19 December 2012

The Founding Fathers Were Wrong...So They Changed

The Founding Fathers, the saintly cabal of 18th century colonial thinkers who first established this nation, were wrong once.  Very wrong.  So wrong that this country almost collapsed before George Washington even became our first President.  In keeping with their lionized status, these wise men acted in the only manner they saw fit:  they changed.

It was 1776 and while Thomas Jefferson and cohorts were off composing the immortal Declaration of Independence, an absolute brilliant treatise on the inherent rights of man for self-determination, there was a separate committee of thirteen that set forth to draft a less heralded document that would be absolutely vital to the future of the incipient state:  a constitution. What they came up with turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.    

The Articles of Confederation, drafted by John Dickinson, and ratified by all thirteen states by 1781, served as the first de facto system of government used by Congress.  Their aim was noble and true, but the drafters got just about everything wrong.

Wary of all things monarchic, the Articles established a central government that in essence had no influence.  Power was tilted heavily towards the States, and although the government could make decisions, it held no authority to enforce any of those decisions.  The fledgling country quickly fell into bankruptcy because the central government could not collect taxes.  It had to request funds from individual states. The Treaty of Paris, the agreement that ended the Revolutionary War and called for the expulsion of British troops from American lands, remained maddeningly symbolic as the Army was too ill-funded to force the stalling British from American lands.  The new government was completely paralyzed.

By 1786, the country was on the verge of collapse and the Founding Fathers knew it.  So what did they do?  Did they stubbornly refute all criticisms and bore down to stay the course? Did they tinker with the Articles, making cosmetic changes that in effect only maintained the status quo?  Or did they take the more difficult path and reconvene to hammer out a new and improved document that would pave the way for a more perfect union? By 1790, the Constitution of the United States of America had replaced the Articles of Confederation as the supreme law of this country.

The venerated, the deified, the worshiped, the beloved Founding Fathers had made a mistake.  A big one.  But they were not afraid to admit it and to change, to adapt. Yes, they were great men who forged this country, but they were men all the same.  Men who make mistakes.  

And, by the way, they continued making mistakes. Thomas Jefferson triumphantly wrote, "...all men are created equal."  Yet nowhere, not in the Declaration of Independence, not in the Constitution, not in the Bill of Rights, is there even a mention of slavery, or civil rights, or women's rights.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, slave-owners all. 

To suggest that the Founding Fathers were perfect and the Constitution utterly unassailable spits in the face of logic.  The very men who constructed it knew they weren't and it wasn't.  They were not of afraid to change, especially in the face of disaster.  It is incumbent upon us -- for our sake, for posterity's sake -- to follow their lead.

01 August 2012

Impressions of Belgium

Grand Place

Prior to my visit to Belgium, my knowledge of the small lowland country was limited to a few unwrought facts.  Their greatest export, as everyone knows, is their superior beer.  So superior, in fact, that the only other country deserving of mention in a similar vein is neighboring Germany.  Second, at the turn of the 20th century, Belgium was ruled by the wildly decadent King Leopold II, who established a colony in the Congo delta of central Africa which essentially became his private possession -- noteworthy mainly because it would famously become the haunting setting for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  Finally, I knew that, historically, Belgium was the German army's preferred route when visiting France.

Upon arrival to Brussels, which should be noted is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the EU, I was struck by its bustled diversity.  Whereas Germany is primarily a homogeneous country with a small Turkish minority, downtown Brussels teams with Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Asians.  Surprisingly, a quarter of Brussels adheres to the Muslim faith.  

The streets are chaotic and messy.  Traffic laws are mere suggestions, meant to be made up as you go along.  A taxi ride will leave even the most hearty of passengers white-knuckled and short of breath.  Once on foot, the culture of Belgium comes alive.  Taking a seat at a restaurant near the Grand Place, Brussels' cultural and historical center, is the ideal method of fully absorbing the intricate Baroque architecture, the mass of people, and the many buskers.

As is true of most of Western Europe, Belgium has a strong service-oriented economy.  Waiters and waitresses approach their work not as jobs but as careers.  They're on point, multilingual, efficient, and irrepressibly charming.  An energetic whirligig of a waiter in Brussels insisted on addressing me as "My Lord" while clearing used dishes and placing new ones all in one illusory motion.  What's more, each waiter carries a satchel filled with cash, so that when paying the check, he can easily accommodate his customer on the spot.  Tips are an informal business.  If a bill comes to 65, you hand the man €70 and call it a day.  No percentages, no calculations, just round up for convenience and everyone goes away happy.

