Friday, October 27, 2006

Because It's There

Stay with it. It becomes increasingly surreal.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Recent Screenings

The Illusionist (2006) - Written and directed by Neil Burger, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.

One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in a long time. How heartening that the film industry can still produce an intelligent, well-written, well-crafted and thoroughly entertaining film once in a while. It’s not an indie film – this is a classic Hollywood-style production that's actually aimed at adults, the kind of film you would have seen on a regular basis in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. Norton plays Eisenheim, the Magician, who starts from humble beginnings and winds up giving private performances for the Crown Prince of Austria. There's a childhood romance with a girl of the aristocracy that is forbidden by her parents. Of course, he encounters her again, in a most surprising way, once he becomes famous. Will their relationship have a chance now? There is a murder (or is there?) investigated by Chief Inspector Uhl, head of security for the Machiavellian Crown Prince. Uhl happens to be an amateur magician himself and is thoroughly fascinated by Eisenheim. How does he do what he does? Is the supernatural somehow involved? The concept of “mystery” works on several levels in this film. There's also political scheming and intrigue. It all starts to blend together in this wonderful movie, which is in itself something of a magical trick. Paul Giamatti gives a terrific, multi-layered performance as Inspector Uhl. Though I haven’t seen many other current films, it’s hard to imagine him not getting nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Norton and Biel are fine, though neither rises to the same high level. The performances by Eisenheim are truly beautiful and poetic, with the exception of some CGI-created ghosts that appear later in the film. (CGI is like electronic drums were in the 1980s. At one point, people are going to look back at films from this time period and go, “Ooh, what were we thinking?”) But the twists and turns and the various “illusions” are really the stars of this film. Music by Philip Glass and on-location filming in Prague add to the moody, intelligent atmosphere. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) - Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, cinematography by Raoul Coutard, starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang.

If you ever wondered what Godard might have been like as a Hollywood director, Le Mépris offers a fascinating glimpse of the possibilities. Though JLG has said that he had a miserable experience making his only big-budget production, the film holds up as well his other landmark work from the early and mid 1960s. Along with Bande à part (1964), it’s probably his most accessible film. It’s also one of his most entertaining. What would he do with pop icon and mega-star Brigitte Bardot? Well, he takes her sex symbol status head on and explores its various ramifications with a post-modern sensibility. When moneymen Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard demanded that their director show more of their big investment’s . . . uh . . . attributes, Godard complied with a touching and quietly subversive sequence in which he literally explores every part of Bardot’s body through colored filters reflecting the colors of the French flag. His great visual sense, which often gets neglected in discussions of his work, also manifests itself more openly in this film, via Raoul Coutard’s masterful use of Cinemascope. The movie is an absolute pleasure to watch and deserves to be seen on a big screen. Le Mépris also turns out to be one of the greatest films ever about filmmaking. Piccoli, a terrific but unheralded actor, plays a screenwriter hired to rewrite Homer’s Odyssey for an American producer (Jack Palance in a brutal performance.) Legendary director Fritz Lang plays, well, a legendary director named Fritz Lang, whose artistic version of Homer has seriously displeased the commercially-minded American producer. Bardot is Piccoli’s beautiful wife, and their relationship, and her growing contempt for her husband as he sells out, forms the centerpiece of the film. The score by Georges Delerue is piercingly beautiful. The initial credit sequence, with Godard speaking the credits as Raoul Coutard rolls closer and closer to the viewer with his huge Cinemascope camera, is one of my favorite opening sequences. It all adds up to one of Godard’s most fascinating and enduring works. The Criterion DVD also contains a second disc of interviews with Godard and Lang, and some interesting documentaries. Highly Recommended.

'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945) - Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey.

I discovered the British filmmaking duo Powell & Pressburger via IMDB’s Classic Film Board, where several of their movies are included in an ongoing (and fairly interesting) Top 200 film list. To describe I Know Where I’m Going as a romantic comedy really doesn’t do it justice. First of all, it’s set in the stormy, moody Hebrides Islands of Scotland. It’s not a slapstick romantic comedy but something more natural, with touching performances by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. Hiller was also no ordinary actress but had been handpicked by George Bernard Shaw to star in his productions of Saint joan and Pygmalion. Her strong-willed Joan Webster “knows where she’s going,” only things don’t work out quite as planned. I hate to say too much about the plot because it unfolds so pleasantly and organically. I will say that La Reina liked this film very much, and we had to watch most of it again the next day. It’s just a marvel of good acting, good writing, good story and good filmmaking. A funny, very human movie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Before Sunset (2004) – Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy.

I enjoyed Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater’s first film with Hawke and Delphy playing these same characters (Jesse and Celine), but avoided this one for some reason. Maybe I wasn’t sure there should have been a second film. The idea of two young people meeting unexpectedly in Europe and having a brief but intense relationship seemed fairly realistic as it was portrayed, but those kind of fleeting relationships are exactly that – fleeting, and one doesn’t usually meet up with the same person ten years later. But I was pleasantly surprised when we finally watched Before Sunset. Written by Linklater, Hawke and Delphy, the dialogue-heavy screenplay works well and was nominated for an Oscar and three other film awards (losing each time to Sideways.) Basically, Jesse – a struggling writer - has finally published a novel that's based on his experience with Celine that was detailed in the first film. When he comes to Paris do a book-signing, she shows up, and they spend the afternoon walking around the city, discussing their brief relationship, what’s happened to them since then, and other topics of interest to two intelligent and cultured people who have the benefit of a screenplay to work from. My only real complaint about the film is that their conversation seems too natural and perfect. But they both imbue their characters with interesting touches of humanity, and Paris (the third actor in this film) looks stunning in her gown of late afternoon light. What saves the film from being overly precious is the heartfelt struggle of two people in their late 30s trying to see if their deeply romantic ideals have any place left in their increasingly mundane lives. It’s achingly and honestly nostalgic. And I could relate. Too well, perhaps. RECOMMENDED.

