Friday, May 17, 2002

I read in the Economist about East Timor's impending independence, and about how everyone wishes the new country well. The Economist tends to do this whenever a new country comes into being for some reason, and this seems a bog standard article.

Oddly enough, and in what will not ultimately prove to be as big a digression as it appears, I was reading "The Salmon of Doubt" last week, the final book from the late, and greatly missed Douglas Adams. This book consists of about ten chapters of an unfinished novel, as well as various other bits and pieces of his writing, either unpublished or unpublished in book form. One of them is an interview from a British magazine.

What is the most remote or bizarre place you have ended up?

Easter Island is, of course, the most remote place on earth, famous for being farther from anywhere than anywhere else is. Which is why it is odd that I ended up there completely by accident. I learned a very important lesson from this, which was -- read your ticket

When were you there and why?

I was flying from Santiago to Sydney and was a bit tired, having spent the previous two weeks looking for fur seals, and didn't wake up to what the plane's itinerary was until the pilot mentioned that we were just coming in for our one-hour stopover on Easter Island.

There was a little fleet of minibuses at the airport, which whisk you away for a quick peek at the nearest statue while the plane refuels. It was incredibly frustrating because if I had been paying attention the day before, I could have easily changed my ticket and stayed over for a couple of days

What was amusing to me was that I had a very similar experience myself once. I was flying back from Nairobi to London on Sudan Airways in March 1993. (Why was I flying Sudan Airways? Because it was cheap, because I was a poor student, and because I wasn't aware just how dicey the civil war in the Sudan actually was. This particular flight would be hijacked a couple of years later). On the plane, I was reading a copy of the Economist. (I was one of those sad students who reads the Economist religiously. I got over it, although I still browse the magazine from time to time, and it does admittedly make good aeroplane reading). I read an article about the imminent independence of Eritrea - an article that read very similarly to the article about East Timor above. The plane I was in started to descend. As we descended further I saw a relatively small city outside the window. Eventually we landed. On a building, I saw "Welcome to Eritrea". Unlike Douglas Adams, reading the ticket wouldn't have helped me, as Sudan airways hadn't advanced so far as to puting all the stops on the ticket. However, this did qualify as a really obscure and potentially interesting place where I accidentally found myself for an hour. I certainly would have liked to have got off the plane for a couple of days to explore the place, but I didn't have the opportunity.

Eritrea was in some ways a similar case to East Timor. You had a small area with the misfortune to be right next to a larger country, despite a very different history. You had the small area incorporated into the larger country through actions of dubious legality. You had a struggle lasting decades during which time the rest of the world didn't recognise the struggle. You had the rebels eventually winning, and the small country achieving independence and recognition. And you had seemingly honourable people taking over the new country and promising to learn from past failures.

While things looked very promising for Eritrea in 1992, Eritrea has since fought another war with Ethiopia, which has retarded its development immeasurably. While there is no reason that things must go this way in East Timor too, it is a relatively depressing thought.
Dr Frank talks about all the wonderful questions his wife was asked on an immigration form by the American INS. (Were you involved in the Nazi government of Germany or Austria, are you a communist, is the purpose of your visit to commit an immoral act? Do you intend to work as a prostitute? That kind of thing). Silly as they sound, these are standard questions that any alien who wishes to visit the US has to answer when applying for any kind of visa. My experiences of entering the US have involved answering these silly questions and then being quite genuinely welcomed to the US by remarkably friendly immigration officials. Entering most other countries I have visited has involved filling out forms with much less information (if any) and then having officials be gratuitously rude to me. I can forgive the Americans the form. (An Austrian once recounted to me his story of being asked the "Are you a Nazi?" question and was quite surprised to discover that I had been asked it too: he had assumed it was just for Austrians and Germans).

A lawyer once told me that these questions were asked because it was easy to have someone deported for making a false declaration, whereas it was quite hard to have someone deported for some of the actions asked about on the form (eg prostitution).

