14 February 2011

More Uncanny Valley

Although clearly still in the uncanny valley, we can see that they are starting to crawl up the other side.

O'Brian v. Weir: It's A Master & Commander-athon.

Inspired by The Dabbler, I've decided to rescue (and rewrite for clarity) my review of Master and Commander:

The following contains spoilers for both the movie and the novels. If you wish to avoid the spoilers, my movie review in a nutshell is: Go See It. The movie succeeds brilliantly on its own terms and is respectful of O'Brian. It is, however, Weir's movie, not O'Brian's movie.

Starting with the movie as a movie, Weir has created a masterpiece. Though mostly scrubbed of gore, the scenes of 19th century war are convincing. Almost as good are the scenes of Surprise rounding the Horn. In this, and in showing the crowding of almost 200 souls aboard a small frigate, the movie succeeds in outdoing O'Brian. Though the movie is not at all a slavish adaptation of the O'Brian novel of the same name (the plot is taken from the tenth book and major parts of three other books find their way into the movie), O'Brian's major themes are sounded and a number of lines and sights are thrown in for no other reason than to please those who have read the series.

Weir's riskiest choice succeeds brilliantly. Rather than "opening up" the novel, Weir closes in on the Surprise and her crew. This is as non-commercial a choice as could be made. Rather than introducing a Hollywood romance, making the entire war depend upon catching the Acheron, or introducing the 19th century equivalent of a red timer ticking down to zero, Weir tosses out source material that might broaden the movie's appeal. O'Brian's The Far Side Of The World includes an adulterous love triangle, a mad gunner, his triple murder of the adulterous couple and (perhaps surprisingly on an 19th century man-of-war) an abortionist, and his subsequent suicide. In the book as in the actual 19th century, there were women on board English navy ships, both the wives of the warrant officers and even among the seamen. Rather than make one of these women the source of friction between Jack and Stephen, Weir (figuratively) tosses them overboard and focuses claustrophobically on the Surprise, the seamen and her Captain. This focus brings the audience to the final battle as a part of the crew.

Weir's real triumph is the choreography and filming of the battle scenes, which are done as well as any I've ever seen. Filming a general melee of three hundred men fighting for their lives with one-shot pistols, swords, pikes and knives in a confined space, Weir manages to present three or four themes in such a way that the viewer always can follow the action and tell what is happening to whom. At the same time, the audience feels the confusion and violence that the characters are feeling.

This triumph allows Weir to return to themes he has dealt with before, as early as Gallipoli, when he presented the insanity of World War I trench warfare as seen by Australian troops. This link comes through most clearly during the speech Jack Aubrey gives (most uncharacteristically) before the Surprise surprises the Acheron. Jack says that the Surprise is England and family and that the men will fight bravely for country and family, which of course they do. The Australians, on the other hand, were fighting and dying in an "European" war and, although they fought bravely, were fighting in the end only for each other.

Weir presents the deaths in Gallipoli as tragic and odd, where the deaths on the Surprise are presented as worthy and treated seriously but not as tragedy. This comes through in the choice of the identifiable characters who die on the Acheron; Nagle, Allen and Calamy. Nagle and Allen are not sympathetic characters. Calamy we are not allowed to know, though we are meant to like and admire him. His death (which is Weir's invention, not O'Brian's) is presented as coming during an opportunity he greatly desired and is the most bitterly regretted death in the movie. Soon after, the Surprise moves on and so do we.

In an interview about Gallipoli, Weir once said the following:

Our first approach was to tell the whole story from enlistment in 1914 through to the evacuation of Gallipoli at the end of 1915, but we were not getting at what this thing was, the burning center that had made Gallipoli a legend. I could never find the answers in any books and it certainly wasn't evolving in any of our drafts, so we put the legend to one side and simply made up a story about two young men, really got to know them, where they came from, what happened to them along the way, spent more time getting to the battle and less time on the battlefield.
The draft fell into place. By approaching the subject obliquely, I think we had come as close to touching the source of the myth as we could. I think there's a Chinese proverb - it's not the arriving at one's destination but the journey that matters. Gallipoli is about two young men on the road to adventure, how they crossed continents and great oceans, climbed the pyramids and walked through the ancient sands of Egypt, and the deserts of the outback, to their appointment with destiny at Gallipoli.

The end of the film is really all about that appointment and how they coped with it. I don't think we could have sat down in the early stages and got this - it took years of talking, writing, arguing, to finally get back to something incredibly simple.

The similarities with Master & Commander are clear. The differences are those between a younger man and an older man looking at life. Weir, at least in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, would betray his friend for his country. The theme from O'Brian's novel that comes through most strongly in the film is the conflict between the high Tory Aubrey and the liberal Maturin. Jack believes in the higher discipline; that men must be led both in order to accomplish anything worthwhile and for their own happiness. Stephen rejects this idea of man as a yoked beast. Stephen believes that power corrupts, and that's a shame for the powerful. The resolution of this dispute is perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie. Although Jack's idea of discipline wins out in the end, it does so only because he gives up the pursuit of the Acheron to save his friend's life. I think we are meant to see the need to blend the two philosophies in order to succeed (Jack and Stephen complete each other, blah, blah, blah), but we don't, because the Acheron reappears as a deus ex machina, with no connection to Jack's supposed sacrifice.

