Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Do Countries Care About Winning Olympic Medals?

I may have brought this up back during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but I’m too lazy to go back and look.

Why do countries care so much about winning Olympic medals?

For example, Australia is apparently one of the top spenders on Olympic programs, investing $250 million dollars in its Olympic program and other sports annually. Canada is currently spending upwards of $150 million on a program devoted to the Winter Olympics called “Own the Podium.” (Notably, U.S. Olympic athletes currently receive little or no government funding; they rely largely on private sponsors.)

Why would Australia, Canada, or their citizens care so much about winning medals? Why would Australia or Canada be willing to spend a lot of money funding programs in efforts to win Olympic medals? Is this effort and expenditure made to demonstrate dominance and superiority for the benefit of a foreign audience? For what purpose? Is it to demonstrate dominance and superiority in relation to other countries for the benefit of the domestic audience in Australia or Canada? Again, for what purpose? To buck up their sense of pride? What is the benefit obtained in that?

I can imagine the ready responses: It’s a natural patriotic impulse, to want to win, and defeat other countries, show that Australians/Canadians are the best. The people of Australia/Canada can experience a vicarious sense of superiority when they watch one of their own win a gold medal. It’s no different than rooting for the Bears if you live in Chicago, or for the UNC basketball team if you go to UNC. (But professional sports exist to make a profit, and college sports often make money for the schools, raise the profile of the schools, etc. What does Canada actually get from winning medals -- besides a feeling of pride?)

Fischer vs. Spassky, 1972

During the Cold War, the Olympic battles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and East Germany) were just another front in the Cold War -- a continuation of the ideological battle fought by other means. Olympic victories were seen to validate the ideology and system of the prevailing side. So, the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid demonstrated the vitality and spirit of the Capitalist system; the U.S.S.R.’s domination in figure skating, gymnastics, wrestling, etc. demonstrated the glories of the Worker’s Paradise. The Olympic victories during the Cold War were part of an ongoing propaganda war between the two sides, the purpose of which was to attract or keep others within the Capitalist/Communist fold. But what would Canada or Australia have to prove to other countries? Why would they care what other countries thought of them based on Olympic performances?

(Of course, there could be other benefits. National unity, perhaps providing inspiration for kids to be active and get into sports, thus producing a healthier and more productive population, etc. But these seem like pretty attenuated results.)

Winning Olympic medals doesn’t really achieve anything for Australia or Canada, or earn them anything. It’s just a nice thing, and the Australians and Canadians back home get a nice feeling inside when their athletes win. But what is that worth? I guess there’s no accounting for preferences, and if that is where a country like Australia or Canada wants to spend their money, that’s their decision. It’s probably a better use of money than spending trillions on invasions of other countries. (And maybe that is the very point?)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

BMW's "We Make Joy" Campaign

I wonder if the ad-makers for BMW's new advertising campaign, "We Make Joy" (see ad above), debated whether to use that particular slogan, given the ugly history of the Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy") program, and its associations with the German auto industry under the Third Reich:
From 1933, [Kraft durch Freude ("KdF")] provided affordable leisure activities such as concerts, plays, libraries, day-trips and holidays. Large ships, such as the Wilhelm Gustloff, were built specially for KdF cruises. Above all, KdF was supposed to bridge the class divide by making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses.

Borrowing from the Italian fascist organization Dopolavoro ('After Work'), but extending its influence into the workplace as well, KdF rapidly developed a wide range of activities, and quickly mushroomed into one of the Third Reich's largest organizations....

The Nazis also sought to attract tourists from abroad, a task performed by Hermann Esser, one of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda's secretaries. A series of multilingual and colorful brochures, titled "Deutschland", advertised Germany as a peaceful, idyllic, and progressive country, on one occasion even portraying the ministry's boss, Joseph Goebbels, grinning and hamming in an unlikely photo series of the Cologne carnival.

