Friday, March 24, 2006

Betwixt and Between

The Great Game has begun again in an entirely different context. This time, instead of Central Asia it’s Eastern Europe, predominantly Orthodox Christian countries. And instead of Britain (essentially the EU countries) it’s the United States facing off against Russia in a stealth game of geopolitical proxy chicken. No military engagement seems necessary; rather, it’s the ineluctable march of democracy that appears to be driving these successive revolutions. First, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, technically in Central Asia, but a former Soviet republic nonetheless, and then the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, another former soviet republic, followed by what will be the Belarusian revolution, another breakaway Soviet republic.

This is an unwelcome development for Russia, who, even after the end of the Cold war, has always maintained a de facto regional sway over these republics, favoring and propping up Moscow friendly strongmen like Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukraine, and now Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. It is almost certain that Lukashenko will share the same fate of both Shevardnadze and Yanukovych, considering the circumstances are exactly the same. In the Georgian and Ukrainian contretemps, election results that were widely regarded as fraudulent resulted in civil unrest, which lead to international opprobrium and calls for either new elections, with credible international monitors of course, the path the Ukraine took, or the dissolution of government entirely, the way that Georgia went. And it’s obvious who benefited.

Mikhail Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School in the U.S and now president of Georgia, and Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine, are pro-western, or more clearly, leaders of a neo-liberal bent. They are seen as integral pieces in wresting the reins of regional power from Russia. And although the United States and to a lesser extent the EU have no direct involvement in these developments (it may be patently obvious though) they have myriad indirect associations – because, in the end, it’s beneficial for them.

For instance, George Soros’ Open Society and the Liberty Institute, among numerous others, are private foundations that aim to shape international public and social policy, putatively, but are instead proxies that help foment civil protest against authoritarian governments, or primarily Eastern European governments, the type of concerted and behind-the-scenes actions that spelt the end of the Cold War. But is this a necessarily bad thing?

I’m always skeptical of arguments that discount the intentions of Georgians and Ukrainians' desire to have more transparent, less authoritarian government. Does a little push along hurt matters? Granted, the type of government that takes form after said ‘push along’ is where the issue turns. Would they be encouraged (forced) to remove all import tariffs, open up financial markets, sell off national resources at fire-sale prices, Privatize! Privatize! Privatize! and generally prostrate themselves to be a (subordinate) friend of the West?

This is a legitimate concern, one that can be countered by citing the experience of the Ukraine presently. It’s seems that just two years after the Orange revolution Viktor Yushchenko is having some trouble implementing his neo-liberal agenda, add that to the economic slow down in the region, and Mr. Yushchenko may lose the upcoming parliamentary elections. The answer, then, to neo-liberal hegemony, particularly in this case, seems to be the electorate’s desire for representative democracy and accountable government, a novel and historically well-tested concept the apathetic West should consider revisiting

And the two seemingly unrelated stories I came across today begin to cohere: The first, the US joining the EU in sanctions against Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko following, you guessed it, questionable election results; The second, more ominous, the Pentagon releasing a report that claims the Russian Foreign Ambassador in Iraq (sounds redundant) provided military intelligence to Saddam during the weeks preceding the US lead invasion, or war. That’s a twofer: one a slap on the wrist against Belarus, and by extension Russia, the other a direct shot square in the nose. But how will Russia counter? The Great Game continues.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Special Ops

Hat tip to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for visiting our Canadian troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Yes it looks like a cynical photo-op, and yes all those “mission accomplished” analogies can be raised; but because of the recent spat of intense attacks our soldiers have been under, this visit was both a morale booster and a politically astute move, considering the icy relationship between Mr. Harper and the media.

And yet on another level it begs for an actual public dialogue on Canada’s role in Afghanistan, something the Conservatives have thus far been unwilling to allow in Parliament. If Mr. Harper believes it was important to visit the troops, then it should follow that a public debate on their mission, if only to affirm its significance, should be convened in the house. Mr. Harper's trip only make this more likely, and attempts to rule out one only makes his jaunt to Afganistan that much more superficial.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Moving on

My apologizes to Mr. Haggis for my earlier vitriol against his, still undeserved, Best Picture win. Although it may appear to be the case, my protestations toward Crash having nothing to do with closeted homosexual sentiments and/or proclivities. And this is not to say that Brokeback Mountain isn’t at the political vanguard in normalizing the depiction of gay romance, which it is, but that it’s more than that: It’s really beautiful filmmaking; probably the best in some years, in my opinion. (OK, I’ll watch Junebug and Cache and then contextualize my praise for Brokeback.)