Walking through Brussels can be exhausting, and nothing revitalizes the spirit more than an authentic Belgian waffle.  Made fresh-to-order at kiosks throughout the city, the sweet, thick batter crusts on the outside while remaining soft and gelatinous on the inside.  Topped with your choice of fresh fruits or spreads such as chocolate or caramel, the taste is nothing short of heavenly.

Want to bring home something memorable to share with friends and family?  A box of chocolates may seem blasé, but not when it comes from Belgium.  Instead of focusing on sweetness, the Belgian confectioner concentrates on texture, richness, and balance.  I'm not an avid consumer of chocolates and sweets in general, yet I was floored by the symphonic perfection happening in my mouth.

Brussels, unfortunately, does have the ignominy of "Brusselization."  In the '60s and '70s, a lack of zoning laws and a laissez-faire attitude towards development allowed massive unchecked construction of high-rises in quaint historical areas.  The result became the poster-child for disastrous urban planning.  Many of these high-rises are now abandoned sores in an otherwise prosperous city.

My visit would not be complete without a visit to Bruges, the crown jewel of Belgium.  A city near the coast of the North Sea, it went largely untouched during the war, leaving its medieval architecture virtually intact.  The cobblestone streets are about as wide as a parking space and cars are scant.  We happened to visit during the Feast of the Ascension, a repudiated holiday in America but hugely important in parts of Europe.  We were treated to a medieval procession of knights, monks, farmers, and merchants (and Jesus) through the city center, all whilst dining on Flemish style rabbit, the local specialty.  

In Bruges
Belgium is a happy and friendly place.  Many of the locals speak English and do not exhibit a hint of a superiority (or inferiority) complex.  Unlike other European capitals, most of the tourists were not Americans, but rather foreigners from the Far East and India, as well as Europe.  My sense is in the minds of American travelers, between France, Spain, Italy, England, and Germany, Belgium often gets overlooked in the milieu.  Perhaps unfortunate for Belgians, but wonderful for exploring Americans.  When traveling off the beaten American path, Belgium is a place that will stimulate and surprise.

09 July 2012

Rome, The Absurd City

To Rome With Love is easily Woody Allen's most uproarious film since Deconstructing Harry
Introduced by a working traffic cop/raconteur, four interspersed -- but not intersecting -- sketches provide a peek into the wild possibilities of the "Eternal City."  The farce that ensues is equal parts Shakespeare and Fellini, tied together by Allen's weightless style.  

Each vignette is imbued with an element of the supernatural or absurd.  Jerry (Woody Allen) is a retired avant-garde opera manager who comes to Rome to meet his daughter's Italian fiancé and his family.  When the future groom's undertaker father begins singing magnificently in the shower, Jerry pounces on his chance to get back in the opera game.  The only catch is, the father (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato) can only sing in the shower. The gag avoids getting stale, and, in fact, culminates in a most hysterical staging of Pagliacci.

Equally outrageous is the phantasmal story of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architecture student living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), who happens upon the renowned architect, reduced to designing shopping malls, John (Alec Baldwin).  John becomes Jack's ghostlike confidante and guide, longingly walking him through the tumult that results when Sally (Ellen Page), the girlfriend's best friend, crashes into their lives with her histrionic, failed actress, pseudo-intellectual, sexual energy.  Baldwin's Jack is an apparition savvy to all the seductress' moves, yet clearly still eager to be vicariously victimized. 

Two Italian language vignettes perpetuate the farce, as Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an average family man and bureaucratic clerk who suddenly, and most nonsensically, becomes the object of the media's lust. The scenes of paparazzi obsession ("Leopoldo, when your head itches, which hand do you use to scratch it?") are like watching Fellini direct from beyond the grave. As always, Benigni crafts the most mundane tasks, like waking up and turning off an alarm clock, into inexplicable hilarity. 

Finally, Anna, a prostitute, as stunning as she is uncouth, is played by Penélope Cruz, whose comedic talents flourish under Allen's lens as brilliantly as her dramatic ones do under Almodóvar's. Anna inadvertently gets sucked into a role of posing as the young wife for a newlywed, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), who must impress his big-city industrious uncles in order to secure his financial future.  When the party visits the Sistine Chapel, someone remarks on the breathtaking ceiling art, and rhetorically asks, "Can you imagine working all day on your back?" the response from Anna isn't hard to imagine.

