And every other concept that is a judgment of worth. Every read Umberto Eco, everyone’s favorite semiotics professor turned novelist? He wrote a book titled on beauty. Okay read, nothing special. Then he wrote On Ugliness, in which he argues that art is actually dominated by ugliness and that beauty is defined as being the opposite of ugly.
Tag Archives: Review
As I have noted in earlier posts, whilst in Tanzania we spent a good amount of time with the orphans and schoolchildren that lived at the convent. The school library had a suprizingly decent selection of movies and we would often screen movies with the kids. Our group would decide which movie to watch, and one time we watched the Disney Princess and the Frog which everyone else said they loved. I had never seen it before, but did want to see it since I had heard so much about how it was incredibly racist (like Disney tends to be with animated films not set in generic Europe.) It was worse than I thought. For one thing it had every single thing stereotypically associated with New Orleans and Louisiana I can think of short of bared breasts, Katrina, and oil spills. Gumbo, frogs, jazz playing alligators, Mardi Gras, Voodoo, the bayou, and even more was just crammed together in the most contrived way imaginable. That’s not even getting into the “racist” part of it.
Much like Aladin and Mulan, the racism lies in its depiction of the primary antagonist. This film taking place in Louisiana Disney predicatably chose to make the villian, Dr. Facilier a top hatted “Voodoo Man.” Like any other depiction of voodoo in mass media, Dr. Facilier is shown as black magician in leage with evil spirits and scamming innocent people. What is so troubling about that? Well Voodoo (also spelt as vodou or vodun) is a living religion that along with the related faiths of Santeria and Cadomble claim several million adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the only time it is ever seen in the media is a dark, sinister cult practiced by dirty con artists. These misrepresnations have their origins from the fear many Westerners felt after the Haitian Revolution, and became cemented in popular imagination when Hollywood started attempts to depict voodoo following the Marine Corps intervention in Haiti during the 1920s.
What specifically was wrong? Let me explain. For one thing Dr. Facilier wears a feathered tophat and torn tail coat, with a shirt that is too small and a claw necklace. In reality tophats are strictly associated with spirits of the dead, and are worn with full formal dress because the death spirits are supposed to be wealthy; yet most pop cultures portrayals show all “witch doctors” wearing them along with generally primitive looking attire. No specific deities were named, probably because Disney didn’t actually do any research and couldn’t even contrive to use a very basic spirit like Samedi, Damballah, Legba, Erzulie, or Shango (it would be like omitting Zeus et al from Hercules). No Catholic iconography appeared either: this is a huge error since slaves who brought their religions from Africa were forced to disguise their spirits as Catholic saints, usually ones that are remotely similiar. Instead just generic “friends from the other side” were used, and they looked more like poorly made Hawaiian Tikis than African entities. Most importantly they clearly had voodoo confused with Palo/Nganga, a seperate religion which is notorious for having unregulated priests who will do anything to make money.
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After the movie was done and the kids left someone on our team remarked that she was worried that maybe the movie might have scared children, since “voodoo is still practiced in some tribes in Tanzania.” Except that it totally isn’t. It’s about as prevelant in Tanzania as Shinto is in India. Complete absent if you were wondering. I corrected her and said that voodoo doesn’t exist in Tanzania or anywhere in East Africa, and that it only exists in West Africa. Actually that’s not even true, it really only exists in Haiti, Louisiana, and a few other Francophone areas, what they have in West Africa is Vodun has differences. I went on to say that its clear Disney didn’t do any research, and when another asked what made me think that I gave them an answer that was sufficiently watered down from what I have been posting. That individual informed that “there’s different kinds of Voodoo, and what they had in the movie is how it is in Louisiana.” Um no it isn’t, and besides in Louisiana it has been completely sold out by the tourist industry and weird white people who like stealing nonwestern religions. I didn’t say that, tactful Tom that I am. After I was done explaining what was wrong, yet another said that “most people wouldn’t know the difference.” I even attempt to explain that the movie was racist, since some people don’t even see racism in Peter “What makes the Red Man Red” Pan.
I have recently viewed Z, directed by Costa Gavras. Z is a political thriller about the assassination of a Greek presidential hopeful named Grigoris Lambrakis who was running on an antinuclear and Nonaligned platform. Lambrakis was a real Greek politician though the story told in Z is highly fictionalized; interestingly it begins with a disclaimer saying that “any resemblance to real persons or events is intentional.”
The opening dialogue discusses methods used to prevent mildew in French vineyards, and it is revealed to be a lecture given by a general to several other uniformed officers; the general goes on to explicitly link this with preventing the spread of Communism in Greece. I knew what he was getting at from the first mention of mildew. This sets the stage for the rest of the film. Before Lambrakis even appears, several of his campaigners are shown preparing for a rally and are inform that someone is out for him.
