From the archives: February 2005

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Nobody expects the Mustafian Inquisition

Thursday, 17 February 2005 — 11:08pm | Studentpolitik

The vast majority of this weblog’s regular readership is well aware of this by now, but let us all pause for a moment and reflect.

M. Mustafa Hirji is running for Students’ Union President.

I generally don’t like to prejudge campaigns before I see some solid policy documents, forum performances and awesome posters, let alone even hint at endorsing them, but… are we geeking out yet?

Hirji, Katz, Tobias – pigs are fluttering in the friendly skies as we speak.

Also, Sparky the Wonder Elf had better put on a good campaign. We didn’t see this in action last year when preferential balloting was introduced, but theoretically, joke candidates are the biggest winners under that system. There need not be concerns that voting for a joke candidate is at the expense of one whom you actually support.

On a more serious note, the absence of VP Academic candidates at the time of the nomination deadline earlier today is serious cause for concern. In the right hands, it is easily the position that matters most to students. (And by that, I mean real students; you know, those in empirically observable positive states of being that cannot be squared to produce a negative value.) Perhaps the responsibility that the portfolio entails is somewhat of a deterrent. Hopefully this situation sees some quick and efficacious rectification.

In other news, congratulations to Jen Smith, who is now the incoming VP External of the University of Calgary Students’ Union. However, might I recommend that next year, Calgary’s candidates do something about their egregiously backwards poster culture? Toilet-papering with the gentle assistance of permanent markers is an aesthetic that went out of style years ago.

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The Knights Who Say "Knee!"

Monday, 14 February 2005 — 1:27pm | Film, Full reviews

Mid-February is a special time in that it is when filmgoers who do not have the fortune to catch early limited runs in Los Angeles, New York or Toronto ring in the new year. ‘Tis the season to write year-end summaries and forecasts for the season ahead.

I will do just that with the 2004 harvest in good time, as I have now left that year behind (aside from never having gotten around to the likes of Collateral and Hotel Rwanda) and seen the first theatrical release of 2005 worth mentioning, Ong-Bak.

On the surface, everything that happens in Thailand’s signature hit film is old and tired by what we have come to expect in North America. Tony Jaa plays a country boy who goes to the city, finds his former country-boy cousin turned urban gambler, fights in an underground boxing ring in a quest to recover an artifact of value from a drug kingpin, gets involved in an explosive car chase, and has a climactic final showdown with a baddie hopped up on steroids. We’ve seen it before, we might think.

That is, until we realize that the country boy comes from the villages of rural Thailand and ends up in Bangkok, a city of nine million – a disparity that really has to be seen to be understood, should you ever get the chance to visit the region; the underground boxing ring doesn’t feature just any boxing, but the ancient art of Muay Thai; the artifact of value is a sacred Buddha image of paramount importance to the villagers; the explosive car chase is on tuk-tukstuk-tuks! – and the final showdown makes for one hell of a good fight scene.

The novelty of Ong-Bak can be identified thus: can you name another Thai action flick you’ve seen? Didn’t think so. And what makes Ong-Bak interesting is that it is a celebration of all things Thai short of the blues compositions of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I mean, a tuk-tuk chase!

In all seriousness, the thing that this movie will be remembered for is that it fills a gaping void in modern martial arts cinema, in that we really, really needed a Muay Thai superstar like Tony Jaa to burst onto the scene. Someone of his calibre is long overdue, and very welcome. Ong-Bak unreservedly exploits all of the distinctive characteristics of Thai boxing, particularly its emphasis on pummeling your opponent with your joints, not just your fists and feet of fury. Elbows land on skulls with an audible crack. Knees land on, um, people, with a sickening crunch.

The film sells itself as being free of CG and wire-work, but that’s just one of many ancillary benefits of an ethnic fighting flick being produced outside of the American studio system. The one that really shows is the length of the action sequences. It is rare nowadays to find continuous action sequences, rip-roaring urban chases and extended duels that comprise the majority of a movie without being repetitive, and nigh on impossible to spot this ever happening in an American-made product. Comparisons to 1980s Jackie Chan are entirely accurate, aside from the lack of slapstick comedy and Sammo Hung.

In terms of storytelling, everything of significance is flat-out obvious, but it is still worth noting. The obligatory string of one-on-one fights against increasingly burly Anglo-American thugs in the underground fight club are a prideful demonstration of the superiority of Muay Thai; if you follow martial arts cinema at all, you probably know that the superiority of the hero’s discipline is a recurring secondary theme whenever foreigners are present. (Or final-fight foes hopped up on steroids, for that matter.)

