Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Case for Globalisation 2

A few entries ago (22 Oct 2007), I judged a book I read about globalisation. Last night, I was able to watch a documentary about the reality of globalisation, thanks to the Documentary Channel screening some excellent fare from the International Film Festival (also from earlier this year).

China Blue followed the lives of some of the workers in a denim jean factory in a Chinese city. While supposedly a documentary, the story was told through the eyes of a new employee to the factory, and her "back story" was obviously recreated for the benefit of the film. Likewise, most of the scenes of interactio between her and her colleagues seemed a bit forced and rehearsed, but given the fact that this documentary could be made at all (as most Western labels do not allow factories to let journalists and documentary makers in to film the conditions under which their products are sold), these were perhaps forgivable - if not terribly "authentic" - touches.

What was exposed though was the effect of globalisation on China. The fact the most remote village had cell phone coverage and the abundance of Western products was balanced by the fact the factory workers earned about $70 a month making jeans that would retail in Western markets for over $70 a pair. The "about $70" is not just because of my shonky memory, but also because the amount they were paid varied dependent on the amount of money the Western clothing stores were willing to pay - if they could get their jeans made elsewhere for cheaper, the factory bosses had to either match or better that offer or lose the contract. Labour Unions were not allowed, complaining to the authorities was out of the question, and wages went unpaid for 7 weeks - though the factory owner seemed nonplussed when his workers demanded their pay, dismissing them as ignorant and greedy peasants. Considering the factory filmed was one of the "more progressive" in that part of the country, the conditions for most workers in China must be (relative to Western standards) abysmal.

One thing totally stuck in my craw however. I judge most things by Western standards, so I am willing to give people from other cultures the benefit of the doubt. However, to see a Western lady in the documentary who was visiting the factory declare "Oh, isn't that convenient for them! That's wonderful!" in tones of rapture when viewing the workers dormitories which were located in the factory grounds really got to me. The workers in this factory work about 15 hours a day - more if the shipment requires it. Having them on site (paying for board, food and hot water), firing women if they get pregnant or complain too much, and withholding their first month's wages as a "bond" are all techniques to keep the workers compliant and docile - and to see a Western woman unable to see these for what they were, or possibly blind to these truths and seeing the money such cheap labour would make her, made me seethe. I was yelling at the TV that this patronising woman should recommend to her employer that she be relocated to a building next to her office for her "convenience" as well, and see what she thinks then. Grrrr. [As an aside though: if she did that though I suppose I wouldn't be able to call her "patronising"...]

The ideal of globalisation is the eventual "equalisation" of societies, and the raising of living standards across the world. Documentaries like this highlight how ideals find it very hard to survive contact with human reality.

Verdict: Illuminating, but a bit too "staged" to hold my attention for its 90 minute length. On a scale of "trendiness", this film ranks as flares in a skin tight world.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Case for Caves & Lost Bridges

A long weekend is a wonderful thing as it gives one the chance to get away and explore for more than one night – even if it ends up just being two. And while perhaps I spent just a bit too much time actually in the car rather than out and about enjoying the sights and sounds of New Zealand, I did get the chance to see some Kiwi icons.

First up, the Waitomo Caves. There are actually three cave systems you can go to, and my travel buddies and I went to the two more well travelled routes, the Glow Worm Cave and the Aranui Cave. The Glow Worm Cave I have done several times before, heard the same speech about the acoustics several times (though an experiment by the more vocally gifted in our group (Fish and LaurenOrder) kind of destroyed that assertion, as the limestone absorbs sound, whereas I always thought the point of good acoustics was that the sound travels), and been in the little tin boat as you are magically transported to a galaxy of stars made up of thousands of tiny, carnivorous creatures. Each time though, the Glow Worm Cave leaves me with a warm glow, especially experiencing it with someone else for the first time.

Travelling back past the burnt out shell of the old Tourist Office, we headed over the Aranui Cave. For some inexplicable reason, after the almost religiously austere tour of the Glow Worm Cave, the Aranui Cave gave us a free-for-all chance to snap shots of the rock formations and creepy crawlies – as many as our cameras would allow, given the dark conditions. Obviously the no touching rule was still in force, but given the chance to snap away I couldn’t contain myself and went into the digital tens before I got myself under control again. I suppose the fact the Glow Worm Cave does contain photosensitive glow worms where as the Aranui Cave just contains large, creepy wetas is probably the reason for the difference, but a huge difference it made. Attempts to listen to the quiet of the cave were dashed by the electronic beeping of cameras and the far more intrusive screechings of young children, brought along to torment the childless on the tour.

