Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Crush on Italy

Cinema is a Franco-American invention, but was there ever a country that the movie camera loved more than Italy? The dappled light, the antiquities, the dark-eyed maidens...the script writes itself.

And that's the trouble. With so much to look at, why struggle for any depth? Rob Marshall's Nine assembles an attractive cast and turns them loose on the stylish peninsula, then expects the audience to stay interested for three hours.

Nine's screenwriter Anthony Minghella was the man behind The Talented Mr. Ripley, a darker examination of Italy's seduction of innocents. Patricia Highsmith's source material was better adapted by homegrown Liliana Cavani in Ripley's Game, possibly because she didn't think to lean on the landscape.

Because when foreign filmmakers head south to where it's easy on the eyes, you can expect the scenery to pick up slack.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spanish Civil Warriors

Maybe time to take another look at that infamous disaster that so diverted the international left wing. Because certain have claimed that this war that was really a revolution was just an opportunity for Soviet insurrection, or for the aggrandizement of Ernest Hemingway.

James Neugass' recent memoir puts the human cost at the forefront. Like Orwell's famous missive, Homage to Catalonia, he has no specific agenda other than his own truth. Also like Orwell, he was way in front of Britain and the United States in recognizing the global threat of fascism. Even if World War II was worth fighting (it was), the '30s and '40s contained a level of political violence that would seem atrocious to anyone born afterward.

For example: Franco's first point of order upon seizing power was to assassinate the greatest poet in Spain. It wouldn't be long before he would suppress all Spanish fiestas and send all independent-thinking people in his nation fleeing to the Americas. His long-lasting brutality makes this story all the harder to believe, recounted to me by my American friend who lives near Madrid:

I was riding my bike in the same little plaza in our town where I ride every day. There was the usual assortment of local seniors enjoying the weather and in general treating the public square as their own living room, in the authentic manner of Spaniards. The difference today was that the street had been monopolized by a fashion magazine's photo shoot. Barriers blocked traffic and our usually calm space was disturbed. I was commiserating with the old-timers about the unfortunate circumstance, and one of them muttered: "This never would have happened under Franco!" I found myself reflexively agreeing, and it took me a minute to realize that this guy was nostalgic for fascism.

Totalitarianism has its perks, after all, but we should be willing to endure the decadent fashion industry if it means no Franco.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Third Force

Jean-Paul Sartre was the most embattled postwar French philosopher. His serious and original engagement in political affairs brought him the enmity of left, right and center, both in his own country and abroad. He was even haunted by imaginary lobsters. Still, he graciously absorbed the admiration of the world's disaffected youth, while quaffing sherry from his battle station at Café de Flore.

Western Europe was poised between two rival imperial forces. France tended to lean left but of course toeing the Communist line was difficult in the wake of Budapest '56, if not earlier. And so Sartre formulated a "Third Force," and created the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly, designed to keep his country autonomous from the era's two great powers. For this he was accused of demagoguery and blasphemy. Those who saw him as a Soviet agent felt confirmed when he rejected the Nobel Prize in '64.

The Revolutionary Democratic Assembly initially had wide support, including from Sartre's rival Albert Camus. Rebecca Pitt, from the International Socialism Journal:

Sartre's involvement in the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly (RDR): The RDR was formed in early 1948 as a response to the Cold War, the Stalinist PCF and Gaullism, and made clear where its principles lay:

    Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution.

Formed as a left wing anti-Stalinist assembly, the RDR was able to "achieve a larger membership than any Trotskyist grouping between 1945 and 1968. However, as Birchall points out, the RDR contributed to its own downfall by failing to provide a clear position on the quickly developing political situation.

Sartre was no coalition-builder. He never got his revolution. But Sartre's radical notion of a European exception--a progressive, humane and powerful society--has indeed come to pass with the rise of the European Union.

Certainly he would have repudiated the taint of "rotten capitalist democracy." If the revolutionary aspect of Sartre's Third Force exists today, it's in the Latin American struggles for autonomy. But global politics is now "multipolar." Europe has transcended the power play between the U.S. and the shadowy East.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Astérix Lives!

BBC man-in-Paris Hugh Schofield has some critical things to say about Astérix, the comic book hero and plucky symbol of Gaullist resistance. To Schofield and other fans, the indigenous warrior with the drooping mustache and magic potion has been phoning it in since 1977, when writer René Goscinny died.

What's revealing about Schofield's eulogy is the allegory to Franco-Belgian exceptionalism, under siege by a homogenized pax americana. Other critics saw parallels to other struggles--deriving from various French premiers, Corsican separatists, and even the Nazis. But the current foe is a loss of aboriginal identity to more powerful sibling nations. Astérix outwitted his cloddish Roman imperialist foes, and likewise sophisticated Europe sees itself as a bulwark against consumer culture.

But if Astérix is treading water, then what does that say for Europe's self-image? If he falls prey to Hollywood, as have his compatriots Tintin and Blake and Mortimer, then would that be an unpardonable cultural capitulation?

No, it wouldn't. Astérix is another distinctively European phenomenon that has become global. Just look at the comments page on Schofield's story: worldwide fans thrill to his antics in over 100 languages. His fiftieth anniversary is being feted in Angola. Lost amid the accounts of Europe's decline or its identity crisis is the view that the world has become European.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wages of Fear

Henri-Georges' Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece features Yves Montand and a cast of pan-European ne'er-do-wells in the throes of physical and moral decay in a sleepy Central American town. Montand was a charming nightclub singer in Paris. For The Wages of Fear he had to become an unlikeable misanthrope.

The task for these men, put to them by a morally bankrupt American oil company, is to drive trucks full of nitroglycerine over a mountain range in order to put out a fire. It's a suicide mission, but one they all throw themselves into, so desperate are their straits. This film has a similar resonance to The Deer Hunter--an unflinching gaze into the abyss of human error.

The long prologue establishes the characters although it denies the viewer background information: how did they get to Las Piedras, what drove them here? They banter in a resigned linguistic soup--stateless postapocalyptic vagabonds in an environment of half-naked child-sadists.

You don't have to be a master dot-connector to see the anti-Americanism in the depiction of the oil company's merciless grip on the people and the place. But Clouzot's scorn does not stop there: the European hero/victims are just as cruel and selfish and arbitrary as their American manipulators.

The filmmaker claimed that a brush with death in a sanitarium turned him into an artist, although you've got to think Nazi Occupation and French collaboration were not far beneath Clouzot's bleak view of the world. The director received a lifelong suspension from French cinema for his purportedly anti-French Le Corbeau. It was later reduced and Clouzot returned to his depictions of sinister deeds.

Like so many French movies (Pépé le Moko, Mon Oncle), there is a yearning for an absent French essence. Jo and Mario talk about the streets in Paris they lived as they drive to their demise. The Wages of Fear was actually shot in the Camargue, the arid flamingo habitat in Provence.

Although the scorn may be spread evenly--blame directed at institutions and individuals alike--the demonization of American private enterprise feels like a touchstone in European leeriness. American foreign policy and unchecked industrial capitalism would continue to divide Europe and America.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Big in Europe

European appreciation of American culture always can seem condescending, but I think they are just more wholehearted about "low art" then we are. My Belgian friend could take or leave the U.S., but he is hopelessly devoted to donuts with sprinkles on them, which are unavailable on his side of the pond.

