Georg Diez on Provincial German Books and Movies

Georg Diez (g), in an article called "Be Popular!" endorses a version of the doughnut-hole theory in the literature section of this week’s Die Zeit.  It’s not online, so you’ll just have to trust my summary and translated excerpts.  Diez begins by noting that Clemens Meyer just won the German Book Prize at the Leipzig book fair. "German literature," Diez begins sarcastically, "how nice! How wonderful!" Everyone’s praising each other after the book fair, but, Diez observes, nobody seems to have noticed "how small, how narrow, how provincial is the country that they’re talking about — and, unfortunately, often also the stories that are told here."

Nobody seems to want to film these boring German books. Things are different in the U.S.  Diez points to No Country for Old Men (based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood (Upton Sinclair) as examples. (I’d add to his list Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s fine film of a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer).  On the surface, these movies might deal with life in the provinces or suburbs, but they also contain fierce and uncomfortable truths — "the whole cosmos," in Diez’s words. 

Why, he asks, "doesn’t one find in German books this power, this reality, these depths, this consistency and toughness and truth, that could tempt filmmakers — and, conversely, why don’t German filmmakers search for these epic worlds[?]" He continues:

Something’s missing, still today. Something that’s only approximately described by the word ‘reality.’ On the one hand, there’s the will toward popular success, to telling stories, to being understood; and on the other hand the energy that’s released when differing realities collide with one another, twist each other, when injuries result, comfortable truths are torn apart, and the way down to the bottom of the abyss is laid bare, the bottom that, if you follow McCarthy, is dark and heavy — the stuff of myths. There has to be an end to the constant ‘small-small’* in our heads.

Instead of filming epic stories, Diez complains, Germans are "seriously discussing Clemens Meyer’s new hairstyle."

I’m with Diez on this one.  You don’t have to like all these movies, or admire everything about Hollywood (note that none of the movies Diez praises was a straight Hollywood production), to notice the difference in ambition Diez is talking about here.  I’ve seen plenty of recent German movies and reviewed quite a few in these pages.  Some of them were just plain dull, some of them were reasonably interesting, but none really stuck with me, except for The Lives of Others and On the Other Side.

I think there’s something else at work here, besides the lack of exciting novels.  Note that the category Diez accuses Germany of underperforming in is movies that are both artsy and exciting.  Germany produces plenty of mass-market comedies and dramas for just plain folks.  The problem is that movies that are supposed to tackle ‘ambitious’ themes often turn out so dreary.

People in the German film industry tell me there’s a norming process that controls access to German film subsidies.  Directors have to convince committees of tastemakers to fund their projects.  The filmmakers themselves, and the tastemakers, have strong preferences and prejudices.  They consider themselves proudly allergic to "Hollywood" — which they associate with Ken and Barbie actors, canned happy endings, staged dramatic confrontations, stereotyped confrontations between good and evil, unnecessary explosions, action-movie cliches, etc.  They’re looking for interpersonal drama, for social commentary, for moral ambiguity — "anti-Hollywood" qualities.  In fact, I’ve personally seen film scripts that have come back to aspiring directors with passages marked "too Hollywood."

The problem, according to my sources, is that a lot of these tastemakers and directors eventually come to stamp the dreaded "Hollywood" label on any enhanced storytelling technique — such as suspense, or a happy ending, or a voice-over.  Endings in which everything turns out basically OK will be choppped and replaced with ambiguous fade-outs.  Pleasant, likable characters who we’re supposed to identify with will be criticized as too "one-sided" or "subjective."  Humor that’s considered too broad (by stuffy Bildungsbuerger) will be squelched.  The end result of this process is films that end up bland and wishy-washy even when they’re supposed to be provocative.

And which play in art-house theatres for 5 weeks, get polite and respectful reviews, and disappear forever.

* The original is "Es geht um ein Ende des ewigen Klein-Klein in den Koepfen."  I’ve translated it pretty much literally, but I get the idea I’m missing some allusion here.  Little help?

First Recording of Sound Discovered

The New York Times reports that American researchers have located the first known sound recording in Paris:

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

You can hear the reconstructed recording at the link.