Much of the suspense of the film is whether he will be killed, and when he is killed then the focus on just who was responsible. Was it the Communists? Nationalists? Army? Police? Random act of mob violence? Unfortunately even before seeing the film I knew that it was the military responsible. A group of street thugs are followed and shown instigating riots, and it is later revealed that they were planted by the military, which reminded me of all the other examples of astroturfed resistance against democratic leaders like Arbenz and Mossadegh. Interestingly absent from Z is the USA and USSR. Both are mentioned on numerous occasions and Lambrakis made it clear he opposed either side having the bomb and that he would make Greece neutral, but no Americans or Soviets are anywhere to be seen. I really liked this because it helped to focus in on Greece, which is portrayed as being heavily partisan.
Not only does this movie give an excellent look at pre junta Greece, it is also an excellent film on an artistic level. The cinematography is naturalistic, not obviously staged like most Hollywood films. Because it depicts contemporary events, the clothes seen are totally authentic and not costumes. One thing that interested me is that many of Lambrakis’ young supporters are shown wearing clothes very similar to those worn by the mods, teddy boys, and beats of Britain. Filming was done in Algeria, though I couldn’t tell it wasn’t Greece. One thing that annoyed me was that all of the dialogue is in French and not Greek, and signs and documents shown are written in French and English. Not using Greek really distracted me from the fact it was supposed to be Greece and somewhat took away from the realism. Other than that the film is excellent storytelling.
The impression I got from Z was a cynical portrait of Greece as a heavily troubled place where people got killed for not being extreme enough. The sympathy of the film is definitely given to the Left, but it hardly glamorized them. Admittedly I know little about Greece during this period, but I feel that after seeing Z I understand the situation much better. All of the significant factions that vied for power are present, and their interactions are entertainingly shown. Overall I would say that Z is an excellent work that succeeds on all counts.
Well last night I was at home to get a haircut for my job interview and my mom was kind enough to DVR the opening ceremony for me. I must say, it was probably the most impressive one I can remember (certainly of the Winter ones) and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Russia has such a long, storied, complex, and frankly awkward national history and I think that the Sochi committee did a brilliant job at covering all that in such a concise manner. Being a Nonwestern History Major and having took a Russian Lit class last semester really made it possible for me to appreciate what I was seeing; as having context always does. During the Cyrillic acrostic segment I was familiar with every item listed, though I would like to know poor Tolstoy was forced to share T with television (every other letter only got one item). The Thousand Years of History in Three Minutes short was also very good, starting with the Varangians and ending with right now (but the writers of this short didn’t seem to think anything notable happened in the last century). My personal favorite scene in the whole ceremony was when Czar Peter the Great sailed to what would later become St. Petersburg. I could recognize everything that was being shown, so I really didn’t like the fact the announcers had to explain every damn thing that was shown. I know The Bronze Horseman when I see it. I did a face palm during the ball dance, because it brought me back to the dreary experience of braving through Anna Karenina, so I laughed heartily when the train appeared later. Over all I would say that the opening ceremony was everything it should be, save for some egregious omissions. It was certainly better than the London 2012 one, which was very, well, British. The only thing missing from the Sochi ceremony was Putin wrestling an almasty.
I have just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It tells about how Belgium’s King, Leopold II, managed to purchase the Congo as his personal estate. Many people are familiar with Stanley’s expedition of the Congo River, where he famously found Dr. Livingstone. What people do not know was that Stanley went to Congo in Leopold’s behalf, and that the duration of the journey was marked by monumental death and destruction. Torching villages, wiping out elephant herds, all of which laid a template for how Leopold would mismanage the Congo for the next several decades. What the book focuses on is how Leopold manipulated the global community into believing he was some great philanthropist (who took over the place simply to end bad things like slavery, female genital mutilation, and eating Pygmies), and how brave visitors eventually blew the whistle and led to his downfall. Congo’s resources have been proven to be more of a curse than a blessing, because the ample ivory, minerals, palm oil, timber, and rubber make it a very attractive place for exploitation. If Leopold didn’t take over someone else would have. Westerners have long viewed Africa as the Dark Continent, and this has proven to be a self fulfilling prophecy. Spreading lies that Africa was a savage place provided an excuse to exploit it, and as a result for the past three hundred years Africa’s history has been very Dark. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been one of the worst places in the world, and reading King Leopold’s Ghost will help you understand how it got that way.