Thursday, May 16, 2002

There is a piece by James Fallows in the Atlantic on the US military's Joint Strike Fighter program, giving the history of the race off for the contract between (mainly) Boeing and Lockheed. The point of all this is that the military has traditionally decided what it wants in its hardware, and then has got contractors to build what it wants to exact specifications, almost from scratch, regardless of the cost. This sometimes gets you exactly what you want, and what noboldy else has, but also sometimes ends up with you paying $500 for a toilet seat. In the rest of the economy, generally you are trying to get as much as you can for a given amount of money, and therefore you try to use mass-produced, off the shelf components as much as you can, and you compromise on functionality if you can't afford everything on your wish list.

The JSF is something new, an attempt to take market discipline to an enormous military contract. Fallows wonders if it will work. The winner of the contract was Lockheed, a company that exists to be a defence contractor, and a company with quite frankly an appalling record of cost overruns. This was against Boeing, a company that is at least somewhat used to market discipline, due to its main business being commercial airliners. The decision was made on the basis of Lockheed having a technically better aircraft - having a better solution the short-takeoff vertical landing requirements of the Marines. This is a traditional non-market-based, military decision. This is perhaps a bad sign. Whether Lockheed is the actual company to make the first seriously cost-controlled fighter jet program work remains to be seen.

One of the greatest successes of the old style, define what you want to do and the invent the technology regardless of the costs approach was probably NASA in the 1960s. None of the technology to put a man on the moon existed, so everything was invented at enormous cost. The normal economy wouldn't have invented most of the technology needed for decades, but willpower and resource allocation let it happen. (NASA is a civilian agency, but it has traditionally used the military approach and it is a customer of the same aerospace companies). However, the approach failed in the 1980s and 1990s. Nasa built a collossal white elephant (the Space Shuttle) and then couldn't cope with the resources and the willpower not being there any more. A lot of the technology needed for what NASA wanted to do existed in the civilian economy by this time, but they did not do a good job of adopting technology. NASA adoped an approach called "Better, cheaper, faster" for its space probes in the 1990s, the idea being that rather than deciding what we want to do, inventing the technology and then figuring out what it will cost, we figure out how much money we have, and what technology exists, and then we decide what we can do. This seems good in principle, but as it ended up, generally this meant that such things as proper testing have been cut out and Mars probes have failed. I don't think there is anything wrong with this approach in principle, but NASA's culture didn't seem to be able to cope well with it. I don't know if Lockheed's can cope any better. I hope it can.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Interesting article in the Washington Monthly on the rise of "creative" cities - that is those cities that have the things that young innovative people want to live near, cities that contain amongst other things "a thriving music scene, ethnic and cultural diversity, fabulous outdoor recreation, and great nightlife". (However, there is obviously more to it than that, and the principle thing of course is simply that we are dealing with cities containing lots of other young creative types). Interestingly, of the large cities mentioned, three of the top ten are in Texas: Austin, Houston, and Dallas at 2, 7, and 10. This gets me back to the the question of "Why do so many cool people come from Texas?" that I have addressed previously. We can also make the observation that a city which is famous for its lack of coherent planning (or some would say planning controls of any kind) is attractive to live in. The question of precisely which cities become attractive to live in for these young creative types and why is an interesting one. There is a book to be written on the subject, I suspect.

The list of smaller cities attractive to creative individuals features an impressive number of Southern and Western cities, but interestingly enough we have Allentown, Pennsylvania at number 4, the city most of us know from Billy Joel's

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line

Other than the fact that cities with lots of layers built over the top of one another are fascinating (especially if a layer or two are industrial), and probably that proximity to Philadelphia and New York is a good thing, what do we make of this? Joel Garreau's Edge City actually referred in passing to Allentown, along the lines of "Unemployment was dropping to 3 percent just as Billy Joel was writing the song". By the way, Edge City is easily the best book I have ever read on why American cities have developed the way they have, and is quite informative about why the American economy is the way it is in general. The book is now 12 years old, but exceptionally worth a read.