Allen's strongest comedic work actualizes when he unleashes his inhibitions and indulges his farcical roots.  In To Rome With Love, Allen expertly combines the zaniness of his early work like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, with the smooth professionalism of his later work. The product is a hysterical, fast-paced, outlandish gem of a comedy. Now back to that production of Pagliacci...

07 June 2012

My Evening with Ray Bradbury

It was an exceptionally cold February that winter, and as most 12 year olds are wont to do, I became exceptionally ill.  I had to miss an entire week of school, which in theory sounds very cool.  But in actuality, particularly after the third day, is quite a drag.  Not only did I stay home from school, I stayed home whilst my friends gallivanted outside, playing football, sneaking through the woods, and otherwise finding various neighbourhood adventures.  

And then, I received a surprise.  There was a famous author coming to our town and my parents were insistent on taking me to hear him speak, sickness be damned.  I was intrigued by their prioritizing.  The author was Ray Bradbury.

The name Ray Bradbury wasn't completely foreign to me.  I had heard vague whispers of him as the author of Fahrenheit 451 (a very cool sounding title to a preadolescent boy) and a girl in my English class had just done a book report on The Martian Chronicles. Everything about him seemed otherworldly.

During his talk, typically titled "One Thousand and One Ways to Solve the Future," I remember scanning the cavernous Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins campus and feeling immense pride that I was unmistakably the youngest audience member present.  Bradbury was engaging, humourous, and insightful.  He spoke of his experiences establishing the Epcot Center in Florida and the upside and downside of fame.  He peppered his talk with predictions of the future (particularly with what the internet would be able to do) and gave us a prescient glimpse as to what a Mars colony would look like.

But the thing I'll remember most of his talk was his undeniable and unabashed humanist message.  He warned against over-reliance on technology at the expense of interpersonal interaction -- pointing out that we can program machines to do everything except love.  Looking back, that speech must have been my orientation into my humanistic worldview.  In spite of all the luxuries and gadgets the modern world provides us, the most important is something we've had all along, each other.
I had an aisle seat that evening, and when Bradbury completed his talk, he walked up my aisle on his way to the lobby.  As he passed, his arm momentarily came down gently on my shoulder like he was happy to see me.  

31 May 2012

Impressions of Germany

I recently had a chance to spend some time in Germany.  I found the place and people to be fascinating.  What follows are some observations I made during my 10 days on the Rhine.

This was to be my first trip to Germany and naturally I had developed varied expectations due to the prevalence of stories I'd heard about the dominant European power.  As an American, I suppose the best place to start is with the autobahn, the German highway system.  Yes, all those "rumors" are true, their highways really do not have an official speed limit, but that's only part of the story.  First of all, as to be expected, the driver must always be in full control of the car.  Driving recklessly is looked upon as a major transgression and can land you in jail.  Also, there are points, such as in construction zones, where speed cameras force everyone to slow down.  Otherwise, the onus is on the driver to make prudent decisions on the road. German highways have either two or three lanes.  The left-most lane is exclusively for the purpose of passing other cars.  Meanwhile, trucks and semis are restricted to the right-most lane.  This system creates a vehicle hierarchy on the road. 

Now, it may seem like this lack of speed limit opens the floodgates for everyone to drive 100mph.  In fairness, some do.  However, gasoline is very expensive in Germany, and Europe in general.  When tallied up, it comes to something like $10/gallon.  To avoid high fuel costs, most commuters end up traveling somewhere between 75 - 90 mph.  The lack of speed limit isn't as crucial to their efficient highway system as the aforementioned lane hierarchy.  All vehicles know their place, and everyone honors his obligations.  Traffic jams certainly are prevalent, but they're not as debilitating as in many US cities.

I can't have a discussion on Germany without mentioning beer.  Beer is an integral part of daily living.  Glasses and steins are served up at lunch, in the afternoon, after work, and, of course, in the evening.  Every city/region has a dedicated brew that serves as the official local beverage.  In Düsseldorf, Altbier, or literally 'Old Beer,' is the local staple.  It is a dark, easy-to-drink, pre-lager that is smoother than British pale ales.  In Germany, ordering beer by name brands is relatively uncommon.  Instead, thirsty customers order the beer style, and the bartender brings you the bar's sole selection of that style.  Instead of offering a massive selection of every name-brand of beer, bars distinguish themselves from each other by having a single special selection of Weisbier (Wheat Beer) or Pils. So next time you're in Germany and are sitting in a bar, don't ask for a Beck's, instead, ask for a Pils.