A different kind of experience awaited us on the trip to the Bridge to Nowhere. While passing through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Athens (the Whanganui river versions) to get to Pipiriki felt iconic, the windy gravel road to get there was a traumatic experience, and while the route out was also on another windy gravel road, it had the benefit of being a shorter stretch. Pipiriki itself was not the destination (obviously), but the jump on point for the 45 jet-boat ride up the Wanganui to the bridge itself. First though we had to wait until the pull of the Rugby World Cup final on our guide Ben dissipated enough to allow him to come to collect us from the meeting point – I spent many a minute in a mild panic as the “office” remained firmly and determinedly closed.

Eventually though (not on time, of course) we were off in a 45 minute jet boat up the Wanganui. It was strange when one realised that all the sign postings were aimed at the river, rather than at a road, and then eventually we got to the rather muddy landing for another 45 minute walk to the bridge itself. While the surroundings feel very bushy, it is a sobering note to realise that the original forest was destroyed to make way for the farms that made the building of the Bridge to Nowhere possible. Changes in the economy and conservation policies spelled the end to the viability of farms there, but the bridge remains as a monument to the hardy farmers who tried to tame the land, and to the amount of “taming” they were actually able to achieve.

The bush regrowth is stunning though, with birds frolicking in the trees and the track to the bridge makes for a splendid stroll, though one you could probably get on Mt Victoria in Wellington than hours from anywhere. And the bridge itself is in better condition than a lot of the roads around the region (including SH4 to Wanganui – gosh, that one is a shocker).

For some great photos of all the above, check out FisherMan and Fish.

Verdict 1: Waitomo Caves – always fascinating, though I can’t find them as spiritual as some people obviously do, and a bit smaller than I remember from when I was a young King Countrian. 6 Glow worms out of 10.

Verdict 2: Bridge to Nowhere – a shining beacon in the bush, all alone in the night. 7 Spans out of 10, though minus 1 or 2 Spans in practicality (I know it is meant to be in the middle of nowhere, but getting to the jet boat dock itself is far more of a mission than it needs to be).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Case for a Book in Black

Another International Film Festival film comes back for a general release. And I was there, having heard good reviews about Paul Verhoeven’s film Black Book. Set at the end of the Second World War in the occupied Netherlands, the film follows the fairly depressing and tragedy laden life of a young Jewish woman trying to both flee and revenge herself on the Nazi forces and Dutch collaborators and traitors. In the process, lots of people die, there is a bit of nudity and sauciness (this is a Paul Verhoeven film, of course), the main characters speak 3 or 4 different languages fluently, and everything looks gorgeous (if wonderfully shot torture scenes can ever really be described as “gorgeous”).

And a long film it was too, spanning two and a half hours, though the time only really dragged in some of the latter chase scenes. The lead actress, Carice van Houten, was stunning in several senses of the word, and the film was the poorer when she wasn’t in it (which wasn’t often, thank goodness). The traumas and torments her character suffered were harrowingly portrayed, as was the prejudice that still underlined relations between some resistance fighters and the Jewish community. The woman seemed to attract bad luck no matter where she went, and that got a bit repetitive after a while in a Murphy’s Law kind of way. Thus the film’s final climax, as betrayal mounted on betrayal and misdirection leading to betrayal, got a wee bit torturous for the wrong reasons.

This was a great film, hampered only by its overdrawn ending and its very familiar subject matter (resistance v Nazis). The musical score was also distracting in that I found it very similar to what I remember of the score from Top Secret!, which kind of undermined the seriousness of the scenes in Black Book in which the score was employed. So while I think The Lives of Others, featuring the same leading German actor, was the superior film, Black Book is definitely up there.

Verdict: A fairly depressing film beautifully rendered and acted, this one gets 4 pairs of clogs out of 5 pairs (or 8 clogs out of 10)

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case for Globalisation

I went into the Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L Friedman expecting to be in complete disagreement with what I was reading. The book was described as an explanation and promotion of the ideas of globalisation in the modern world, and so I was expecting an essay on the glories of rampant capitalism and the unbridled march of “progress”.