But the issue I have with Crash, along with many other dissenters, is how patently absurd it is. It’s flat out bad filmmaking, which makes all of this dissent revolve around aesthetics or form, even if the content is similarly hackneyed. Altmanesque ensemble cast: check. Conveniently interconnected narratives: check. Self-importance cudgel: check. Subtly: not check. I’d be rehearsing a number of points I’ve read in other places if I continue, points that were better elaborated and far sharper, so suffice it to say that Crash is a bad, bad, bad film. I can’t fight it, so I’ll just move on.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Against Crash, or why the Oscars are irrelevant

I’m calling bullshit on the Academy giving Crash the Oscar for Best Picture. Crash is an incredible film in the sense that real people don’t have conservations the way Crash has depicted them. Real people have psychological motives and a modicum of manners and better things to do with their time than blurt-out silly and unprovoked racial epithets. Despite its stirring second act, in which deus ex machinas abound to conveniently resolve all of the implausible if otherwise charming narratives, Crash is still a garbage film penned by a sentimentally manipulative hack (see Million Dollar Baby) It was obvious as the err occurred, Jack Nicholson opening the envelope, calling the wrong name: “Crash?”

There was a collective gasp which I’m sure Ang Lee, after receiving the Oscar for Best Director and being quickly shuttled off stage, registered. They didn’t cut to a shot of Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal or any one else in building but the cast of Crash and their hack of a director Paul Haggis. Yes, they wanted to capture the winners. But guess what – nobody else was smiling.

And if you think that Crash was some type of commentary on contemporary race relations, and that it somehow addressed our messy polarities – what we say to ourselves and how we act with others – then you are exactly the type of useful idiot who’d bite.

isn’t any of these things and is far less ambitious in its reach than the charlatan down the street or that clown at your office claims. It neither answers questions nor raises them. It’s an awful film. I hate it more now that it has won an Oscar. And this is tokenism of the highest order: to prop up a film as a lode star for a dialogue on race – a film that is criminally inane, a film that is thus charged with negligence for the harm that it will no doubt inflict.

So go forth and talk amongst your friends and family about how Crash changed your life. Tell your children about how Crash dealt with real people talking about race frankly. And it’s surely fitting that Haggis quoted Brecht, saying that “Art isn’t a Mirror, it’s a Hammer” which I guess is supposed to shape society.

Listen to Haggis’s admission: he’s not interested in reflecting society, since he couldn’t care less how real people talk to each other about race. And I’m not understating how he’s shaping it. Bertolt Brecht was overtly political in his drama; Paul Haggis is a hack. For a film purportedly interested in society and race, Crash isn’t political in any regard.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


A ridiculously absurd but altogether fascinating excerpt from Rolling Stone’s stunning look inside Scientology,
Both of Natalie’s parents are Clear (ridding one’s self of the reactive mind), she says. Her Grandmother is what’s called an “Operating Thetan,” “OT.” So is Tom Crusie, who is near the top of Scientology’s Bridge, at a level known as OT VII. OT’s are Scientology’s elite -- enlightened beings who are said to have total “control” over themselves and their environment. OT’s can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings. At the highest level, they are allegedly liberated from the physical universe, to the point where they can psychically control what Scientologists call MEST: Matter, Energy, Space and Time.
I guess this explains that missing clip from Thank You for Smoking at this year’s Sundance. But it doesn’t explain why Tom Crusie hasn’t won an Oscar yet, or managed to control the behavior of Paparazzi.

An aside
: Saw Brokeback. Verged on tears. Will win Oscar. Ledger, I think, was much better than Hoffman, though I did enjoy Capote. Without Gyllenhaal Brokeback is a different film, so I’m going with another upset. I don’t think either Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck necessarily warrant the type of attention they’ve received – I see them working on a political level, as commendable agitprop, but as strong cinema they don’t cut it for me. (This notwithstanding David Strathairn's superb performance in Goodnight) Aberrations like Munich and, let us not forget the highly manipulative, Crash strike me as wrongheaded in light of Cronenberg’s outstanding A History of Violence. Even considering all its hype, which should work more as detriment to a film of its quality, Brokeback is one of the best films of the last 6 years.