31 October, 2008

The old man is definitely not snoring

So here's the thing.

Sometimes I just don't understand people.

I was reading an article on the New Zealand Herald website, titled "Storm brewing over TV forecasts". The article discussed a number of people who were frustrated that the TV weather forecasts predicted stormy weather up north during Labour Weekend - stormy weather that never eventuated. The poor forecasts caused many people to not go up north during the long weekend, thus causing losses for the local economy. So the local mayor is demanding an apology from MetService for getting the weather wrong. An apology that MetService isn't giving, as well they shouldn't. We all know that weather forecasting is completely imprecise and sometimes they do get it wrong. It's just part of the trade-off that we all know we are making - most of the time we know what the weather will be like (and that's better than never knowing), but sometimes they will get it wrong. They do their best to get it right, but sometimes they allow for a butterfly in China flapping its wings, and the butterfly decides to sleep in. Not their fault.

But the article ends with this brilliant little passage:

Fiona Foote, of Doubtless Bay Information Centre in Mangonui, confirmed a large number of people cancelled Labour weekend accommodation because of the weather reports.

"By Saturday, people were just plain not turning up," she said.

"We're only a small village; tourism is basically all we have to offer. If tourists don't come it's a big blow."

Ms Foote said Mangonui often suffered from inaccurate forecasts as a result of not being mentioned on nightly TV weather reports. She's been pressing TV3 for inclusion.

Now this poses some key questions. Firstly, how is it possible for somewhere to suffer from "inaccurate forecasts as a result of not being mentioned"? Surely if you're not being mentioned in the forecasts, then there are no forecasts to be inaccurate.

But more than that, in an article where people are complaining about the inaccuracy of the TV weather forecasts, why would this woman be actively trying to get included in these forecasts, especially if just one erroneous prediction is enough to decimate the local economy and plunge the village into twenty years of poverty and starvation?

But more than that, do you know where Mangonui is? Have a look at the map. It's, like, nowhere. When Ms Foote said that it's a "small village", it looks like that was a pretty accurate description. Yet she apparently thinks it's reasonable for her to expect the national televised news to dedicate precious time every day to giving the five residents and two tourists in Mangonui an inaccurate forecast of the weather. And then when TV3 put Mangonui on the weather, then Cooper's Beach will want to know why they haven't included, and before long the entire news hour will be dedicated to just telling every single tiny little insignificant village in the country what their weather will be like, and pretty soon the TV3 news will be irrelevant because we watch the news to find out what's happening in the world, not to find out what the weather is like in Cable Bay.

I mean, I get that this is where this woman lives, it's important to her, she wants to know what her weather will be like, and she wants to ensure that people continue to visit the area, which I'm sure is very nice. But I don't understand how anyone could possibly think it is reasonable to expect the national news to dedicate time every night to the weather in Mangonui. How is it possible for people to have such a completely skewed vision that they can't even comprehend that a national news programme may have different priorities than a tiny 10-street town? How do you get to a point where you can't see how unrealistic that expectation is? Sometimes I just don't understand people.

28 October, 2008

"I'm so sorry, it was the wrong version"

So here's the thing.

Earlier this year, I saw the film Atonement. It wasn't a film I was at all interested in seeing - I figured it was just another love story set against the backdrop of WWII. But I was trying to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, and Atonement was one nominee, so I went to see it.

And I loved the film, which proved less a typical love story and more of a tragedy of misunderstanding and miscomprehension, and the lasting effects that one moment's decision can have on many people. It explored some fascinating areas, particularly the gap that exists between visible action and internal motivation, and I look forward to reading the book, which I believe gives greater voice to the different characters and their purposes in behaving the way they do. I thought it was a excellent film, and while I don't think it quite warranted the Best Picture nomination (I would have given that spot to Once), it was an wonderful time in the cinema.

So, when hunting for a birthday present to give to a friend in the past weekend, I decided that a DVD of Atonement would be a perfect present. I always feel that giving a DVD acts in effect as an endorsement of that film, a statement that I feel the recipient should watch that film. As a result, if I'm giving someone a DVD, I always try to look initially for films that I liked, and then find a film in that selection that I think would appeal to the recipient. In this case I thought that Atonement, with its tragic love story and the wonderful 1930s-40s setting, would appeal to my friend.

Now, Saturday wasn't just my friend's birthday, her son had turned one-year-old a few days earlier. So, there was a first birthday party about 11am, and then we had dinner in the evening for my friend's birthday.

As I'm sitting at her son's birthday, I hear my friend talking to someone else about a film she saw the previous night. That film apparently had a sad ending, "but it was a good sad ending, a satisfying ending, you know. Not like that film Atonement, do you remember seeing that, that was an awful ending, I really did not like that film."



