Sunday, November 20, 2011

Recent cultural consumption

Amidst a pretty hectic work schedule, I've been taking in a lot of culture recently. In my weekday evenings alone after work, I've been reading, watching movies from my father-in-law's impressive film collection, and generally exposing myself to lots of ideas and artistic creations.

Right now I'm reading a number of books. "The Coming Famine" by Julian Cribb is a well-researched account of the different issues that put in peril the future security of our food supply. It is pretty comprehensive, touching on limited supply of mined fertilizers, dwindling oil reserves, food wastage, lack of financing for agronomic research, increasingly scarce freshwater, and climate change, among other things. The scope is wide-reaching, and it's a good introduction for the layperson, though some (not many) of the facts and sources he quotes have more to do with talking points that have been made "real" by incessant repetition in the news, as opposed to pressing issues based on reality. I like a few aspects of his treatment in particular--his repeated insistence that people eat more plants and less meat as a way of reducing demand for grains, energy, and fertilizer; his recognition that both large-scale mechanized farming and small-scale intensive land use have important places in our world's future food supply; and his equanimous, nonradical way of dealing with the issues. If this latter is at times overly generous to certain viewpoints without much factual backing (like the 15-year-old claim that within a few years genetic modification will produce crops resistant to drought, salinity, and the like), it does enable him to make reasonable, common-sense claims without sounding like a radical (for instance his insistence on increasingly basing our diets on plants as opposed to animal products).

Another, very different book I'm reading is The Crusades through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf. It's a fascinating, comprehensive historical account of the first centuries of the second millennium, with lots of intrigue, battles, atrocities, and noble behavior. It gives a complex understanding of all the actors involved in the Crusades, from Western European Crusaders and their Middle-Easternized descendants, to Turkish warlords, to decadent Byzantine rulers, to Arab subjects caught in the crossfire. There are lots of surprising alliances and betrayals among all parties, with no simple Muslim vs. Christian storyline to be found anywhere!

A book I finished recently is You and Your Adolescent, by Laurence Steinberg. As its title suggests, it talks about raising adolescents. My dad bought the book maybe twenty years ago, and I figured I'd read it to prepare for my son's teenage years, as well as for input on the two adolescents currently living with me. It's fascinating too to see what sections my dad highlighted. It seems he wanted to know how to deal with my sexual activity. If only he'd known how little success I had with the ladies as a teenager, he'd have been much less preoccupied! I notice that the new edition of the book advertised on the website covers up to 25 years of age. I realize that times are changing, but I'd like to think that by the time I was engaged to my now-wife I wasn't still an adolescent!

Another childrearing book I'm reading is called Raising Adopted Children by Lois Ruskai Melina. I am interested in adopting children, because I want a big family, but I don't feel that it's responsible to conceive lots of kids in an age when we're really pushing the limits of what our natural environment can withstand. This is another book from my dad's collection, when he and my mother were considering adopting a sibling for me. Again, it's interesting to see what information Dad highlighted in his reading. It's also funny to read about certain preoccupations that, due to my wife's and my particular living situation, don't seem like they'll be as big a problem for us. Especially "foreign" babies' looking different from the adoptive parents wouldn't be a huge problem here in Colombia, where any given family has members that look European, Asian, African, and Native American. Hell, right now my son looks like a little rosy-cheeked German baby amidst his Latino family members! Perhaps this is related to another point the book makes, that children adopted from Colombia find as much acceptance from extended family members in the US as Caucasian babies born in the States.

If you follow the links I've posted for these books, you'll notice I'm no longer linking to I don't like their business model of lowering prices at the expense of worker dignity. It's not only incorrect ethically, but there's no way the US can reinforce a healthy economy if the main "growth" in productivity is achieved by making jobs intolerable and insecure and thus impoverishing our nation's consumer base. I'd rather pay a bit more for my books, and even have them arrive in two days instead of one, if it means my country will have more well-paid workers who might in turn purchase other products and services that I offer, or simply to be my neighbors in a flourishing, dignified community.

On the movie front, I've had a varied diet, too. I recently watched Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" for the first time. I knew the "I coulda been a contender" sequence from my dad and other cultural allusions to it, but I had no idea what the rest of the film was about. It touches on the complex relations between union, mafia, and Church, with the most noble character being a fiery progressive priest urging dockworkers to stand up for their rights. Would that we saw more of that these days in the US Catholic Church!

