brad brace contemporary culture scrapbook

November 28, 2007

Filed under: Film,General — admin @ 6:04 am

Hurricane season – mild for U.S. but not the rest

Filed under: belize,General,global islands,nicaragua,panama,usa,weather — admin @ 6:03 am

For a second year in a row, the United States has escaped a severe hurricane hit, pushing memories of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans another notch into the past.

But for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the 2007 hurricane season ending on Friday has hardly been benign.

“No, not at all. The consequences for the poor have been very high,” said Judy Dacruz, a representative in Haiti of the International Organization for Migration.

The 14 tropical storms that formed in the Atlantic this season killed more than 200 people in Martinique, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to often impoverished and vulnerable communities throughout the region.

U.S. experts and media have labeled initial predictions the six-month season would be busier than normal “a bust” because only one weak hurricane struck the United States — a far cry from 2005 when a record 28 storms formed, 15 of which strengthened into hurricanes, including Katrina.

The 14 storms beat the long-term average of 10 per season while the number of hurricanes, five — or six if you count Tropical Storm Karen which most weather experts expect will be posthumously upgraded — is about normal.

Yet most of the storms were perplexingly short-lived, lasting on average just 2.4 days, the lowest ratio since 1977, according to a noted hurricane season forecasting team at Colorado State University.

“Our 2007 seasonal hurricane forecast was not particularly successful. We anticipated an above-average season, and the season had activity at approximately average levels,” Philip Klotzbach, Bill Gray and other CSU forecasters said in an end-of-season report on Tuesday. The CSU team had predicted there would be 17 storms this year.


In the Caribbean and Central America, though, few were breathing sighs of relief.

In the Mexican town of Mahahual on the Yucatan Peninsula, Hurricane Dean destroyed a cruise ship pier which had been a key source of income. “Windows, doors, electrical systems — except for the basic structure of the hotel, everything was destroyed by Dean,” said Rodolfo Romero, owner of the boutique Hotel Arenas.

Dean, which became a maximum-strength Category 5 hurricane, killed at least 27 people as it roared through the Caribbean in August and struck the peninsula.

Hurricane Felix in September also became a Category 5 storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, killing 102 and leaving another 133 missing in Nicaragua, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

Dean and Felix were the first two Atlantic hurricanes since records began in 1851 to make landfall in the same season as Category 5 storms.

The last storm of the season, Noel, soaked the Dominican Republic and Haiti, killing more than 150 people as rivers broke their banks and surged through towns.

“It’s been very busy, especially in Central America but also in the Caribbean,” said Tim Callaghan, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We have provided disaster assistance to Dominica, Belize, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico.”

Even when no actual storm was swirling somewhere, unusually heavy rainfall characterized the wet season, washing away roads in Jamaica and flooding sugar fields in Cuba.

A rain-swollen river burst its banks at the end of October in Mexico, leaving four-fifths of Tabasco state under water and 800,000 homeless.

“The hurricane season was more intense this year on a regional level as there were states of alert in every country,” said Walter Wintzer, director of the Guatemala-based CEPREDENAC center for disaster prevention in Central America.

November 27, 2007

Filed under: Film,General — admin @ 6:00 am

Democracy, and vote buying, returning to Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,government,thailand — admin @ 5:58 am

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand: There is an old story here in Thailand’s vast, rice-growing hinterland about politicians who handed out a pair of slippers at election time – one slipper before the vote and the other after they were successfully elected.

Since the earliest days of democracy in Thailand seven decades ago, candidates have used both creative and not-so-creative ways to buy votes. The eve of an election is still known here as the “night of the barking dogs” because canvassers traditionally go house to house handing out cash – rousing hounds along the way.

Fourteen months after the military took power in a bloodless coup, Thailand is returning to democracy. And this, say government officials preparing for the Dec. 23 elections, means the return of money politics.

Phones have started ringing in the offices of the country’s Election Commission, and 75 cases of alleged vote buying have been opened based on complaints and tip-offs, according to Suthiphon Thaveechaiygarn, the secretary general of the commission.

“Political parties will definitely try to buy votes,” Suthiphon said in a phone interview from Bangkok. “They are trying to develop new techniques.”

Vote buying in various forms exists in many countries, whether as last-minute road paving, “lunch money” for voters who attend rallies or the supply of food and provisions. But it is especially well entrenched in Thailand.

