Friday, December 29, 2006

Saddam Hussein to be executed soon...?

Meanwhile, in Iraq...

I haven't had a great deal to say about international politics of late. Since the US invasion, I'm one of those who has sort of sunken into despair - protesting doesn't do much good, caring doesn't do much good, even knowing what's going on doesn't do much good. I've committed the sin of looking away, mostly out of a feeling of hopelessness. It's odd, though, to note that Saddam Hussein is going to be executed soon.

The press seems relatively restrained in its reportage, at least compared to what you'd expect. You'd think this would be front page news on every newspaper in the world; it should be a momentous event, a symbol of justice being meted out, a sort of triumph - but it seems instead more like people are ashamed and uncomfortable about it. Maybe this will all change tomorrow, I don't know; but right now I'm struck by how nothing at all was mentioned on the Independent site today, where I usually check for world news; and today is the first day since the sentence was handed down in November that I noticed an article on Yahoo, which prompted me to poke around. Znet, my usual source for left-leaning political commentary, doesn't have much that I can see; the political bias is so heavy there that any events in the world that don't immediately lend support to leftist causes aren't really mentioned, in much the same way that news stories that don't lend support to the war effort might not get that much time on Fox News. (It's kind of odd that with Hussein's execution impending, Znet is devoting time to articles on Mel Gibson's new movie and on the late Joe Strummer; it actually reminds me of my own aforementioned desire to look away. But maybe I've missed something). After the Independent and Znet failed me, I was forced to look at an American source, hence the CNN article linked above - it's the one country in the world where the news can still be spun in the right direction, without too many awkward questions being raised.

Turns out that not all leftist websites are so devotedly blinkered, though. Common Dreams - a site pointed out to me by Gerry Hannah during a recent interview - fares quite a bit better than Znet, with an article by a former chairmain of the British Iraqi Foundation. Burhan al-Chalabi writes:

The US presents the Iraqi people with this phoney act of accountability, but no one has been held accountable for invading and occupying Iraq or the mass human rights abuses carried out in the process. If this generation of Iraqis is not able to get justice, future generations will make sure they do. They will look to the established system of international justice to recognise these atrocities and hold people accountable retrospectively.

The occupying forces continue to peddle the nonsense that they cannot withdraw immediately - that this would only spark civil war. I am convinced that the opposite is true: when the occupiers leave, the prevailing civil war will subside. Ordinary Iraqis will have to choose between killing each other or rebuilding the country - which they can only do in an independent, sovereign Iraq.

I am not convinced that the remedy to Iraq's problems is the departure of the US; while I don't think the US presence there must be maintained at all costs, lest anarchy and fascism reign - I'm not Christopher Hitchens -- I also suspect that if the occupiers left, the violence would escalate, not subside, at least in the short term. That doesn't necessarily mean that they should stay, though. Peace might well arrive faster if the US and Britain got the hell out.

Riverbend hasn't posted anything on her blog for a couple of months, but wrote after Hussein's sentence:

I’m more than a little worried. This is Bush’s final card. The elections came and went and a group of extremists and thieves were put into power (no, no- I meant in Baghdad, not Washington). The constitution which seems to have drowned in the river of Iraqi blood since its elections has been forgotten. It is only dug up when one of the Puppets wants to break apart the country. Reconstruction is an aspiration from another lifetime: I swear we no longer want buildings and bridges, security and an undivided Iraq are more than enough. Things must be deteriorating beyond imagination if Bush needs to use the ‘Execute the Dictator’ card.

Iraq has not been this bad in decades. The occupation is a failure. The various pro-American, pro-Iranian Iraqi governments are failures. The new Iraqi army is a deadly joke. Is it really time to turn Saddam into a martyr?

...It’s not about the man- presidents come and go, governments come and go. It’s the frustration of feeling like the whole country and every single Iraqi inside and outside of Iraq is at the mercy of American politics. It is the rage of feeling like a mere chess piece to be moved back and forth at will. It is the aggravation of having a government so blind and uncaring about their peoples needs that they don’t even feel like it’s necessary to go through the motions or put up an act. And it's the deaths. The thousands of dead and dying, with Bush sitting there smirking and lying about progress and winning in a country where every single Iraqi outside of the Green Zone is losing.

