The Decline of British TV Drama

Peter Jukes asks 'Why Britain Can't do The Wire', and suggests that it might be owing ot the concentration of power and funding in a very few people in the BBC's hierachy:

Any sector that has lost both market share and talent at such a rapid rate as British television drama should start examining its practices. Drama is about dialogue, opposing points of view, clashing perspectives. Any structure that diminishes this diversity undermines the basis of the form.

Afghanistan and the Germans

George Packer has this analysis of Germany's participation in Afghanistan:

The country’s politicians refuse to call the war in Afghanistan a war. Germany’s participation was sold to the public here as peacekeeping and reconstruction, and that’s what it must remain to prevent any further erosion of support—even though it’s becoming more and more obvious that the war has come to the Germans in the north, the first real fighting the German army has seen since 1945. The German politicians and journalists I’ve spoken with want Germany to do more, not less, in Afghanistan, even if that means fighting. Public opinion in this amazingly pacifist country runs otherwise, though only the extreme left and right want an immediate withdrawal. This gap between élite and mass opinion is a dangerous one, since there’s so little attempt by German leaders to explain the country’s position in the war and why it might be necessary to do more than build roads and schools. A single mass-casualty blow against German forces in Afghanistan (or against a soft target here in Germany—the intelligence traffic has been unusually heavy recently) could significantly change the terms of this non-debate.

So far, reasonably persuasive. However, Packer continues:

Germans have a hard time accepting the narrow rationale for the war in Afghanistan, based on preventing another 9/11. For them, the reason to be in Afghanistan is to prevent a return to power of the Taliban and with it an enormous propaganda victory for Islamists all over the world. In other words, Obama’s turn away from Bush’s more ideological agenda and toward a narrow focus on national security is not necessarily persuasive here, in spite of the former’s huge popularity and the latter’s abysmal reputation. (How’s that for irony?)

Here, Packer should have continued to keep in mind the distinction he made in the first paragraph, between elite and public opinion. German elites (politicians, think-tankers, certain academics and experts) generally agree with the Taliban victory = Islamist victory argument, and it largely drives their continuing support of the war (which is not to say there isn't debate here as well).

The general public, as far as I can tell, simply does not care what happens in Afghanistan. They regard the fate of this dusty, tribal backwater on the other side of the world as having very little to do with their daily experience. They're generally on board with providing reconstruction and development aid, since that's a painless type of international engagement which fits in with the view Germans have of their role in the world. But as soon as large numbers of Germans soldiers begin returning in caskets, the government will have a very serious problem.

Packer speaks of government officials not doing enough to 'explain the country's position in the war,' but I don't think this really captures it. This is the oft-used German political concept of Vermittlung, roughly, bringing a message across in a convincing manner. Whenever German government officials feel the need to continue a policy of which the public disapproves, they will note the negative poll numbers, and then ruefully admit they haven't done a good enough job of Vermittlung.

But there's always another diagnosis of the problem lurking behind the scenes: the public has understood the message, and simply disagrees with it. I think that's where we are with Afghanistan. Plenty of senior German politicians have explained why 'our freedom must be defended in the Hindu Kush', but voters, by and large, did not buy it. German mainstream politicians have understood this, which is why they constantly emphasize the reconstruction aspects of the mission, which is the only remaining rationale that any significant number of voters agrees with. What Packer fails to grasp is that the German public cannot be convinced that it is a worthwhile use of their tax dollars and lives to engage in a protracted fighting war in some remote third-world country. Any attempt to justify the war in these terms is doomed to fail. Which is why German politicians rarely attempt it.

If there's a terrorist attack on German soil, this could change the dynamics in favor of the Afghanistan mission — possibly. It's hard to analyze, and let's hope we never have to find out. But if there are large casualties in Afghanistan, what little support there is in Germany for a long-term, explicitly military mission in Afghanistan will collapse. This will, incidentally, be a boon for the Left Party, who have always been strident critics of the Afghanistan mission.

Brussels: Cemeteries, Pre-Raphaelite Beauties, Brewery-Galleries, Bingo-Pinball

Souvenir de bruxelles

Over the weekend, I visited friends in Brussels who were having a housewarming party. Naturally, I took the opportunity to explore a bit more of Belgium's capital, which I consider Europe's most underrated city. It's not gorgeous, but it's quirky, funky, and charming.
Here's a quick slideshow in which we see some scenes shot in one of Brussels' hundreds of pubs, some random shots of street scenes and storefronts and shops, and scenes shot inside of the Wielemans Cueppens brewery, which has been converted into a contemporary art gallery called the 'Wiels'. The renovation left many of the original brewing machines and gauges intact, and, as usual, they threatened to upstage the art.
Finally, there's a stroll through the Cimitiere de Bruxelles, one of many 'neighborhood' cemeteries spread throughout Brussels. The Cemetery was opened  in 1877 to house the remains of the city's most prosperous bourgeois citizens, and it is accordingly spacious and elegant.
Plus, a Belgian car with at 'Don't Mess with Texas' bumper sticker!
Now a quick bleg. While in various Brussels pubs, I noticed men playing an odd sort of pinball game. The upright screen of of the pinball game, instead of the usual cartoon/movie theme, instead displays couple of rows of what look like bingo cards, whose numbers can be illuminated. The pinball field itself is also not like a normal pinball game; it appears designed to sort the balls in to little compartments that, presumably, cause numbers oon the bingo cards to light up.
Does anyone know what these games are called?
[Illustration via Room 26]

Homeopathy Catches on in the U.S.

