Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Log 502 Feb 4 2016: Big celebration in praise of the illiterate bricklayer, Sweaty Valho --- oh, how I wish it were so simple!

English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.Guess who at the centre? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Statue de Saint Blaise sous une échauguette de...
There are more statues of Sveti in Dubrovnik than you can shake a stick at (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Statue de Saint Blaise Saint Patron de Dubrovnik
Statue of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: On the side of the Church of St Blais...
One of the animals Sveti saved?
Dubrovnik,  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dubrovnik; Ragusa
Dubrovnik: Before this church all the festivities took place (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I feel myself constrained today --- I wish it were not so, but, as we used to say, needs must, in the service of truth and actuality --- to recount an event part of which I witnessed yesterday, in praise of St Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. Indeed, this saint is honoured in many places in Christendom, and is known by different names, according to the local languages. When he was first mentioned to me in Dubrovnik, he was called Sveti Vlaho I thought they said Sweaty Vlaho, and I immediately had the fantasy that this saint had been a simple man, possibly an illiterate bricklayer or something of the sort, who attained his sainthood and millennial following from being kind to the birds that would perch on his shoulders as he laid his bricks, or on the wall he was building, twittering away merrily as  the construction mounted towards what they no doubt call, in these parts, the heavens.
Perhaps I should pause here by way of disclosure, to make clear that my attitude towards religions --- all religions --- is unsympathetic. I know we are always enjoined to respect everybody’s religion, and I go along with that to the extent that I would not wish to interfere with anyone’s following of his or her chosen religion. But I find it more difficult to honestly admit that I can respect the choice a religious person has made. For, to take the most obvious examples, that would be to say I respect the opinion of someone who, shall we say, has benefited from the highest available education, who yet asks me to believe that their patron came into the world by virgin birth, an event so incredible that it has never yet been recorded in human history. Or that, their Master having been executed by Roman soldiers, and placed in his grave in some sort of cave, the entrance to which was  blocked by a huge stone, nevertheless the corpse found the strength to rise from his grave, roll aside the huge stone, and then, as they say, “ascend to heaven.”
I find it quite impossible to say that I respect the actions of believers who propagate such nonsense around the world as if it were the actual truth. Similarly, to take the case of another religion, we have seen in recent years the spectacle of hundreds of young people offering themselves up as suicide bombers, on the promise that their martyrdom for their cause would earn them when once they have, in their turn, ascended to heaven, a future in which they will be free to amuse themselves with 72 vestal virgins. Such people live right in our present day, and are wreaking havoc around the world with  insensate acts of killing people who are totally innocent of whatever actions they might have been killed for.
And indeed, to return to the case of Dubrovnik, the protection of their patron Sveta Vlaho may have pulled them through their recent war against their Serbian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian neighbours, but it seems not to have guided their thoughts in a particularly noble direction when their soldiers, engaged in fighting on the ground in defence of their Bosnian neighbours, suddenly decided to switch sides in mid-battle, and on the spot undertook a  brutal and treacherous attack on them.
Okay, just to say, I am not a religious person. Nevertheless It was suggested to me yesterday that I should have a look at the spectacle laid on by this city and the villagers who ---- everybody told me this as if to suggest these obeisances were the resort of simple villagers, not of urban sophisticates --- would come flocking in, wearing their traditional garb, and waving their parish flags as they paraded before the Bishop, or whoever was the lead character in this drama.
I do not myself enjoy dressing up, and have a limited taste for it when others do it; I have always hated flags, the main purpose of which in my experience has been to gather the faithful into a group ready to attack the bearers of other flags; and the spectacle of hundreds of priests in their black gowns, colourful robes, fancy hats and the like, is such as to turn my stomach.  So I cannot claim to have greatly enjoyed the proceedings, although I did wonder why the whole procession was brought to an end by a solid column of men dressed as Roman soldiers.