She also notes that after the verdict was announced, two television stations carrying reports of pro-Saddam demonstrations were shut down by the government (and, we assume, the occupying forces).

To me, it all speaks of ridiculous black farce. Saddam Hussein appears to be a ruthless, but not particularly dangerous, figure - a dictator of the sort the US routinely backs if it serves their business or political interests, probably not much worse than the guy who boils people alive in Uzbekistan, a US ally (see Gerry's song about that here). I have no doubt that there are crimes that Hussein could rightfully be sentenced to death for. To be executed, however, as the result of an illegal invasion by an occupying power that has no moral or judicial rights in Iraq - this is bizarre, a kangaroo court where the big criminals try the little ones. The folly seems so extreme, so perverse that I actually end up feeling some degree of sympathy for Hussein, monster though he may be; what a strange, strange death he is being dealt; it's the stuff of black comedy, not martyrdom. There's a terrific satirical novel to be written about all this, perhaps with the dictator whistling and singing and cracking absurdist jokes on the way to the gallows. We could commission VS Naipaul, maybe...

I mean, stop me if I sound like a Baathist, but the CNN article mentions some of the crimes for which Hussein has been sentenced: "his role in the 1982 killings of 148 people in Dujail, a mostly Shiite town north of Baghdad" - a crime which pales against the 50 000 or more Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the invasion (admittedly, I wonder - is Iraq Body Count tabulating deaths caused by sectarian violence, as well, as being the result of the invasion? I don't think so, but there's some argument to be made for including them as being at least PARTIALLY the result of US actions, since civil strife of the sort we now witness was widely predicted and offered to the US as a reason not to invade). Hussein has also been found guilty of "torture" (like at Abu Ghraib? Isn't it bizarre that this news article saying Hussein will be hanged there never once mentions Americans torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib? How can they NOT mention it, though? Maybe the authors hope that ignorant readers will assume that any torture they've heard about at Abu Ghraib was perpetrated by Hussein himself?) He's also accused of "forced deportation." Hm - seems like I've read a few stories about that happening in the US, too. (And we won't even mention Maher Arar. Hey, who was that other Canadian Muslim who got sent someplace where the CIA outsources torture? Damn, I forget. What's on TV?). It gets stranger and stranger the more you think about it, until you simply have to stop. Continuing through the CNN article, we read that "550 men, women and children were arrested without warrants" in one episode that Hussein was tried for; eerily, about 500 detainees are currently held without legal representation, charges, or any date of release in Gitmo (that's a Wikipedia article; more here, at Amnesty International's site. Some prisoners have been held for over five years).

To be clear, if Saddam Hussein could be fairly tried and sentenced, perhaps by an international court, of war crimes, or if his own people had deposed him and tried him, none of the above would be so jarring, so puzzling. As things are, the execution of Saddam Hussein will stand as a symbol of something - I'm not quite sure what, but certainly NOT the triumph of the rule of law. Somehow the death of a tyrant will become something like the symbol of the triumph of international lawlessness - everything has been stood on its head. And if there seems something wrong with this picture to ME... well, imagine how Iraqis must feel.

I fear what will happen next. I don't want to know. There is a horrible future looming that I don't want to think about. Denial, decadence, distraction. Can we have some music? Does anyone have some pot?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Good read re: CHOCOLATE

Astute net-surfing friend in Japan sent this on - a great little bit of investigative journalism into the markup on a high end US chocolate. Make sure you get past the first page - it's quite detailed!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Patricia Highsmith, Snails, and a Truly Bizarre Coincidence