Instead, and much to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what the book had to say. Globalisation, it was argued, has sprung up as the Cold War ended in an explosion of freedom and creativity. The advent of the internet, e-commerce and the ease of overseas investment has taken power away from the state and transferred it into the hands of corporations, concerned groups and even super-empowering some individuals. Globalisation is working to break down barriers, increase standards of living and education (albeit not all at once), and make the world a more accessible place for business and for people.

Friedman was definitely pro-globalisation, but also proposed the creation of global regulatory bodies to monitor and enforce “fair practice” laws. He highlighted the danger faced by smaller cultures not equipped to deal with the overpowering influence of globalisation and its overwhelmingly American influence. He acknowledged that the power now placed in the hands of groups and people who are accountable mainly to themselves can be dangerous, especially in the hands of fanatics such as Osama bin Laden – a prophetic call considering the book was published pre-World Trade Centre Event (WTCE).

But, as much as I found myself agreeing with his argument (even if he suffered from the same “my friend” syndrome suffered by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth where everyone referenced seemed to be a close personal acquaintance), there were some points I thought let him down, some only apparent as events have unfolded since the book was published.

The book was targeted at an American audience, but it also tried to reassure foreign readers that globalisation was for them too and not to fear its impact. The USA stands for freedom and self determination (according to Friedman, and I happen to agree with him for the most part), and it has survived the cold war and emerged as the most powerful market on the planet, best suited to deal with globalisation. With broad strokes, Friedman paints the picture that the USA’s dominance also equates to it having the best globalisation-capable infrastructure and laws (“version 6.0”, versus communisms “version 1.0”).

This was my first qualm. I have no argument that the USA being today’s only real superpower, both economically and militarily, and for the most part it is doing a fairly benevolent job of it. But does that necessarily mean its “software” is the best? Actually, I would have thought that the sheer size and influence of the USA might mask any flaws with its infrastructure that are not obvious at first glance. The fact Enron is invoked a few times as an example of globalisation entrepreneurial excellence (with its interesting ideas of trading and buying what was in effect nothing at all) evoked a snigger or two from my end and undermined the assertion of the “great regulatory machinery” existing in the USA, though again, this is only possible with the hindsight of the years between writing and reading the book. While, again, I am no expert, the failure to really elaborate on what made the USA’s machinery superior to the UK’s (as the other “great globaliser”) or the machinery of a smaller but still efficient country did not convince me of his argument, though the points he raised as to what a country needed to have a good foundation for a sound economy in a global market did make sense.

Critics of globalisation didn’t get much of a look in, perhaps unsurprisingly given the context. Friedman did a good job of covering most of the downsides of globalisation – the dissociation, the potential loss of culture and environment and the potential exploitation of the less “economically developed” countries – but the protestors outside the WTO conferences were dismissed as ignorant factions, united only in their fear. It would have been interesting to hear some of the pitfalls from another person’s perspective, and while I am sure a fairly articulate one could have been found amongst the throngs.

Some regimes came in for criticism in the book as well. But most were dismissed with a “they will learn” attitude – all apart from the French. Two or three mentions were specifically made of France and its unique role in globalisation. Or perhaps it should be said as “in the context of the USA’s era of globalisation”. Because, whenever I read the criticisms of the French system, it seemed a defensive reaction to France’s continued criticism of the USA. As much as the French economy may need renovation to meet the realities of globalisation, the snide remarks at France were never directed at that aspect of their society, more at its opinions – and opinions are things the French are never shy about giving.

The thing that always gets me about an American (or NZ) reaction like this to the French is this: if you are a proponent of freedom and self determination, why are the French not allowed to have their own way of doing things? If the USA (or NZ) is for free speech, why are the French not allowed to criticise American policy and challenge American influence in the world? In this age of globalisation, where the big and the small have a voice, Friedman seems to be saying that everyone but the French is to be encouraged. I am sure many people found the mocking of the French quite amusing, but again I thought it undermined his argument about the liberation brought about by globalisation, and showed there are some prejudices that not even the cold art of economics might be able to breach.