The only thing I enjoyed were the two brass bands. I grew up with brass bands in the far south of New Zealand, and I have always thrilled to the memory of 26 bands marching towards the Rugby Park on the occasion of our annual epic struggle against the neighbouring province to the north. This was before the Second World War, before I reached my teens.  The Dubrovnik band yesterday did play one of the essential British marches, Colonel Bogey, with which our proceedings in those far off days were enlivened, but I did feel they had a musical  arrangement which, towards the end of a phrase, seemed slightly out of tune, at least to my ears.
I have made an effort to discover the origin of Sveti’s sainthood. He was apparently a physician, elevated to bishop,  lived in historical Armenia (modern-day Turkey), and died by beheading by a Roman legionnaire in 316 AD. At a certain point in his life he retired to a cavern, to which his good works attracted many people, hoping to be cured, and also, so it was said, “Even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing.”  Just like Tarzan, summoning the wild animals from the jungles.
The most significant miracle he performed appeared to have been to have somehow helped a boy who was being choked by a fishbone caught in his throat, by which act he has become, according to Wikipedia, the favourite saint for curing throat illnesses, specially for  bones stuck in the throat.
Although he died in the fourth century, the legendary Acts Of Saint Blaise were not written until 400 years later, and were then used to make him one of the most popular saints of the medieval centuries. The Dubrovnik celebrations, of which I saw the first half hour or so, apparently ended (again I am indebted to Wikipedia) “when relics of the saint, his head, a bit of bone from his throat, his right hand and his left, are paraded in reliquaries.” 
A part I must have missed, again described in Wikipedia, was when “two candles are consecrated, generally by a prayer, these are then held in a crossed position by a priest over the heads of the faithful or the people are touched on the throat with them. At the same time the following blessing is given: ‘May Almighty God at the intercession of St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, preserve you from infections of the throat and from all other afflictions’. Then the priest makes the sign of the cross over the faithful.”
I guess, in this modern world, surrounded by its overload of information, you decide what you are going to pay obeisance to, and then do your stuff. Or not.


Monday, February 1, 2016

My Log 501 Feb 1 2016: Emerging from months of silence: an onslaught on current policies that are destroying the world as we have known it

English: President Barack Obama delivers a pol...
They are coming at you, guys: President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on the Middle East and North Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With his family by his side, Barack Obama is s...
Top of the world: the swearing in on Jan. 20, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cropped screenshot of John Wayne and Angie Dic...
John Wayne, propagandist for the American way  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: In January 2009, President of the Uni...
Les responsables: In January 2009, President of the United States of America, George W. Bush invited then President-Elect Barack Obama and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter for a Meeting and Lunch at The White House. These are the guys who are responsible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If there are any regular readers of this site, it may not have escaped their notice that during recent months, as momentous events have swirled around our heads, I have maintained a lofty silence.  Not a word on the Canadian election. Not a word about the so-called refugee crisis of Europe. Not a word about the rise of ISIS. Not a word about the blunderbuss incoherence of American foreign policy. Nothing about the challenge of man-made climate warming. And so it goes on issue after issue.
Since I began this site almost twenty years ago with the intention of having a sounding off place, where I could say what is on my mind, this silence is rather surprising, even to me.  Perhaps it is because I have been preoccupied with other issues: for example, it is getting on for ten months since I fractured my Achilles tendon, which precipitated a sudden realization that I am not immortal. In fact, I am kind of aging, which is to say, I am getting well advanced into the age at which one’s various parts are wearing out finally, and the inevitable end-effect suddenly appears to be not far off.  (Not to worry, I tell myself, we all die.)
Other reasons for my silence could be:
·      that I am old enough to know I have nothing relevant to contribute to the solution of any of these momentous problems, a factor which,
·      allied with my new understanding that no one really wants to hear from a cranky old geezer living through his ninth decade,
·      really does enjoin one to maintain a silence as dignified as one can make it,  (which, in my case, my personal dignity having never before been an issue for me, is probably not a very compelling reason).

Nevertheless, the fact is, that I still have a body of opinions, however poorly based they may be, that do require to be released for an outing every now and again, so here goes:
Last night I watched on Croatian TV the third of three films made, in 1950, by John Ford  about the US cavalry. The film was Rio Bravo, the stars John Wayne, Victor McLagan, Maureen O’Hara, and the theme, I couldn’t help noticing, was the age-old one of the Yankees straightening things out at the barrel of the gun.