Pal Joey (1957) - Directed by George Sidney, music by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.

Along with the Gershwins and Cole Porter, I love the music of Rodgers and Hart. If you don’t know or don’t remember how good they were, I suggest investing a little capital in Ella Fitzgerald’s Rodgers and Hart Songbook, Vol.1 & Vol.2, which were the first, and are still considered the best, of her songbooks of American composers. So when I saw the trailer for Pal Joey, I ignored Sinatra’s cheesy monologue and listened in amazement as one great Rodgers and Hart tune after another went by in 5-second blips. A few moments later, I was on the internet, reserving a copy of the DVD from my local library. As it turns out, the film version of this Broadway production holds up pretty well. Though sanitized for 1950s Hollywood, Pal Joey is still a slightly seedy, more adult musical. Sinatra may have found the perfect role for himself as the (not too) likable heel, Joey Evans. Rita Hayworth, whose career flagged in the early 50s, made something of a comeback with her strong performance as Vera Simpson, a former stripper turned wealthy socialite. Still beautiful and alluring, she seems older and wiser here. Kim Novak . . . well . . . the original New York Times review from 1957 called her “decorative” and left it at that. She’s about as exciting as brushing your teeth. (Actually, brushing your teeth is more energetic.) But there are some good secondary performances, especially Hank Henry as a nightclub owner, and a terrier who dunks bagels in a coffee cup, if you like that sort of thing. (See the New York Times article from March 21, 1957: “Terrier Is Signed to Film Contract. Snuffy Eats Way to Fame on Cream Cheese, Bagels, Lox for Role in ‘Pal Joey.’” Snuffy earned $500 a week for his role. And that’s in 1957 dollars.) The storyline of Pal Joey is good, not great, a little sexist, with some clever scenes now and then. The relationship between Joey and Vera is actually interesting and could have developed into something more, but the director pulls away right when it’s getting good. But this is ultimately about the music. As a vocalist, Frank Sinatra was in his prime in 1957, and with material by Rodgers and Hart, he delivers one great song after another. I never thought anyone could top Ella’s version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” but Frank manages to be her equal on this tune. (See the clip here.) It ranks as one of the great vocal performances in a film musical. Another wonderful performance is Rita Hayworth (vocals by Jo Ann Greer) doing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” (Alas, no clip.) Frank also sings “In a Small Hotel,” “If I Could Write a Book,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and a few others. Rita (Greer) also does well with the fun burlesque song, “Zip.” All of the musical arrangements are by Nelson Riddle, who also worked on some of Ella's albums and knew how to swing. The only disappointment is that “My Funny Valentine” is given to the drip, Novak, instead of to Frank, who knew the song inside and out. RECOMMENDED, especially for Rodgers and Hart fans, and Sinatra fans.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) - Directed by Ken Hughes, screenplay by Roald Dahl (from an Ian Fleming novel), starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes and Lionel Jeffries.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gets a bum rap, if you ask me. Slapped unjustly with the “kid’s movie” label, it gets stuck on a shelf where adults forget to look for it. At the public library, I literally had to go up into the Children’s Room to find the DVD. Yes, it is a great “kid’s movie,” but it’s also a highly imaginative and well-crafted film, period. Based on an Ian Fleming novel (yes, the James Bond guy), with a screenplay by Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl) and produced by Albert Broccoli, who produced the "Sean Connery" Bond films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is really a magical comedy-adventure set to music. The delightful score is by Richard and Roger Sherman, who were nominated for nine Oscars for Mary Poppins, and won two, and were nominated for this film as well. I'll bet you money that you can't see this movie and not spend the next two days singing "our fine, four-fendered friend" while driving around in your car. Dick Van Dyke is wonderful as the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts. I had forgotten what a complete performer Van Dyke really was, singing and dancing very well, and bringing great comic presence and timing to the role. Lionel Jeffries takes a fun turn as Grandpa Potts, and Sally Ann Howes, a Tony-award winning British stage actress, shines in the role of Truly Scrumptious, daughter of the candy factory owner. But the best performance of the film, and one that lingers longer than you want it to, may be that of Robert Helpmann, who plays the creepy and chilling “Child Catcher.” The film moves along at a good pace and, for dessert, offers the delirious architecture of Neuschwanstein Castle as one of its settings. Forget your preconceptions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and watch it again. It’s worth it. RECOMMNEDED.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Explaining Paintings to a Dead Hare

Some poet friends

One of the best parts of having friends (or a wife, perhaps) who are excellent poets is that you get to hear them suffer and moan inconsolably when they're not getting published, as they wrestle with the possible insignificance and meaninglessness of their lives and their lifework.

Wait, sorry, mixed up my notes. . . . That's another aspect of having friends who are excellent poets.

One of the best parts is that you get to read and hear wonderful poetry, sometimes when you least expect it. You're sitting at work, for example, reading Sports Illustrated online feverishly finishing an important project, when, suddenly, via electronic wizardry, an email comes in that contains the complete manuscript of a new book. Voila! You now have material to read on your bus ride home.