Okay. ...



Fortunately, I was able to go into the shops in the afternoon, and find another film to give her (in the end, I decided on A Fish Called Wanda, which is a hilarious film and which, on opening the present, she said she had never seen). Meanwhile, I had fortunately not yet got around to buying a copy of Atonement for myself, so I don't need to worry about doing anything with the DVD.

But there are two things about this whole event that I find myself thinking about. Firstly, there's just the general unlikeliness of this whole story. After all, I would have given the film to my friend and been none-the-wiser were it not for the fact that (a) she happened to be having her son's party on the same day, (b) she waited for an hour before having a conversation with a good friend about what she did the previous night (I was an hour late to the son's party, so had they talked earlier, I would have missed it), and (c) she decided to throw in an entirely irrelevant comment about a film she saw months ago, on the sole basis that both films had sad endings. I mean, what exactly are the odds of all this happening? Was this divine intervention, God trying to prevent the embarrassment of an unwanted gift for some reason? If so, it's appreciated, but why?

But the other thing that I found interesting about the experience was the disparity of views about the film that I encountered. I can quite understand that Atonement would be a very divisive film, mostly because of the ending (to be honest, I think it's a miracle the ending works at all, let alone that it works as well as it does), and often when a film's ending doesn't work for you, then the entire film experience gets tainted. But when I sat in the lounge that evening, and told people what had happened, I was interested to learn that, of the five or six people in the room that had seen the film, I was the only person that actually liked the film. Yet when I came to work today and told the story to people, what I found was that, without exception, where people had seen the film they loved the film. And the very clear demarcation seems odd to me - what is it about people at my work that makes the film have such appeal to them, when it has such clear lack of appeal to my friend and her circle of friends? I don't know, but I wish I did.

26 October, 2008


So here's the thing.

I would really like my blog to fulfill a wider educational purpose, something that will allow me to feel that my time and effort in preparing the text of my posts has been spent in a worthwhile manner. In order to achieve this, I will today start a new occasional series of informative posts, in which I will draw from the real-life experiences of an absolutely real person who is someone else and who I wish to emphasise is not me and why are you looking at me in a disbelieving manner it's not me honestly it's someone else really. Anyway, I will take the experiences of this other person and use these to illustrate my point and hopefully give you, the reader, the ability to cope in this hectic modern world.

Today, I will discuss "Signs That You Are Feeling Tired".

Now obviously tiredness is a very large complex matter, so while I'll present a few indicators that you are likely to be tired, this is not an exhaustive list. Therefore, it is very possible that you may in fact be tired without presenting any of the following signs. In that case, you will have to use your judgement to assess your own tiredness level. While these indicators have all been drawn from real events, I have made the text less specific to the actual events that inspired them, in order to allow this advice to be applied in a more general manner.

So, Signs That You Are Feeling Tired

1. If you only have two hours of sleep on a certain night, whether due to difficulty in getting sleep, waking up several hours earlier than normal, or a combination of the two, there is a good chance that you will have failed to get sufficient sleep overnight, and will therefore be tired the following day.

2. If you hate coffee, but nevertheless are forced to drink two cups of coffee (plus a 350ml bottle of V) just to stay awake during the opening two hours of a training session that you're actually interested in, it is very possible that you are feeling tired.

3. If you find yourself slipping out during the lunch break, searching instead for an empty meeting room where you can have a quick sleep, then you probably need a bit more sleep.

4. If you're lying on the extremely hard floor with only your own arms for pillows, and you still manage to somehow get to sleep, then you are really tired, because sleeping on a hard floor is very uncomfortable, believe me ... or so I'm told by the person who actually had this happen to them.

5. If you set the alarm on your cell phone to ensure you wake up in time for the afternoon session, but your sleep-deprived mind fails to realise that you've set the alarm for 1.00am, not 1.00pm, causing you to wake up at 1.40pm, disoriented and wondering why on earth you're lying on the floor between the wall and a meeting table, forcing you to wander bleary-eyed into the training session, attracting the attention of everyone in the room (and prompting a literal finger-wagging from the manager that you were sitting next to in the morning session), then it is likely that you were tired, and indeed may still be tired.

So there we are. Some useful points that may indicate that you are tired. I hope you found them helpful.

Next time in this educational series, "Signs That You Spend All Your Time Watching Your New Television Set".

19 October, 2008

The past belongs to us, and we can change it

So here's the thing.

When I first heard of the film Be Kind Rewind (see the trailer here), it was as a description - a couple of guys have to remake a lot of famous films - and a cast list, including Jack Black. I thought it sounded like an interesting idea, but little more than an different twist on the parody film.