The French are well-known and often mocked for their love of Jerry Lewis. American audiences have a hard time remembering any of his achievements prior to those muscular dystrophy telethons. Lewis was a son of vaudevillians, and a writer, performer, producer and director who shattered film industry barriers and invented video assist, allowing directors to review what they had just shot.

Stateside, his embarrassing brand of comedy has not aged well, but in the sixties the French managed to re-ironize the screen legend. Americans can be smartasses, but in France the phrase "une certaine perversité" is considered complimentary. The auteur theory, more prevalent in Europe, holds that a great film can emanate from a single brilliant mind. And Lewis, in spite of his terrible taste, joins the ranks of Chaplin, Keaton, and Woody Allen in leaving a powerful, personal, idiosyncratic imprint on his work. Incidentally, Allen is also more loved in Europe. In this movie, he insists that his films "gain something in the translation."

Susan Bernofsky says that the equivalent to Jerry Lewis in Germany is Donald Duck. Apparently this is not due to some intrinsic Germanness to the slobbering, pantsless cartoon character. Nor is it a failure of Americans to appreciate Donald's brilliance. His cult following in Germany arose thanks to the erudite translations of Erika Fuchs, described as "a free spirit in owlish glasses." My compliments to the voiceover artist in this clip--he nails the original Donald.

Long live cultural exchange, and may we forever delight in each other's detritus!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

L'Affaire Polanski

Listen to all that claptrap about the Roman Polanski situation. Granted, it's a sensitive subject to many, and you've got lots of intriguing facets. OWH offers a summary:

The term splashed across the headlines is "sex charge." This is not quite accurate. Polanski is wanted for a 31-year-old sex "conviction." He pled guilty to statutory rape, but admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old, a crime that could have landed him a much longer sentence. This should clear up any confusion about whether his detainment is evidence of some culture war between American prudishness and European pervishness. Every legitimate legal system would find him guilty.

But questions remain. The authorities have not adequately explained why they waited three decades to nab him. It must be that they resented this 2008 documentary's depiction of his trial as unfair and even illegal. Is it necessary that he return to U.S. to be sentenced for a case with whiskers so long on it? It can scarcely be argued that the California prison system can or should reform this heroic artist.

This is the most valid contention of the pro-Polanski people, which includes moviedom's finest: not that the man is innocent or above the law, but that the application of justice has nothing to offer society in this particular case.

Still, this reality has not quieted the critics of the pro-Polanski crowd. They maintain that his flight to France means that he has not accepted judgment. They also resent Polanski's claim that "there's a different justice for people who are public figures than for those who are not." It is not really notable that his victim believes that the case should be dropped--this is a common situation in sexual abuses.

Finally, an evaluation of his guilt must include an examination of his incredible biography: he was born to Holocaust victims, the Manson family killed his pregnant wife, and since his crime, he has made some okay films on the lam. Polanski is not a menace to society, assuming he won't ever make anything like "The Ninth Gate" again. But his defenders are naive to imagine a sinister conspiracy against him, and he does not deserve their tears.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nattering Nabobs of Neo-Spenglerianism

Pessimism, declinism,'s all a belief in what a bummer tomorrow will be. The argument for downward trajectories of any kind is tempting but intrinsically misleading. It's easy to think of something great from the old days that isn't around anymore, or has been perverted. And it will be easy to reflect back on 2009 as a golden era.

If ever there was an era to feel gloomy about European affairs, it was the aftermath of World War I. Nationalistic aggression and incompetent leadership had brought about a slaughter of unprecedented scale. There goes our Whiggish self-improvement: sorry children, and children's children. Unfortunately, as Richard Overy points out in "The Morbid Age," the civilizational pessimism had much in common with incipient fascism, including the intellectual vogue for eugenics.

Today the bogeymen thought to undermine our seemingly steady world are moral relativism, shrugging permissiveness and atheism. These vices leave us open to the fundamentalists in our midst, assert Christopher Caldwell and Theodore Dalrymple. These thinkers are right to lament a lack of serious debate about the ramifications of immigration, and the blurring of personal emotions with broad political concerns. But they are wrong to believe that these unresolved questions can only hurt society.

Caldwell's anxiety about Muslim integration hinges on the primacy of Christianism to any respectable civilization. This view is out-of-date by at least one hundred years. Secularism is as valuable to the modern world as any of the teachings of Jesus. In the words of Slavoj Zizek, "isn't it time to restore the dignity of atheism, perhaps our only chance for peace?"

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

This brutally literal film has landed in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Red Army Faction was farcically reprised by Patti Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. In this depiction, Andreas Baader and his co-conspirators are plenty farcical themselves, swilling beer and firing their guns in no particular direction. Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader has all the gravitas of Brad Pitt in Snatch.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex unfurls a suite of violent episodes, always punctuated either by strident Marxist rhetoric or defeated whimpering. The bank-robbing terrorists don't articulate long-term goals or even a theoretical success beyond their own martyrdom. Director Uli Edel is particularly hard on Ulrike Meinhof, once a prominent dissident journalist, who is eventually railroaded by her brattier counterparts.

This leaves the conscience of Germany to Bruno Ganz, who plays statesman Horst Herold. Only he can conjure some kind of meaningful context for all the slaughter. The Oliver Stone-style "upheavals of the sixties" montage doesn't contribute much--what does the RFK assassination have to do with any of this?

Most beguiling is why any of the gang's escapades had to happen. Meinhof abandons her children and career to follow thugs into a life of violent crime. The decision is portrayed as a choice to hurtle herself through an open window and on into the "underground." It is hard to imagine Naomi Klein picking up an assault rifle. But Meinhof was not the only roiling German seduced by mayhem: the Red Army Faction was a teenage sensation, inspiring a spate of pro- and anticommunist murders.

The killers are even more attractive in the film than in real life. But their startling popularity failed to materialize into an authentic challenge to state power, and their actions gained coherence only after their incarceration. The cruelest irony: in prison, the revolutionaries turn into cunning negotiators and bookish study-buddies, where before they dismissed theory as "intellectual masturbation."

Very little moralizing or historical cause-and-effect is presented in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, although one seeks meaning from both films and murders. Complaints that the film suffers from hero-worship are off-base, and rest on an assumption that all movie violence is titillating. Edel takes the killers on their own terms, although he does not give any time to the contention that the Nazis have been replaced by a new imperialist brutality. No attempt is made to contrast the RAF with an excessively obedient culture. And why are the police actions against the RAF and the Munich Olympics kidnappers so sheepish and non-committal? Because Germany was trying to shuck its Nazi tendencies through cowardly appeasement.

To Christopher Hitchens the cycle of cruelty, sexuality, extortion and self-manipulation is predictable, and he praises the film's debunking of radical myths. In that regard, The Baader-Meinhof Complex could be judged an anti-thriller, in the way that Unforgiven is an anti-Western.

The film wins the Award for Most Outlandish Use of Bob Dylan. "Blowin' in the Wind" is the closing credits music, moments after the last body hits the ground. The juxtaposition goes some way to reviving the worn-out ballad, its rhetorical questions all the more cryptic when directed at German terrorists.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dream Home Heartache

I just returned from breakfast at IKEA--they have a cheap though basic breakfast cafeteria and all-you-can-drink coffee for just one dollar. From the atrium, in my angular modern plastic chair, I looked out at the panorama of California freeway cloverleaf. A Mexican fellow climbed into the palm trees and chainsawed down the dead fronds.