I also watched Scorcese's Mean Streets for the first time in a long time. I remembered its bleak, lonely aesthetic, but I'd forgotten how unique and accurate that mood and the portrayal of city life is. Unlike Scorcese's other mobster flicks, Mean Streets isn't at all glamorous. It's about a group of small-change hustler friends trying to live well and live good in a decadent, decaying neighborhood. The movie's depiction of the postindustrial, post-European-immigrant urban landscape (albeit at the front end of postindustrial decline) corresponds more to the timbre of my youth in such an environment than perhaps any other film I've seen. City life for me in 1990s Chicago was neither glamorously gritty nor glamorously comfortable. The city in those days often felt like a forgotten landscape, no longer relevant in a shiny, suburban USA. Likewise the Catholic Church, which in Scorcese's 1972 New York and in the materialistic, self-centered milieu of the 1990s USA seemed like an antiquated, forgotten institution, kept alive only by a few true believers in old, empty churches, who themselves were struggling to reconcile the noble ideals of a medieval Church with the amoralism of their everyday surroundings. It's that passed-over, faded quality that Mean Streets captures so well.

A film I did not like very much was Pi, by Darren Aronofsky. The premise is that a number theorist genius comes close to discovering some magic number that can explain the stock market, and perhaps secret meanings in the Jewish Torah. First off, it's from 1998, when people still idiotically revered the stock market as some omniscient indicator of value, as opposed to the arbitrary, zero-sum scam driven by irrational behavior and fraudulent manipulation that the stock market has proven to be. As such, the film has us admiring the protagonist and his computer for their ability to "decipher" the stock market's daily fluctuations, as if this could create value as opposed to merely concentrating it in the hands of a few lucky gamblers. But beyond this idiosyncracy of the film's era, I disliked the frenetic, epileptic pacing and cinematography of the movie. Aronofsky has become famous for his depictions of mental breakdown, but this early effort is clumsy and over-the-top, to the point of being almost unwatchable. The filming is very deliberate, as if to say, "Look at me, I'm rapidly splicing together a lot of chaotic images and dreamlike non sequiturs. Give me the film school first prize!" Anyway, I'm glad I'm done watching it, and glad Aronofsky has refined his craft.

A much better black-and-white film with rapid-fire editing is The Battleship Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein. It was filmed in 1925, and is silent, with interspersed dialogue cards amidst the filmed action. But my version has a jumping musical score by Shostakovich that goes along well with the modern-style montage sequences. The film follows the mutiny of a naval crew in Tsarist Russia, and the aftermath of the mutiny and popular uprising. Apparently Eisenstein was the first to make widespread use of montage, as a way of assaulting the viewer's emotions with sensory stimuli. If propaganda were all done this gracefully and artfully, I might not mind so much living under a propagandistic regime!

Two Japanese-themed movies I've seen recently are The Last Samurai, a beautiful but ultimately incoherent homage to the warrior ethic, and Throne of Blood, by Akira Kurosawa. I am culturally literate enough to have picked up that T2hrone of Blood was a Macbeth remake, but only about 40 minutes into the film, when the lady of the manor starts trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood. The two films represent samurai warriors on their best (Last Samurai) and worst (Throne of Blood) behavior, but neither makes clear that the samurai were a class of feudal overlords whose leisure and whose battle were based on the subjection of an industrious, honest peasantry to their extortion of tribute.

My wife and I have also watched Blue and White, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Blue captures a depressive, cold vision of life. The protagonist is devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident, but she and everyone else in the film is so emotionless that I can't imagine she actually liked her family that much to begin with. The film ends with a senseless montage of different characters looking wistful in blue light. White, on the other hand, is a lively, dark look at getting ahead and getting revenge, in this case on a cruel ex-wife that forces her Polish husband to flee France. It is much more plot-driven than Blue. My wife and I have yet to see Red.

One last film I want to mention is a documentary put out by National Geographic's Genographic Project. This project aims to reconstruct the history of ancient human migrations across the globe, through DNA samples from people throughout the world, especially indigenous groups that have lived in the same place for millennia. I signed up and sent in a DNA sample from my cheeks, and am waiting for the results. But in the meantime, they sent me a documentary about the project. It follows lead scientist Spencer Wells around the world as he traces mankind's earliest footsteps. In typical National Geographic style, the film oscillates between serious science and sensational adventurism, but it's a good watch.

Aside from film, I've been listening to music for the first time in a long time. On a recent night I digested a CD from Marvin Gaye's Last Concert Tour. I always love his artful tightrope walk between the carnal and the sacred. At the end of the CD, he remarks that it may be his last tour, as he's considering joining the clergy. What he didn't know is that it would be his father, the father he lauds at various moments in the concert, who would end his touring career with a gunshot to the face. I also listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which for me represents one of the high points of commercial hiphop music. The instrumental tracks are complex and organic, the rhymes are intelligent, and the singing is top-notch. At the same time, hearing her makes me think of my disillusion with her Fugees counterparts, Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel, whose progressive lyrics in favor of oppressed minorities in the US are diametrically opposed to their public statements in favor of the most depraved oppressors in Haiti. Odd how a left-wing person in one context becomes the most reactionary in another. I don't know Lauryn Hill's stance on Haitian politics, and I probably don't want to know it.

That's it for my culture reviews. Soon I'll also post on a few unique cultural experiences I've had lately.

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