The most recent book I have finished reading is The Master and Margatita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It tells the story of the Devil showing up in Moscow one day, some time in the late 1930s and follows him and his entourage across the town as they cause a number of outrageous incidents. While the satirical elements may not resonate with those unfamiliar with Stalin-era Soviet history (such as the Apartment Crisis), the events and characters will definitely compensate. The titular Master is a novelist who is writing a novel within a novel, which tells the story of Pontius Pilate and creates an amazing juxtaposition between modern Moscow and ancient Jerusalem. This overlaps with a retelling of the Faust legend. What makes the novel so brilliant are all of the characters, including the Devil who is shown as a stage magician and professor of the occult, a witch who is always naked, a dwarf vampire, Jesus, and giant talking cat who gives Garfield and the Cheshire Cat a run for their money. Oh, and accordion playing chimpanzees show up at one point. This is the best book I have read all year. You should read it. You shouldn’t be disappointed.
During this weekend I went home and caught up on my DVR. One film that I watched was a 1922 Danish production called Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages. Häxan is a docudrama providing an in depth look at Medieval beliefs about witches, which is dramatized though a series of vignettes. The conclusion about these beliefs is that witches and people suffering from demon possession are merely misunderstood sufferers of mental disorders. Contemporary sequences about the now discredited disease “hysteria” are added to draw parallels between ancient superstition and modern quack medicine. Each segment is wondrously realized with stunning visuals, brought to life with costumes, makeup, and visual effects. Do be warned that Häxan is silent, if you wouldn’t watch a movie simply because it doesn’t have sound than this isn’t for you. However, if you have watched any silent classic (Charlie Chaplin doesn’t count) like Metropolis or Nosferatu you will understand just how visually arresting silent era movies can be. Highly recommended and available free online via public domain.
I have just finished reading Stray Dog Cabaret, an anthology of Modernist Russian poetry translated by Paul Schmidt. The anthology takes it’s name from the Stray Dog Cabaret (or Cafe), a short lived St. Petersburg restaraunt (open from 1911 to 1915) where many poets met to share their works. What is interesting about this collection is how it is arranged, poems are not organized by poet or linearly by appearance. You would have to go ahead and read it to see what I mean. The three major movements in Russian poetry are represented, the Symbolists, Futurists, and one uniquely Russian: the Acmeists. Some of the poets included are Anna Akhmatova, Sergei Esensin, Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakoysky, future Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak, and my personal favorite Alexander Blok. I know most people probably haven’t heard of any of these writers, neither had I before reading this (except Pasternak), and many people don’t read poetry at all, but you should give this one a chance. It captures the essense of post Tolstoi pre Lenin Russia.
I have just finished reading Purgatorio, the second part of The Divine Comedy. While Inferno was excellent, I found Purgatorio to be even better. Purgatorio is a much more tangible setting than Inferno was. Inferno was mostly just very creative fire and brimstone, but Purgatorio is about Dante’s ascent up a mountain; which is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Purgatorio is an island mountain at the bottom of the globe, which in the Comedy’s cosmology is the only land in the Southern hemisphere. It is where the dead souls go to atone for their sins, with a terrace for each sin and every one is easier to climb than the last becuase the burden of Sin gets lighter and lighter. If you have already read Inferno and ejoyed it, read Purgatorio. I wouldn’t reccomend reading Purgatorio with having read Inferno first, but I imagine that its possible. As I said in my review of the former work, the Divine Comedy provides a lapidary summary of Late Medieval thought. Unfortunately I will not be able to move on the Paradiso, the last part. We don’t have time to do so and the course is now on The Faerie Queen, but I intend to read Paradiso once I can. Purgatory is excellent, I can’t stress enough how much of a shame it is that people only read Inferno.
I have just finished watching Adanggaman, an indie film from Cote d’Ivoire. Adanggaman provides an unforgiving look at the slave trade as it existed in late seventeenth century West Africa. While countless Hollywood films have looked at slavery, very few have dared to touch the Transatlantic Slave Trade; a noted exception being Amistad, which depicted it in a completely anachronistic manner. There are many things about Adanggaman that make it very different from mainstream films. For one thing it was clearly shot on a limited budget, so it focuses far more on dialogue and characterization than it does on creating a visual spectacle. Still, the props, sets, and costumes are good enough, and the movie takes full advantage of the scenery of its film location (an American film with this budget could not afford to film in Africa). What I liked best about Adanggaman was is that the slave trade is portrayed in a matter of fact way without passing a moral judgment or making it painfully obvious what emotions we are supposed to feel. Showing this tragic era from a solely African perspective also makes it unique, even though White people are frequently mentioned none actually appear. Overall I would say that while it could be better, Adanggaman is definitely worth viewing.