Then there’s how the evil mob boss atop the chain of command is a wheelchair-bound tracheostomy patient who speaks with an electronic device and smokes through his throat, but deifies himself as a god; recall that the plot revolves around the recovery of a stolen Buddha head, and you have a neat little parallel motif of headless idols going on.

And there’s a tuk-tuk chase!

Now, for some criticisms: like I said earlier, the premise of the film is about as standard as you can get from a modern action flick. Without the undercurrents that are distinctly Thai, which are thankfully almost ubiquitous, Ong-Bak would not be much of a film at all. There is only one reason to watch this movie – a very good reason, mind you – and that is to see superstar Muay Thai combat committed to celluloid. It would be nice if eventually, Tony Jaa is cast in something of real cultural significance and mythic quality; Thailand has a rich tradition to draw from, a tradition that is underexposed in the Western corpus.

The editing is tight for the most part, but one particular device grows tired very quickly due to overuse: the preponderance of sportscast-like instant replays of every particularly impressive stunt. I realize that the filmmakers may have been very impressed with certain takes, but for the sake of continuity and pacing, it is customary to pick your best angle and stick with it. Using such a device is excusable if done sparingly, but there are so many ooh-inspiring hits in Ong-Bak that the filmmakers just couldn’t get enough of it. Well, I did.

The last issue, and one that is actually an impediment to some of the fights, is that some scenes are shot in lighting that is so dim as to obscure the action. Yes, underground boxing clubs should be dark, but the thing about movies is that even in darkness, the audience can still see. Here, that is sometimes questionable.

There is a minor problem with the Magnolia Pictures edit that is in release here in North America, and that would be the addition of music that feels very much out of place. Dan Kaszor, who as I’ve remarked on many occasions is one of the few fellow U of A students whose knowledge of film I vouch for and trust, says in his Gateway review that the original music was none too great either, but one has to wonder if it were perhaps more tonally consistent. Personally, I don’t think foreign films should ever be tampered with upon local release, but I have the disadvantage of not being a major studio boss.

But these gripes aside, I recommend Ong-Bak for its offering of what is currently a one-of-a-kind experience in some respects. If it leads to the explosion of a burgeoning Thai boxing film industry of which the international community is aware, with Tony Jaa as its headlining celebrity, the world will be all the richer.

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Mo chuisle, mo chuisle

Saturday, 12 February 2005 — 11:28am | Film, Full reviews

Predictability is an accusation of unpredictable relevance. When applied to literature, and film in particular given its inherent linearity and tempo, you often hear it used as a pejorative term. Apparently, stories are no fun if you can see the ending a mile away. Sometimes this is the case: the appeal of M. Night Shyamalan’s terribly overrated The Sixth Sense rests so completely on the wallop of its final revelation that for the perceptive types who pay attention to the clues before them, the movie is over as soon as they figure it out.

We like it when movies creep up behind us and smack us upside the head. We like it when gaps are filled in ways that surprise us. For recent examples, see Memento, Minority Report and A Very Long Engagement. For classic examples, see Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back. But we remember these movies for their crazy twists not because of the shock value that comes of each successive discovery, but because every twist makes the story all the more compelling. You can go into Kane knowing full well what Rosebud is, or Empire knowing that Vader is Luke’s father, as I’d wager almost everybody does nowadays given how those epiphanies have become a part of our cultural consciousness – and the curious thing is, the film is all the better for it.

But that does not give us adequate grounds to say that predictability is necessarily something to avoid; again, it’s not about shock value. If you take a look at film adaptations of popular material, the most difficult thing to get over the first time through is what you can’t predict: deviations from a story with which you are already familiar. Here, we seek the comfort of a story we already know.

My point is, you can’t open a can of plot twists, sprinkle it all over a story and call it compelling. Sometimes you get an otherwise masterful film like House of Flying Daggers where the plot twists feel like chores that have to be done in order to lay out all the necessary elements of understanding that make the character dynamics work. When everything is on the table, it all makes sense; but here, unpredictability is not the source of causation. The film becomes compelling; the twists do not make it compelling.

I argue above that it cannot be universally considered a fault for a story to let the audience outpace it within reason, and nowhere is that clearer than in Million Dollar Baby.

If you have watched a lot of movies, boxing or otherwise (and truth be told, even if you have not), you will anticipate every single thing that happens in this movie. You will know exactly who wins every fight, who lands every punch, and every outcome of every critical decision the characters make, well before it happens. Part of it may be because the boxing movie has become such a defining subgenre of American film that we are all well aware of its techniques – not just how the director and editor time the punches, but how they build up to them in little spurts of tension and release.