Last week, a bundle of strange, intelligent and fascinating poems arrived on my digital doorstep from John Schertzer, a friend from Brooklyn whose work I’ve always admired. In all fairness to John, they hadn’t arrived unannounced. He mentioned that he was sending out a manuscript of his poetry collection, Explaining Paintings to a Dead Hare, and I said I’d be curious to see it. Granted, the damn thing did arrive faster than I thought humanly possible, but that’s what happens in the Information Age: If you ask to read a friend's poetry manuscript, you’d better have the bottle of Scotch open before you give the okay, otherwise, complications may arise. John was simply following one of the most important bezels of wisdom for a poet: "Make yourself ready."

John Schertzer. (From the looks of this photo, I'm guessing it was taken on his secret journey to the USSR in the mid 1950s. Part of the highly classified Ubu Poetic Intelligence Mission)

Luckily for me, I liked the work. It would be great to tell you all about John and try to offer some overview of his creative efforts. But it’s been a long, hard week, and I don’t have it in me. Instead, I’d like to share one of the poems from his collection and some of our email correspondence (by his kind permission) about the manuscript and poetry in general. So, for your viewing pleasure, and free of charge, John Schertzer:

Compass (a choreography)

The circling plane removed itself from the sky
and settled in a box of liquid.

We knew from her form
she was from out of the country

ground out of glass
till she could glide like an eel over the surface
of the waves.

There were twelve ways of looking at her, one
through a steel cylinder

flooded with supernal light, burped from the underside of a tree.

The mirror reversed itself
her double
burnt on the face on a coin flicked into the air above a lake.

The ivory or the burnished skin
in a bag by the laundry
disguised as an ectoplasmic purse

or aromatic warmer, twirled itself around
runways, felt the interface between

abstraction and moisture.

All day long we were down by the projector. We were by the broken
copying ourselves into the air, or the car.

All day long the bridge
to tomorrow hurt, the way the cables swept underground.

The copy machine
had reduced itself
to a slide show, so that the first feature was

“why are we here?” or “silver crackers, anyone?”

By the time we got control over the rest of our lives, the reel had

become a sickle over the city.

Her emblem had been awake, had redone our
shopping malls,
mauled us as we slept

in a circle, centered around our teeth,
casually, into the next sentence,

or the next century, or something like that.

And screeched like a bell fallen from its joist
sliding down along
the hypotenuse of the roof. She spent

all day trying
to fix us, but then flew to another city.

She spent all afternoon trying to fix us, but remembered
the arc of the compass
turning above our absence of bodies.

Originally published (sort of) in The Germ (circa 2001-2005)

Explaining Poems with Dada Hair

An Email Dialogue with John Schertzer

Cowboy Angel: John, I finished the book. I enjoyed it very much, though I have to say I was bummed out when Anna threw herself under the train at the end. Kind of a shocking and brutal finale. Can't you make it more of a romantic comedy or something?

John Schertzer: In the sequel it is discovered by others that Anna falls through a rather large rabbit hole (actually a hare hole—but are there such?) in the midst of the tracks and for several months has relations with a swarthy moleman from the underworld. It turns out that what they thought were her remains was just the carcass of a wild boar that had gotten too close after eating jimson weed in the sun all day.

She returns to the surface with the power to overturn the neoconservative hegemony, but there is a dark side to this.

Anna discovers that she is slowly becoming a tree, and one which produces fruit that enhances both erotic and sensory intensity, making it impossible for the Democratic party to pay attention to policy.

A third party therefore rises up from the dregs of society. These are people who are used to enhanced erotic and sensory intensity, in fact they thrive on it, and it actually becomes their policy directive.

That’s all I’m going to say for now, except that as Anna continues to grow bark (as you remember, Daphne did
while being chased by Apollo), Global Warming seems to diminish, and everyone is worried that they are heading to another ice age. That’s when it is suddenly realized that George did not die in the tornado, after all, but that he was granted supernormal powers, and in fact scores higher than average on the math section of the SATs, which allows him to get into Yale, and he ends up being benevolent monarch some thirty years down the line. You’ll have to read the entire 14 volumes to find out how that happens. . . .

CA: Only 14 volumes? Bummer. But it looks like you're already hard at work on it.

Your titles are great, by the way. I respect a person who has excellent titles. It's an underrated talent and skill. Ironically, the overall title of the book is not my favorite. It's one of the few occasions where I feel it's too obviously "surrealist."

JS: There was a performance piece by Joseph Beuys called “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” I won’t go into all of the ramifications of using an alternation of this title (not right now, anyway), but realize that the main point is there is no explaining pictures to a dead hare, just as there is pretty much no way to explain how and why one makes some of the particular decisions one makes in one’s work (one’s writing, for instance). I was told that it was an improvement on previous titles, though I hear your point. Most recent title was “Shadow Warmer.” I really liked that one, but no one else did. What the F is a Shadow Warmer, anyway?

CA: "Shadow Warmer" was one of my favorite titles of the poems in the MS! It would also work as a book title, precisely because of its mystery.

Only one line really didn't work for me in the manuscript: From "Days' Treasury" - "There is a blue umbrella over a purple owl whose name is written on a white wall." It seems too sing-songy. And the three colors seem too much for one line. It doesn't match the rhythm or feel of most of your work.

JS: “Days’ Treasury” – I had been getting rejected so often it wasn’t funny (these days I’m rejected less often because I don’t have the time to send stuff out), and at one point I decided trying different approaches. I tried pseudonyms, writing letters to the editor that sounded like I was off my tree, and then I decided to purposely write really bad poems, or just things written off the cuff, and submit them just to see what happened. This was one of those, bad/off-the-cuff pieces – it probably took all of about 3 minutes to write, and maybe 5 to edit. I sent it off to Cortland Review, with some other similarly wielded poems, and it got accepted, go figure. Since it got accepted, I thought I might as well reconsider it and I’ve grown to like it. I hear you about the funky color arrangement. I probably was riffing off Michael Palmer’s riffing off of Goethe’s A Theory of Colors, I don’t know. Now that you point it out, there’s definitely some awkwardness there. That was originally the point, but should I continue clowning around or get serious about this??