It is 6 AM. See previous post: "fucking around" on the internet lookin' stuff up turned, as it sometimes does, into an obsessive quest, and the results were strange enough (as sleep deprivation helpfully bent my mind to notice odd coincidences and make much of them) that they now merit an entry all their own, granting me closure and sleep. Thinking (in the previous post) about the science fiction film Phase IV, about human beings confronted with the ant mind, I ended up stumbling upon a 1947 short story - the basis for The Naked Jungle and one of the inspirations for Phase IV, called "Leiningen Versus the Ants." As I explained previously on the Pointless Waste of Time forum, the story has some really amusing politically unacceptable passages, my favourite of which is:
"Critical situations first become crises," he explained to his men, "when oxen or women get excited."
Dealing with a plantation owner in Brazil trying to hold off a horde of advancing army ants, the story can easily be seen as having a colonialist/imperialist subtext; the "tame natives" whom our white hero Leiningen belittles and regards paternalistically are the "good natives," whereas the advancing, mindless and, of course, BLACK ants streaming from the jungle are a symbol of all that would oppose or resist domination by the white man's mind. It got me to thinking about a story I remembered from my childhood, about a white male explorer being eaten alive by giant snails. The story stood as a sort of corrective to things Leiningen; as I recalled, it suggested the inadequacy of the white male mind, and the need to keep arrogance in check. I was a little surprised at how vivid my memories of the tale were; I'd read it in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology that I'd checked out of my elementary school library, at around age 10, and yet could clearly recall the description of the mouth parts of the enormous snail chewing into the man's back. I certainly don't remember any other stories from that time period with such clarity -- I was mostly reading the Hardy Boys back then! But it made an impression: I was so struck by its grimness and depressing ending that I believe I even read it aloud to my father, to see what he would make of it. Why would anyone write something so nasty?, I remember thinking; and, Why do I sort of like it?
A new question came to mind as I sat staring into the screen: what the hell was that story CALLED, anyway?
And: who the hell would write a story about a person being eaten alive by snails?
Well, this is the stuff of much fucking around, so I began to search the internet, typing combinations of keywords into search bars to see if I could track the tale down. "Man eaten alive by giant snails" - zero hits, no surprise there. "Giant snails" - no, wait, there are real giant snails, not quite man eaters but there are still dozens of hits, so I need to narrow it down. How about +hitchcock +snails? Ah, now there's a weird detail: I spot the name of Patricia Highsmith in the search list (Wiki bio here). Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitch for one of his films, so it's just a coincidence that her name is turning up, but I love Highsmith's stories; she's uneven, and a couple of her books have bored me, but the sheer perversity of some of her short stories is fascinating - say, in The Animal Lovers' Book of Beastly Murder or in Little Tales of Misogyny (for which I apparently wrote one of the Amazon customer reviews, about six years ago). Also, the fact that, in books like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), she was covertly exploring her own then-taboo sexuality - she was a lesbian - through the device of a sexually ambivalent male protagonist makes me fond of her indeed. I paused to pay Patty my respects. I clicked the link and read the following paragraph, from a book review of her biography:
She kept 300 snails as pets and carried them around in her handbag. Her most tender memories included going to the zoo to watch the crocodiles. She once set fire to her hair at a supper party and kissing a man, she declared, was like falling into a bucket of oysters. Even her closest friends called her stingy, creepy, cantankerous, neurotic and abnormal.
Who wouldn't love her? I even go so far as to mention her in in said "Pointless Waste of Time" post I end up writing -- Patty needs publicity! She's grievously underappreciated. I notice - as you'll have seen above - that she even has a short story about snails, called "The Snail Watcher," which I make a note to look for. I didn't know she was a snail-lover - this all fascinates me and I'm glad to bump into it - but this is not the story I'm seeking; it had an odder title, I remember, which lurks at the edge of memory. I abandon my Highsmith digression and continue my search for the elusive man-eating snail tale.
It takes me about half an hour to find it. On the Pointless Waste site, I discover there's actually some OTHER schlep looking for information about the same story (it turns up on one of my searches), and I scroll down to the bottom of the thread, clicking all links, trying to see if anyone provides the answer. No one does, though there are various details that tweak my memory further; I write my own post, repeating the plea for information. I search Abebooks, Amazon, Google Groups. I try to think of different phrases to search by (+"alfred hitchcock presents" +"giant snails?" +"short story?") . Various leads, nothing conclusive, until suddenly -
There it is. Someone ELSE has posted the question to a different discussion forum ("does anyone remember a story about a man being eaten alive by giant snails?"), and the literate folk who answer pin down the title, which I recognize beyond a doubt. The story is called "The Quest for the Blank Claveringi." (I can even can explain the odd title from my memory of the tale; the scientist, Clavering, doesn't know what the other half of the scientific name will be yet, so he's leaving it blank). And then an odd detail shoots back through time to my childhood, when I knew nothing about literature but was just a 10 year old kid looking for creepy stories, and fills in a blank in a most shocking way:

Upcoming Jodorowsky and 70's DVD releases

Ah, what a week to put behind me. A final few days of high-maintenance students, last-minute Christmas shopping, my screening at Blim, and today, the seven-hour marathon screening of Satantango (thank you, Vancity Theatre!)... I'm exhausted. I may just get around to cleaning out the mold in my kitchen sink tomorrow; laundry can wait, as further activity will be necessitated by the holidays. At the moment, I'm stalling going to bed so I can just fuck around online for awhile - something I haven't really been able to do lately and am savouring. Some brief news about upcoming DVD releases, then:
If anyone missed it, Jodorowsky's feud with Abcko is at an end, and El Topo and The Holy Mountain will be seeing release on DVD soon. Jod's Myspace page is worth taking a peek at, if you're a fan - make sure you watch the video clip. It's been a long time since I've watched either of these films; I'm not sure how enthusiastic I am now - the huge fandom these films have garnered is a little off-putting, frankly, since a lot of the folks who triumph Jod don't know or care much about more "serious" cinema... but be that as it may, I used to love certain parts of El Topo. The grin on Jod's face when he asks his vengeful son to help him beg, the sooner to be able to kill him, is one of those moments that I carry with me everywhere. The second half of that film strikes some very personal chords with me...
A varied mixed lot of 70's cinema is due out soon, in fact. No news on US releases of Husbands, Death Watch, or Zabriskie Point - three old favourites of mine I'd happily revisit on DVD -- but Cammell and Roeg's Performance is coming out in February, with intense speculation on the net about whether it is likely to be a properly restored version. On the Criterion Forum, I also believe I noticed the news that Pasolini's Salo will be coming back to life as part of the Criterion collection. This is exciting to note, since I think there are flaws to my boot of it...
Vastly less important than Salo - tho' of note to me, since it's a film I have not seen - is the rather surprising news that the film "adaptation" of Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape - a book I am fond of - will be released in the new year. "Collectors DVD" site SuperHappyFun had been selling a version of it for awhile there, before the official release was annoucned. They also recently removed Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face from their lists - does that mean it's forthcoming in North America? (There IS a European release, I gather...).
Now if only I could find a copy of Emile de Antonio's In the King of Prussia! I see some crafty fellow has a used VHS edition on Amazon for $150... Hey, I wonder if anyone is selling pirate DVDs of Saul Bass' Phase IV (not the Brian Bosworth thing - it's a weird old SF thriller about human beings struggling to fight against, or adapt to, ant consciousness)...? I should check (note to self - check on Pontecorvo reissues, too). Seeya.
Click here for a peek at what I got up to later that night. It's nearly 5AM now and I've been posting on Pointless Waste of Time (as Pemmican).

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Canadian horror film discovery - Rituals

I'm an admirer of a Canadian horror film called Rituals, which screened not too long ago at the Vancity Theatre, introduced by author Caelum Vatnsdal. I seem to recall him mentioning there - it's not in his book - that a subsequent US release of the film, entitled The Creeper, was re-edited; I'm not sure about the details of that, but one thing I can confirm is that the old US VHS video release - on Embassy, with the box art pictured - is not the same as the print we saw at the Vancity. It's playing as I type. Nevermind the lousy image quality and the cropped, panned and scanned presentation: in at least one place - I believe more - dialogue has been trimmed, to give the film a faster, more plot-driven feel, while incidentally damaging its articulation of theme (which it does have - the film is a variation on the urban/rural horror film, and itself a sort of "ritual" of overcoming guilt and conscience, liberating an ethical and self-effacing doctor to finally transcend his compassion and kill the revenge-seeking "victim" of medical malpractice). The change I can confirm is in the early scene where the doctors are debating medical ethics around one man's proposal to open a penis-lengthening clinic; the line "What man wouldn't pay for a bigger dick?" is cut - we never even find out that a penis lengthening clinic is the subject of the conversation; the scene is missing everything but a brief reaction shot after Harry (Hal Holbrook) says, "Is it ethical?" We leap immediately to Mitzi (Lawrence Dane) lecturing Harry about the negative effects of Harry's overly conscientious manner on his career, a scene which I also believe has been shortened. These alterations change the rhythm of the film considerably, ruining some of the film's naturalism and subtlety, giving the early sequences a hurried feel, and detracting from Ian Sutherland's enjoyable, literate screenplay.