How is it, really, that a boxing scene makes you, an audience member, feel like you are “part of the action”? I would posit that it involves a lot more than how visceral it is, how close the camera gets, and how resonant the bone-crunching sound effects are. To be a part of the fight, to be part of the experience of the boxer, also involves a replication of a certain anticipatory spider-sense. And in Million Dollar Baby, this is what happens both in and out of the ring. The sense of anticipation extends to the overall narrative flow.

But if you can see everything coming, how does the film keep you hooked?

Well, there’s the rub. You can see everything coming, but as a passive filmgoer in a darkened theatre, you are absolutely powerless to do anything about it. And in much of the film – particularly its final act, which is very much about helplessness – you can see it heading somewhere very uncomfortable. Here’s a movie where everything follows the natural progression of events that you should and do expect. You cheer for Maggie as she delivers a first-round knockout match after match, because she does what you expect of her, and more. You cringe as you perceive just how much harm is about to be done to her, but have no way of warning her of anything.

At the same time, that makes Frankie, Clint Eastwood’s character, an easy elicitor of audience sympathy. He is very much the same familiar character that Eastwood has defined for himself in his self-directed period, the William Munny archetype of an aging senior haunted by regret and seeking repentance. Like boxing, you’ve seen him before. But there are moments in the film where, as the cutman in the corner, he is just as helpless as the audience. Great storytelling, or what?

It is difficult to pinpoint how Eastwood pulls off this anticipatory elegance. Maybe it comes from a natural technical aptitude for foreshadowing. Maybe it comes of experience. In any case, Million Dollar Baby presents a curious contradiction – everything about it feels so familiar, every element feels borrowed (which is mostly the case), but the story draws you in anyway.

Curious, too, that in spite of its apparent predictability, I have been reluctant to speak of it in terms that are anything less than vague. But go discover it for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Refusing to be educated

Tuesday, 8 February 2005 — 11:44am | Literature

I quote Adam Ferland’s letter in today’s issue of The Gateway in response to Gaumont’s channeling of Mark Twain last Tuesday:

When, exactly, is being able to articulate how an author suggests the motivation for a character through symbolism and irony going to help me in whatever my area of interest is, be it agriculture, chemistry, or economics? Add to this the fact that an abysmal performance in English 101, due not to horrific spelling and grammar, but to a lack of literary analysis and a lack of artistic ability as a writer – because, yes, literature is art – could keep me from gaining entrance to a program of interest. Is failing to realize the irony of Kafka really a grave enough shortcoming that I shouldn’t be allowed to study what I want?

The answer, as it happens, is yes.

This is no more than the old “But critical reading skills aren’t useful!” canard. Now, as someone who bypassed the entirety of 100-level English, I can’t speak firsthand as to the quality of the curriculum. I’ve heard it said even amongst English professors that quite frankly, it is deficient, especially in repairing the existing writing deficiencies in what qualifies for a high school diploma. It is no fallacy and no joke to say that the value of a post-secondary education has become tremendously inflated, and a lot of it has to do with English, which is put in the unenviable position of trying to justify its own existence with technical writing skills whilst not actually teaching them in first-year courses.

An English programme that fails to reinforce the rudiments of grammar – or worse, does it and does it wrong – may be deficient. But that does not render it inconsequential. The ability to read analytically is fundamental to all disciplines, even if it is not “productive” in keeping with today’s utilitarian prejudices.

In mathematics, this is the equivalent of demanding a formula sheet and scoffing at the gall of the suggestion that an undergraduate student should have to derive anything on the page. What influence we provide the sinister anti-learning cabals that seek to reduce our universities to vocational schools.

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The self-regulation of professional hecklers

Sunday, 6 February 2005 — 8:40pm | Debate

I am aware that at least some of my readership first arrived here by way of some involvement or interest in the campaign to oust Rob Anders in the federal election last June. If you fall into that category, it may interest you to know that earlier today, the University of Calgary Speech and Debate Society alumnus, Diplomacy player and current sitting Member of Parliament delivered a keynote as a guest speaker and adjudicator at the McGoun Cup (Western Canadian Debating Championships), this year hosted by his alma mater.

Some brief observations are in order, as Mr. Anders said a number of things that were, to say the least, intruiging. Mind you, it was neither as amusing as Gary Mar doing impressions of Belinda Stronach at last year’s McGoun, nor unorthodox as Dr. Juris Lejnieks delivering a crash-course analysis of A Canticle for Leibowitz at Hugill ’02, but it provided some valuable insight into Anders’ approach to political discourse.