But perhaps this is the message, after all. The movie is almost entirely free of post-modern irony (the only exception, in which Jack wonders at this "modern age we're living in", is one of the movie's few clunkers). This earnestness leads to the movie's greatest surprise. Weir's movie is significantly more Christian -- at least, more explicitly Christian -- than O'Brian's novel. We are hit over the head with this at the end, with perhaps the only non-ironic, earnest Christian service I've ever seen in a major motion picture. Weir might think that Jack, as a Christian hero, is rewarded for his works, but actually he was rewarded out of grace.

12 February 2011

Yay!!! A Military Coup

Does this welcoming adulation from the west for what seems to be a run-of-the-mill military coup in Egypt not strike anyone else as odd? Isn't this more or less obviously the change-of-figurehead we worried about in the previous post?

Remember the Honduran "coup," where the removal of the president from office was blessed by the legislature, the Supreme Court and the Honduran constitution, but which was widely condemned as a military coup (by, among others, President Obama and Harry Eagar) because the military actually performed the removal, and sent him out of the country rather than to jail or internal exile?

06 February 2011

Live From Tahrir Square

My college roommate was born in the US and lives in London, but his parents were Egyptian and he still has family in Egypt. On February 2, he flew to Cairo to join the demonstrations. Today he flew back to London. Here is his email from Tahrir Square. He makes one invaluable point that we don't see enough in the media: a dictator is a person, but a dictatorship is an institution. Getting rid of Mubarak would be historic but is not, in and of itself, democracy. If the institutions of dictatorship sacrifice Mubarak to save themselves, nothing permanent has been gained.

Three exhilarating days in Cairo but tomorrow I have to go home to my other life.

It feels like years of history have been written in a super short period. Certainly, a country that had been stuck in a multi-decade statis has been thrust through a time warp where massive and unpredictable changes are coming fast and furious.

Just 12 days ago we weren't sure if the rumors of 90,000 possible attendees at the first demonstration would turn out to be true. I was wondering if they were throwing a big party that nobody would turn up for, again.

Then we had a massive turnout - and then over and over again until the regime's first then-shocker of a concession: the full cabinet dismissal. Then the formerly powerful (and highly feared and loathed) Minister of Interior Habib Adly gets a travel ban and has his personal assets frozen. Boom.

Then a promise by Mubarak not to run or to allow his son to run. In the old world, this was huge. Then today more former ministers under investigation and a shuffle and dismissal of senior party hacks.

However momentous these gains are - they never would have happened in the previous period of stasis - they are fragile and easily reversible. Even while in disarray, the regime is playing a rope-a-dope strategy with the demonstrators, offering one sacrificial lamb after another in order to preserve itself and peel away their coalition.

It seems likely that they may even throw Mubarak himself under the bus.

Even if they do that, the gains of the past 12 days will remain at risk for as long as the continuing government (interim, transitional, or otherwise) is dominated by people like Omar Suleiman other bloody-handed members of the old regime.

Consolidating Egypt's transition to democracy is not just about removing Mubarak.

The leaders of Tahrir posted six additional demands on their massive eight story banner yesterday: repealing the emergency law, amending the constitution, appointing independent trustees for state-owned media, dissolving the sham parliament, accountability for the violence and death, and accountability for the stolen wealth.

These are smart demands. If implemented, they make back sliding or reprisals by the 'new' post Mubarak regime virtually impossible. Stopping now, with Mubarak still in place or nominal changes in the remaining regime members could well be a recipe for the cold arm of reprisals and maybe even a bloodbath.

I hope the rest of the world keeps watching. These dignified people are fighting to restore their people's freedom and they deserve all our attention.

02 February 2011

Doesn't Fit Anyone's Agenda

While following events in Egypt, I've noticed one story that seems to be entirely overlooked.  One of the most important factors in the success (so far) of the popular uprising has been the neutral role taken by the Army, which has reportedly ruled out using force to put down the people.

I also note that, as this Wikileaks cable notes, "thousands of Egyptian military officers have participated in training and education programs in the United States."

I don't know enough about the situation, or the Egyptian Army, to know what the connection is between these two facts, by it does seem odd that no one is asking this question.

Like Yesterday

Jeffrey Goldberg, a blogger at The Atlantic, is getting some attention in the blogosphere reporting this exchange he had with Elliot Abrams:
I asked Elliott Abrams, formerly of the Bush Administration National Security Council, and now at the Council on Foreign Relations, what he makes of the Israeli longing for Mubarak. He was scathing in his response:
"The Israelis first of all do not believe in the universality of democracy.  They believe what many American "experts" did in, say, 1950--democracy was fine for us and Western Europe, but not for Latins (too much Catholic culture) and Asians (too much Confucianism).

"They see a danger in Mubarak's fall, and they are right: we do not know who will take over now or in a year or two from now.  But this is at bottom a crazy reaction.  What they are afraid of is the Muslim Brotherhood, right?  Mubarak has ruled for THIRTY YEARS and leaves us a Brotherhood that is that powerful?  Isn't that all the proof we need that dictatorship is not the way to fight the Brotherhood?  He crushed the moderate and centrist groups and left the Brothers with an open field.  He is to blame for the Brothers' popularity and strength right now.  The sooner he goes the better."
1950?  Seems to me I heard a lot of "respectable opinion" saying that in 2003, and since.