CA: Maybe you should leave it as is and have a Notes section at the end where you tell the story. BTW, you of all people should have a NOTES section at the end. It's often my favorite part of poetry books. You'd have great notes

JS: I like the idea of notes. And at this point, I don’t care whether it seems presumptuous. Being ignored, or unnoticed, has its good points, no?

CA: Hey, can I post either "Compass (A Choreography)" or "Seventeen" on my blog? And maybe part of our emails?

JS: Post either one, your choice. Another story. I submitted a few poems to The Germ back in 1998. After about a year and a half I got a call from one of the editors saying he wanted to take the poems, and some more if I had any. It was supposed to be in the next issue (volume 4) possibly, or the next, which was supposed to be a special contemporary French poetry issue (volume 5). I missed #4, and then w/ #5 they decided to go all French – that was about 2000, 2001. Then they went missing for several years. Last year I discovered their blog site, with two of the poems I submitted, sort of an ad for the hardcopy which according to the website was supposed to be out last fall. As far as I know, there’s been no hardcopy. So I guess you can say “Compass (a choreography)” has been published by them, in a way.

And yes, post stuff from the emails too, unless it’s something that could get me in trouble, of course. Now you have me all curious about this thing you’re doing. I’m wondering what other folks I’ll be discussed alongside.

CA: Well . . .

I’ll only bring up Sandler if I have time. . . . Speaking of NOTES, what about notes on “Compass (a choreography)”? [This line never appeared in any of our emails. It’s entirely made up. Well, it’s not “made up” now, it actually exists. But it didn't exist when we were sending emails.]

JS: I wrote the poem to read at a dance recital, or rather it was a performance of both poetry and dance. Damian VanDenburgh (I think you met him at some point) and I had been invited by Laura Ward (who now heads Octavia Cup Dance Theatre group -- and her dance partner at the time, to take part in their performance at some place in Soho, or some other lofty downtown space. The poem was inspired by, or kind of a translation of my experience of, Laura’s choreography and dance at the time, which was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was kind of a modern dance, for lack of any other category, but on point, and at times it was creepy and disturbing, while at other times it was light and surprising, even funny.

Of course, this is kind of a squishy use of the word “translation,” and ultimately subjective. But it makes me think I should try doing stuff like that more often.

The explanation may have been disappointing, I know. Usually happens that way.

CA: Not at all. . . . Kind of eerie re-reading "Compass" this morning:

“The circling plane removed itself from the sky . . .”

And with a Yankee pitcher in it to boot. New York is so bizarre sometimes.

JS: New York AND poetry are both bizarre. So when you have something like New York Poetry, you have something that you probably should need a license to wield.

CA: Hey, thanks again for the privilege of a pre-release peek at your book!


Read other John Schertzer poems online:

"Elizabethan Pamphlet" and "Self-styled Ceiling" at La Petite Zine.
Four poems at Reading Between A and B.

"Drop Scenes" at Shampoo Poetry.
"Dude Descending Bookcase" at Diagram.

And find out about his secret career as a corrupt Police Staff Sargeant in the Toronto Central Field Command Drug Squad. John, man, why didn't you say something?!?!


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Eye-deep in Hell

Died some, pro patria,
non ‘dulce’ non ‘et decor’…
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies

Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920)

UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Manfred Nowak, was interviewed about Iraq for German public broadcaster ARD's news magazine program Tagesschau:

Nowak: In July and August 2006 alone, the bodies of 6500 persons were found who had been abducted and often very gravely tortured -- that is more than 100 people each day. I collaborated on this report to the extent that I interviewed various victims and non-governmental organizations. Many of them credibly reported that in their view the situation is now worse than it was under Saddam Hussein.

Under his dictatorship there was also terrible torture, but one could at least still predict who would have to fear being tortured. Today, on the other hand, the security situation is out of control to such an extent that in the final analysis every person can become a victim of abductions, summary executions, and the worst methods of torture: people's limbs are being amputated, their fingers are missing, their eyes have been put out."

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent time in Iraq before the war and returned afterwards. He was interviewed by Juan Cole today:

Chandrasekaran: Before the war, Iraqis were petrified that one wrong step would result in arrest and imprisonment. Today, as we all know so well, the Iraqis live under a very different sort of fear. In fact, many of the Iraqis I know well say they are far more afraid now than they ever were before the war. Back then, if you kept your mouth shut and your head down, you'd be fine. Now, danger lurks everywhere.

Jane Arraf, NBC correspondent in Baghdad, posted this yesterday on MSNBC’s Blogging Baghdad:

Some readers and viewers think we journalists are exaggerating about the situation in Iraq. I can almost understand that because who would want to believe that things are this bad? Particularly when so many people here started out with such good intentions.

I'm more puzzled by comments that the violence isn't any worse than any American city. Really? In which American city do 60 bullet-riddled bodies turn up on a given day? In which city do the headless bodies of ordinary citizens turn up every single day? In which city would it not be news if neighborhood school children were blown up? In which neighborhood would you look the other way if gunmen came into restaurants and shot dead the customers?

Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.

And now, researchers at Johns Hopkins University report in The Lancet medical journal that approximately 655,000 Iraqis have died from war or political violence since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. That means people have been dying in Iraq at more than three times the rate than before the invasion.