Economists have calculated that the economy swells by about 30 billion baht, or close to $1 billion, around election time. Supavud Saicheua, the managing director of Phatra Securities, which conducts research for Merrill Lynch in Thailand, called this estimate “not far-fetched.”

“People need to be incentivized to go to the polls,” said Supavud, who also serves on a government economic planning committee. He added that as a form of wealth distribution “it’s better than any government program.”

Typically, money or favors are handed out by canvassers from political parties and distributed to voters by village headmen. It is considered too crass and too risky for candidates to give out money themselves.

No one knows what the scale of vote buying will be in this election, but the government appears to expect the worst. Both the prime minister and the general who led the coup last year have been warning for weeks of widespread vote buying. The Election Commission has sent 2,200 investigators, some of them undercover, to zones where they believe the problem will be most common. And six police officers have been assigned to monitor each of the 400 constituencies.

A recently passed law makes it illegal, and punishable with prison, to receive money for votes. Previously, only those who paid could be prosecuted. But the law, which came into effect in October, also offers rewards of up to 100,000 baht for those who have received money and who report it before or within seven days of election day.

Yet many people, including government officials, are skeptical that the new law – especially the reward provision – can work.

“You have to compare the value of the money they are receiving to the value of their lives,” said Mehta Silapun, the director of the Election Commission in Nakhon Ratchasima, one of the main cities in northeast Thailand. “After they give the information, they still have to go back and live in the area with the people that they reported.”

Politically motivated murders are not uncommon during election time. “The person who reports vote buying must be very brave, a very good person or have friends who can protect them,” Mehta said.

Thavison Lownanuruck, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Nakhon Ratchasima, says the law will discourage canvassers from handing out cash. But he predicts canvassers will provide voters with bus tickets and coupons for gasoline, as well as pay for things like school fees for children and payments on motorcycle loans.

“They will say, ‘You just give the receipt to me, I will take care of it,’ ” Thavison said.

The election will pit allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon who was ousted as prime minister last year, against his longstanding opposition, the Democrat Party, and an array of smaller parties. The military is watching the outcome nervously for signs that Thaksin’s proxies will triumph.

“This is not just an ordinary election,” Thavison said. “The question is whether Thaksin can come back or not.”

At a government-sponsored seminar last Tuesday, Thavison asked an audience of village headmen from around northeast Thailand how many of them thought the election would be “fair.” No one raised his hand.

Thaksin has remained overseas since the coup, and his party has been disbanded. But his allies created the People Power Party, which according to some opinion polls is the front-runner in the elections.

Northeastern Thailand, populous and poor, is a leading battleground for Thaksin; 135 of the 400 constituencies in Parliament will be elected from Isaan, as the region is known. Bangkok, by contrast, elects only 36 seats.

Vote buying has long been most prevalent in Isaan, where the tradition is woven into village life. Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner, says handing out money and favors is only one part of a “neo-feudal” relationship between a villager and politician-cum-patron.

“It’s a setting where you exchange favors,” Gothom said. “You rely on me. I rely on you.”

Farmers and villagers offer their support in the expectation that their wealthy patrons will show their generosity and offer help when times get bad, Gothom said.

“Honestly speaking, this is normal,” said Somporn Trisak, owner of a small roadside restaurant in a rice-farming community near Nakhon Ratchasima city. “Every party hands out money. People take money from everyone, but who they vote for is up to them.”

Somporn said money had not yet been distributed to voters in her village, but said she had heard that local canvassers had already received money.

It remains possible that closer scrutiny by the authorities and tougher laws will deter vote buying. In 2001, when the Thai economy was still recovering from economic crisis, a popular and ironic phrase among villagers in the northeast was: “The money hasn’t come. I don’t know how to vote.”

Somphant Techa-atik, a specialist on vote buying and a newspaper columnist based in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, says that because of high gasoline prices, the most popular form of vote buying in this election will be paying for people to return to their hometowns to vote. Many people from the northeast work hundreds of kilometers from their homes on construction sites, in resorts or in Bangkok as waiters, maids, salespeople or taxi drivers.

“If you have to spend 3,000 baht to make it back to your hometown, nobody will do it,” he said.

On Nov. 13, the police arrested the owner of a gasoline station in Nakhon Ratchasima Province and seized bank notes amounting to 10,700 baht that were stapled to a pamphlet carrying the names of candidates from the People Power Party. The Election Commission says it is investigating vote buying.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, Somphant said.