Monday, May 13, 2002

It's also interesting to read Sterling's thoughts on Indian movies, in particular:
But! As a necessary consequence of globalization, Bollywood is finding a growing audience inside the USA. I'm one of them. Nothing odd about that -- it's like my wife's fondness for Hong Kong costume dramas, or my daughter's ferocious need for anime cartoons. The question is: as we globalize, is India Westernizing, or is America Indianizing?

(The answer is both , and the consequence of this is that we end up with two cultures that remain distinct from each other, each of which is more complicated than what existed before). This makes me wonder certain things. Firstly, where can I get a wife who loves Hong Kong costume dramas and a daughter who has a ferocious need for anime? (Applications are of course welcome). Secondly, why do so many cool people like Sterling come from Austin, Texas. (A long and involved discussion as to why the
very Americans that European left-wing elites consider to be cowboys and rednecks are in fact much more sophisticated and better educated than the European left-wing elites are should be taken as read here) . Thirdly, and only somewhat related to this, I went to see Monsoon Wedding last week. This contains a lovely portrait of middle class life in Delhi, but is a very conventional film: basically Father of the Bride or (even more
closely) Betsy's Wedding in an Indian setting.

What is interesting of course is that this is the most successful Indian film with English speaking audiences in North America and Europe. It has a certain "We will make a very conventional non-Hollywood movie and put it in art-house cinemas and people who think that Hollywood movies are beneath them will go to see it" quality about it, but it still isn't bad. I still think it is a sign of what is coming, but not perhaps as direct a sign as I had hoped from reading the reviews and feeling the buzz.

To be truthful, given the nature of Indian cinema, I was expecting something a little lusher. Not lusher, necessarily, in terms of the performances or the setting, but lusher in terms of art direction and cinematography. The fact that most of the movie was super 16 Steadicam took me a little by surprise. Super 16 Steadicam worked fine - and gave a little more intimacy to the characters I think, but still, I was expecting something a little more of a genre film. Something a little closer to a musical perhaps, given the nature of a lot of Bollywood's output. That's not to say that Monsoon Wedding is entirely not a musical, but it is largely not a musical. And, amongst other things, Bollywood is about musicals.

Despite this film being not quite what I expected, Indian popular culture is clearly rumbling towards us, and this film is none the less part of it. Indian cinema , and Indian pop culture more generally but mostly Indian cinema, is coming into the western mainstream. "Which country in the world makes the most movies per year?" (India) has long been a Trivial Pursuit question, but it has been little more than that. This was popular culture that until recently fell into the category of There were some things that westerners are not meant to see . Maybe, or perhaps even probably, you can blame this on India's four decades of deliberate economic isolationism. The film output of India has been more or less completely divorced from the rest of the world. The films have not generally been seen outside India, or even in English dubbed or subtitled versions, but this seems suddenly changing. Maybe it is the DVD, and the format's near mandatory subtitles, or the end of Indian "self-reliance", of maybe, just, as Sterling says, just the inevitable spread of globalisation (although I think that's more a way of restating the question than an answer). In any event, things related even tangentially or directly to Bollywood seem to be everywhere. Bookshops suddenly contain novels set in the Indian film industry. A stage musical called "Bombay Dreams", a co-production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and A R Rahman, and set in the Bombay film industry, is playing in the West End stage in London. The British part of the Indian diaspora is suddenly making
movies about the cross cultural Indian/British experience, and they are outgrossing "The Scorpion King" at the UK Box office.