The figure for the number of deaths attributable to the conflict - which amounts to around 2.5% of the population - is at odds with figures cited by the US and UK governments and will cause a storm, but the Lancet says the work, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, has been examined and validated by four separate independent experts who all urged publication.

In October 2004, the same researchers published a study estimating that 100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war since the beginning of the March 2003 invasion, a figure that was hugely controversial. Their new study, they say, reaffirms the accuracy of their survey of two years ago and moves it on.

"Although such death rates might be common in times of war, the combination of a long duration and tens of millions of people affected has made this the deadliest international conflict of the 21st century and should be of grave concern to everyone," write the authors, Gilbert Burnham and colleagues.

"At the conclusion of our 2004 study we urged that an independent body assess the excess mortality that we saw in Iraq. This has not happened. We continue to believe that an independent international body to monitor compliance with the Geneva conventions and other humanitarian standards in conflict is urgently needed. With reliable data, those voices that speak out for civilians trapped in conflict might be able to lessen the tragic human cost of future wars."
Of the deaths, 31% were ascribed to the US-led forces. Most deaths were from gunshot wounds (56%), with a further 13% from car bomb injuries and 14% the result of other explosions.

Juan Cole takes a look at the report:

The study concludes that an average of 470 Iraqis per day have likely died as a result of political violence since March 19, 2003, though the number could be as low as 350 per day if the margin of error skewed to the low side. United Nations estimates based on figures from Iraqi morgues are more like 100 per day.

I follow the violence in Iraq carefully and daily, and I find the results plausible.
First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address.
Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers.

Interesting conclusions are that we are wrong to focus so much on suicide car bombings. The real action is just shooting enemies down with bullets. Only 30 percent of the deaths have been caused by the US military, and that percentage has declined this year because of the sectarian war.
And, folks, this is a major civil war, with something close to 200,000 dying every year.

This study is going to have a hard ride. In part it is because many of us in the information business are not statistically literate enough to judge the sampling techniques. Many will tend to dismiss the findings as implausible without a full appreciation of how low the margin of error is this time. Second, it is a projection, and all projections are subject to possible error, and journalists, being hardnosed people, are wary of them.

Ironically enough, the same journalists who will question this study will accept without query the estimates for deaths in Darfur, e.g., which are generated by exactly the same techniques, and which are almost certainly not as solid.

Bush’s glib response: "Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at . . . it's not credible."

Perhaps the President thinks researchers at Johns Hopkins "guessed at" their results, because that's what he and his administration have been doing all along. Going to invade Iraq? I guess they'll greet us as saviors, with flowers in their hands. Need a plan to administrate the country after you invade it? I guess, it'll all work out. We’ll put Chalabi in charge of ev erything. Etc., etc.

But he is right about one thing: credibility is important. So, who is more credible: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, or the Bush administration ?

Oh, his quote comes from an article this afternoon entitled: Bombs blitz Baghdad as UN warns of chaos:

In violence on the ground, the leader of a religious minority was shot dead in front of his home and US soldiers battled to control a fire triggered by a mortar attack on an ammunition store.

The latest attacks came after two days in which Baghdad police found the corpses of 110 murder victims scattered across the capital.

[U.N. Under Secretary General Jan Egeland, said,] “Our appeal goes to everybody who can curb the violence: religious, ethnic, cultural leaders have to see that this has spiralled totally out of control.”

So . . . we've spent $400,000,000,000.

The National Intelligence Estimate, “based on the considered analysis of all 16 of the US intelligence agencies,” says the invasion and occupation of Iraq has made global terrorism worse.

Almost 3,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed and over 20,000 wounded, many of them maimed for life.

Osama Bin Laden is still a free man.

And on top of it all, more people in Iraq are now being tortured and more are being killed than they were under Saddam Hussein.

I’ll let Ezra Pound finish this post, also from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Ibn-Arabi

Title page of The Zohar, by Moses de Leon

While living in Spain, I began reading about some of the Jewish mystics who thrived there in the Middle Ages.
One of the most important texts in Kabbalah, The Zohar, by Moses de Leon, was only one of many works that came out of that environment. Moses de Leon eventually moved to, and was buried in, Ávila, one of the most spiritually charged places I’ve ever visited. About two hundred years later, the Christian mystic, Santa Teresa de Ávila, was born there to a family descended from Jewish converts. Her confessor was the great poet and fellow mystic, San Juan de la Cruz.

One afternoon, strolling down a dirt road outside of the village of Chinchón, I was mulling over all these Christian and Jewish mystics in Spain, when I had a thought that literally stopped me in my tracks: What about all the Moors in Spain? Were there Islamic mystics as well? Staring out at the orchards of olive trees and the small vineyards cascading down the terraced hill, I knew without a doubt that I was going to discover something interesting.

The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, by Bernini

Turns out there were many, many Sufis in Spain in the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the greatest Islamic mystics of all-time was from Murcia: Muhammad Ibn 'Arabi. He was the author of over 300 works, including the al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, which was over 5,000 pages long and ranks among the most significant books in Sufism.

In addition to a lot of other great information, The Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society offers the following brief bio:

Mystic, philosopher, poet, sage, Muhammad Ibn 'Arabi is one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Known as Muhyiddin (the Revivifier of Religion) and the Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Master), he was born in 1165 AD into the Moorish culture of Andalusian Spain, the center of an extraordinary flourishing and cross-fertilization of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, through which the major scientific and philosophical works of antiquity were transmitted to Northern Europe. Ibn 'Arabi's spiritual attainments were evident from an early age, and he was renowned for his great visionary capacity as well as being a superlative teacher. He travelled extensively in the Islamic world and died in Damascus in 1240 AD.