Then I heard that Michel Gondry had written and directed the film, and it immediately became a lot more interesting to me. Gondry had directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favourite films from 2004, and written/directed The Science of Sleep, which I had really enjoyed at the 2006 festival. So I was certain the film would have a lot more to it than I first imagined. And I was right - it did try to explore some wider themes - but I'm not sure it really worked.

Jack Black stars as Jerry, an eccentric who plans to destroy a local power plant out of a paranoid belief that the plant is destroying his mind. Instead, his plan causes him to be magnetised(!), and when he goes to visit his friend at the local dollar-rental video library (all VHS tapes, no DVDs), the store's entire tape stock is erased. So, figuring the store's only regular customer won't notice the difference, the two decide to remake the films, starting with Ghostbusters. And very quickly, the remade films start to build a huge popularity in the local community. But then problems start to occur, the survival of the video shop is threatened, so everyone in the neighbourhood comes together for one final big project.

And here's the problem - the hook around which the story revolves (the remade films) doesn't really feel like there's any real connection with the major ideas of the film (which address issues like the renewal of community spirit). In fact, it feels like Gondry had the initial idea of the videos, and then tried to force some wider ideas into the script to justify the film's existence, and there's no natural integration of the ideas.

So while there is a nice homemade inventiveness to the video remakes (the B&W remake of King Kong being particularly clever, with Jerry creating an ape face from the cab of a toy truck(!) strapped to his face, and using forced perspective to fake Kong's size) that Gondry clearly enjoyed filming, the wider film isn't terribly convincing. To justify the plot, Gondry is forced to execute some extremely dumb ideas (magnetising Jerry? Really?) but such a goofy idea doesn't quite fit with much of the film. The story structure is appalling, with plot-threads introduced and then abandoned - Jack Black's fear of the power station never gets mentioned after he is magnetised, Gondry clearly struggled to find a way to de-magnetise Jerry before just having him urinate the magnetism out, while the MPAA taking action against copyright infringement get a couple of scenes but proves never to be the major conflict it initially seems. And while I can understand nostalgia for "the way things were", a theme that is extremely strong in the film, sometimes change is a good thing, and a video store with only VHS tapes (while necessary for the film plot) seems like a place resisting change for the sake of it, holding onto patently inferior product just because it's the way things used to be. And that just annoys me, because while the CD-vs-vinyl argument may be ongoing, no-one is ever going to prefer VHS over DVD or Blu-Ray, no matter how strong the nostalgia.

Still, while the film doesn't actually work as a whole, it is entertaining, with many laugh-out-loud moments. So while I am definitely critical of many aspects of the film, it's still worth seeing. It's not a great film, it is seriously flawed, but if you're wanting an fun film that you can just watch and enjoy, this is definitely worth your time.

10 October, 2008

"I mean, we get it, it was grim"

So here's the thing.

Next year is the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. And over the past seven decades, we've seen film after film, documentary after documentary, story after story about that war. We've had the serious dramatisations of real events, portraits of great WWWII figures, or films that use WWII as the backdrop for a good action-packed thrill-ride. Then there's the related issue of the Holocaust, the horrible toll that that took, and again, we've had that story told from every viewpoint, from the tragedy underlying Schindler's List or Anne Frank, to the comedy Holocaust of Life Is Beautiful. Most than any other conflict, World War II has to be the war most presented in cinematic form. After 70 years of WWII films, you would think there are no more stories to tell, no more incidents to leave the audience saying "I didn't know that happened."

And then a film like The Counterfeiters comes along, and surprises the audience by revealing a little-known corner of the war, a surprising front on which the war was being fought. And it's a story that is so fascinating, it leaves the viewer wondering why they've never heard about this before. The Counterfeiters (see the trailer here) is a fictionalised account of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi attempt to win the war by undermining the Allied economies. The film revolves around a guy known as Sally, who is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to a concentration camp, but then finds his skills in demand by a Nazi regime planning to flood the US and UK with counterfeit dollars and pounds. The prisoners cooperating in the scheme are given special benefits, are comparatively well-treated, but must cope with the guilt of benefiting while others are dying, the knowledge that their actions may actually be sustaining the Nazi war effort, and the growing awareness of that, if they succeed in making the US dollar, they may not survive much longer.