Business brought me to Germany, specifically, the manufacturing industry.  German efficiency in manufacturing is legendary. Indeed, the entire country pulsates with palpable efficiency and community.  For instance, a purchased ticket for any sporting event, concert, or other major civic event automatically grants you free access to all public transportation for that day.  It's a way of encouraging safety and easy-access, while simultaneously promoting a sense of community.  Getting back to manufacturing, I had a chance to tour a major manufacturing facility and saw firsthand the meaning of efficiency.  It seemed like every square inch of the facility was in use.  Machinery extended to every nook and cranny, into every corner, so that the only open spaces in the entire plant belonged to the walk-ways where the employees scurried back and forth.  Germany has perfected the adage:  "Don't work harder, work smarter."

Finally, a word on the German people, themselves.  Germans are certainly a prideful bunch but are keenly sensitive to the limits of that pride, due to their awful history.  For the most part, they are reserved, serious, polite, and businesslike.  Almost everyone under the age of 40 speaks English with deliberate Oxford tones.  They exhibit none of the snobbishness or air of superiority that is sometimes seen in France, and they respect Americans.  The country is extraordinarily clean and orderly.  For my entire ten day stay, I think I may have seen one or two pieces of litter.  All the taxicabs are Mercedes-Benzes and although expensive to get into one, the fares become relatively cheap after that.  What surprised me was the amount of graffiti.  It seemed like every structure that was publicly owned was covered in spray-painted scribble.  This was the singular example of disorderliness I saw on my trip.

Overall, Germany is a country populated by a highly educated and cultivated society who value order, cleanliness, respect, and community.  In music, art, and fashion, they clearly look to the United States while remaining proudly independent as the economic leader of Europe. 

06 April 2012

A Serious Man

Since Barack Obama became a serious candidate for President back in 2007, opponents have beleaguered him with epithets that questioned his country of birth, his religious affiliation, and his political ideology.  Most of them, although stubbornly remain, are of such extremity and wackiness that very few serious people take the calumnies seriously.  But the accusation that Obama is surreptitiously a Socialist is just moderate enough to gain limited mainstream traction, and imbued with the requisite political toxicity (in the US) to inflame the passions of those who wish to see him swiftly booted out of office.

But what of the inverse of this situation occurring in Russia?  Khodorkovsky, a film by German documentarian Cyril Tuschi, exhaustively reconnoiters the complex rise and fall of post-Soviet Russia's first -- and most successful -- capitalist.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky began his adult life as a chemical engineering student at Mendeleev Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology, and quickly ascended the ranks of the Komsomol, the Soviet Youth League in whose membership assured future success.  Taking advantage of perestroika and glasnost, Khodorkovsky leveraged the profits from his import/export business to open the USSR's first private bank. When the Soviet Union fell, those in power realized that although they grasped the theoretical underpinnings of Capitalism, none of them had any idea how to practically implement it.  None of them except Khodorkovsky.

By the end of the 1990s, Khodorkovsky had become Russia's richest man and a leading figure in Russia's emerging oligarchy, a class built upon the wholesale transfer of the State's massive industries to private ownership.  Although fabulously wealthy, Khodorkovsky didn't fit the profile of a typical Russian oligarch:  he eschewed conspicuous consumption for a modest lifestyle.  He was more concerned with running his business and molding the new economy than with hundred-million dollar yachts and partying with supermodels.  He was a shrewd, driven businessman. And here is when the trouble begins.  In a time of lawlessness and lack of business ethics, Khodorkovsky's ambition went just a bit too far.

On the eve of the new millennium, President Yeltsin steps down in favour of a quiet, unassuming man not many knew much about except he was a former KGB agent.  A man whose grand vision for Russia's reemergence on the world stage is only superseded by his own lust for political and social hegemonic control of the country and its people. A conflict between Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, and Vladimir Putin, Russia's most powerful man, was -- in hindsight -- inevitable.

From the start, Putin laid out his policy regarding the oligarchs: do what you want, party to your hearts' content, I'll let you get as rich as you can but pay your taxes, and most importantly, stay away from politics!  The oligarchs all happily follow the party line, all except Khodorkovsky.  Slowly, he begins making overtures for a freer press, more attention to civil rights, more open elections.  He personally funds the building of schools and establishes social programs promoting democracy and increasing societal transparency.  There are even rumours he might sell his massive oil company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil or Chevron.  In other words, he seeks to reshape the country in the image of the United States.  For Russian leadership, this represents an unacceptable nightmare.