Friedman finishes his book calling on God to bless the United States of America. Patriotism has its place, but I actually found this one phrase totally undermining the whole thrust of the book. While globalisation does not exclude nationalism, I thought that for a proponent of globalisation would finish a book extolling the virtues of globalisation, of pointing out that the USA is the dominant force in the movement, and calling on other governments to reduce their own influence to better embrace the new era of the borderless information age, with a more positive message to a global audience. Instead, the author finishes by hailing American military might (one of the great ironies I have always found in the American right wing is that the US military is never viewed as “social spending” and exclusive defence contracts American corporations (like Boeing) never seen as governmental “subsidies”, when in places like New Zealand, ANY government spending is viewed as just that), and praising the American way of life. My French part may be coming through in these final comments, but the apparent lack of self awareness that promoting globalisation while at the same time only viewing it through USA lenses is the major failing in an otherwise interesting and informative view of the globalisation culture we live in. If anything were to give me pause when considering globalisation, it is well-intentioned yet apparently blind people like this...

Verdict: A completely absorbing and comprehensive book about globalisation, punctuated by the human flaws that will make any system less than the theory would indicate it could be. A 90% return on investment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Case for Daring Devils

I went of my own volition the The Devil Dared Me To, tempted as I was by the prospect of seeing a Back of the Y movie. My expectations were low, my taste was left at home, and any offence I may have taken at non-stop swearing was under sedation. And I was not disappointed.

There is no point going too deeply into
The Devil Dared Me To. The film is utter rubbish. There is close to no budget. The acting is abysmal. But does any of this matter? No, because it revels in rubbishry, it bathes in its boorishness and swims in its stupidity. It introduced me to the phrase “horizontal hongi”, and that is about the only thing new I really discovered.

It is offensive. It is violent. It is a bit gory. It is just like the Back of the Y, except noticeably longer (the film seeming stretched even at only about 90 minutes duration). And they got Carol to swear, even if that was just for the promo and not for the film itself.

Verdict: On a scale of A to Y, where A is good and Y is utter rubbish, this is definitely Y – but it was bad in a good way!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Case for the Devil's Literature

A while ago, I asked the Janetarium about Machiavelli, the oft-cited name linked to political machinations. I was curious: what did this man do to be so associated with the art of political expediency? Why did his name always seem to be invoked with a sense of distaste?

I was fortunate enough in one of my book fair expeditions to come across Machiavelli’s masterwork, the Prince. The was THE book, the book that had Machiavelli branded as being in league with Beelzebub when it was first published. This was the book for which he was infamous. This book held the key.

And it’s actually quite sad to note that, in the version I had anyway, Machiavelli is noted as never having intended his work to be so controversial. The idea of his text seems to be that he was trying to impress upon his political leader the keys to successful governance. Not how to make a good government (as “good” seems to imply adding morality to the mix), but rather how to successfully remain in power, by managing both internal and external relationships.

Of course, the fact that Machiavelli is so completely amoral in his assessment of what works and what doesn’t is what landed him in trouble. His advice was to be fluid with alliances and policies, though all the while still appearing to be trustworthy and dependable; to surround yourself with competents and even dissenters, but ensure their loyalty; to treat new territories as colonies to be populated by your own loyal people at the expense of the local populace, or to treat the established elite as equals and tie them to you that way.

All fairly sensible, logical… clinical and completely lacking in anything resembling a humanistic, ethical way of treating people. The book could also be called “How to win empires and influence people” – and the outrage came as this is exactly how it was done, and is done, and the elite weren’t quite to happy to have their politics exposed like this, and were probably unpleasantly surprised to realise what they were doing as well. But be it in China (and Tibet), Britain (and the Empire), the methods described by Machiavelli were and are still in use (and perhaps not-so much in Iraq, which may explain a few things), despite its diabolical association.

Verdict: Machiavelli had a real insight into social manipulation, a genius evidently recognised for what it was, though abhorred for the complete inhumanity such a view seems to endorse. Fascinating.

Two Asides:
1) I have now started The Lexus and the Olive Tree as my next non-fiction book. It may take me outside of my fairly left-wing comfort zone, but I will let you know one way or the other.
2) Total lack of comments on my blog the last few weeks, but I am taking this as a good sign of total agreement with my blatherings. Hoo-RAH
. :)

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Case for Hair Product

I went to the film based on the musical based on the film of Hairspray with a wee bit of trepidation. It was a musical for a start, and I loved the original Hairspray, populated as it was with Ricki Lake, Divine, Deborah Harry and Sonny Bono and its general insanity and mild subversiveness. I was unsure quite how a more mainstream musical would pan out, despite a cameo by Ricki Lake and others involved in the original, but I decided to find out.