IKEA is a triumph of consumerism as an aesthetic, rather than as an offering of commodities. The store transports you into a smarter, sleeker Scandinavian universe, never mind the garbage-furnishings that are for sale. It's so easy to get lost in there, with the different levels and the clever traffic patterns. You're supposed to get lost.

Another key to the IKEA mystique is the strange names for each product. A loveseat is known as Klippan, the Swedish word for "cliff." The DVD tower goes by Benno. The naming practice is due to founder Ingvar Kamprad's dyslexia.

Americans have flocked to their IKEA stores and have swallowed the Scandinavian design completely. For centuries French products were taken to be luxurious and desirable, but recently the Swedes have seized the upper hand by slashing prices. H&M and IKEA are two of the most famous European brands. The first Latin American store is due to open before 2010 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

IKEA boasts of their contribution to an eco-friendly lifestyle, which is a joke to anyone who has carried any of their furniture. Razing Brazil and Indonesia for cheap disposable trinkets is only "green" in the sense of "greedy."

In Every Dream Home a Heartache by Roxy Music

Holocaust What? Part 2

I observed here that World War II does not bring out the best in American filmmakers. Most of them find themselves in too deep water. Now Quentin Tarantino has turned that quagmire into a waterslide.

The success of Inglourious Basterds in European markets is a strange moment of cultural communion: the movie is set in Europe but celebrates cocky Americanness. Its auteur has walked the line between Francois Truffaut-style cinéphile and Kevin Smith-style video store geek. August is traditionally the time for mindless shoot-em-up flicks and not weighty Holocaust fare, but the new movie appears to deliver both.

Farce is the new tragedy now that almost all the war's veterans are dead. Pat Buchanan and Nicholson Baker see no reason to go to war against the Nazis. This German reviewer is thrilled that Tarantino can bring as much unreasoned lunacy to depicting the Third Reich as they brought to their task of world domination.

But the joyless Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Inglourious Basterds offensive and likens its director to Sarah Palin. The critical community has tended to agree, and holds that Tarantino has no moral authority whatsoever.

Which is funny because Tarantino's greatest theme is the dissolution of moral authority in the age of talking images. The vile doings of his characters are viscerally exciting and often go unpunished. His misspelled new movie seems a culmination of a tendency to shirk serious questions about violence. The cinema of Tarantino is not so much amoral as anti-moral: he thinks cheap titillation serves the movies better than historical lesson-learning.

All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations...Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.

--Walter Benjamin, from "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction"

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Will Occidents Happen?

"Urbanization" carries a connotation of deracination and oppressed flight from the country. At least in America we like to imagine rural farm cultures as our original, unspoiled society. But the truth is that the explosion of the world's urban population is beneficial to humanity. Subsistence farming is always perilously close to starvation, whereas 21st century cities will be rookeries of high-tech communications.

Environmentalists also insist on high-density urbanism as a more sustainable human lifestyle. Less space around you means less carbon output, more proximity to jobs and social activity, and more competition to overwhelm failures. Not living off the land also means less incentive to breed. This guy wants to bet you that global population in 2060 will be less than it is today.

So...cities. Paul Romer wants to build new ones in the developing world, and use the capital and political structures of the first world. These "charter cities" would provide a non-coercive lure to locals and offer Western-style prosperity to the teeming global south.

The way that Romer packages his concept is pedantic and unpersuasive. He leans heavily on the terms "rules" and "choices." Why does he make up a post-colonial British name for his protagonist? Why does he decline to mention the actual country Wilson (Nelson?) is from? Romer invokes China's rising "GDP per capita." This is a trick of the free market crowd that disguises discrepancies between rich and poor. There are lots of wealthy people in China today but many more who live under a toxic brown cloud.

Instead of syncretic, Romer's generalizations are vague. He would do better to come clean: he is a capitalist, and wants to undermine the power of developing world bureaucrats by entering their subjects into the global free market. His analogy to the British Empire is apt, but his struggle is to recast Charter Cities as different from colonialism, or even from the fiendish free-trade pacts.

Romer should be lauded for taking philanthropy out of its paternalistic mindset. And brand new, well-managed cities harnessing the frantic ingenuity of the third world seems like a promising marriage, if still very politically sticky.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whither Moldova?

Sandwiched unpromisingly between Romania and the Ukraine, Moldova is by some measures the poorest country in Europe (its rival for this dubious honor is Albania). Personally I often confuse it with Malta. The country of four million somewhat inadvertently stormed global pop culture with the boy band O-Zone's "Dragostea Din Tei" and the subsequent viral Internet permutations of that track.

Moldova is split between its EU aspirations and a dependence on rogue Russia. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russian soldiers are still installed in the separatist region of Transnistria. The Kremlin, of course, holds the ace card of petroleum: Gazprom can pull the supplies and bring the country to its knees, as it has done in Georgia and the Ukraine.

Which is what makes the Moldovan Communist Party a curiosity. A final, pyrrhic victory for President Voronin makes his the only Communist government left in Europe, although he has pledged to work towards a "European Moldova," with friendly ties to East and West. Unpersuaded protesters rocked the capital city of Chisinau upon his re-election, and now a new coalition government may or may not take shape.

Moldova will remain backward no matter how this political spat works out, a long way from joining the global community.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mask of Childhood

This just-completed audio play tells of the conflict between Mai Zetterling and Shirley Temple at a film festival in the '60s.

Zetterling is a Swedish filmmaker whose work explores sexual malaise and often features political outsiders. Temple of course is the greatest child star in the history of cinema, a tireless patriot who later become a prominent California Republican.

The Mask of Childhood begins when Temple resigns from the festival's panel of judges over Zetterling's Night Games, which Temple found obscene. The antipathy is not reciprocated though: Zetterling idolized Temple from a young age.

European art film had a reputation during the period for being sexy and open-ended, while Temple's movie musicals did all they could to endorse militarism and reinforce power structures. Zetterling's career was full of dilemmas and irresolution but achieved a lasting integrity.

Creative Commons License
The Mask of Childhood by Burke Bindbeutel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Kieslowski's Blue

Krzystof Kieslowski's film Blue tells of a prolonged and painful attempt to create a symphony for European unification. Critics described the film as an "anti-tragedy," because although Julie (Juliette Binoche) loses her husband and daughter in a car accident, and succumbs to a period of reclusion, the blow does not destroy her.

Blue could be an allegory for a continent seeking to turn its back on a bloody past. Ambiguity mars the authorship of the pan-European anthem, as it is suggested that it was Julie and not her late husband who is the true genius behind the work. The music is subjected to a stalled collaboration that eventually falls apart, although the music does pull Julie out of the withdrawal that followed her personal catastrophe. The finale delivers the completed symphony, and a montage of each of the characters whose lives Julie has touched.

Kieslowski was a Polish filmmaker that made his bones in France. He made resolutely apolitical work that always drew the wrath of the state censors. Although he began his career as a documentarian, Blue is shot through with magic.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Books Roundup

Tim Blanning cites Gutenberg's printing press as a key technological innovation in the rise of the composer. The modern West elevates its musicians above all other artists, and the availability of printed material just increased the worship of Beethoven and Lizst, even more than Dante and Shakespeare. For John Warne Monroe, urbanization and the innate predilections of the mind also help to make music so celebrated...

If you believe the name of their website, then Three Percent of literature read in America is translated. Even for a country with a gigantic literary heritage, and a penchant for processing other cultures through its own machinery, this is a lamentably small portion. Peruse their reviews, and examine their collection of links, and marvel at all the great literature you'll never get around to reading...