Moorish Script in the Alhambra - Granada, Spain.
"There is no other sovereign but God."

So, in the space of approximately 400 years, Muslims, Jews and Christians living in Spain produced some of the most important mystical works in each of their respective religions. The Convivencia (“coexistence” or “cohabitation” in English) was a period of several hundred years when people from all three faiths lived together in Spain. Sometimes it’s made out to be more idealistic than it probably was in reality. On the other hand, especially given some of the hostile attitudes in the world today, the Convivencia proved at certain times in certain places to be one of the more positive and wondrous occasions in human history. But I digress.

I simply wanted to offer a poem by Ibn Arabi, who I discovered while experiencing my own weird version of the Convivencia:

A white-blazed gazelle
Is an amazing sight,
Red-dye signaling,
eyelids hinting,
Pasture between breastbones
And innards.
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
Any form:
Gazelles in a meadow,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Kaaba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of a Torah,
The scrolls of the Qur'an.
I profess the religion of love;
Wherever its caravan turns
Along the way, that is the belief,
The faith I keep.

The translation of his poem comes from a paper delivered in 2004 by Iberian medievalist María Rosa Menocal at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Humanities Forum on Belief: Three Cultures or One? Muslims, Jews, and Christians and the Art of Coexistence in Medieval Spain.

Peace/Paz on a beautiful Tuesday . . .

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Not Quite the Song Stuck in My Head When I Woke Up This Morning

La Reina and I watched Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee last night, and when we woke up this morning, we both had "The Continental," the big, final musical number from the film, stuck in our heads. Alas, YouTube doesn't have any clips from The Gay Divorcee, so one has to suffer through one of cinema's most famous dance sequences: Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," from Top Hat. The last 3 minutes of this are simply amazing and beautiful. And, IMHO, it's still not even Fred & Ginger at their best.

Oaxaca Update

Federal troops in Oaxaca

I've been fairly busy at work this week and haven't been able to offer an update on events in Oaxaca, though much has taken place. But Jeff asked what was happening, so I'll do my best to report.

I have to say, I'm certainly no expert on what's going on. I'm too far removed to really understand all the important nuances, so please take what I say with a giant grain of salt. I
'm trying to be as fair as possible given my many limitations. So, here's my attempt at a report (with some analysis) - from the Brooklyn-Texan News Service (BTNS,or BS for short):

The situation in Oaxaca continues to be tense, with several acts of violence occurring during the week, but there are also signs of a possible resolution. Representatives of the protesters met with Government officials on Thursday night in Mexico City, and the leader of the teachers union said afterwards that Abascal (the interior secretary) guaranteed there would be no military incursion in Oaxaca. This was a repeat of the pledge Abascal made in front of a rowdy Congress on Wednesday: “In the name of God, we will absolutely not use repression” in Oaxaca. The APPO (an umbrella organization of the protesters) and the teachers union will discuss the Government proposal over the weekend and respond on Monday. In the meantime, in an "act of good faith," the protesters have withdrawn from one of the radio stations they took over earlier.

(For more background on the situation, please see my earlier posts.)

Thankfully, there was a tremendous public outcry last week against sending troops to Oaxaca. If the Government really did have plans to attack the protesters, they probably had to seriously rethink their strategy in light of the response. Members of the PRD Party confronted Abascal in Congress on Wednesday; many non-governmental organizations and human rights groups spoke up; the Zapatistas demanded a peaceful solution; and some members of the Church also warned against violence, so that all eyes were on the Government and their actions in the state. A high-ranking member of President Fox’s own PAN Party said that Ulises Ruiz, the Governor of Oaxaca, who the protesters want removed, should step down. These are all good signs.

Unfortunately, there has also been a fair amount of violence in Oaxaca this week and some disturbing signs for the future. On Monday night, protesters manning a barricade were shot at from a passing truck and one was killed. On Thursday night, along the coast, a group of protesters were attacked by hooded men and several were wounded and others were kidnapped. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to the protesters who were kidnapped. That same night, a pro-government teacher was either “stabbed in the neck with an ice pick” or “hacked to death with ice axes.” Other pro-government teachers claim the murder was done by the protesters. The protesters deny this and say the action is being used as an excuse for an attack against them. (Interestingly, this last piece of news was the only one generally covered in the U.S. press, with no mention of the other incidents of violence.)

This morning, the APPO claims to have obtained a copy of Governor Ruiz’ Plan de Hierro, which details a proposed violent attack on the protesters in which military and police forces will be used. The APPO also says they now have direct evidence that, in August, Ruiz hired paramilitary forces composed of ex-military elite who were contracted to carry out vandalism and assassinations in order to justify the use of Federal forces.

Also, today, Bishop Raúl Vera of Saltillo, Coahuila, said that the situation in Oaxaca is similar to that which led to the 1997 massacre at Acteal. In that horrible event, 45 indigenous Roman Catholics, including pregnant women and children, were attending a prayer meeting in the village of Acteal, when they were attacked by paramilitary forces and slaughtered over the course of several hours while soldiers stationed nearby did nothing. The indigenous group had supported the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. Vera was Bishop “Coadjutor” in Chiapas at the time.