“It’s difficult to offer tangible evidence of vote buying,” Somphant said. “But everyone in Thailand knows it happens.”

Filed under: Film,General — admin @ 5:50 am

Search for 50 passengers called off after people-smuggling boat sinks off Bangladesh

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Bangladesh authorities called of searches at sea Monday for about 50 passengers missing from a people-smuggling boat that sank off the southern coast near Myanmar waters, killing at least five people, police said.

The wooden fishing boat went down Sunday near Saint Martin’s island, about 120 kilometers south of the coastal resort town of Cox’s Bazar, said local police officer Mohammad Jasimuddin, who had been coordinating the rescue effort.

Survivors said the boat was carrying more than 100 people, Jasimuddin said. Five bodies have been recovered so far, Jasimuddin said.

He said about 50 people were still unaccounted for, and that about 50 others swam ashore or were rescued by fishing boats.

One survivor, Hashem Mollah, told police that he and his cousin had each paid 20,000 takas (US$298) to a trafficking syndicate to carry them to Thailand, from where they had planned to travel to Malaysia for better jobs, Jasimuddin said.

The Bangladeshi villager said he swam for nearly three hours to shore after the overcrowded boat sank in deep seas. Many others did not make it, he said.

Jasimuddin said police were trying to find the traffickers, based on information from survivors.

Searches for the missing by police and coast guard speed boats were called off late Monday, he said. However, he said rescuers were still looking out for any more bodies or survivors along the shoreline.

Jasimuddin said the passengers were poor Bangladeshi villagers, and Myanmar refugees from camps at Cox’s Bazar, 300 kilometers south of the national capital, Dhaka.

Several thousand Myanmar refugees, mostly Muslims known as Rohingyas, have fled to Bangladesh over the years, claiming persecution by Myanmar’s military junta and economic hardships.

In the last three months, police and the coast guard have arrested about 500 people – Bangladeshis and Myanmar refugees – in the same waters, mainly on human trafficking or illegal entry charges.

Boat and ship accidents are common in Bangladesh, a delta nation with about 250 rivers. They are often blamed on poor navigation, unfit vessels and lax enforcement of safety regulations.

November 25, 2007

Filed under: Film,General — admin @ 7:50 am

Thailand’s Patriotic Law to Stop Traffic

Filed under: General,global islands,military,thailand — admin @ 7:50 am

A group of retired and active duty generals in the army appointed to parliament in Thailand have proposed a law where traffic will be required to come to a stand still at the playing of the national anthem. The law is deemed to boost patriotism.

Parliament deferred the flag bill in an effort to study it’s chaotic affects on busy roads. It is already a requirement for all to stand still in parks, offices and stations, at the playing of the anthem on loud speakers, between 8a.m. and 6p.m.

“The national anthem lasts only one minute and eight seconds, so why can’t motorists stop their cars for the sake of the country? They already spend more time in traffic jams anyway,” stated retired General Pricha Rochanasena.

November 23, 2007

Filed under: Film,General — admin @ 6:15 pm

Robert Bresson

Filed under: art,Film,General — admin @ 6:14 pm

Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers, in the sense that he always tried to create precisely what he wanted without surrendering to considerations of commerce, audience popularity, or people’s preconceptions of what cinema should be. And although it might be argued that his venture into colour from Une Femme douce (1969) onwards was probably against his better judgement, he shows mastery in its use.

Born in central France and educated in Paris, Bresson’s early ambition was to be a painter. He ventured into filmmaking with the short Les Affaires publiques (1934), a satire with nods to Clair and Vigo, which was rediscovered in the 1980s after being thought lost. After a year or so as a prisoner-of-war he was approached by a Paris priest with a proposal for a film about the Bethany order of nuns, which became Les Anges du péché (1943). His next feature was also made during the Occupation, and filmmaking had by then definitely supplanted painting. The confusion over his date of birth, symbolic perhaps of his reclusive nature, caused reviewers of his final film L’Argent (1983) to marvel over how a man “in his late 70s” or alternatively “in his 80s” could show such youthful exuberance in his filmmaking.

Three formative influences in Bresson’s life undoubtedly mark his films: his Catholicism, which took the form of the predestinarian French strain known as Jansenism; his early years as a painter; and his experiences as a prisoner-of-war. These influences manifest themselves respectively in the recurrent themes of free-will versus determinism, in the extreme and austere precision with which he composes a shot, and in the frequent use of the prison motif (two films are located almost entirely inside prisons).

