Monday, January 01, 2007

A surge in propaganda

I've noticed that Atrios and other liberal bloggers have been making a concerted effort to use the word "escalation" instead of surge, saying that escalation is the accurate term.

Actually, escalation is just the surge of stupid wars past, a propaganda term designed to make "increase the number of troops" sound like a good thing.

In general, I agree with this push to choose the words with which to frame the debate, but I'm uncomfortable when it turns into misleading propaganda.

In the case of escalation, however, I don't think it's misleading propaganda as much as a poor choice of words. The honest and accurate description -- "increase the number of troops" -- is a much more effective, from an anti-war perspective, than escalation, which was originally, as noted above, a pro-war propaganda term itself.

Not only that, but escalation, like surge, is a weak word, which is why they use it. Think of the words we use when we want to make the opposite argument. We do not demand that the Bush administration ebb the troops. No one at a protest rally screams de-escalate now! No, "bring home the troops" is the powerful phrase. It is powerful because it is honest and direct. It is powerful because it brings humans into equation as well as the concept of home.

By the same token, the words surge or escalate have no human connotations. But "increase the number of troops," now those are some powerful words. People know exactly what they mean.

It's green, it's green, it's tangerine

My daughter and I saw Children of Men yesterday, the new movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón that stars Clive Owen. I was interested in seeing it because I liked the look Cuarón gave Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the Harry Potter series -- and Owen, who gave an interesting performance in Spike Lee’s Inside Man.

The first step in my approach to critiquing a film is to determine whether it is primarily art or entertainment. Of course it could be both, or neither, and I don’t necessarily consider art “good” and entertainment “bad,” but I feel the distinction is a helpful starting point. It serves no useful purpose to judge Monsters Inc. with the same criteria as Richard the III.

I consider Children of Men to be primarily entertainment. It is a dystopian sci-fi action-adventure that follows its main characters from point A to point B, forcing them to overcome ever more formidable obstacles along the way.

The most important requirement for entertainment is that it entertain. This it does very well. The film is well paced, the slow parts are not too slow. They often contain humor and humanity and add depth to the characters. The action sequences are great, and not so sustained that the action becomes overwhelming. The acting is very good. In addition to Owen’s hang-dog performance, Claire-Hope Ashitey provides spunk and attitude, Juliette Moore does a worthy star turn and Michael Caine goofs it up, adding some much needed levity to the proceedings.

I say “much needed levity“ because Children of Men is not a light film. It is, in fact, very grim, which explains why a big budget blockbuster-type movie with an all-star crew and cast is playing in only three theaters in New York and given next to no publicity.

Much of the plot could have been stolen from Michelle Malkin’s wet dreams. As we follow the main characters from their point A’s to their point B’s, we see unremittingly bleak images of refugees/Illegal aliens in the background being brutally chased, herded, beaten, tortured, and killed with impunity.

And it is perhaps the most violent film I have ever seen. As a Natural Born Killers aficionado, I do not say that lightly. But if someone were to do a body count, like they did with NBK, I’d wager Children of Men would easily take the prize.

Yet we did not find the violence overwhelming. My daughter said it was because there was not much blood. Yea, I replied, but there were a lot of limbs.

And thinking back, I realize that there was a lot of blood as well, but it was not obvious because of the film’s palette. As he did with Azkaban, Cuarón removed nearly all of the magenta from the film, leaving it with an aquamarine cast and strong yellows. So the blood was mostly shadow with only the deepest reds showing through. You really only noticed it when it pooled. The splatter was mostly lost.

Beyond the palette, Children of Men was incredibly well filmed and edited. The action sequences are fantastic. I am not a war movie nerd, but I would guess that the final action scene is one of the best battle sequences ever filmed. It is certainly very good.

The plot is mostly coherent. It is adopted from a novel by P.D. James, the mystery writer who apparently went off the reservation in the early 90's and wrote a grim sci-fi novel that foresaw the direction of our future. There is only one scene, near the end, that intrudes on the suspension of disbelief. It’s unfortunate, and could have been easily rectified, but does not do much to mar the overall achievement of the picture.

Children of Men may be primarily entertainment, but it is not stupid entertainment, nor is it artless. If you like a very good dystopian action-adventure and can stomach a lot of very stark violence, or if you are into cinematography, I recommend it.