La Reina and I were in Chiapas only a few weeks before the Acteal massacre, and the mixture of Federal troops and paramilitary in Oaxaca right now does remind me of the situation in 1997. Basically, Federal soldiers are used to surround a large area, cutting off the target population from much outside help, aid, monitoring, etc. Meanwhile, paramilitary are engaged to do most of the dirty work. That way the Government can say, “Oh, it wasn’t us who used force,” and then conduct low-intensity warfare without drawing attention from from the media, who refuse to cover a situation until a certain number of people are killed at one time – like the massacre at Acteal, for example. While we were in Chiapas, the paramilitary seemed to be running wild, with violent incidents occurring almost every day. On one occasion, even the elderly sister of Archbishop Ruiz was beaten and almost killed. I don’t think people in the U.S. have a good conception of these kinds of tactics. They are actually terrorist tactics, as can be seen now in the actions of the various militias in Iraq. You separate the “official” force from the “unofficial” force in order to wage your war and avoid responsibility for what happens. In Mexico, powerful drug lords have significant connections to the military and police forces, so it’s even easier to recruit paramilitary forces.

Members of a Mexican Human Rights Group protesting the military occupation of Oaxaca

Hopefully, the Government proposal includes the removal of Governor Ulises Ruiz. If it does, then I think the protest will come to an end. The teachers said the other day that classes would resume 5 days after Ruiz left office. If the Government offer doesn't include Ruiz' dismissal, then I’m afraid that the APPO and the teachers will reject the proposal, which will lead to further protests, which will lead to increasing violence. It seems to me that the PAN, whose candidate Felipe Calderon is about to take power (in the official government), would gain a lot of much-needed public support by getting rid of Ruiz, who’s not even a member of their party. This might also help Calderon and the PAN diffuse the ongoing election crisis. But if they leave Ruiz in power, and the situation in Oaxaca grows worse, then they’ll have two ongoing crises and a lot of the public against them.

Another concern is that Ruiz may try to do something stupid on his own. He must know that he’s eventually on his way out. He’s already used force against the protesters once – which precipitated the crisis back in June – and I wouldn’t be surprised if he and the PRI are guilty of contracting paramilitary forces, and are, thus, responsible for the (at least) 6 protesters killed so far. Since he’s not a member of the PAN, I don’t know how much pressure they can put on him. And as Governor, I don’t know what rights he has to use force on his own.

Hopefully, though, a peaceful – and just – solution will soon be in place. This weekend will be very important. Prayers for a solution, I’m sure, are welcome by everyone in Oaxaca.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Preventing Bloodshed in Mexcio

[Cross-posted at DailyKos]

Mexican armed forces in Oaxaca - Reuters

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is on the verge of a potential bloodbath. Thousands of striking teachers and their supporters, armed with Molotov cocktails and determined to resist, may be confronted at any moment by Mexican armed forces, including marine infantry with tanks. Five teachers have already been killed by paramilitary thugs in the last few weeks, and military helicopters started buzzing over the city last night. Human rights groups and various politicians are calling for a peaceful resolution, and a majority of Mexican people are against using force in the situation. With little coverage of the situation in the U.S. media, however, the Mexican government may feel like no one outside of Mexico is paying attention. Please let them know that the world is watching.

In May of this year, 70,000 teachers went on strike in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest and most indigenous regions of the country. Rather than negotiate with the teachers, the present governor, Ulises Ruiz (PRI), sent in riot police armed with teargas. The teachers, however, drove back the police forces and took over the historic plaza in the capital city. They were then joined by students, the indigenous, farmers and other workers, and the strike became a general protest over the disastrous economic situation in the state and Ruiz's repressive tactics and overall corruption. Since then, the teachers and their supporters have refused to withdraw until the governor resigns. They have taken over radio stations and some government buildings. Hundreds of them are walking to Mexico City to deliver their demands in person to President Vicente Fox. Five teachers have been killed in the last few weeks by paramilitary thugs believed to be off-duty policemen.

Fox, under pressure from incoming president Felipe Calderon, has ordered federal forces to Oaxaca to resolve the situation. Military helicopters began buzzing over the city last night. Marine infantry, tanks, and other military vehicles have started unloading outside of the capital city. Human rights organizations and some politicians in Mexico have called for a peaceful resolution, but the federal government seems determined to end the standoff using force, possibly by this coming Wednesday. The protesters are also determined to resist and have set up barricades in the city and are armed with Molotov cocktails. It is a lethal mixture that does not bode well.

Meanwhile, there has been almost no coverage of the situation in the U.S. media, apart from a few articles by Reuters. The Mexican government may feel that no one in the U.S. is paying attention. Whatever the complexities of the situation, a bloodbath in Oaxaca won't resolve anything. Please contact your local Mexican consulate or embassy and let them know that the world is watching. Ask them (courteously) to continue working towards a peaceful resolution. There is a list below of Mexican consulates and embassies in the U.S., including email addresses for most of them. Please spend five minutes sending a short message.

If the media isn't going to cover this important story, letting the Mexican government know that they're being observed, it's up to everyone else. People from Oaxaca make up one of the largest groups of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. It's not just another news story taking place in a foreign country - it directly affects us here at home as well.