Speaking of odd beliefs, a surprising number of Germans who you woulnd't expect to believe in homeopathic medicine actually do. Homeopathy is a quaint 19th-century pseudoscience that, unlike phrenology or Lombrosian criminology, lives on. Homeopathic folk-remedies are so popular in Germany, in fact, that most health-insurance providers will pay (g) for them. And now, it looks like homeopathy is catching on in the States, as well:

While the gold standard for drugs and vaccines is proof of effectiveness in the form of randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials, there is no rigorous evidence that homeopathy works better than a placebo for any condition. That hasn't stopped a growing number of Americans from using it to battle a panoply of ailments, including arthritis, herpes and flu. A federally funded survey in 2007 found that in the previous year nearly 5 million Americans used homeopathic remedies, made from substances including duck liver, heavy metals such as arsenic, herbs and poison ivy, and diluted in water until they are virtually undetectable.

A form of medicine invented by a German physician in the 1700s, homeopathy is predicated on the belief that "like cures like" — that a disease can be treated using a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. It seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself through the ingestion of highly diluted substances that might be toxic at higher doses. Even though homeopathic medicines use substances so diluted that virtually no molecule of the active ingredient remains, proponents believe that water contains the "memory" of the original substance.

Many scientists dismiss homeopathy, which defies the laws of chemistry and physics, as quackery. Robert Park, a prominent physicist and critic at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about pseudoscience, has called it "voodoo science."

N.B.: I don't really have anything against homeopathic remedies. In fact, I find them to be one of the endearingly backward-looking aspects of life in Germany. I don't care what people want to spend their money on, as long as the the industry's tightly-regulated, which seems to be the case in Germany. Although perhaps someone will correct me in comments!

Radio Feature on Cultureless, ‘Square-Headed’ Americans

Last night, WDR5's 'Doc5' series broadcase an interesting and thoroughly-researched feature (g) on anti-Americanism in Germany by Klaus Jürgen Haller. Haller focused, in particular, on the deep historical roots of the idea that Americans are a 'cultureless' or 'rootless' people. Plenty of amusing quotations from Heine, Brecht, Lehnau, Hitler, and many others. The manuscript can be read here (g – .pdf), and I'm hoping they'll post a link to the audio version soon. I'll post a few translations of the more interesting quotes, and my observations on the special, as time permits.

Attention Splatterdeathcore Fanzz: von Trier is BACK!!

Yep, that's right, Danish bad boy Lars 'Dogmaslayer' von Trier's latest spine-shattering splatterfest, aptly titled Antichrist, hits cinemas soon. Antichrist starts Charlotte Gainsbourg, French fanzine-fave gore-grrrl last seen in Brainsaw Beauties IV and Marseilles Morgue Molester. Willem Dafoe plays the male lead. Good to see Dafoe back in action after his 4-year absence from the screen, which industry insiders said was the result of a mental breakdown he suffered on the set of psychotic Toshio Ishikawa's mind-breaking 2002 epic Extremely Violent Mentally Ill Man Who is Burning with Desire for Revenge and is Not Under Control, which was banned everywhere except Romania but swept the 2003 Zombies.

The plot of Antichrist involves a married couple whose small boy dies in a mysterious, gory accident at the beginning of the film, which somehow sets off a white-knuckle orgy of perverted violence. But really, who cares about the plot? Everyone's holding their breath waiting for the classic von Trier climax, which, this time, involves rusty garden tools. We won't give anything away, but we will note that von Trier, in an interview given to Splatter magazine, said 'The last scene blows away everything I've done up until now, and makes Violent Shit look like a fuckin' Sunday school play!' He then added, 'I am the best film director in the world!'

What-ever, Larsy. But your latest sounds, well, Trier-fying!

My TV Pick for Tonight

is Arte's Das Gesetz von Las Vegas. This is a series of five two-hour documentaries about real criminal cases in Las Vegas. I watched the fourth installment online (HT A.M.; thanks for the links!) and was deeply impressed. The fifth and final installment of this series airs tonight at 20:40, and I strongly recommend it. The fourth episode involved the murder trial of De Rac Hanley, a 71-year-old alcoholic living in public housing for senior citizens. For reasons that are never really made clear, Hanley viciously stabbed one of his neighbors to death in Hanley's own apartment. The victim  a 70-year-old man who, Hanley claims, had made sexual advances toward him. Hanley is put on trial in Clark County, Nevada for murder.