It was striking, to say the least, to observe this dollop of American propaganda, the celebration of what President Barack Obama so proudly calls “American exceptionalism” (which he said recently he believes in “with all my heart and soul”), in these historical circumstances, in this case an exceptionalism including the unquestioned belief of the invading Yankees as they moved West, that it was their right to occupy the land they wanted, and to get rid of the previous occupants by killing them and driving them into prison camps or reservations where they no longer had the opportunity to look after their own needs, but at least were out of the way of the invaders.  
Although one would never have guessed it from the movie, which showed the Yankee army as a nice little club of singing soldiers, loyal husbands who took their wives and children along with them to the front, while at the same time being insensate killers, one would never have guessed that these guys were undertaking their part of the greatest genocide ever visited by one people on another, that is, the extermination policies conducted by European invaders throughout the Americas, which are estimated to have killed off some 90,000,000 people.
It was amazing to make the jump from that propaganda picture of the founding principles of the United States, which appear to be still believed by most Americans, to what we see in this present day --- the Middle East in flames, as a direct result of American invasions, undertaken under the protection of complete lies told by the government to its citizens, a sort of blunderbuss action that any schoolchild could have foreseen would, at the very least, destabilize the whole region, with unpredictable results. 
The overall story, that the United States is interested only in spreading its sacred value of democracy, is one that even an infant class could see through, given that the leading American allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf states, are among the most undemocratic, indeed, among the nastiest, that exist on the planet today, an anomaly that is reinforced in other parts of the world, where insensate dictators like long-running Mubuto in the Congo, and a raft of disreputable leaders in Latin America have for decades been able to rely on American support.
Okay, so that takes care of the global situation, in the broadest terms. Although, broken into its component parts, it provides no less a disturbing picture. For example, Iraq, attacked to get rid of its dangerous dictator, is now threatened by a previously unheard of Islamic entity of horrendous brutality; for example, Afghanistan, attacked to clear out the perpetrators of the onslaught on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001 (none of whom came from there), but now suffering from what we once might have called barbarous armies as never before; for example, the secular state of Syria, governed by a rather nasty family that routinely tortured prisoners, is now in ruins (millions of their citizens fleeing in panic towards a Europe which doesn’t want to be bothered with them), because of U.S. encouragement to incoherent groups of dissidents who thought  they had what it takes to overthrow the ruling family, but who have proven to be woefully inadequate to that task. And so it goes on, everywhere the U.S. feels itself called upon to “defend its interests”, as their current claptrap excuse goes. Even for god’s sake, in the Ukraine, historically part of the Russian sphere of influence, but now being surrounded by NATO forces (for which read “American”), in an effort to unreasonably extend the influence of our so-called democratic values, but which seem to have attached themselves to something more akin to fascism.
Okay, is it any wonder I have maintained my silence on these issues until now? How about the TPP, this extension of our disastrous NAFTA, an alliance of Pacific states designed by the Americans to extend and defend the interests of American corporations, under which, if it ever comes to pass, corporations will have the existence and stature virtually of sovereign states, and be able to sue any State that takes any action that might reduce their profits.  What? Are there actually politicians in this world that are espousing this rubbish?  I am afraid it is so, my dears.
And as for climate change: for years now I have felt one has only to take a trip to Toronto and there watch the ceaseless coming and going of the countless cars that flow along its 401 highway, and to realize that this is multiplied by the thousand in cities around the world, and that this even this is but a fraction of the pressure these cities are putting on the very earth that sustains us, the very water we cannot live without, the very air we breathe, to realize that all hope of ever reducing the carbon we emit that is inevitably warming the earth, is likely to be a false hope. To put it at its least dramatic,  the action of any citizen in recycling his cardboard and paper is unlikely to be enough to turn back this tide of carbon we are emitting with almost every action we take. And that, so far, we can see almost no sign that our world of sovereign States is capable of taking the needed decisions to save us from choking to death.
Is it any wonder I have been silent?