After confirming that the movie had been wrecked, I watched the majority of the tape on speed search, to get the actual runtime and note any other obvious changes; while I didn't catch any - certainly all gore and violence has been left in - the film played for a few seconds over an hour and thirty minutes, as opposed to the listed runtime - on the video box, even - of 100 minutes, suggesting there were other chunks cut - perhaps the subplot about Harry's guilt over the death of his alcoholic father? I would imagine the hacks who trimmed the film didn't understand the importance of any of that; I'd be surprised if they left in it, frankly... Unfortunately for the film, it belongs to a disreputable genre, so that no one will get particularly indignant about these sorts of changes - or ever bother to restore it to its proper state, I should imagine; this adumbrated video version is the only way most people can currently see the film. It's a shame; it's one of the better commercial Canadian films I've seen, and worthy of more respect.


Post script: how about that, there's been a European PAL release of the "uncut" film, in widescreen format! There are also enough people aware of the cuts to the VHS version to have a little discussion on it on this forum, and the DVD is already being listed on eBay. Little did I know...! The runtime of the DVD is given at 95 minutes, but with Pal speedup, that should be just about right. Looks like people care after all!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lizard Parthenogenesis

Well, I don't have a new migrating manatee to report, but this story about parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons is a sure crowd-pleaser.

Too preoccupied with other stuff to write much but I'll be back, I'll be back...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Ken Russell's The Devils, Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin

We have resumed monthly film events at Blim! Next Friday, December 22nd - with doors opening at 7 PM -- we'll be playing the widescreen, "restored" version of Ken Russell's infamous (and currently unavaible) film The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon - and starring Oliver Reed as a debauched priest on the road to martyrdom. Naked orgying vomiting nuns? "The Rape of Christ?" Perverse witchhunters and the Black Death? What a PERFECT CHRISTMAS MOVIE!
No, really - it's a good film; equal to Women in Love, and far superior to most of Russell's subsequent work. We'll be projecting this off DVD; it's an imperfect version, but the best possible one availble - far superior to the cropped, stretched, and mutilated VHS edition.

After The Devils, to continue in a seasonally dark vein, it's Philip Ridley's neglected cult hit The Reflecting Skin - a perverse prairie David Lynchercise about a young boy growing up surrounded by evil, confusion, and twisted religion. We'll be screening a seldom-seen widescreen version (projected off Japanese VHS); features an early role by Viggo Mortensen, as the boy's brother, nearly returned from the bombing of Hiroshima. Vampires? Serial killers? Pedophiles? Exploding frogs? Yep, that's the Christmas spirit for ya! Hope to see you at Blim, December 22nd!

By the way, on the 23rd, Bela Tarr's Satantango will be playing at the Vancity Theatre, a 7 hour long Hungarian film about the decline of communism and the nature of evil. Shot in a lovely, transfixing black and white, it's one of the most significant works of film art of the last 20 years. This one is for the SERIOUS cinephiles, tho', folks. But you probably figured that out.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Monkey Warfare opens today!

Reg's movie opens today! My interview with him is here; the Straight's is here. Go see this movie!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chris Walter in Discorder

Between the Portland Hotel Society feature and the Chris Walter interview, this has gotta be one of the most "East Van" issues of Discorder that has come out -- it's certainly the most East Van stuff I've written, unlike, say, the man in the photo - who writes some very gritty, honest, and moving stuff about life in the downtown eastside, which he self-publishes on GoFuckYerself Press. I've only read a couple of Chris Walter's books, but I really like what he does; there's a street-level honesty of observation and emotion that brings to mind Bukowski or Hubert Selby Jr, but without the self-romanticization of the former or the sometimes ranting, obsessive quality of the latter... Pick up his novel East Van, for starters - dealing with gentrification, addiction, and prostitution, it's got a complexity of character and plot to it that will absolutely sell you on this guy as a novelist. And he's a Vancouverite!
Tho', for the record, the tattoos on Chris' knuckles read "GFY Press"... They must've been added after the above photo was taken, tho' you can see'em in the back of his most recent book, Welfare Wednesdays...