Update: If you want to get a taste of the look and feel, here's an interesting video montage someone made. I don't think it will spoil much of anything, but I could be wrong, so view with trepidation if you plan on seeing the movie.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another new york moment

Perhaps my iconic New York moment took place one day on Houston street, near Katz’s deli. I was walking down the sidewalk and after a few minutes, I noticed that every car on the street was honking its horn. The “after a few minutes” is the key to that moment. A crowded city street, cars backed up, probably all the way across Manhattan, every one of them blowing its horn. It was very, very loud. Yet I am so acclimatized to the noise that 500 cars honking their horn only intrudes on my consciousness after a few minutes, and then only because of how long it’s gone on. The noise itself is unremarkable.

I was reminded of that on the bus the other day. If you’re ever in New York and are the type of person who likes to get away from the tourist traps and see the “real” city, I recommend a ride on the B35. It starts in a warehouse district well-seeded with strip clubs and porn shops, makes its way through Sunset Park, a major Hispanic neighborhood, catches the edge of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, cuts through a corner of Borough Park, an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then all the way down Church avenue through Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Polish, Mexican, Central American, Haitian, and West Indian neighborhoods all the way out to the mean streets of the East New York ghetto. Around the world in Brooklyn or It’s a Small World in Hell?

So my wife and I are on the B35 and after a few minutes I notice that people are screaming. In retrospect, I realize that the volume has been increasing for awhile. Then the F bomb explodes through the pop pop pop cadence of the Haitian Creole and the wild tonal swings of the English West Indian dialect and the Spanish (who knew that there were Spanish speaking Muslims in Brooklyn?) on the periphery and I realize that it’s gotten pretty damn loud in here.

The primary commotion is between two large black women, each with two kids. Apparently a woman from the English speaking West Indies sent her daughter up to pay the fare and leaned a stroller up against a seat to save it for her. Then, reportedly, the woman from Haiti came along, contemptuously pushed the stroller aside and sat down in the seat. A few insults were exchanged and the confrontation escalated quickly into a devastating war of words that left both sides badly shaken.

To get the full flavor, you have to imagine it in a West Indian accent.

Insults about speaking a foreign language.
Insults about English language accents.
Accusation that people like her are why white people look down on black people.

You are uneducated.
No, I have a bachelor’s degree. I am an artist.

No, you are uneducated, and you are no artist. You are too ugly to be an artist.

No, you are uneducated, I’ll show you my card, and I am an artist. And you are the ugly one.

No, you are the ugly one, and you are uneducated. I am enrolled at the university. You are so ugly.

No, you are so ugly, and you are uneducated, you are not enrolled at the university, show me your card. You are so ugly. And you are on welfare.

I’ll show you my card, and I don’t see your card. You don’t have no card. You are too ugly to be an artist. You are uneducated. And ugly.

No, You are ugly, and you are uneducated, and you are on welfare. You look link a monkey. Why aren’t you in the zoo, you ugly welfare monkey?

And so on.

In addition to being very, very sad on so many levels, the choice of words the women employed in this war were interesting for what they illustrated about their perspectives. Pretty much every insult concerned the ability to fit into the dominant American culture. What would white people think? The importance of having a college degree. The stigma of welfare. The implied stigma of being of recent African descent. The overall importance of appearances. Ugly was the weapon employed most often. Ugly was the word that cut the deepest. Both of these women were seriously overweight. Neither was what anyone would call good looking. From an American cultural perspective, they looked exactly the same. They were ugly.

So they smack each other in the face with this word, they whack each other on the head. But ugly is more than appearances. Ugly is the lack of education. Ugly is welfare. Ugly is Foreignness. Ugly is African. Ugly is un-American.

Of course I don’t believe these things. The ugly I see in this incident is the ugly of poverty in a land of obscene wealth, which is the root cause of all the other uglies.

The ugliest thing concerning the immediate human beings was the devastated look on the women’s faces. Neither won that battle. They both lost big time and were severely hurt.

But in long view, the ugliest thing was probably that the children were there to witness it. To hear their mother called ugly and uneducated in front of a bunch of strangers. And frankly, to watch their mothers act so ugly in such a public place. The look on the children’s faces was not ugly. They looked sheepish. They looked embarrassed. But the ramifications for their psyche? That’s got to be ugly.