KdF managed to set up production of an affordable car, the Kdf-Wagen, which later became known as the Volkswagen Beetle. Buyers of the car made payments and posted stamps in a stamp-savings book, which when full would be redeemed for the car. Due to the shift to wartime production, no consumer ever received a Kdf-Wagen (although after the war, Volkswagen did give some customers a 200DM discount for their stamp-books). The Beetle factory was primarily converted to Kübelwagen (the German equivalent of the Jeep) production. What few Beetles were produced went primarily to the diplomatic corps and military officials.

Below, a fascinating 1943 U.S. war-effort propaganda cartoon, featuring Donald Duck, and parodying the Nazi's "Strength through Joy" leisure programs.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Soundings (Audio Reviews): Heligoland - Massive Attack (2010)

The tyranny of our best years. In the mid-nineties, opening the mail for the college radio station, finding the promotional CDs the record companies had sent, I stumbled across a sound that immediately sucked me in: bands from England (Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky), with a dark, hopeless air -- like Don DeLillo set to music. There was a certain aesthetic -- of gray, of twilight, of a new Brutalism in a way; a style England -- mother of the theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, of the factory workday, and moth evolution affected by industrial pollution -- always seemed to flirt with.

It was music for places shrouded in mist, darkness. There is generally no sunshine in Massive Attack. If there is light, it is artificial, stark, soulless.

Portishead returned in 2008 with the masterful Third. Massive Attack has now returned from the darkness as well, with their first album since 2003.

There is more life in Heligoland than in Massive Attack's last effort, the brittle and empty 100th Window. Whereas 100th Window was flat, and much too thin, Heligoland is thick and layered, like a forest floor, covered in an imbrication of dead leaves in various states of decay, of becoming soil again.

Massive Attack have always seemed to dwell somewhere a few years in the future. Their music was often claustrophobia-inducing, attuned to the absence of choice, the institutional imprisonment of the monetary economy in the era of late capitalism. (I always think of the line "Give me evenings and weekends" from Mezzanine.)

Exemplar of the Brutalist style: Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, by by Mathers & Haldenby Architects (1973)

The glorious Blue Lines had moments of soaring, of emotions other than brooding, menace, and paranoia. The sun broke through here and there. There is more sun on the new album than one would expect.

The first track, Pray for Rain, is a good example. The song proceeds as a somber, electronic funeral dirge for much of the track, aided by vocals from TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, before giving way, somewhat inexplicably, to a few moments of joy. Splitting the Atom bops along in an underwater slow motion, but not unhappily: sort of a low-key Monster Mash. Girl I Love You is like Massive Attack after a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles, brooding with a beat you could dance to: you could put it on your workout mix and you wouldn't slow down too much. The stripped-down but insistent final track, Atlas Air, has the distinct feel of the new, but with a firm grounding in a certain familiar growling, beeping dread.

I've listened to the album only three of four times so far. Right now, it feels like the type of album that will continue to reward repeated listening, as one gets more and more lost in the layers, the heady mix of old and new, the familiar and the strange.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak Edition

It's been a while since I've done one of these, so I figured it was time.

LE SAMOURAI (1967). Wildly overrated, in my opinion. Alain Delon is comical (unintentionally so), not cool. The whole super-cool hitman schtick is ridiculous. The story is not nearly as clever or intriguing as the filmmakers appear to imagine it is. (Longtime readers may recall that I had a similar reaction to LE CERCLE ROUGE.) I think most people who profess to love this movie are into it because it is a French "gangster" movie, and that sounds cool. I guess some of the shots are interesting enough, but really, what is the big deal? B-

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) This was the best movie of last year. This may be Tarantino's best film -- or perhaps just behind PULP FICTION. The story is fantastically inventive. The writing is never lazy. I knew something special was going on during the first scene, when Hans Landa (the incredible Cristoph Waltz) is speaking to a French farmer about rats, eagles, and squirrels: the conversation seemed like an absurd tangent, but it was irresistible, deeply satisfying -- much like the opening discussion of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders in Europe in PULP FICTION. The French pub scene must be one of the greatest scenes in any of Tarantino's films.