Still not 100% Gentrified

I’m back, and I’ll be back to more-or-less regular blogging soon.  In the meantime, the International Herald Tribune explains why I want to move to Berlin, and why I’m not alone:

The migration recently has reached such proportions that the Danish government has spoken of an "art drain" from Denmark to Berlin, while every Swiss Canton has opened an arts center to support its emigrant talents.

Susanne Pfeffer, curator at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, said: "In the past, Cologne was the number one city for contemporary art. Now Berlin has taken over the reigns [sic]. In the last five years or so artists from all over the world have started coming here. Berlin is a cheap city that is constantly changing, attracting a lot of interest and providing many opportunities for artists, especially since the fall of the wall." …

For [German artist Alessia] von Mallinckrodt, Berlin’s unruliness is part of its charm. "Berlin is a new and old city at the same time. Everything grows and changes all the time. New York is more clean and sleek," she said. "It is simply too beautiful and perfect." …

Nearly two decades since the fall of the wall, the former East Berlin and the western enclave are still a study in cultural contrasts. But the center of gravity is shifting to the east, where gentrification is in full flow, constructing a new identity after nearly thirty years of physical and psychological isolation.

Update from Israel

This just in: Since I’ve been in Israel, I’ve heard — in public spaces — America by Yes, Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love in My Tummy by the Ohio Express, Jokerman by Bob Dylan, and Barbie Girl by Aqua.

In other news, photos (of the country, not the bands) to come.


Making Aliyah

Just a short note to say there will be light blogging for the next week or so, as I visit Israel for a mix of business (5%) and pleasure (95%).  I hear there’s a lot of wireless access there, so I may try to post an update or two, but alas, no guarantees. 

In the meantime, check out the blogs on my blogroll.  Back to regular posting in late March!

Paxil Americana

Whenever I return to the U.S., I’m always surprised by how many more people I know seem to be taking prescription antidepressant drugs.  The reason I’m surprised is that the circles I travel in aren’t full of depressed people; instead, I’m meeting people who seemed to be doing fine, but are now taking Paxil, Wellbutrin, or Zoloft.

Of course, the standard disclaimer applies — people who are depressed should get the help they need, etc. etc. But nowadays it seems that any American going through a tough phase is tempted to Zoloft themselves back into good cheer. Yale psychiatry researcher Charles Barber lays out the facts in the Washington Post:

The use of antidepressants in the United States has exploded in the past couple of decades, and drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, which didn’t even exist 20 years ago, are household names, almost household staples….

In 2006, an astonishing 227 million prescriptions for antidepressants were dispensed in the United States — up 30 million from 2002. Altogether the United States accounts for about two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants. Other proven and practical approaches to managing milder forms of depression, such as diet changes, exercise or cognitive behavioral therapy, haven’t gotten the attention they deserve in our high-tech zeal for the drugs.

The drugs are popular because they produce results.  But that’s doesn’t explain the staggering number of subscriptions:

The television ads make it seem so easy: An agonized man or woman stares listlessly into space or slumps on a bed or couch, holding their head in their hands. Then they take a pill and suddenly morph into a happily engaged and joyous being, back on the job or walking in a park, awash in sunshine, surrounded by grandchildren, a golden retriever nipping at their heels, while lush music plays in the background.

And with this, we find ourselves at a crossroad of cultural differentiation between the United States and Europe, or so we might think.  Europeans accept bad moods as a natural part of life and don’t immediately reach for a shiny new pill to suppress them (instead, they reach for time-tested favorites such as alcohol).  The distrust of mind-altering pharmaceuticals is part of the rhetoric of "authenticity" which Europeans cultivate.  Europeans are allowed to be themselves, we hear, while Americans willingly re-engineer even their brain chemistry — the irreducible essence of their beings — to conform to an ideal of superficial, commerce-friendly geniality.

My reaction to this is similar to my reaction to many another stereotype: there’s a kernel of truth, but not much more.  There’s clearly a cultural emphasis on displaying a bright mood in the U.S.  Let me invoke the critical cultural bellwether of bike stores.  My local bike store in Austin has a sign behind the counter saying "Be Happy – Be Nice – Be Cool."  In Duesseldorf, my local bike store’s website warns you that one of its employees is "often unfriendly and in a crappy mood."(g)* Not for nothing did an American write "How to Win Friends and Influence People."  Further, Europeans (especially northern ones) often strike Americans as being unusually ‘genuine’ and tolerant of mood swings and personal idiosyncrasies. 