The speech began with the standard recognition of the tendency for debaters to be Leaders of the Future involved in all manner of political muckraking; nobody ever pays much attention to those of us who do it not as a stepping stone towards enacting any tangible change, but for the inherent thrill of what is fundamentally a logic-driven word game. The utilitarian approach to debating naturally favours politics and law, and I would posit the conjecture that the predominance of those fields in the game’s culture follows as a direct corollary. I get the feeling that lot of seasoned competitors find that elusive love of the game and stay for precisely that reason, but even then, applicability prevails as an excursive justification.

Anders cited varsity debating as being an experience more valuable to him than his degree, which is probably very true. He then proceeded to criticize the House of Commons as not really being a forum for debate so much as it is a facility for the procedural exchange of reports – “going through the motions,” as it were – again, probably true. He went on to explain that he felt most at home whenever he was heckled, as he found it a rare moment of genuine interaction that reminded him of his debating days.

The question is this: which was it that induced his reminisces of rhetorical competition – the interaction, or the heckling?

It may, in part, be the latter. Anyone who has done a half-hour’s reading on Rob Anders knows that he has a reputation of being, in many ways pertaining to extroversion and tact, the Mike Hudema of the federal right. In other words, he is for all intents and purposes a heckler, though sometimes in a non-verbal way; and as we should all know by now, acts of discourse – especially heckles, which are really just performatives of dissenting interruption – are never limited to the realm of the verbal.

But how does this relate to debating? After all, are heckles not frowned upon at the upper echelons of competition?

Well, yes and no. If my understanding of Western Canadian debating history is correct, while heckling is now all but non-existent except for its occasional acknowledgment as a discouraged annoyance, it was once a far more prevalent factor. Over the years, and I believe for the better, Western Canada has been borrowing more from the inertia of an evolved Canadian Parliamentary convention and exposure to Worlds Style, and less from the high school environment. This was not always the case.

Observe the occasional Alberta high school tournament that is conducted in impromptu parliamentary style. Unless expressly instructed to do so, inexperienced debaters will heckle simply on the grounds that the rules say they won’t be penalized (and layperson judges may even be inclined to reward them for wrangling a provision of the format). Without a dominant inertial format, or better yet, a strong emphasis on substantive analytical matter, high school style spills over into university.

You can still see this happen today with something that feels uncomfortably different at first, but is at the end of the day hardly that big a deal: at the University of Saskatchewan, which is hosting the McGoun Cup next year, Points of Information are directed through the chairperson. As something that has been phased out of the rest of Western Canada, this procedural difference has actually become the distinguishing mark of what is a unique Saskatchewanian style. My understanding is that this is actually something carried over from the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association, which governs all secondary school debate in the province – hence its usefulness as an illustrative example.

It could very well be the case that heckling was a commonplace tactic, albeit perhaps heavily abused, in the early 1990s when western integration into the CUSID environment was in its infancy at best. According to Alberta alumnus Martin Kennedy, who by my reckoning was around when Rob Anders was active at the UCSDS, western involvement in national-level intervarsity debating was practically limited to occasional appearances at Winter Carnival and Nationals.

At the tail end of the Anders speech when the floor was opened to questions, and afterwards, several of my peers commented that he perhaps put a disproportionate emphasis on the system of political parties. It is true that most of his speech was a case for political parties as the best, and indeed the only, medium by which one could ever hope to have a political voice. (In other words, if you ever get Rob Anders and Steve Smith together in the same room, bring popcorn.) A lot of people seemed to find these admittedly pragmatic remarks terribly interesting, and not just because Louman-Gardiner/Pauls had just defeated Kawanami/Kotovych in a quarterfinal on public funding of elections that covered exactly those issues of partisan imbalance. In the meantime, his aforementioned statements on the subject of heckling seemed to go largely unnoticed, but this here observer found them to be just as notable, if not more so.

But the great irony of all this ballyhoo about partisanship lies elsewhere. Of a panel of seven, Anders was one of four adjudicators in the final round who awarded the victory to Teddy Harrison and his partner, Spencer “Slate-Killer” Keys.

As for my own performance at the tournament, let it be known that it was less than spectacular. I credit the failure of Guillaume Laroche and myself to break to quarterfinals to a disastrous misjudgment of the depth to which Chris Jones had studied Alberta private investigation licenses in somewhat more rigour than yours truly. “I’m sorry to tell you, Nick,” he said, “but life is not a Philip Marlowe novel.” Lies, I tell you, all lies.

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