Three of his works take place in a wholly Catholic context: Les Anges du péché, a metaphysical thriller set in a convent, Journal d’un curé de campagne (1950), a rare example of a great novel (by Georges Bernanos) being turned into an even greater film, and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962), inevitably overshadowed by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. The Jansenism manifests itself in the way leading characters are acted upon and simply surrendering themselves to their fate. In Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), for example, both the donkey Balthazar and his on-off owner Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) passively accept the ill-treatment they both experience, as opposed to the evil Gérard (François Lafarge) who initiates much of what causes others to suffer. Bresson seemed to become increasingly pessimistic about human nature: his penultimate two films suggest that he had more concern for animals and the environment than for people, while the characters in his astonishing swansong L’Argent are simply the victims of a chain of circumstance; money is the root of all evil.

One effect of the Jansenist influence is Bresson’s total mistrust of psychological motives for a character’s actions. The conventional narrative film, indeed the conventional story of any kind, insists that people have to have reasons for what they do. A motiveless murder in a detective story would be unacceptable. In Bresson, however, people act for no obvious reason, behave “out of character”, and in general simply follow the destiny which has been mapped out for them. Often a character will state an intention, and in the very next scene will do the opposite. Characters who appear to be out-and-out rogues will unaccountably do something good, an example being the sacked camera-shop assistant in L’Argent who gives his ill-gotten gains to charity. At the same time it should be stressed that Bresson did not predetermine how his films would finally emerge; it was a process of discovery for him to see what would be revealed by his non-professional actors (“models” he designated them) after he trained them for their part.

Bresson’s second influence, his early experience as a painter, is manifested in the austerity of his compositions. A painter has to decide what to put in; a filmmaker what to leave out. With Bresson nothing unnecessary is shown; indeed he goes further, and often leaves the viewer to infer what is happening outside the frame. Thus we often see shots of hands, feet, doorhandles, and other parts of objects where any other filmmaker would show the whole. A Bresson film requires unbroken concentration on the viewer’s part, and I have occasionally felt literally breathless after watching one because of the concentration required. So rich in detail and events is Balthazar, for example, that it is easy on a first viewing simply to overlook sub-plots such as the child’s death and the long-running legal wrangle over land. It is for this reason that many of Bresson’s films are exceptionally fast-moving in their narrative (one exception is the almost contemplative Quatre nuits d’un rêveur [1971], where little actually happens; interestingly the central character is a painter). If L’Argent were remade as a Hollywood thriller it would have at least double the running-time and would dwell at length on the brutal violence in the last section which is merely elliptically hinted at by Bresson. The running-time of his films averages under 90 minutes, yet the viewer can be surprised at the amount that happens in that time.

Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956) and Procès are the two prison-films, and Bresson often uses prison as a metaphor for spiritual imprisonment or, indeed, release. A classic case of the latter is Pickpocket (1959), where Michel (Martin LaSalle) finds redemption from his criminal career only by intentionally being caught, and in the famous final scene by telling Jeanne (Marika Green) from his prison cell “what a strange road I had to take to find you”.

A key ingredient of Bresson’s methods is his view of actors, his “models”. From Journal on he used solely non-professionals, and was even reported to be upset when two of his actors (Anne Wiazemsky from Balthazar and Dominique Sanda from Une Femme douce) went on to professional acting careers. Only one actor ever appeared in two of his films. (Jean-Claude Guilbert in Balthazar and Mouchette [1967].) Actors were chosen not for their ability but for their appearance, often for an intense facial asceticism like the Curé (Claude Laydu) or the Pickpocket. He trained them to remove all traces of theatricality and to speak with a fast monotonic delivery. Indeed he rejected the word “cinema”, which he regarded as merely filmed theatre, and instead used the word “cinematography” (not to be confused with the art of camerawork). All movements of actors are strictly controlled by the director; when they walk they have to take a precise number of steps; and eye movements become extremely important – the lowering of the eyes towards the ground is almost a Bresson trademark. The result of this approach is that the viewer becomes involved not with a character’s appearance but almost with the core of his being, his soul. Bresson’s first two features use professionals, even “stars”, and though they are both excellent films which anticipate the director’s later themes, they would probably have been even more satisfying if “models” had been used.