That list of links neglects to include the Dalkey Archive Press, from the University of Illinois. Check out that Ezra Pound quote about translation. The English language is the biggest bastard of them all, and there's no reason to end the miscegenation now...

Apparently there are neither definite nor indefinite articles in the Polish language. In spite of this fact, 20th century Polish literature has enjoyed tremendous stateside acclaim, and a new collection of essays shows no sign of the trend's abatement. Poland and America are strange cultural bedfellows, but immigration has made them conjoined twins, with Chicago the shared hip. The literati have been oppressed in both countries for opposite reasons, although this is no longer true now that Poland is a member of NATO and the EU...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whither France?

For centuries the French seemed to hold a monopoly on top-notch dining, but their gastronomic reputation has recently simmered down. The average French dinner has shortened from 105 minutes to a cursory half-hour, and the very déclassé "steak-frites" was voted France's favorite dish.

Multiple courses and wine at lunchtime seems extravagant to les américains. But in France it is a traditional practice, under siege by a streamlined culture. Edward Cody identifies a Sarkozy-era push to "modernize" France, that is, to make her competitive on the global marketplace. This movement serves up a distinctively Anglo efficiency to eating, first developed by the fourth Earl of Sandwich.

But the real story is not the lapse of food-seriousness within France, it's the extent to which France's culinary traditions have sopped across borders. Guy Savoy cannily recognized this when the Michelin Red Guide was taken over by a German woman. These were not spaetzle-noshing barbarians at the gates. The first foreigner at the helm the famous restaurant guidebook is a sign that French cuisine has become global fine-dining. The French after all are universalists--but of course their universe is a thoroughly French one.

Mike Steinberger, on the other hand, has a few choice words for those ostensibly prestigious Michelin stars. He claims that the narrow-minded obsession with fulfilling mysterious criteria has a negative effect on the French dining scene, driving one ill-starred French chef to suicide. Michelin-starred restaurants after all are part of an outdated, royalist tradition. They serve only a few tables a night, and do not at all reflect the way real French people eat. Michelin rarely celebrates the Middle Eastern cuisine that is served in some of the country's best restaurants.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Alain Passard (whose vegetables ride the TGV each morning) is Denis Hennequin, who helped turn France into McDonald's number two market, in spite of José Bové's 1999 attack. The Illinois-based fake meat juggernaut has ironically become popular in the land of foie gras, although it's interesting to read about how the French enjoy McDonald's in their unique way: they go almost exclusively at mealtimes, in groups, and they linger much longer than North American fast food customers. These conscientious diners probably have a hard time relating to Morgan Spurlock's point.

"Fast food," translated literally into French becomes "la restauration rapide," a contradiction in terms. Bové and his anti-GMO crowd have coined the term "la malbouffe" to describe the pablum that threatens to destroy both public health and French culture. But the French still love McDonald's, and in spite of all the cultural degradation at work, one still eats better in France than just about anywhere else.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Choreographed Car Crash

Born in France to Russian and Dutch parents, Jacques Tati is OWH's choice for Man of the (Twentieth) Century. His work casts a wistful eye to the Europe of warm neighborliness, although it stops short of the righteous, anti-establishment indignation of Godard (see Weekend) or the hallucinatory dreamscapes of Cortazar (though the latter was also inspired by French highways to create La Autopista del Sur and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute).

All of these artists explored the havoc that the automobile has wrought on the human psyche and the physical environment. Cars represent individual freedom, yet they trap their masters in steel cages on infinite expanses of concrete. Godard used cars to denote nihilisic hypercapitalism. To Cortazar they were portals into the infinite subconscious. Tati just finds them amusing: witness the hilarious and somehow delicate car crash an hour into his film Trafic.

Tati's first four films evince a nostalgia for the humanistic, sensuous and self-contradictory aspect of France. Trafic enlarges the auteur's scope to gently mock sterilized international business culture. The French term "le trafic" refers more to the exchange of commodities than it does to automotive congestion, but after viewing the film you're inclined to think that you can't have one without the other.

Tati's alter ego Monsieur Hulot, a doting sort of Bugs Bunny with highwater pants and an umbrella, designs a camper van and endeavors to transport it to a trade show in Amsterdam. His team is interrupted by countless ironic hijinks set off by precise sound effects and garbled, dubbed dialogue. It looks as vivid and radiant as a summer swimming pool, with less of the intensely organized spaces of his masterpiece Playtime. Hulot's oddball physicality is undiminished although he is over 60 in this film.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Regretfully Yours

One of culture's most salient ironies is the innate cosmopolitanism of the rube. People reared in the most provincial circumstances often become more worldly than their urban or suburban counterparts.

The preeminence of Irish writers in world literature illustrates this paradox. Joyce, Wilde and Yeats all lived and loved on the continent rather than the drizzly backwater where one must "set his watch back five hundred years." Samuel Beckett joined this pantheon of Irish-Universal titans, and his recently published letters confirm his place in world literature. In his youth he always sought an escape to Europe, although he also feared that he would "probably crawl back with my tail coiled round my ruined poenis."

This is the first volume in a promised series of three, culled from over 15,000 different missives. It's an enormous editorial task that gets creative with the author's wish that only letters "having bearing on my work" be published. When your work encompasses little foibles like mortality, annihilation and the futility of human endeavor, it's not really a hat that you can take on and off, as Anthony Lane points out.

So chronologically, this is Beckett the underemployed, frustrated, dead-broke student and dropout. He halfheartedly tries out several careers including, terrifyingly, airline pilot. He wanders Paris until his shoes "explode" on the Boulevard St. Germain. The rising tide of fascism and the troubled global economy do not seem to make an impression on this passionate aesthete. Though Beckett became a staunch anti-anti-Semite and joined the French Resistance, he couldn't take Hitler seriously in the 1930s.

Joseph O'Neill, himself an Irish-born itinerant, notes Beckett's astounding multilingualism. Beckett claimed that writing in English made him feel "depersonified." He felt freer to express himself within the scope of German, Italian or French, in which he wrote one of the 20th century's great plays.

An exile on good terms with his family, Beckett presumes all the same that his mother seeks "to keep me tight so that I may be goaded into salaried employment. Which reads more bitterly than it is intended." Beckett was a polite and reserved genius, fixated on decay, so it is natural to find him nonplussed in the springtime of love:

There is a French girl also whom I am fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me. The hand will not be overbid. As we both know that it will come to an end there is no knowing how long it may last.

This is the woman he would wed and remain with until death.

J.M. Coetzee laments that Beckett and James Joyce often lived in the same city, Paris, and thus had no cause to correspond. Beckett apparently had some kind of affair with Joyce's daughter Lucia.

The author also employed many scatological terms (his poems are "turds") and underwent psychoanalysis, then a novel and subversive practice. He had a knack for neologisms: "daymare" being a real-life bad dream, and "eyedew" meaning tears.

All in all, a feast of humanism, anger, longing, and radiant pessimism.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Triumphant British Melancholy

The most interesting choice in Patrick Humphries' 1997 Nick Drake biography is in the introduction. In this book about a depressed singer-songwriter, the stage is set with the sinking of the Titanic. The only link between Drake's life and the 300-foot gash in "The Unsinkable" is the presence of the biographer's Uncle Jim at the Titanic's launch. This same uncle would officiate at the birth of Nick Drake, in colonial Burma.

