Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bananas prove existence of God

Cosmic Variance reports.

Labor Day

On May 1st, the rest of the world celebrates the Labor Day holyday. In Rome, for example, there is always a big concert in Piazza San Giovanni. This year, the hundreds of thousands of people were in a particular jolly mood. Just a couple of days ago, the new speakers of the House and of the Senate were elected. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, is the new speaker of the House. Woo hoo!

A leftist coalition won elections in Italy for the first time in 1996. In 1998, Rifondazione Comunista, already led by Bertinotti, made the government fall in a vote of confidence. Another government was sort of put together, but then the coalition lost the 2001 elections, as expected. At the time, I resolved I would never, ever vote for that party (I had not, in 1996, and did not in 2001) until Bertinotti would step down. I am not, however, good with resolutions. Lately, Rifondazione has been the only party in Italy to say something leftist about women, civil rights, immigrants, foreign policy, respecting the Constitution, and so on, and I would have voted for them if I had not lost my absentee ballot.

Anyway, here in the US we do not celebrate communist holydays, so yesterday was a day like any other Monday in Berkeley: faculty lunch, teaching about PCP, attending the theory seminar, and so on.

There was, however, something special going on. New immigration regulations are being proposed that, among other things, would make it a felony to assist or shelter an illegal immigrant. This means, for example, that if your boyfriend/girlfriend is an illegal immigrant, and you live together and share the rent etc., then you are liable to a five years sentence in a federal prison. Unless, that is, you report your boyfriend/girlfriend and have him/her deported. Now, what a movie about longing you could get from this story ...

May 1st was a day of strike and protests against these new regulations. The main event in Berkeley was due to start at noon in Sproul plaza. I hanged out there around 11:30. There was a group performing a traditional native central-American dance, and a big crowd all around.

Inevitably, an older white man with a long beard (the type we affectionately call "aging hippie") came with a Palestinian flag. This mixing of messages is very Bay Area. During Critical Mass, the event on the last Friday of each month when large groups of bicyclists take over the streets, many people used to bike with signs that read "No blood for oil," which kind of makes sense, but also "End racism now." Biking against racism? Driving is so white?

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The truth is in the gut

If you haven't seen it already, Stephen Colbert's remarks at the White House correspondents dinner can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2).

A transcript is also available.

Poor timing and longing

Yesterday the International Film Festival featured Three Times by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. (His given name Hsiao-hsien is romanized as Xiaoxian in pinyin.)

There are three love stories, set in Taiwan in 1966, 1911 and 2005, and played by the same lead actor and actress. As usual in a certain recent style of Chinese film-making, the director does not have much use for such things as story and dialog.

The 1911 story, indeed, is played as a silent movie: even though the actors talk to each other, we hear no live sound, only music. Part of the dialog is reproduced in "interstitial" subtitles, that is, subtitles presented in separate frames. It is intriguing at the beginning, but it gets old very quickly. The 2005 story is completely useless. A guy goes out with a girl, who suffers from epilepsy and has a lesbian lover. That's it, made into a half-hour section.

The 1966 story is actually beautiful. A guy meets a girl in a pool bar just before he has to leave for his military service. The two correspond by letter. On a weekend break he searches through all of Taiwan for the girl (who, meanwhile, has moved twice). He finds her when he has only a few hours left before having to go back to his base.

Contemporary Chinese filmmakers have perfected the art of telling love stories that are ill-timed (or made difficult/impossible by duties/circumstances), and of depicting the resulting feeling of longing. Just think of any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or even of more commercial ones like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain.

Indeed, every time I see a Chinese movie like this, I am reminded that Western film-makers haven't been able (or willing?) to take a love story seriously in a very long time. One finds romantic comedies, surely, or very dark movies about sexual attraction, usually treated as a destructive force. (I am thinking of American Beuty as a mild example, or The Piano Teacher as an extreme one.) But is there a recent Western movie about love that is not about destructive sexuality, not about being funny, and that is not an unwatchable chick-flick? To clarify the terminology: if one of the characters is dying of leukemia, it's a chick-flick, and if one of the characters is a prostitute who looks like Julia Roberts, that's funny.

By the way, Chen Chang, the male lead in Three Times, had supporting roles in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and in 2046 and, most notably, he was also the "third guy" in Happy Together.