but beside us, just as French, German, Italian and Romansch-speaking Swiss live alongside each other without a great deal of animosity — or interaction.

The average Swiss citizen has no real contact with Islam. Headscarves are seldom seen on the street, and chadors are practically nonexistent. Moreover, when young proponents of the ban talk about problems with Muslims, they almost exclusively mean young men from the Balkans, who come across as male chauvinists but are almost never active members of Muslim communities. Most people encounter Islam only through the news media, which don’t report on the Muslims in our country but focus on terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Iranian plans for an atomic bomb and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s absurd proposal to abolish Switzerland.

It’s hard to find one overarching explanation for why the Swiss voted as they did. Similar referendums have brought surprises: 35 percent of voters wanting to do away with the army, for instance, or 58 percent approving of same-sex partnerships. The prevailing Swiss attitude is both conservative and liberal: on the one hand everything should stay the way it is, on the other everyone should be able to do what he or she wants.

What’s most conspicuous in these referendums is that we are a nation of pragmatists, inclined to our dour obstinacy, and we owe our success not to grand ideas but to problem-solving. So focused are we on getting things done, it almost doesn’t matter if the problem isn’t a problem, or if the solution risks sullying the country’s reputation. We Swiss sacrificed our good standing as a multicultural and open-minded society to ban the construction of minarets that no one intends to build in order to defend ourselves against an Islam that has never existed in Switzerland.

Perhaps Muslims here are more Swiss than the rest of us might think. They too will solve the problem we’ve made for them: they are likely to swallow the results of this referendum, do without their minarets and continue to assemble for prayer, unnoticed and unperturbed.

(Zoon Politikon)