The fate of the Titanic is an appropriate beginning to the Nick Drake story because of the historical sweep of Humphries' book. The biographer situates Drake in the context of a tragic century. The Titanic in 1912 foretold the end of peaceful industrial technotopia. Two years later the assassination of an obscure nobleman would lead to a serious derailment of civilization. Drake would inherit a world where atomic bombs had exploded, where genocide had been carried out on an unimaginable scale...and where the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race was not taken for granted.

England's post-imperial decline has been steady. And yet somehow the rainy island has kept its grip on global capital as well as cultural prominence. No one still regards the English as the greatest people on Earth, and the notion of a happily Anglicized planet is laughable, even if parliamentarianism and beans-on-toast have gained footing overseas.

The secret to England's baffling relevance lies in their genius for flipping the script. In the glory days of Her Majesty's Empire, the doctrine in play was British triumphalism--and the world cowered in fear. Now, no one exceeds the British at acting miserable. It is this trait of expressed thwartedness that is the true genius of the English. The rest of the world rushes to comfort England's sensitive males.

Nick Drake was only the first in a line of world-conquering sadsacks. Ian Curtis, before joining Drake in an early grave, caught the world's attention with the depths of his misery. Then came Robert Smith of the Cure. Today, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker lead the phalanx of unhappy English anti-heroes.

But no bloke's self-pity has been globally indulged like Morrissey's. Moz has transcended the great guitar band he used to sing in and is now alone atop a majestic, melancholy pedestal. His fame is utterly borderless, having caught on especially with Mexican-Americans. The artist Phil Collins has explored the strange power of this Mancunian to tap into the alienated feelings of people from Turkey to Brazil.

The English hold a near-monopoly on fashionable sadness, although Russia is poised for a meltdown, India has yet to shed its caste system, and Germany seems to have a congenital knack for the morose.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sexcidents Will Happen

Ooh, another hardback entry in the "sexy medieval" genre. You remember Sex with Kings, a salacious historical romp, The Other Boleyn Girl, another salacious historical romp, and of course, take your pick of erotically-charged rehashes of Camelot.

Now we have the academicky East, West and Sex, a new book that gleefully probes the tendency of Western men to patronize Asian prostitutes. Author and "rice daddy" Richard Bernstein enthusiastically flouts the wisdom of Edward Said, and agglomerates North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, China and Japan into "the East." The premise of the study is that the cliché is true and there does exist an admirable sexual permissiveness in the East that presents a lovely opportunity to "liberate" European men from their Judeo-Christian prudishness.

This is a laughably naive view of prostitution, and totally one-sided, as it skips right over the moral disaster of keeping sexual slaves. Laura Miller is right to point out that it's not some advanced sexual culture that beckons to Johns, Juans, and Giannis. (Even if it were, Western women should be lauded for demanding liberation even if it makes them less likely fantasy objects). The economic reality of the East-West duality is simply that our side can command more stuff from their side, hookers being similar to cheap plastic tchotchkes in this respect. An ascendant China may start to minimize the disparity between buyers and sellers--lock up your daughters, struggling British financiers!

This WSJ review takes the book completely on its own terms, as a self-serving justification of abhorrent exploitation. For a glimpse inside the moral reasoning of today's high-financial world, feast on this incredible excerpt:

There may have been -- and may still be -- an inequality of bargaining power in many of the sexual transactions in question.

Really? An inequality of bargaining power between a globetrotting merchant and a harem girl? Perish the thought!

Elsewhere Johann Hari identifies the irony of these transactions' long-term cultural effect: although harems may have helped to loosen up visiting Venetians, it was the missionaries that won the argument--puritanism has successfully taken root in Arabia, India and points east. The Slate reviewer also makes the connection between the sexcapades of American soldier/suitors in Vietnam and the long, shameful bloodbath that occurred there. To say nothing of the rape that created Latin America. Would Bernstein say that opening up Western libido is worth the human cost of colonialism? Because that would make him a total perv.

Whatever the advance on Bernstein's book deal was, I will double it if he will go to Thailand, set up shop in a tin-roof shack, and celebrate the happy communion of cultures by pleasuring whatever strangers force themselves on him.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tear Down this Slum

The plan to demolish up to 40 percent of the housing stock in Flint, Mich. looks canny and forward-thinking, in light of the obvious decline of that city. The Kildee plan could have Flint vibrant again as a scaled-down version of itself, and newly enriched by "nature" where old brick mansions used to be.

Shrinking cities is a bold enterprise that has not been pioneered overseas, in spite of European population decline. In this study, Emmanuele Cunningham-Sabot calls for strategic shrinking of cities in France and Great Britain. This goes against the cultural prejudice, existent on both sides of the Atlantic, that supports incessant growth.

On the last page she points to fallacy of rebranding urban areas as opportunities for chic lifestyles. This marketing push distracts from the urban decline and dearth of services that so many cities endure. Cunningham-Sabot calls urban economics "post-Fordist," but it would be more insightful to note that the British public sector has been looted in the wake of Thatcher.

Although creative solutions to urban decline are welcome here at OWH, it behooves government to bulldoze carefully. The century-old brick homes of Steel Age scions may seem draughty and a poor investment, but with hordes of recently foreclosed-upon families, existing housing should be considered an asset before a liability.

Monday, June 22, 2009


The results of the European Parliamentary Elections are in, and as predicted, 736 people will occupy positions of no clear importance. Voter turnout dropped two percentage points from 2004's elections to an overall 45 percent.

Since the Lisbon Treaty has not been ratified (owing in large part to the failure of Ireland's referendum), the largest trans-national election in history will seat into Strasbourg's comfy chairs a crop of parliamentarians of a still-theoretical supergovernment. Amazingly, Europe's social democrats took a beating, in spite of the collapse of the economic system they have consistently criticized. This could mean that the crisis is still viewed in national terms, freeing voters to elect xenophobes and hatemongers.

Still up for debate is the usefulness of the legislative body itself. Here's a Tory bloke with nothing but bad things to say about Parliament (and mind you, he himself was elected to that body). The British-led "anti-federalism" recalls the birth pains of the United States of America.

Those indefatigable Esperantists have their own transnational party that advocates the EU's adoption of Dr. Zamenhof's invented language. They have been labeled wingnuts and monomaniacs, exploiters of the parochialist tendencies that the EP encourages. But if a legislative body is just "a chamber of notables," then why not let a thousand flowers bloom?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Kindly Ones Roundup

This one seems like a corker: a new novel, written in French by an American, outlining in first-person the 1,000-page odyssey of a Nazi as he murders his parents and has sex with his twin sister.

Everybody's got something to say about it:

Paul La Farge, in the Believer:

When you’re talking about novels, the word for a completely worked-out world in which the characters act according to a grand design is escapist; when you’re talking about life, the word for a world like that is totalitarian.

Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times:

The novel’s gushing fans seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.

Michael Korda, formerly of Simon & Schuster:

I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment — lay in snacks and drinks! — you will be upset, disturbed, revolted and deeply challenged.

Samuel Moyn, in the Nation:

Toward the end of the novel, [protagonist] Aue follows the death marches in the winter of 1945, the catastrophic months of the regime's collapse. And in the book's closing pages, he encounters Adolf Hitler in his bunker. Aue is a Nazi Zelig.

Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah:

This man who doesn't know what a memory is somehow remembers everything.