And here's the frustrating thing. I liked the film, I enjoyed it, I though it was interesting, but on reflection I realised I liked the idea of the film more than I liked the film itself. What I liked was that it was a film that told me something I did not know about the Second World War. And it was an interesting story - learning that the Nazis were undertaking the single largest counterfeiting operation in history is interesting to learn. But when you get past that, the film itself, while well-made, left me a bit empty. In a lot of ways, it's not surprising that the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film - it feels almost like it was made to win an Oscar, not because it's a great film, but because it's good and it ticks the right boxes (WWII, anti-hero turned good, the Nazi who is marginally less-completely-evil, the bookends that show the enduring effects of the film's events on the main character). But ultimately, when I think about The Counterfeiters, I'm not going to be remembering what a good film it was - in fact, only a couple of months later, I'm already having difficulty remembering much about the film at all. The only thing I'll remember about the film will be the true events that the film informed me of. And being about a cool story isn't enough to make a great film.

But The Counterfeiters was not the only festival film I saw that took me inside a wartime prison. Two documentaries, Taxi To The Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure, both examined events in the Abu Ghraib prison, but adopted entirely different approaches. Taxi To The Dark Side (see the trailer here) took a broad approach in examining the wider context of events. Indeed, the events that give the film its title took place not in Iraq, but Afghanistan. An apparently innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was arrested as an alleged terrorist by US troops, held in Bagram Air Base, and was beaten to death five days later. The people involved in running Bagram were later tasked with running Abu Ghraib, and we all know what happened there. A fascinating film, it sought to explore the circumstances that caused those events to occur. What the film ultimately presented were a collection of frankly confused soldiers who didn't really quite understand what had gone on, who had found themselves thrust into a prison in Iraq, without the necessary knowledge or training to prepared for this unimaginable situation, and being unofficially urged by those up the chain of authority to use any means, including extremes of torture, to get information that they believe will save the lives of their fellow soldiers. And then when bad things occurred, they were thrown out as the guilty parties, acting without authorisation, while those who ordered or encouraged these behaviours are able to deny any knowledge and move on. And the film goes even wider, discussing also the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo. By the end of the film, it successfully links the treatment of prisoners in three separate prisons in three different countries to demonstrate a policy of prisoner mistreatment and torture, unofficially approved but officially denied by those at the highest level.

But personally, I preferred the other Abu Ghraib film. Ive never seen an Errol Morris film before, although I'm familiar with his reputation as a top documentarian, so I was interested to see his new film, Standard Operating Procedure (see the trailer here). And it didn't disappoint. Where Taxi To The Dark Side looked at Abu Ghraib in the wider context of the entirety of US actions in the war on terror, Standard Operating Procedure had a very narrow focus, looking pretty much solely at the photos that came out of the prison, and exploring the story of these photos. The idea underpinning the film was simple, but compelling. We see the photos, we're horrified by them, and we think we understand everything we need to understand about the situation that's presented. But the film argues that there's a lot we don't see in the photographs. A photograph captures a limited image of a single instant in time. We don't see what happened before or after the photograph, we don't see the people to the left or right of the frame, we don't see the person taking the photo, we don't see what's in anyone's mind at that time.

For example, consider the famed photograph of the woman giving a thumbs up by the body of a dead Iraqi. Seems horrible, callous, and offensive, and the woman, Sabrina Harman, deserved to be punished, which she was. But in the film, we hear that Sabrina was horrified by the events at the prison, and actually wrote to her partner saying that she was taking photographs to document what was happening, for her to use once she left Iraq. We hear that everyone was posing with the body, for her to refuse to do so would have attracted comment. And as for the "thumbs up" - it was just a habit, what she did in every photograph, for her as natural and instinctive a response to the camera as smiling would be for anyone. So how do we now view this woman? As a callous inhumane woman, a person treated unfairly by the system, or somewhere in between? And why was she prosecuted for posing with a body and giving the thumbs up, when the people that killed the person weren't prosecuted?

But more than that, the film asks the question I've not seen asked anywhere else - who was taking the photos? The film points in particular to a guy called Sgt Graner, who was in a relationship at the time with Lynndie England, and who seems to have been responsible for taking most of the more shocking "posed" hotographs. The film asks the very reasonable question, why has all the attention gone to the people visible in the photographs, and not on the person behind the camera telling them what to do? After all, would the "naked pyramid" or the "man on the leash" have even happened if Graner hadn't told the participants what to do? Would there have even been an offense if it weren't for Graner? If so, why is he still serving in the military?

It also explores, to a lesser degree, the borderline between enhanced interrogation and criminal torture. And that leads to the most fascinating moment in the film, where one interviewee goes through a collection of shocking photos, at a glance identifying wich ones are actual crimes, and which ones simply represented "standard operating procedure" for interrogation. All the photos may be shocking, offensive, horrible to look at, but does that mean that they are all morally or legally wrong?