But how wide is the alleged U.S.-European divide on personality manipulation?  European countries have very high numbers of mental health professionals per capita, after all, and in all European countries, the use of prescription anti-depressants has also been dramatically increasing, even among children.  European newspaper columnists have a problem with wolfing down a mass-produced hamburgers in 20 minutes, but ordinary Europeans certainly don’t, judging by the long lines you see at McDonald’s franchises over here.  And I suspect that pepping up your mood and performance by taking a simple pill which has few side-effects will probably prove just as tempting…

* This description is, of course, tongue-in-cheek.  The bike store, Rad Ab (g) in the Friedrichstrasse, is way cool.

Ein Jung Namens Susanna

Hey wait, turns out I do have something to post about after all.  Baby names!

In Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue," Johnny advances the Cash Theory of baby names: a freaky name will make your child strong.  Turns out there’s something to that, according to this recent article in the New York Times.  But first, some history.  Back in the day, author J. Marion Tierney explains, everyone agreed unusual baby names spelled disaster:

Studies showed that children with odd names got worse grades and were less popular than other classmates in elementary school. In college they were more likely to flunk out or become “psychoneurotic.”

Prospective bosses spurned their résumés. They were overrepresented among emotionally disturbed children and psychiatric patients. Some of these mental problems might have been genetic — what kind of parent picks a name like Golden Rule or Mary Mee? — but it was still bad news.

This is certainly still the theory in Germany, a country in which some government official has the power to veto names new parents want to give their children (g) because the name "doesn’t exist" or would expose the child to "ridicule."  Balkan friends of mine have also been prevented from giving their male children names that end with "a" (which are common there) on the theory that these names don’t clearly indicate the child is male.

This policy has always struck me as rather hard to reconcile with family autonomy and privacy.  After all, what could be more intimate and private than the what to name your baby?  Whenever I’ve asked Germans why these regulations exist, they always seem surprised by the question, and can only reach for generalities: "of course" we need such a law because otherwise "uneducated" people would "cripple their childrens’ future" by giving them some crazy name. 

To be fair, they also point out that there are thousands of names which are uncontroversial, so parents do have a wide spectrum to choose from.  The killer argument in favor of the laws, though, is invariably the idea that some member of the "underclass" will name his daughter "Pepsi," which is supposed to make chills run up and down my spine, because it Pepsi’s name will supposedly consign her to a life of humiliation. 

A few researchers have now looked into whether that’s actually true:

Today, though, the case for Mr. Cash’s theory looks much stronger, and I say this even after learning about Emma Royd and Post Office in a new book, “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback.

By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).

The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.

Recent studies that control for other factors have found little impact from names:

Other researchers found that children with unusual names were more likely to have poorer and less educated parents, handicaps that explained their problems in school. Martin Ford and other psychologists reported, after controlling for race and ethnicity, that children with unusual names did as well as others in school. The economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt reached a similar conclusion after controlling for socioeconomic variables in a study of black children with distinctive names.

“Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” said Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

I wonder whether this has any relevance to Germany.  I rather suspect not, for three reasons.  First, control of names is an ingrained cultural tradition here.  Most Germans don’t have a problem with it, and the few who do have little political power.  Second, it’s quite possible that, because of German society’s conformist/collectivist tinge, children with strange names actually will have more problems here than they would in the freewheeling U.S.  Third, although I don’t doubt that concern for the child’s welfare plays some role in tolerance of government name-regulation, I rather suspect that there are other factors involved as well.  So even if you proved unusual names had no effect on child welfare, the regulations would remain.

A Luxury Coupe and Garbage Clowns

I admit it, I got nothin’ today.  Plus, a relative’s coming to visit tomorrow, so I probably won’t have nuthin’ until next Monday.  Thank you for your understanding.