The film works together the best qualities of Tarantino's earlier work, brings it into an alternate history, imports fantastic German, French, and English actors, and it all works. Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Mélanie Laurent (Shoshanna), Daniel Brühl (Frederick Zoller), and Michael Fassbender (Archie Hicox) all turn in astoundingly good performances -- Kruger and Fassbender in particular. Brad Pitt as Aldo Raines is fine, and not nearly as much of a distraction as I expected. (The one misfire on the casting, I thought, was Eli Roth, who was terrible and over the top as Donny Donowitz, Raines's right-hand man. I cringed every time Roth spoke.)

This is a rich movie experience. It's a movie in love with movies, paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns and the films of Weimar Germany, with sly nods to gangster films, earlier Tarantino films, etc. Writing, story, and acting are all crucially important here. This film is the anti-AVATAR. Whereas AVATAR represents the elevation of the visual and technological above all else -- INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS represents what is possible when filmmakers care very much about each word of dialogue, about the inventiveness and originality of their stories, and the quality of their actors' performances. A+

THIS IS IT (2009) The one thing I remember best about this movie was being shocked by how good Michael Jackson still was, just days before his death. His voice sounded strong, and his dancing, though slightly slowed, remained mesmerizing. There was a moment during the movie (perhaps during "Man in the Mirror") when I formed a Twitter update in my mind: "Put up a satellite. Aim it away from Earth. Play this soundtrack on repeat." Thinking about it now, that would have been a dumb tweet, but it says something about the emotional impact of this film, especially for Jackson fans. We won't see his like again anytime soon. Not a great movie, but a useful historical document. B-

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) I could have done without the little quote at the beginning of the movie, something to the effect of "War is a drug." That's not a particularly interesting or insightful message, but that's all THE HURT LOCKER appears to offer. A friend of mine put it best: "It's like a Fox television show about the war." That observation seemed exactly right to me. This movie looked and felt like the makers of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS had done a show about the war, right down to the jerky, frenetic camera work. The tension inherent in the movie -- it is, after all, mostly a series of scenes about finding and defusing bombs -- works and is handled well, the acting is fine, the dialogue simple and believable, but, still, I left the movie thinking "So what?"

Part of this might have stemmed from my disappointment with the movie's studiously apolitical approach to the war. I can somewhat understand the choice not to delve into the justness or unjustness of the war -- not all movies have to be about politics or ideology -- but the robotically neutral point of view in this movie left it feeling soulless and empty. War is not a drug. War is a choice. And this movie offers no insight into why we made our choice. B-

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) Gimmicky and cloying, with flashes of interest, but mostly mass-produced "indie-friendly" pabulum. Relying on The Smiths and "wacky" Ringo Starr references to establish some kind of "indie" or "quirky" atmosphere is lazy. The random, mixed-up chronological order of the movie was occasionally effective, but mostly felt like a gimmick. In fact, most of the embellishments in this movie (with the exception of the excellent scene set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True") felt like gimmicks.

It's my view that this movie felt the need to load up on gimmicks because what was under all those gimmicks was a standard romantic comedy -- something neither indie nor quirky. So swap out Meg Ryan, swap in Zooey Deschanel (who, by now, like Michael Cera, is permanently typecast as herself), throw in some cartoons, an annoying pseudo-ironic narrator, references to The Smiths, a hip soundtrack, a scene with a table Ms. Pac Man, and, Voila! You have tricked out your standard romantic comedy as something palatable for twenty- or thirty-somethings who see themselves as hip. Note that even the title of this film is pointlessly, ostentatiously gimmicky, to no effect. What is the point of putting parentheses around 500? None. There is no point to it (besides weakly gesturing toward stale pomo maneuvers, blah). The title tries to broadcast, loud and clear, that "THIS IS A HIP MOVIE -- NOT AT ALL A STANDARD-ISSUE ROMANTIC COMEDY". It's like putting thick black-rimmed "smart" glasses on Tom Hanks. Speaking of which, Josh Gordon-Levitt is okay here, but nothing special. C

AN EDUCATION (2009) A strong, finely crafted, finely acted film, with a disappointing ending. Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, and Alfred Molina are all excellent. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here; it's just a compelling, well put together coming-of-age period piece featuring some fine actors. The ending sucked away a little bit of my enthusiasm for the film. Still, a very fine film. B+