Neither of these documentaries make enjoyable viewing. They're deeply unpleasant and horrific to watch, especially when you watch both of them so close together. But they're both interesting and challenging, well-made and intelligent, and if you can stand them, both are worth your time.

08 October, 2008

Financial weapons of mass destruction

So here's the thing.

This is just a quick post, just to make a recommendation.

As you'll all be aware, the financial world is all collapsing rather quickly. But the issues are rather complex and technical and who really understands what exactly is going on. So I think many people may just be going around knowing things are bad, but not quite knowing why. If you have wanted to understand exactly what was going on, I can think of no better place to go than a couple of episodes of This American Life.

Now, I've written previously about my enjoyment of the This American Life radio show - a really brilliant show that I do encourage you to listen to. A few months ago, they ran an episode called "The Giant Pool of Money" (which you can still listen to through streaming audio). That episode explained how the sub-prime mortgage crisis occurred - not just how the crisis itself occurred (if you lend money to people that can't afford to repay the loan, of course you're going to have trouble), but how the sub-prime mortgage market started in the first place, and why no-one said anything about how dumb it was to lend $500,000 without requiring proof of income or assets. It's an excellent episode, that explains everything really well - you don't need an economics degree to understand it - and it describes how it all happened by telling the stories of individuals involved, from the mortgage-broker buying $1000 bottles of champagne with Tara Reid, to the guy about to lose his house. So it's interesting to listen to - it's not some overly technical dry academic economic discussion, it presents real people discussing what they did.

Anyway, they've just dedicated another episode to examining the financial crisis, this time looking at what actually happened in the last couple of weeks, and just why it is that the bailout is needed. That episode, called "Another Frightening Show About the Economy", is available to download for the rest of this week, and afterwards will be available for streaming audio. As with the earlier episode, it's very accessible, very interesting and enjoyable (if a little scary) to listen to.

SO I just wanted to alert people to the episodes. If you're befuddled by what you see on the news, take a couple of hours, listen to these shows, and you'll feel better equipped to grasp the situation.

And then you'll really worry.

04 October, 2008

Punk is not ded

So here's the thing.

If there was one festival film that I was looking forward to above all others, it was Persepolis (see the not-very-good trailer here). I'd first heard about the film in the lead-up to the Oscars, where everyone I read seemed to agree that, while Ratatouelle would win the Best Animated Feature award, there was another animated film, Persepolis, that was even better.

And having seen the film, everyone was right. And this is not a slight on Ratatouelle, which was a brilliant film, another extraordinary Pixar film, and one I look forward to rewatching many many times. But Persepolis was the better film.

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran in 1969 during the reign of the Shah. Ten years later, the Shah was displaced, and the country becomes an Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah. The young Satrapi found herself in an increasingly restrictive society, where she became increasingly aware and outspoken about the injustices she sees. (She was also keenly aware of how difficult it is for her to acquire the Western music she adores.) Eventually, as she reached her teenage years, her parents sent her off to school to Austria, where everything happens that you would expect when someone used to somewhere like Iran suddenly finds themselves in a more free and liberal Europe. She eventually fell into depression, she returned to Iran, but her efforts to protest against the atrocities she sees around her eventually caused her to leave the country again. She is banned from ever returning home.

A few years ago, Satrapi decided to write her autobiography. But rather than writing it as a normal book, she wrote it as a graphic novel (a type of comic book). The original book of Persepolis was illustrated in a very simple style, black and white, highly stylised images. When they came to make the film version of Persepolis, they wisely chose to retain that look. It gives the film a unique charm - it doesn't look like some slick project produced by a hundred animators to produce some homogenous product, it feels like one person's self expression come to to life.

As for the film itself, it's everything I had hoped for. Most times, when you see your typical biographical film, they always feel like there's a degree of fictionalisation of the story, just to make it fit into a story template. Persepolis is different. In a lot of ways, it's actually very messy, just because that's the way life is. Satrapi does a great job in honestly capturing her emotional growth, managing to present the astonishing changes in Iran from the naive point of view of a 10-year-old. The middle section of the film, covering her teenage years, is a particularly delightful part of the film, capturing the disorienting, confusion collision of a girl whose values and beliefs don't quite fit with the free and more liberal European world, where her attempts to fit in and adopt this new world ultmately don't work out. Ultmately, there's nothing especially great or momentous about Satrapi's story, she just grows up to be an ordinary person eading a normal life. The film is simply a coming-of-age story, about a girl discovering who she is, and how she relates to a country undergoing massive upheaval and change, a country that increasingly fails to reflect her own values. But the film is complex, involving, and honest. It's an extraordinary film, and one look forward to revisiting.