To tide you over, some photos from around town.  First, a luxurious coupe to which somebody has pasted a picture of a woman using an antiquated weight-loss device:


Second, the slightly creepy billboard currently posted on the side of trash trucks in Duesseldorf.  Note the Denglish at the lower-right-hand corner:


Bulgarian Folk Traditions, Part II

A martenitsa, worn on the shapely wrist of a Bulgarian friend of mine.  Like most Bulgarians, she’s been wearing it since March 1, and will put it on the first blooming tree she sees:


Wikipedia drops knowledge on Martenitsas:

This is an old pagan tradition and remains almost unchanged today. … Many people wear more than one martenitsa. They receive them as presents from relatives, close friends and colleagues. Martenitsa is usually worn pinned on the clothes, near the collar, or tied around the wrist. The tradition calls for wearing the martenitsa until the person sees a stork or a blooming flower.

So, the next time you’re walking through a park in Germany, look closely at the trees that tend to bloom early.  If you see martenitsa on them (and you will, if you look), you’ll know there are Bulgarians in your midst.  It’s a nice feeling!

German Joys Review: Fleisch is Mein Gemuese

Fleisch ist mein Gemüse ("Meat is my Vegetable"), the first book by Heinz Strunk*, is subtitled "A Rural Coming-of-Age — with Music". It is indeed a sort of searingly honest, frightening, often Fleischgemuese_3 howlingly funny Bildungsroman. Strunk opens the story with his late adolescence. Not the scholarly type, he’s in his late teens, with no prospects for college, no girlfriend, and no money. He’s still living with his mother in a settlement of "dwarf-houses" in the nondescript Hamburg suburb of Harburg, the kind of place in which the opening of a new McDonald’s in the mid-1970s is still considered a high point of local history.

He lives with his single mother, who bore him as the result of a fleeting relationship, never married, and is beset by increasingly severe mental problems. Strunk’s not free of those himself: he barely lasts a month in his mandatory military service before being discharged on the unsettling grounds of "endogenous depression."  Have I left anything out?  Oh, right — the acne.  Not just the ordinary acne vulgaris that comes and goes, but the most severe form — acne conglobata ("characterized by numerous large lesions, which are sometimes [gulp] interconnected").  It can last into the early 30s. 

Not the most promising start in life.  But Heinz does have one thing going for him — music.  Social isolation = practice time, and by his early 20s, Heinz has learned to play several instruments, some of them well.  In the American version of this story, perhaps, the precious gift of music redeems young Heinz, bringing him fabulous wealth and drawing women to him like moths to a suppurating candle.  But let’s return to the German version.  Heinz gets a few gigs with a dance band called Holunder, run primarily by more or less drink-addled misfits.  Word spreads that Heinz can play the saxophone (or "snot-can", in gig-speak) pretty well, and is eventually approached by one of Northwest Germany’s premier live-entertainment ensembles, Tiffanys.  Not "the Tiffanys," mind you — just Tiffanys.  Bandleader Gundolf Beckmann, affectionately known as Gurki (roughly, "cucumber-boy") because of his tall, bent form, started Tiffanys some time ago to supplement his music-shop income.  He needs new band members to replace the previous crew, whom he alienated.  Also along for the ride are bandmates Norbert and Jens, a proper young civil servant, one of whose anti-vegetable sayings provides the title of the book (another is "Man is by nature not an eater of side dishes.").  At his first gig, Heinz actually finds that he’s a damn fine saxophone player, and the band quickly accepts him.

Together, Tiffanys travel throughout the backwaters of northern Germany, playing until 3 or 4 in the morning in places with names like Mooreschwerde and Klein Eilstorf.  They play weddings, youth festivals, company functions, and Schuetzenfesten, a peculiar German tradition in which members of neighborhood "shooting societies" get together at a big party and drink themselves into a blind stupor.  In fact, just as book critics like to say cities are "characters" in a novel, you might say alcohol, in its many forms, is a character in Fleisch.  Public festivals and parties in Germany invariably involve consumption of mass quantities of alcohol, often as a result of lock-step drinking rituals that generally appear weirdly joyless to outsiders.