In 2003, when Khodorkovsky sharply criticizes governmental corruption during a nationally televised meeting of Putin and the oligarchs, Putin has had enough.  The tension is palpable as we watch the two titans verbally spar with each other, made even more fascinating as we know what will happen in the coming years.  As one of Putin's aides recounts while being interviewed by Tuschi, "He (Khodorkovsky) came off as arrogant and not very tactful.  He could have expressed himself much better."  After a pregnant pause, the aide adds without irony, "But everything he said was completely true."  In July, Putin has Khodorkovsky's right-hand man arrested on tax evasion charges.  The word is out:  Putin is out to destroy Khodorkovsky and his empire.

And yet, while Khodorkovsky orders his other top advisers out of the country, he remains, despite the foreboding omens, obstinately unafraid.  Tuschi travels the world tracing the full intricacies of the tale, from Khodorkovsky's defiant yet spooked compatriots in Israel, to his son stuck in New York after his father's arrest, to the political analysts in Germany who elucidate on the fear the leaders of Europe have of Putin, hence their unwillingness to come to Khodorkovsky's aid.  Khodorkovsky himself sits in a dilapidated jail near the Chinese border, a former uranium mine work-camp, and in the film's climax, a face-to-face interview (albeit behind a glass vestibule), what's shocking is Khodorkovsky's optimistic and almost cheerful attitude. This in contrast with the threatening tone of the rest of the film, which implies Tuschi is under constant surveillance and perpetually in danger.  Indeed, when the film is to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival, a copy of the film is mysteriously stolen.

Ultimately, it seems as if both Putin and Khodorkovsky wholly underestimated each other.  Putin underestimated Khodorkovsky's strength of principle and ability to withstand total damnation for a cause he deems just while Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin's political power and his willingness to wield it mercilessly.  As Khodorkovsky sardonically admits in his brief interview with Tuschi, "perhaps I was a bit naïve."

Recently, a friend of mine who was born, raised, and educated in the Soviet Union and then immigrated to the United States, traveled back to Russia for the first time since his departure.  Upon return, he cogently described the situation, "Everything's changed for the better...except the people."  Khodorkovsky unveils how even after more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the advent of "democracy," with all the new oil/gas wealth and their accompanied luxuries, Russia remains a country painfully bogged down by extreme corruption, personal selfishness, institutional and societal secrecy, contempt for liberal values, and an overriding distrust of outsiders -- all relics of the Soviet era.  

08 February 2012

With Pleasure

In the 1920s, Charlie Chaplin was the world's most famous man.  His films had become so universally popular -- and made so many people rich -- that he was able to establish his own film studio and control every aspect of production.   When "talkies" revolutionized the industry in 1927, Chaplin scoffed and continued to make silent films (some of the greatest work in film history) until 1940.  He had the clout and the cash to go against the tide of progress.   Yet, many stars who seemed invincible during the silent film era suddenly found themselves irrelevant.  The Artist tells the story of such a star.

George Valentin is said silent movie star living the life of dreams.  He's rich, popular, handsome, and can seemingly do no wrong.  At the premiere of his latest film, he inadvertently bumps into Peppy Miller, an adoring fan, and through a series of wildly opportune events (archetypal of silent films), Miller lands a minor role in Valentin's next picture, leading to her rapid ascent in the movie business.

French director Michel Hazanavicius' strongest move was casting Jean Dujardin (Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo (Miller) as the stars of his 21st century silent film.  Dujardin, with his million dollar smile, and Bejo, with her lovely doe eyes, breezily seduce the audience much like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and company seduced the masses almost a century ago.

By their very essence, silent films must convey action in the broadest means possible.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry..." because Chaplin was a master at communicating powerful emotions with nothing but a small top-hat, baggy pants, and crooked cane.  There is no place for subtly or abstraction in silent film;  overt symbolism is wielded like a sledgehammer.  Invariably, this results in melodrama but it also affects the viewer on much more base level.  When we see Miller and Valentin run into each other at studio headquarters, he going down stairs whilst she goes up, the full magnitude of what is about to happen in their lives is obvious and undeniably heartbreaking.

Surely, The Artist is quite predictable (somewhat by design) and simple, but it's also deliciously charming.  In a time when louder is better and bigger isn't big enough, it's refreshing to indulge oneself in a contemporary film that honors the birth of the industry while losing yourself in the silkiness of early celluloid.