Not exactly summertime beach-blanket reading, but worth a look.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Making Georgia Howl

The Eurovision Song Contest has bowed to pressure from the Kremlin to oust the Georgian entry, a dance-pop ditty titled "We Don't Wanna Put In." Eurovision apparently has rules against political statements.

Georgia has responded in an inspiring way -- they have declared their own Alter/Vision, a protest song contest that will flout the "bureaucratic control and censorship" of Eurovision. You simply can't divorce political statements from pop music, no matter how high-minded the goal of European unity may seem. In other words, no one wants to be part of a neutered, apolitical Euroculture.

Another World is Possible!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Go Rimbaud!

My review of Edmund White's Rimbaud is up on the Rain Taxi website. (The print version of the Spring 2009 issue features a review I did of Mike Marqusee's If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew).

White is a poet, critic and novelist who balances an account of Rimbaud's misadventures with an appreciation for the poet's genius. He recontextualizes Rimbaud's sexuality and backgrounds the boy's artistic awakening with the failed utopia of the Paris Commune.

Arthur Rimbaud offers readers the conviction that the fate of the world is in the hands of the artists, and the stakes could not be higher. His career trajectory also disproves a common trope about artists--that they must create at all costs, because it is "in their blood." After turning literature upside down, Rimbaud abandoned his poetry completely to become a frustrated gun runner in Africa.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Iced In

The best thing I've read about Tough Times '09 is this Vanity Fair profile by Michael Lewis, money analyst and sportswriter. In a visit to the economically devastated nation of Iceland, Lewis goes beyond faulty strategies and the facile blame game. The entire culture of finance is revealed as a confederation of deluded machismo, on thin ice that finally broke.

It's not Lewis' first probe of the hypocrisy of money. His first book Liar's Poker called bluff on the big-swinging-dick world of 1980s Wall Street.

An intriguing aspect of Iceland's buffoonery is the image of cultural superiority, or at least underratedness, that the isolated country has long engendered. Sumarlioi Isliefsson examines the platitudes that the overinvestors told themselves, some of which have a creepy racial component.

I admit to harboring a foolish fascination with Iceland. Empowered women. Hot springs (Reykjavik means "bay of steam"). At least one literary titan. I even irrationally entered a sweepstakes for a free trip.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Tyson-Wilde Comparison

James Toback's new Mike Tyson documentary features the unhinged prizefighter reading an excerpt from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Aligning Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist with a fondness for firearms, with Oscar Wilde, an aesthete sent to prison for his homosexuality, deserves the Academy Award for Audacity.

(If you get to Paris, then head to Cimetiere Pere Lachaise and skip Jim Morrison's final resting place. Check out Oscar Wilde's tomb, known as L'Homme-Oiseau. Also worth a look is Victor Noir's, murdered in 1848 and renowned for his power to make women fertile from the afterlife.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Battle for "Eurasia"

Robert D. Kaplan has a new bibliography for American imperialism. Lately he has been reading Victorian geographical determinists, and he finds much to support the premise of the War on Terror.

Kaplan believes that the new globalized world has eroded the power of the nation-state and brought to the fore the all-powerful forces of geography. You wouldn't think he put much stock in information technology or stateless economic forces. Apparently, as in an endlessly repeating game of Risk, the battles for world domination keep happening in the same spots.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel, who along with Claude Levi-Strauss helped found Brazil's first university, is cited for his emphasis on the influence of the physical environment on history. Poor soils in southern Europe lead to Greek and Roman conquests. (Kaplan neglects to mention that Braudel's masterpiece was written from memory in a German POW camp, perhaps because Germany/France doesn't fit into his list of Eurasian "shatter zones").

In the same vein, Jose Vasconcelos has pointed out that the internal combustion engine never would have been hit upon by the Ancient Egyptians due to their warm climate--it took the shivering German obsession with fuel-gathering.

Halford Mackinder is the thinker that Kaplan is most attracted to. To Mackinder the game of Risk is won or lost in the Central Asian steppe (Here the metaphor breaks down. Experienced players know that Australia is the key to the game). Resources dwindle and factionalism grows and there's your Eurasian tinderbox. Kaplan slyly shifts his overarching metaphor from Vietnam to the Cold War, realigning his view of the future with what Bush 43 sometimes called "the global struggle against violent extremism."

The conclusion of Kaplan's paper, that geography still matters, is unimpressive. It's refreshing to survey a period when historians had a vision with grand sweep. Redressing injustices or adhering to politically correct guidelines meant nothing to Mackinder or Braudel. But let's keep this former Israeli soldier away from America's foreign policy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Light Meat, Dark Meat

The Economist's favorite hobbyhorse is the inclusion of Turkey into the European Union. It seems like every time I pick up that magazine, its anonymous British editorial voice advocates the EU's expansion, specifically to the southeast. If commerce is the grand panacea, then might Euro-prosperity tame even the most fervent Muslim cleric?

Turkey was graced with a visit from the U.S. president on his first overseas trip. Obamaphilia spread across Europe and Asia Minor while the prez kept a light diplomatic touch. Turkish TV news beseeched him in blackface, for some very strange reason.

Obama said that Turkish inclusion into the E.U. is something for the E.U. to decide. While this restraint is understandable in the wake of the my-way-or-the-highway Bush administration, and the currently dissolving global economy demanded most of his attention, Obama seemed to shrink from a campaign promise to declare Turkey's slaughter of Armenians a genocide.

This week Obama finally got down to brass tacks. While stopping short of the g-word, he put to use his erudite, cosmopolitan image and employed the Armenian-language characterization of the events, "meds yeghern," which means "great calamity." Obama will clearly err on the side of rhetorical caution as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan try to straighten out their fraught relations.

But the not-quite-secular government of Turkey may have blown their opportunity to cash in on that sweet Euro-action. There is a whiff of the totalitarian in the Turkish government's snubbing of the Danish premier, to say nothing of widespread poverty and a checkered human rights record.

The idea of Turkey as the great example for the rest of the Caucasus and Middle East, a functioning secular democracy in a Muslim culture, still exists. Europe has certainly also noted its potential as an oil conduit. But for now borders remain borders.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Man Who Believed He Was King of France

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's book recounts the misadventures of a 14th century Sienese man who combined the "sacrality of royal power and the commercial culture of the merchant class." Born into the humble role of small-time trader, Giannino di Guccio is informed that he was switched at birth with Jean le Posthume, the King of France who was believed dead at infancy.

It was Cola di Rienzo, the political maneuverer, that cooked up this conceit. The fake history exalted a 38-year-old merchant into an immediate royal, which is of course slightly more than a mortal human being. Guccio embraced his new title but, as can be imagined, events were not kind to this pretender to a throne that was already in dispute amidst the sieges and magma-dousings of the Hundred Years' War. This made him a sort of Ross Perot circa '92: a trouble-causing idealist whose quest was over before it started.

The background of this book is a Europe in crisis mode. The Muslims have Jerusalem, the Pope's in Avignon, and the Black Death has ravaged the continent. Guccio's plan to seize the kingdom of France was not just egocentric--he felt the calling to right a sinking ship. This was at least in part an altruistic attempt to save Europe, which was then called "Christendom."

Medieval politics were not as media-sodden as the contemporary equivalent, and so the consensus reality was mutable. In those days, you could head out to the town square and proclaim things and if you weren't swiftly killed then you had some authority. As a medievalist the author is clearly drawn to this fungible quality of reality, which should also attract anyone that employs a contradictory and self-sabotaging regimen of problem-solving.