It started off perkily enough. And stayed that way. Afterwards, someone related to me that they found the lead characters of Tracey and Link fairly annoying, and I have to admit, I thought exactly the same thing. Something tells me that the writers did too, because their stories kind of take a back seat after the first half hour or so, as the "ladies" take over. Michelle Pfeiffer (her again?) takes on another evil cow role with relish, this time taking the opportunity to exercise her vocal chords as she did in Fabulous Baker Boys and Grease 2. Queen Latifah is always infinitely watchable (well, in my opinion anyway), no matter what rubbish she happens to appear in. And then there is John Travolta as Tracey's mother Edna, playing a woman "straight" (as it were) and well, which (for me) kind of misses the original point of having an outrageous drag queen playing the role.

The major events of the original movie are there, though some of the minor ones (like the visit to Hefty Hideaway) are brought in purely as an excuse for an "amusing" song and dance routine and then quickly forgotten. The songs are mostly perky, the odd amusing lyric hidden amongst the warbling, though their frequency increases as the movie goes on and the "cuteness" factor edges towards the irritating.

And for some reason, that is all I have to say. The film is what it is: definitely flawed, but considering the subject matter and the whole tone of the movie, you have to forgive the ridiculous plot and the fairly two dimensional politics.

But I will point out that the awesome Allison Janney is in there and, despite her brief screen time, is the funniest thing in the movie. And she doesn't sing. Brilliant!

Verdict: Using fractions based on the "year the film is set" over the "year the film was made", 60 out of 107, whereas the original was 60 out of 88

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Case for Rugby Hell

In the wake of the aftermath of New Zealand's All Blacks' shock defeat to France, I was amused to read in the DominionPost paper this morning that the various All Black sponsors have decided unanimously to withdraw all their All Black-featured advertisments from New Zealand media. No longer will we be encouraged to slice open our arteries with credit cards to see what colour our blood might be; no longer will the boys in black be phoning home to report on Rugby World Cup matches. The dream is dead - both of winning the World Cup and the fantastic marketing opportunities.

I wrote a wee while ago about the All Blacks brand. But the extent of the non-rugby repercussions of the loss surprise even me. Though I notice some people are still flying their All Black flags on their cars - good on them.

Verdict: More than a game, but the game is still the most important thing

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Case for Dusting

With the advent of the school holidays, the kiddie movie season is upon us. And, these days, the epic fantasy movie seems to be a la mode with what the studios expect the kiddies want, and I am not one to dissuade them of this opinion as I love them myself.

Though perhaps "love" is too strong a word to describe my feelings for Stardust, an epic journey through a mystical land in search of treasure and finding true love. I definitely found the first half of the film engrossing, with things moving along nicely, and the fairly predictable plot and fairly predictable characters all being predictable in a good way. For me, the star was Michelle Pfeifer, back with her fantastic bone-structure to chew scenery and steal the show from everyone else as the evil witch, Lamia. Her English accent may have lapsed near the end, and there were some bad "cuts" between her and her sisters, but she still stood out by a country mile.

And then...

Yup, time to gripe. While the leads (the hypnotic Claire Danes and the cutely boyish Charlie Cox) were entertaining, they ran into the towering edifice that is Robert DeNiro. Their encounter with DeNiro's "Captain Whoopsie" was when I suddenly found the film start to falter. Perhaps "flounder" is a better word, as Robert DeNiro himself was great, but his whole character struck a discordant note with the tune of almost everything else in the film up to that point. As mentioned, the characters were fairly predictable and, while well written and played (apart from Ricky Gervais character, but that is another story), all fairly interchangable with characters from other movies. Not the good Captain. His whole character seemed to be from another movie altogether, and so ended up not just as "amusing" but as a joke in itself. And for some reason the stay on his airship lasted days rather than hours, a strange excuse for bonding, several fencing lessons (teaching, in a matter of hours, what years of prior study had not), and the most remarkable haircut I have ever seen in a film.

As I mentioned in the paragraph above, the stop off to visit Ricky Gervais (playing Ricky Gervais, so I really didn't have a laugh) was another low point, but the film recovered to finish well, if predictably. Yes, even the "mistaken message" was well handled, not being completely bungled, but more open to interpretation, so you could see how the message was intended and also how it could be interpreted, which in my opinion was a credit to the writers.

Amusing, sweet (as one person in the cinema cried out as Ian McKellan's "wrap up" speech finished the film), good-looking, well done, with just a few trouble spots along the way. A good start to the kiddie fantasy season really - I am looking forward to more!

Verdict: 7 stars and a smattering of dust out of 10