And I haven’t even mentioned over-population, the engine of our impossibilities. A friend recently sent me a series of photographs illustrating to what extent overcrowding has become an issue for most of the world’s poor people. I hope my computer skills are up to transferring those photos on to the end of this, so that anyone who has read thus far can see for him or herself just what is at stake.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Log 500 Jan 25 2016: I bring up a milestone number of pieces with this one about the latest hit films

The trunk shot is used in many Tarantino films...
The trunk shot is used in many Tarantino films, including Reservoir Dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Leonardo DiCaprio at the Body of Lies film pre...
Leonardo DiCaprio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Français : Javier Bardem and the Coen brothers...
Javier Bardem and the Coen brothers  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before going any further I should say that since I began to write on my own web site in 1996, I have written many more than 500 pieces.  I began with what I called a place to sound off on; I determined I wouldn’t spend any money on keeping it; and I had been through at least three versions of the site on different addresses, before, in 2010, hitting on the present address, on which I have written 427 of the 500 pieces. ( Since I was more active in my earlier years, I could probably claim to have written about 1800 pieces all told over the 20 years).
My reason for changing addresses was that at least one of my sites was not designed for carrying  this sort of web site, and was not open to being included in the periodic sweeps made by whoever is the boss of these things so that attention could be drawn to the site’s existence.  I have stuck to my vow not to spend money on the site, and have never made any secret of the fact that it is used just for occasional thoughts: in other words, it is not a work of serious journalism, which would require of me to keep more closely in touch with events. I am retired from direct journalism, although I hope I still have the capacity to explain what I want to say in a fashion that is clear enough to be comprehensible to anyone.
Okay, enough of that: this piece is about some of the recent film releases that I have managed to see, partly because they are, unusually, now being screened in Dubrovnik, where I have been for a few weeks. Normally in Montreal I never get to see the up-to-date releases, because I tend to rely more on Netflix, with its offering of films I have missed earlier, or the excellent films that are screened in the Cinema du Parc, downstairs from where I live, which offers probably Montreal’s best selection of films of the brand usually screened in  a “film art house.”
I suppose of most interest currently are the two contenders for this year’s Oscars, The Revenant, the remarkable film directed by Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and a cast of other good male actors. It is about a hunting party of military men, or quasi-military men, in 1823 in the middle of winter, that is put upon by a band of Indians, after which, their main preoccupation is to return to their base whole. The character played by DiCaprio is attacked by a bear when he is alone in the bush, and almost killed. His mates fix up to carry him along with them in their hasty retreat, but he is so severely injured and is delaying them so much, thus opening them to even more danger of Indian attack, that they begin to quarrel over whether they should kill him or simply abandon him to die.  The latter course is chosen, and he is half buried, and left to gasp his last, as they think.
However, he recovers sufficiently to drag himself out of his half-grave, and thereafter shows so much initiative in somehow managing to keep himself alive that eventually he makes it back to camp.  Probably the most remarkable thing about this movie is that they succeeded in shooting it at all, out in the Canadian and American winter wilderness, in terrible conditions requiring the actors to stand in freezing water and to suffer very much what the characters they were playing suffered.  Inarritu, as I discovered when seeing him interviewed on TV this week, looks and sounds like the sort of man capable of inspiring his team to make extraordinary efforts, and  he appears to have done just that in the making of this movie. I am not surprised it has been nominated for 12 Oscars, and I expect it to be a runaway winner.
Mind you, I have little faith in the Oscars as a guide to the best movies: I felt almost personally offended in that year when Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent  There Will Be Blood, derived from the early chapters of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil,  a movie that in my book has a claim to be considered among the best movies ever made, was beaten out by No Country for Old Men, made by the Coen Brothers, in which Javier Bardem played a homicidal maniac who went around killing people with no explanation as to why he did it, or what made him do it. It was all simply a meretricious use of insensate violence that can only be called gratuitous.