On the other hand, casting around for assertions of authenticity from the halls of power (Guccio's main strategy) carried great personal risk. A trumped-up letter from a Hungarian royal is as much a liability as an asset, and the great irony of Guccio's endeavor is that he sought what he believed was truth and justice through deception and forgery. Upon returning to his hometown, Sienese magistrates took him at his word, revoked his citizenship and clapped him in irons.

Many scholars assumed Guccio's story to be legendary -- stories by Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain feature regular Joes seeking rightful royal status. Falconeri demonstrates that Guccio was real. Part of the proof for this assertion is the paradox of just how typical Guccio's story is--no supernatural interludes and no fawning maidens to the person of the King. It's a straight story about a businessman who sought immortality, sought to turn money into magic. The shitstorm of 2008-9 could use a few of this type of outside-the-box operators.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Krugman in Europe

Whether or not the Nobel Prize for Economics is a "real Nobel," Paul Krugman knows more about money than you do. So it was unsettling to see his suggestion that the European Monetary Union could have been a mistake.

According to Krugman, it's not the cumbersome welfare state that has Europe in so much economic trouble. He argues that financial authority has not been centralized enough in Europe, that is, that the slow development of E.U. political institutions has prevented decisive action to save the economy. Hendrik Hertzberg compares the current E.U. to our own Articles of Confederation-era, when state sovereignty precluded cohesion.

Just like America, Europe has a sunny southern peninsula that recently enjoyed an ill-considered housing boom. All the construction led to an influx of immigrants into Spain, a country that historically exported more people than it took on. Spanish unemployment has always been pretty high and now it will get bad. Krugman points to the impossibility of devaluing a currency that many economies share.

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe the Lisbon Treaty should have been ratified long ago, so that there would then be enough of a federal presence to make some deals. But this is Europe we're talking about, 23 official languages, 730 million souls, and a justifiable skepticism of bold political leaders.

Charles de Gaulle said about France that it was impossible to have a one-party system in a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. The body politic is too variegated. Maybe, in the long run, it's better that way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At Your Service

I think I saw Thomas Friedman today at my place of work. He was all sweaty and had dorky little shorts on, and his mustache was flecked with gray whiskers just like in his author photo.

He came into the cafe to buy a turkey sandwich. Like Friedman, the cafe has planet-saving pretensions: recycled paper cups and compostable cutlery.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner was mealy-mouthed and took a long time deciding what he wanted, and when he got it he was unappreciative. The young lady I took to be his daughter shot me a friendly glance though. She and I commiserated in a moment of "Isn't my dad embarassing?"

She was right. Thomas Friedman is an embarassment and his green capitalism is a sham in a thunderingly obvious way.

Christopher Hitchens is another columnist whom I'm told lives out here in California much of the time. In spite of his hawkishness, I would thank Hitchens for his moral seriousness and thoroughly entertaining command of the language. I would not be tempted to put a booger in his sandwich. Whether you agree with him or not, Hitchens will never bore, as Chomsky so often does. But it's doubtful that the tubby Englishman would ever come in, though, because he's a dreadful food snob.

One other world-redeeming luminary, a recent Oscar winner, ordered a grilled cheese sandwich off the kids' menu some years ago. When asked if he wanted milk or apple juice with his kids' meal, the famous actor replied: "I just want a grilled cheese sandwich. Is that so hard?"

Bruno in U.S.A.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." --Mark Twain

If this quote is true then Sacha Baron Cohen is an envoy sent from Europe to destroy America. The conservative backlash to the comedian/chameleon has been considerable, and his "invasion" is now dogged by a raft of lawsuits.

Cohen's hijinks began as English-on-English spoofs, then developed into a series of lampoons on an ignorant and intolerant stateside culture. The humor in his put-ons comes both from how far he goes and from how far his interview subjects allow him to go. Borat Sagdiyev, the faux-primitive Kazakh TV journalist, can sing a disgusting song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well" at a rodeo in Arizona, but the joke is not on Jews, it's on the crowd of American rednecks that applaud the song.

Of course in Borat the developing world didn't come off well either. The lead character defacates on the sidewalk and tries to throw Pamela Anderson in a "traditional wedding sack." In Cohen's work, everyone and everything is pulverized in a hailstorm of ridiculousness.

Replacing Borat, from a Central Asian backwater, is Bruno, a gay Austrian hairdresser with no decorum at all. The laughs in these sketches derive from Bruno's unapologetic sexuality, contrasted against a background of American puritanism. Bruno is an explicitly European character. His stealthy cosmopolitanism will push America's buttons in the upcoming movie.

Apparently in one scene, Bruno will try to seduce Congressman Ron Paul on camera. A quick survey of the sexual peccadilloes of Paul's colleagues in the legislature would suggest that a sex tape with a famous Republican is not such a farfetched idea on Bruno's part.

Sometime decades hence, Cohen will be recognized for pointing out the departures America has made from mainstream Western culture.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Taciturn Italian Beelzebub

Can you name the two countries in which lawmakers can hold on to their seats for life? Hint: one is shaped like a boot.

Only Italy and Burundi share this outdated and anti-democratic provision. An incident on Italian television last year should prompt a long look at the seven remaining lifetime senators. On a talk show, 90-year-old Giulio Andreotti failed to respond in any way at all to the question "What is the future for our children?"

The influential politician has earned the nickname Beelzebub for his relationship to a certain Italian fraternal organization. In his appearance on Canale 5, which like most Italian TV is owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he appears to suffer from a stroke or some kind of mental breakdown. After a long and awkward pause, the show cuts to a commercial break, after which Andreotti seems to have recovered. The host apologizes for "technical difficulties," and everyone applauds. For some reason two stunningly beautiful women have appeared at either side of the Senator-for-life.

Is this what passes for serious political discourse in Italy?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dutch Baseball Heroes

To fill out a sixteen-team international baseball tournament you need to send out plenty of invitations. While it's true that the game is an internationally-beloved phenomenon, it falls into a category with rugby, ice hockey and BMX: important in a few countries but far from global in the way that soccer is.

According to baseball's creation myth it was organized and refined by Abner Doubleday, but this explanation falls short of explaining the international popularity of the sport. Ball-and-stick games have appeared in many cultures. The urge to pick up a stick, swing at a small moving object and then take off running is an elemental urge shared by every member of the human family. More concretely, America's peripatetic military has been an ambassador of the game.

This month's World Baseball Classic features ballgame-loving countries like the U.S., Japan and Cuba, but apparently to complete the bracket there are also delegations from Chinese Taipei, Italy and the Netherlands (China is a natural participant because they will certainly field the best team in five or so years, and they're a lock to put on the first baseball game in space).

Of the two European teams, Italy was predictably an early-round elimination, but the Netherlands shocked the world by twice defeating the powerful Dominican Republic. The Dominican squad included as many Major League Baseball stars as the American one, but couldn't summon the hitting to defeat the Dutch.

Eligibility for the Classic demands that at least one parent be born in the nation a player competes for. Hence the Italian team was largely made up of Italian-Americans. As for the Netherlands, the Dutch possessions in the Leeward Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela, have produced more baseball talent than the motherland, although don't repeat this sentiment in any of the dugouts of the Honkbal Hoofdklasse.

Turns out that in spite of widespread continental indifference, the Confederation of European Baseball has played a championship every year for decades. Eurobaseball lags behind the Caribbean, Pacific Rim and of course North America, but this upstart Dutch squad could make their mark on behalf of an overlooked baseball culture.