By the time 2 o’clock rolls around at a Tiffanys gig, the guests are glassy-eyed, bathrooms are unusable (but, at 2 a.m., are needed more than ever), and unfocussed hostility — sometimes directed at the band — is in the air.  Tiffanys, however, can save the day by playing "On the North Sea Coast" by Klaus and Klaus, an unspectacular piece of German prole-pop that seems to have a magical mesmerizing power wherever Tiffanys go.  Strunk’s judgments on German Schlager are merciless and amusing.  Germany’s fascination with John Denver’s "Country Roads" leaves Strunk cold, but the "totally depraved" songs of Roland Kaiser earn high marks.  The introduction of cheap synthesizers in the late 1980s, Strunk reports, increased the quality of German dance-party bands by providing a regular beat for the first time.

After the concert comes payday, which generally involves endlessly petty dickering over the precise number of tunes played and breaks taken.  And then the wild sex with groupies.  Actually, no, no wild sex.  Women seem rather uninterested in generally unattractive, badly-paid members of a party band who wear pink tuxedos during their gigs.  Instead of orgies, Tiffanys get to enjoy, again and again, the exhausting ritual of stuffing heavy instrument cases back into whatever cheap car serves as the band’s transport.  Fleisch, although rather unstructured, has supremely comical moments.  Strunk’s key strength as a writer is characterization.  The indefatigable and always-polite Gurki evokes a mixture of admiration and contempt from his band (the mixture’s about 10/90, respectively) as he trots out one of his tried-and-true peppy sayings, including — in English — "Swing time is good time, good time is better time!"   

However, like much German humor (you could also say Central European humor) the deadpan irony stands cheek-by-jowl with bleak moments.  Strunk presents himself as the butt of a series of cruel cosmic jokes.  The driving force of the book comes from the fact that Strunk knows this, and spends most of the book cringing at what fate will throw his way next.  Strunk’s judgments of others are often lacerating, but just when you want to protest his lack of charity, he swings the spotlight around to his own utter schlubbiness.  Young Heinz indulges in frenetic onanism, drinks way too much, and develops a fateful fascination with coin-operated gambling machines.  The Merkur Disc 2 — whose intricacies are described in loving detail guzzles lots of his meager income.  Precisely because Heinz shows us his vulnerabilities and shortcomings, we find ourselves hoping he will finally develop some self-respect and establish himself in life.  Which he eventually does, after a fashion.

Whether as a tour d’horizon of a side of moist, clammy side German life that most of us will (thankfully) never experience or as a unsentimental but very mildly life-affirming memoir of a young man repeatedly rescued from the abyss by music, Fleisch ist mein Gemuese is a rewarding read.

* Strunk has, of course, gone on to become a German celebrity and political candidate for the political organization Die Partei, a shadowy outfit with murky ties to the German satirical monthly Titanic.

Manfred Nowak on Torture and the U.S.

Manfred Nowak, law professor at the University of Vienna and U.N. Special Rapporteur for torture, gives an interview (g) to the Sueddeutsche on the progress being made in combating state-sanctioned torture. 

Overall, human rights took a hit after September 11.  However, he says the situation’s becoming calmer now.  Canada and Scandinavia have the best human-rights records, Nigeria one of the worst.  There’s been progress in Indonesia, but setbacks in Russia.  And at the end of the interview, he comes to the U.S. (my translation), and minces no words: In the discussion about torture methods there’s been a lot said about so-called waterboarding [in English!] lately. Is that a torture method?

Nowak: Of course. U.S. President George W. Bush says it isn’t torture.

Nowak: He’s wrong. Officials in the U.S. Justice Department did piece together a definition of torture which says torture only exists when it causes severe psychological damage.  Mental torture would, according to this definition, only exist when people were psychically damaged for the rest of their lives.  This definition is completely at odds with international law. How would you describe the general attitude of the U.S. administration to human-rights questions?

Nowak: Under Bill Clinton, there were several positive developments, for example the Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia.  Under Bush, things changed a great deal — whether you look at the struggle against terrorism, the death penalty, or the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  We certainly have never before had a U.S. administration which was so set against progress in human-rights issues.  Thank God it won’t be in office much longer — then this sad chapter in America’s history will belong to the past.