Along with Bresson’s painterly eye for what should and should not be shown, he makes exquisite use of sound. Off-screen sound is of key importance: the raking of leaves during the intense confrontation between the priest and the countess in Journal, the scraping of the guard’s keys along the metal railings and the far-off sound of trains in Un Condamné, the whinneying of horses in Lancelot du Lac (1974), all serve to heighten the sense that a time of crisis has arrived for the central characters. Music is used increasingly sparingly as his career progresses; a specially composed score is used in the early films, but in Un Condamné there are occasional snatches of Mozart, in Pickpocket Lully, in Balthazar Schubert, and in late Bresson non-diegetic music is dispensed with altogether.

A plot-summary of most of Bresson’s films would render them extremely off-putting for a lover of “feelgood movies”. In most, the central character either dies (sometimes by suicide) or ends up in prison. Indeed the film with the only unashamedly “happy ending”, Un Condamné, was his biggest commercial success. (There is a “happy ending” of sorts to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne [1945], but the general tone of the plot would be regarded by many as decidedly gloomy.) Many of Bresson’s films are not, however, meant to be in the realist mode. For example, Balthazar is basically a fable, while Lancelot du Lac is a highly stylised portrayal of a mediaeval legend.

All Bresson’s features after the first have literary antecedents of one form or another, albeit updated. Two are from Dostoevsky (Une Femme douce and Quatre nuits), two from Bernanos (Journal and Mouchette), one from Tolstoy (L’Argent), one from Diderot (Les Dames), while Un Condamné and Le Procès are based on the written accounts of the true events. In addition Pickpocket is clearly influenced by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Balthazar has a similar premiss to the same author’s The Idiot. Lancelot du Lac is derived from Malory’s Arthurian legends, while Le Diable probablement (1977) was inspired by a newspaper report, as is stated at the start of the film. A long-standing unrealised project was a film of the Book of Genesis (Genèse), but Bresson reportedly said that, unlike the human “models”, he was unable to train the animals to do as they were told!

There is no critical consensus on which of Bresson’s films is the greatest. Sight and Sound’s prestigious critics’ poll placed Mouchette in the top 20 in 1972, but in 1992, from more than 200 critics polling for their 10 favourite films, it did not receive a single vote. In that year the leading Bresson film was Pickpocket with 6 votes, which would have just placed it in the best 40 of all films, followed by Balthazar with 4 votes and L’Argent with 3. At the time of writing the ongoing Top Tens section of Senses of Cinema places Bresson an astonishing fourth in the directors’ list, beaten only by Hitchcock, Godard, and Welles; none of his films makes the top ten, but Balthazar is not far off. The great French critic André Bazin, who did not live to see most of Bresson’s films, championed Journal, in an essay hailed by his English translator as “the most perfectly wrought piece of film criticism” he had ever read. Like the novel this film is essentially a flashback, where we see not a series of events but reflections on those events, whether by the elderly priest who is sent the diary or by the curé himself being for the viewer to decide. Un Condamné and Pickpocket are somewhat similar, in that they both rely on voiceover while, for the latter, an account is being written by Michel; again we are seeing either the actual events or Michel’s later reflections on them.

Other critics regard Un Condamné as the peak of Bresson’s art. With its alternate title, “The Wind bloweth where it will”, the director expresses the view that “God helps those who help themselves”, and the film makes clear that it is through the workings of fate, of extraordinary strokes of luck, allied to his own efforts, that the hero is able to effect his escape. My own preference, marginally, is for the two great mid-period rural dramas Balthazar and Mouchette, a recent re-issue of which revealed its stunning photography. For a very different view of Bresson, I once heard a well-known academic in the field of French cinema opine that his films are “more interesting to read about than to see”.

With his unique and wholly idiosyncratic methods and style, and general contempt for “cinema” as defined by himself, Robert Bresson was little influenced by other filmmakers. The critic and director Paul Schrader links him, not wholly convincingly, with Dreyer and Ozu, while Schrader’s own films owe a thematic debt to him (the final shot of American Gigolo [1980] is a direct quote from that of Pickpocket). Films like Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986), Maurice Pialat’s Sous le soleil de Satan (1987), and the Dardennes Brothers’ Rosetta (1999) have been liberally described as “Bressonian”.

A critic once wrote that Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu (1954) “is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists”. For many of us, the same can be said of the work of Robert Bresson.

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