Thursday, February 04, 2010

View from the Tank: TOP-SECRET LOST Formula for Success

Here is the Top-Secret LOST formula for success:

(1) kill off characters [for DRAMA!];
(2) introduce new characters [for INTRIGUE!];
(3) include miraculous CPR procedures every other episode;
(4) add close-ups of Kate/Jack/Sawyer getting weepy with the Sad Music (TM) in the background;
(5) have characters leaving "trails" or tracking "trails" in the jungle;
(6) include new mysterious sets in the jungle;
(7) play contemplative music with slow-motion scenes at the end of each episode;
(8) end season with a large explosion;
(9) liberally apply ghosts, time travel, alternate realities, and Smoke Monster.

Rinse, repeat (for six years).

Congratulations, you have created a Hit TeeVee Show that Smart People (TM) will love!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Pete's Blue Chip in Eagle Rock

I feel like this review will write itself. Pete's Blue Chip, which has apparently been around forever, is a neighborhood treasure, though often invisible, sitting in plain sight on the corner of Mt. Royal and Colorado. It offers an authentic, non-chain, unslick, unsexy approach to greasy food -- an approach that has become rare. Places like The Oinkster make a big deal out of and put a lot of effort into trying to recapture the feel of an old-school neighborhood fast food joint. Pete's Blue Chip doesn't have to put in the effort, doesn't have to hire interior decorators to achieve a retro, nostalgic effect: that is because Pete's Blue Chip is in fact the real thing, not a simulation.

Zucchini fries.

This is a place where the people at the counter remember their faithful regulars, and greet them in English and Spanish. This is a place families come to regularly on weekend mornings for the massive and delicious breakfast burritos, Orange Bang, and crappy coffee. Where Eagle Rock high schoolers and neighborhood hipsters in tight jeans come for cheap but tasty zucchini fries, burgers, and the most incredible milkshakes in the neighborhood.

Orange Bang fountain.

I had my first Pete's milkshake not long ago. It was a vanilla milkshake. At first, the shake was too thick for me to be able to pull up through the straw. I kept at it, and then the first taste of it hit me. I was immediately taken back to those humid New England summers when I was a kid, getting ice cream scooped into those Eat-it-All cones, the taste of non-gourmet vanilla ice cream in that mass-produced cone that felt like styrofoam: rich, delicious, vaguely industrial. It was the best milkshake I had had in years. (I had a chocolate milkshake tonight, and it was equally amazing.)

On that same trip, I tried the zucchini fries for the first time. They were a revelation. The fries had a thick, almost breaded crust -- reminiscent of Burger King's onion rings, with the zucchini still soft and green inside. It was only later that I realized what they reminded me of -- vegetable tempura. They were fantastic with both the ranch sauce they were served with or with ketchup.

Gigantic breakfast burrito.

The garden burger here is decent. Not too different from the garden burger offered at The Oinkster. The fish sandwich I had was forgettable -- sort of an overgrown cousin of a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish.

Fish sandwich.

I couldn't finish the breakfast burrito in one sitting. The thing was gigantic. It must have weighed more than a pound. A very fine tortilla wrapped around massive portions of egg, potatoes, onions, cheese, mushrooms, spinach -- maybe some other stuff. Pete's breakfast burrito is rightly famous. It's enough for two meals. It's a delicious kitchen-sink, Pynchonesque interpretation of the breakfast burrito.

Garden burger.

I almost forget to mention the Orange Bang. People get excited about the Orange Bang here. (Senor Fish also has Orange Bang.) I like the Orange Bang okay. Mostly, it tastes to me like a melted Push-Up Pop.

The food is cheap here and wildly unhealthy. (The menu is extensive: I can't offer you opinions on the various meat offerings here, though I've heard good things.) If you get stuff to go, you'll need a plastic bag, in addition to the paper bags the food comes in, to hold in the grease. I've eaten here a couple times recently for the purpose of this review, and I'm certain I've sacrificed several weeks off my lifespan as a result. This is what I do for you, dear reader. You should go to Pete's and drink in the atmosphere (and a milkshake) -- just don't make it a habit.