Albuquerque - Consulado de México
1610-4th Street, NW
Albuquerque N.M. 87102
(505) 247-2147/4177
(505) 247-2139/7566
Fax: (505) 842-9490
Hours: 8-5
Atlanta - Consulado General de México
2600 Apple Valley Rd.
Atlanta, Ga. 30319
(404) 266-2233
Fax: (404) 266-2309/2302
Hours: 8-6
Austin - Consulado General de México
800 Brazos Street, Suite 330
Austin, Tx. 78701
(512) 478-2866 conm.
(512) 478-2300 directo
Fax: (512) 478-8008
Boston - Consulado General de México
20 Park Plaza, Suite 506
Boston Ma. 02116
(toll free) (877) 426-4181
Fax:(617) 695-1957
Hours: 9-5:30
Brownsville - Consulado de Carrera de México
301 Mexico Blvd. Suite F-2
Brownsville Tx. 78520
(956) 542-4431/2051/5182
Fax: (956) 542-7267
Hours: 8:30-5
Chicago - Consulado General de México
204 S. Ashland Ave
Chicago Illinois., 60607
(312) 855-1380
Fax: (312) 491-9072
Dallas - Consulado General de México
8855 N. Stemmons Freeway
Dallas Tx., 75247
(214) 252-9250/52/53
Fax:(214) 630-3511
Denver - Consulado General de México
5350 Leetsdale Drive, Suite 100,
Denver, Colorado 80246
(303) 331-1110/1112
Fax: (303) 331-1872
Hours: 8-5
Detroit - Consulado de Carrera de México
The Penobscot Building,
645 Griswold Avenue, 17th. Floor, Suite 830
Detroit Mi., 48226
(313) 964-4515/4532/4534
Fax:(313) 964-4522
Hours: 8-5
El Paso - Consulado General de México
910 East San Antonio Avenue
El Paso Tx. 79901
P.O. Box 812, 79945
(915) 533-5714 544-6177
Fax:(915) 532-7163
Fresno - Consulado de Carrera de México
2409 Merced Street
Fresno Ca., 93721
(559) 233-3065
Fax: (559) 233-6156
Hours: 8-4
Houston - Consulado General de México
4507 San Jacinto Street
Houston TX. 77004
(713) 271-6800/ 995-1225-0218
Fax: (713) 271-3201, 772-1229
Indianaoplis - Consulado de Carrera de México
39 West Jackson Place, Suite 103
Indianapolis, IN 46225
(317) 951-0005/4174/1044
Fax: (317) 951-0006/4176
Hours: 9-2
Kansas City - Consulado de Carrera de México
1600 Baltimore Ave., Suite 100,
Kansas City, Missouri, 64108
(816) 556-0800 al 03
Fax: (816) 556-0900
Hours: 9-5
Los Angeles - Consulado General de México
2401 West 6th. Street
Los Ángeles, Ca. 90057
(213) 351-6800 al 07 conm.
Fax: (213) 383-7306
Las Vegas - Consulado de Carrera de México
330 S. Fourth St.
Las Vegas, NV. 89101
(702) 383-0623
Fax:(702) 383-0683
Miami - Consulado General de México
5975 SW 72 Street (Sunset Drive) Suite 101,
Miami Fl. 33143
(786) 268-4900 conm.
Fax: (786) 268-4895
New York - Consulado General de México
27 East 39th. Street
New York, N.Y., 10016
(212) 217-6400
Fax: (212) 217-6493
Omaha - Consulado General de México
3552 Dodge Street
Omaha, Nebraska, 68131-3210
(402) 595-1841 AL 44
Fax: (402) 595-1845
Orlando - Consulado General de México
100 West Washington Street
Orlando, Fl., 32801-2315
(407) 422-0514
Fax: (407) 422-9633
Hours: 8:30-5:30
Philadelphia - Consulado de Carrera de México
111 South Independence Mall East, Suite 310,
The Bourse Building,
Philadelphia Pa., 19106
(215) 922-4262
Fax:(215) 923-7281
Hours: 8:30-5:30
Phoenix - Consulado General de México
1990 West Camelback Rd Suite 110,
Phoenix Az. 85015
(602) 242-7398 conm. 249-2363, 433-2294, 242-8569
Fax: (602) 242-2957
Portland - Consulado de Carrera de México
1234 South West Morrison Street,
Portland, Oregon, 97205
(503) 274-1442/ 478-0435
Fax: (503) 274-1540
Hours: 8-5
Raleigh - Consulado de Carrera de México
336 E Six Forks Rd
Raleigh, N.C. 27609
(919) 754-0046
Fax: (919) 754-1729
Sacramento - Consulado General de México
1010 8th. Street
Sacramento Ca. 95814
(916) 441-3287/3065
Fax: (916) 441-3147
San Antonio - Consulado General de México
127 Navarro Street
San Antonio Tx., 78205
(210) 227-9145/9156
Fax: (210) 227-1817
Hours: 8:30-2 and 3-5
San Bernadino - Consulado de Carrera de México
293 North "D" Street,
San Bernardino Ca., 92401
(909) 889-9836-37/889-9808
Fax: (909) 889-8285
Hours: 8-2 (8-5 w)
San Diego - Consulado General de México
1549 India St.
San Diego Ca., 92101
(619) 231-8414 con 10 líneas
Fax: (619) 231-4802/3561
Seattle - Consulado de Carrera de México
2132 Third Avenue
Seattle Wa., 98121
(206) 448-3526/6819/8971
Fax: (206) 448-4771
San Francisco - Consulado General de México
532 Folsom Street
San Francisco Ca., 94105
(415) 354-1700/ 354-1701
Fax: (415) 495-3971
San José - Consulado General de México
540 North First Street
San José, Ca., 95112
(408) 294-3414/15
Fax: (408) 294-4506
Salt Lake City - Consulado de Carrera de México
155 South 300 West, 3rd. Floor
Salt Lake City Ut., 84101
(801) 521-8502/03 328-0620
Fax: (801) 521-0534
Saint Paul - Consulado de Carrera de México
797 East 7th Street
Saint Paul, Minn., 55106
(651) 771-5494 conm.
Fax: (651) 772-4419
No email given
Tucson - Consulado de Carrera de México
553 South Stone Avenue
Tucson Az., 85701
(520) 882-5595/6 791-2977 623-0146
Fax: (520) 882-8959
Washington, D.C. - Seccion Consular de la Embajada de México
2827 16th. Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C., 20009-4260
(202) 736-1000/02
Fax: (202) 234-4498