Anderson’s film by contrast, starred Daniel Day-Lewis in surely one of the most remarkable of his many noteworthy  acting performances, as an oil man who arrived in the American West determined to make his fortune by persuading simple-minded farmers that he could make them rich if only they would allow him to pump oil from their properties.  An accompanying story to that of this hard-hearted, determined bloke is the story of a child he adopted who grew up to be unable to speak, but who, after watching his father in action over the years, eventually decided to strike out on his own in what he hoped might be some more morally supportable  business. The denouement to this film is as violent as anything in the aforementioned films, but the violence arose from the main character, was bred into him, and was essential to the story; and personally I have found that film, seen quite a few years ago, unforgettable.
One of the competing films this year is called  The Hateful Eight,  another film set in the Old West which features such an extreme level of gratuitous violence that, as I left the cinema I remarked that “the man who made that film is a madman.” That man is Quentin Tarantino, whose previous films have been marked by similar levels of unnecessary and unconvincing violence. One of the best descriptions of this director --- who for inexplicable reasons is held in Hollywood to be some kind of boy genius --- was made by one of my sons, when he said Tarantino’s films seem to have been made by someone who has had no experience of life except sitting and watching TV and movies all the time.
In this film, as in the Inarritu film, most of the action takes place in a brutal snow storm, from which the eight central characters have sought refuge in a large country cabin. There a diverse collection of people, one of whom is a black man played by Samuel Jackson, quarrel, start shooting, and eventually all of them die: or maybe two of them live, just, but seem likely to die as the movie ends.  This could have been called The Hateful Film about eight hateful people. One of the eight is a woman played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of Hollywood’s most experienced actresses with a huge filmography, including many memorable performances, but I am willing to bet she never had a roll so demeaning as his one. She finishes the film with her face completely covered in blood sprayed from some of the dying men, and vomit, from others, an indication of the obscene level of violence in this terrible movie.
The third notable film I have seen lately is The Big Short, an effort to bring to the screen an explanation of the 2008 meltdown in the global economy. Directed and co-written by Adam McKay, it is shot and edited in a staccato manner that certainly suits the raid-fire production of information as it drifts across the screen, just as it drifted across the stock markets of the world. Personally, being myself uninstructed in the vagaries of the stock market, I missed much of the most important information, which was rattled out and left to die, as far as I was concerned, although no doubt younger people with a better background in these matters must have gotten more detail out of it than I did.   I was left in do doubt, however, that the four central figures in the film were, if not evil, certainly extremely self-centred, criminally so, in fact, pursuing their own enrichment and disregarding the evident disaster that would ensue for millions of people.  Having learned that major banks were gathering worthless house mortgages into bonds, they bought these bonds up, and at the same time bet against their failure.  They couldn’t lose, except if the bonds against which they were betting did not collapse. The central figure is a former doctor, become a fund manager, played by Christian Bale, who eventually begins to see the error of his ways when it is pointed out to him by a former broker who has retired in disgust from the business, but who, when the big crash comes, stands to earn $200 million if he sells. He considers it seriously for about five minutes, but eventually says, “Okay, sell.” So, while portrayed as a relatively sensible centre of this plot, he knew exactly what he was doing, realized the impact it would have on millions of people, and yet he carried on with his schemes until the final great payoff. 
It is said in the film that six million homeowners lost their houses, and eight million people lost their jobs.  But although it all happened because of this monstrous fraud by the bankers and fund managers, only one banker, an obscure functionary somewhere in Europe, went to jail. If ever the leftist belief that capitalism is crime was confirmed, it was by by this event. And that uncomfortable truth is not shirked in this excellent film. Some leftist writers have objected that the film pleads for sympathy for the evil-doers, but I didn't find that, and don’t agree with this criticism of the film.

In addition to these films, I am presently watching an excellent British spy-thriller called The Honourable Woman. It has eight episodes, I am past the fifth and am gripped by every episode. It deals with an Israeli-based company whose two young owners have invested in providing fibre option communications to the West Bank, only to run into trouble from both sides, plus the American and British secret security services.  This has been a widely praised series, and rightly so. But then the British are expert at this kind of drama, their expertise reaching from the wartime drama, Foyle’s War,  a beautiful series that is constantly being re-run, through their pitiless look at MI5, through to this new one, every bit as expertly written, directed and acted as the previous hits.