This feels like the way in which we were deluged from a variety of directions by greater Chinese cinema a decade or so ago. Admittedly, Hong Kong film was never quite as isolated from the west as was Indian film, which is fitting, as Hong Kong was (pretty much as its raison detre) never tried anything like self-reliance, and Hong Kong films always found their way into the west in a way that Indian film never did. Film geeks in video stores have at least since the advent of VHS spent far too much time talking about badly subtitled Hong Kong gangster films. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were suddenly arthouse darlings. A generation of Hong Kong stars suddenly gained at least some recognition in the west (Jackie Chan of course, but also people like Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh). Taiwan had produced a few films familiar in the arthouse world, but suddenly there was Ang Lee, an interesting cross cultural Taiwanese/American cross cultural film. Somehow everything seemed to merge together and take over Hollywood. John Woo was making films in Hollywood. Jackie Chan was making hit Hollywood buddy movies. Michaelle Yeoh was the most kick-ass Bond girl in history. Every film being made in Hollywood suddenly had huge Hong Kong influences. Quentin Tarantino had a big yen for all this. The Matrix ripped off everything in sight. More films were made containing Hong Kong action stars in movies that ripped off the Matrix. Ang Lee managed to move with extraordinary adeptness from straight Taiwanese projects (Eat Drink Man Woman most
notably) to Jane Austen to the American Civil War. The language of Hollywood cinema suddenly had Hong Kong's syntax running through the middle of it. Then finally came Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: filmed in mainland China
with Mandarin dialogue, directed by the Lee, the great Taiwanese cross-cultural director, using the conventions of mostly Hong Kong action and starring two great stars of Hong Kong Cinema (Maggie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat) and a mainland Chinese actress discovered by Zhang Yimou. (If there is going to be a break-out star come from all this, maybe it will be Zhang Ziyi. Maggie Cheung speaks much better English, but is probably too old). This film did of course gross an enormous amount of money worldwide and in America, and also received a pile of Oscar nominations. The mixing of Chinese cinema and Hollywood was complete, or at least mature. Hong Kong people and their style of film-making had infiltrated Hollywood.

With India this is a way off I think, but I think it is ultimately coming. And who knows. If we are lucky this will revitalise the musical.
This might be confusing for audiences of those countries that could never cope with the concept of the musical anyway (the Sound of Music was apparently released in South Korea with the songs cut out), but possibly Bollywood has spread the concept further into this part of the world. Maybe not quite to somewhere as traditionally culturally isolated as South Korea, and maybe not to Japan, but certainly everywhere else.

The musical hasn't ever entirely died, even if it seems impossible to actually call a musical a musical. As an example, get the DVD of
My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and count how many times members of the cast burst into song. The film was never promoted as a musical, but it is one.

Of course, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet has moments in which it seems about to veer this way, although given that the main actors were restricted to Shakespearean dialogue, the music could never take over the music. However, in my mind, the choir singing Prince's "When Doves Cry" in this movie was a sublime movie moment. Plus we have had Moulin Rouge, and Evita, and for what it's worth Woody Allen did one too.

As for Sterling's description of Bollywood as being run by gangsters, I think most industries are at some point run by gangsters. Whether Hollywood is run by gangsters or not depends on how you define the term. However, Jet Li and Jackie Chan (and John Woo, and ....) seem to have no trouble working in Hollywood today, whether or not they have past connections with the triads. The point I think is that Hollywood and Wall Street have lawyers and money men who are more than capable of, at a minimum, doing deals with
unsavory people in Hong Kong (and, I suspect, Bombay). Hollywood has more money, and when it comes down to it this is sufficient to draw the talent out of these places and into the more conventional world of Los Angeles. If Wall Street and Hollywood could run the mob out of Vegas, then they can deal with Bollywood.

So here is my prediction, I suppose. Devdas will gain a bigger audience in the west than any Bollywood movie before it, although it will not quite yet be Crouching Tiger. In six or seven years time, directors and stars presently working in Bombay will be making and starring in Hollywood movies. Some time in the next 10 years, a movie made in Hindi will gross more than $100m at the American Box office, and a movie made in Hindi (not necessarily the same one) will be nominated for the Academy award for best picture. Some
time in the next five years, a film directed by someone who made his or her name working in the Indian film industry, will make $50m at the American box office. This might be an American film directed by an Indian, or an Indian film aimed at international audiences. That is, it will either be the Indian Broken Arrow or the Indian Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the Indian not quite either. But I think we shall see it.

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