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.