Friday, March 6, 2009

There is Power in a Union... Billy Bragg sings. In the case of the European Union, there's also money, of course.

Everyone could have predicted that the first great challenge to the EU would be a global recession. And here we are. Europe's decade-long tear is over. They were on the point of surpassing the dollar as the world's reserve currency when the crisis hit. Eliminating exchange rate risk, lowering tariffs, and broadening consumer bases can still net the New Europe a lot more money.

What is counterproductive is shifting blame according to national rivalries. The Hungarian premier pointed to "a new Iron Curtain." I'm with Anne Applebaum when she says that the crisis will consist mostly of political squabbling and should not pose a serious challenge to unification. It may be true that Western car-makers are being lowballed by the Czechs, but what about those cheap vacation to Prague that the French, Germans and British have loved for so long? All that cheap labor, and cheap land? It's tit for tat. For the Economist, not cooperating is impossible at this point.

And don't forget what makes money make money: the dream of something better. The New Europe's higher goal, besides getting rich, is the surpassing of the nation-state. It's been working better than anyone had thought. This blog is here to tell you that a new culture is emerging, and that this guy's dichotomous thinking is wrong:

I lived for about a decade, on and off, in France and later moved to the United States. Nobody in their right mind would give up the manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing: possibility.

You know possibility when you breathe it. For an immigrant, it lies in the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons after the narrower confines of European nationhood and the stifling attentions of the European nanny state, which has often made it more attractive not to work than to work. High French unemployment was never much of a mystery.

Americans, at least in their imaginations, have always lived at the new frontier; French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries.

The Europeans will keep their nannies, but gain broad horizons anyway.

Get Your Treaties off my Asparagus

Foraging is the same as smuggling if you draw lines around it. A village in Cyprus can't get to their wild asparagus crop due to the U.N.'s demilitarized zone that divides ethnic Greeks from ethnic Turks. (Maybe this forbidden zone will one day become Cyprus' most beloved attraction, as the DMZ is now in Korea)

It's one more example of a socially-constructed barrier that fails to recognize the way life really happens. As in the Bosnian film No Man's Land, the arbiters wear the smurf-blue of the United Nations. That film is thick with ironies, the least of which is that the English idiom "no man's land" has been borrowed into common use in several European languages.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Georgia Fights Back with Disco

The Eurovision Song Contest, just like the World Cup, is an easy outlet for national rivalries. But this year's event promises bonafide political statements.

Georgia had planned to boycott the event, to be held in May in Moscow, but changed its mind and will offer Stephane and 3G's "We Don't Wanna Put In," a danceable attack on the Russian premier.

If only Vladimir himself would dress up in a spangly uniform and try to express Russia's re-emergence through synthesized pop.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

God's Crucible

Are Islam's fundamentalists taking a good thing too far, or has Islam always been destructive and anti-democratic? Militant secularists and xenophobes believe the latter is true. Last year David Levering Lewis issued a loud disagreement with his book God's Crucible.

Muslims have also been Europeans for almost as long as they have been anything. Al-Andalus was the name of the westernmost province of the Islamic empire, which included most of Spain. They've been present in eastern Europe as well (Quick: what's continental Europe's largest city? Hint: It's a Muslim one.)

The Dark Ages were in fact only dark if you were down with Jesus. While Christendom slumped, Islamic culture created the greatest libraries ever, advanced astronomy, algebra and medicine, and invented chess. We owe what knowledge we have of ancient Greece to Arab scholars.

So it's clear that Islam is capable of sustaining a great empire, even a tolerant, pluralistic, peace-loving society. Lewis takes this thread a step farther and bemoans the Arab defeat at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. In God's Crucible he openly roots against the prevailing Christian army, on the premise that a bigger Muslim expansion would have benefited Europe.

Critics have called this thesis a bit of a reach. John Derbyshire points out that Lewis' argument rests on "counterfactual speculations," that is, arguments that do not rely on evidence. It could well be that a uniformly Muslim Europe would have advanced technology and prevented the Crusades, but it didn't work out that way. Historical "what ifs" can go no further than that: there's nothing to back up the theorizing.

Joan Acocella says that writing from the West on Islam tends toward the polemical, due to both the ideology of post-colonialism and the recent prominence of the Islamic terrorist. This is the major problem with Lewis' book. He gleefully plows a cultural minefield by calling Islam advanced and Christendom backward.

To wish that the Hawaiians conquered the world rather than the British is exciting, but the argument can't overcome its burden of political resentment. To sincerely appreciate what al-Andalus was, rather than could have been, there is plenty of material.

So what's Lewis up to? He is not a scholar of Islam. His previous subject was W.E.B. Du Bois, which gives a clue to what Lewis is seeking in his lament for Muslim Europe: racial harmony. Al-Andalus' most notable characteristic was la convivencia, the somewhat peaceful, intermittently tolerant cohabitation of three religions. There's plenty of evidence though of animosity towards Christians, Jews and Vikings during this putative Muslim utopia.

Lewis' unwavering endorsement of Muslim Europe arrives when immigrant communities permeate the Continent. There are urgent questions as to the inclusion of these people, often decried as premodern zealots, into the world's most advanced society. The issue has many faces: the legacy of the Rushdie affair, the possibility of Turkish admission into the European Union, and the French ban on the veil. It's clear one way or another a new convivencia must emerge, but there's no use wishing for a time machine.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Forgiveness and Irony

This essay in City Journal by Roger Scruton ambitiously attempts to right the course of civilization. But first we need to accept that the good guys have deviated in some fatal way.

The jihadist with a Western passport is a troubling development in the United States, the U.K., and continental Europe. Here we were, undertaking to impart the triumphs of our inclusive style all over the world, and beneficiaries of that style are talking about destroying it. It's not limited to religious fundamentalism. The malaise is more pervasive. Children are shooting up their schools all the time now. "Ideas of liberty, equality, or historical right have no influence on their thinking," writes Scruton. So it's no use picking a bone with them, since they haven't yet articulated an itinerary beyond mayhem.

The "evildoers" are not Scruton's target. He diagnoses a "culture of repudiation," widespread in our polis and abetted by multiculturalism. According to Scruton, the West has lost its mission civilisatrice and is foundering in a relativistic swamp. This generation has shucked the obligations of "citizenship," and we're well on our way to a moribund society, dangerously open to violent extremists.

I don't think anyone has to choose between multiculturalism and forgiveness. Scruton's disavowal of multiculturalism contains a repudiation of tolerance, which is the greatest weapon the West has. As I argued in my Huntington critique, a society need not march in lockstep to be powerful--quite the contrary.

This is why Scruton signals a crisis. He thinks we've fallen out of touch with our roles as citizens. But this is a natural development in a democracy: we can't be great citizens if everyone agrees that we're great citizens. Revolt and patricide are also important ingredients. Not to mention hesitation and empathy. All this makes us better defended against terror, not worse.

The Judeo-Christian"forgiveness" that Scruton calls for is really just multiculturalism in action, or what I prefer to call toleration. He fails to see the key irony of this policy: that it is a weapon in an asymmetrical cultural war. We tolerate creationists because to censor them would only strengthen them. We have faith in the free exchange of ideas.

Scruton's call to better citizenship is laudable, but he opposes multiculturalism for the wrong reasons. (Here are some better reasons).