He is assigned two public defenders (Pflichtverteidiger, lawyers who work for an agency that represents indigent clients) from the local Public Defender (PD) office, and is prosecuted by two relatively young prosecutors. We see both sides preparing for the case: tracking down witnesses, lining up testimony from pathologists and psychologists, and honing their trial strategy. The defense lawyers travel quite a bit to track down people who might be able to shed light on Hanley's history and state of mind. Not only do they learn quite a bit about him, they also bring him back into touch with his estranged wife and daughter, who attend most of the trial. We see photos of Hanley in better days, when he cut a dashing figure as an Irish immigrant with a taste for adventure. Injuries, and the addiction to alcohol and painkillers that developed out of them, laid him low. We learn much less about the victim, but not for lack of trying; nobody can find any of his living relatives. The last part of the film traces Hanley's trial to its sobering conclusion. The film was fascinating, funny, and quite moving at times.

Three things make this series unusual, and really interesting:

  1. The filmmakers seem to have gotten pretty much unlimited access from all participants. We learn everybody's real name, and accompany camera crews into the houses of victims' relatives, alcoholics living in shelters, and respectable middle-class witnesses. We also see the prosecution and defense teams preparing their strategies. We are even permitted to see the defense lawyers conferring with their own client before trial, and deciding whether he should take the witness stand. As any lawyer knows, these conversations are strictly protected by the attorney-client privilege; seeing them onscreen is an unheard-of privilege for outsiders. The filmmakers must have gotten consent from dozens of people to get this level of access.
  2. We see the defense and the prosecution in about equal measure. The prosecutors have their own problems to deal with: recalcitrant witnesses, potential weaknesses in their case, sympathy factors, etc. The public defenders are very good. Judging from the morale, the amount of resources, and the skill of the courtroom presentation, the Clark County PD's office would seem to be doing an excellent job.
  3. Related to number 2, the documentary doesn't take sides; it's almost Wiseman-like in its neutrality. The prosecutors aren't portrayed as vengeance-driven ogres, as is usually the case in European documentaries about the American criminal justice system. Nor is the defendant portrayed as a misunderstood victim of circumstances. Nor is the crime he committed glossed over as if it were irrelevant: we see photos of the crime scene, which are not for the faint of heart. Most importantly, there is no voice-over, telling us what to think about what we've seen, helping us fit it all into the predictable, stuffy world-view of European cultural elites. The directory, Rémy Burkel, simply allows the viewer to make up his or her mind about the case. Europeans will surely be surprised by much of what they see, but no narrator takes their hand and patiently instructs them as to why they should disapprove of it. For this blessed omission alone, Burkel deserves a shower of accolades

Well, if I haven't convinced you yet, at least I've done my best. Arte, to their eternal credit, seems to have put together a bunch of online special features, including a 'hypervideo' of the series that gives you extra access to background information. If you do watch the show, tell me what you thought of it in comments, please. 

Cherchez la femme, Yankee

So, I'm reading a blog entry from Debra Ollivier, an American journalist who lived for ten years in France and just wrote a book called, with the typical verbosity (yes, follow that last link, and all it leads to!) of American book titles, What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind. I had to read it, because I have a thing for French women. I guess it's their 'so-out-of-my-league'-ness that drives me fou. I was a bit skeptical of the post at first, but then, after reading it, I thought: 'Actually, that's some pretty darn good cross-cultural perception. Perhaps I should outsource a blog post to her'. So here it is:

–French women are self-possessed; even slightly defiant. Why? Partly because they don't grow up with the mandate to be liked and be like everyone else. There's no word or concept for "popularity" in France. Imagine growing up without that pressure. No wonder French women don't seem to give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: They don't.) When it comes to relationships, that self-possession serves them well. If a man's Just Not That Into Her, a French women generally Just Moves On.

–Where we grow up picking flowers and pondering love with "He loves me, he loves me not," the French grow up with this refrain: "He love me a little. A lot. Passionately. Madly. Not at all." How unfair. We think in terms of total love or absolute rejection. They think in degrees of passion and possibility.

–French feminist Sylviane Agacinski once said: "We want the power to seduce and be seduced. There will never be a war of the sexes in France." (Likewise, Louis XIV of France once declared: "Under a king, a country is really ruled by a woman.") And so it is. French men and women actually like each other. A lot. Flirtation is a civic duty in France, not a menace. French women generally prefer men to be in the picture, not out of it.

–French women do not believe in how-to and dos-and-don'ts, which gives them a certain freedom to live as they please. They're also not fond of rules and they're private, not public. There is no Doctor Phil in France.

–French women generally have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure. We generally have a keen sense of the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future.

–The pursuit of happiness is written into our constitution and the Happy Ending is written into our culture. Not so in France. The French are suspicious of happily-ever-after and exalted standards of happiness or moral perfection. They're simultaneously romantic and realistic. If something seems too good to be true, the French tend to think that it's not.

–The French enjoy being grown-ups. They do not believe in being forever young. You will never see a French woman wearing a t-shirt that says "Life begins at seventy." (Because it doesn't.)

–The French are more interested in having a life than making a living.

–French women are matter-of-fact about the body. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not dramatize or sensationalize sex. They're also not any more adulterous than we are; they're simply more willing to concede that passion grows in unexpected places. (In fact, according to an exhaustive comparative study, the French have a fewer number of long-term affairs and Americans have a larger number of short-term affairs. "The French are marathoners, and Americans are sprinters," according to one researcher. In other words, we all push the marital envelope; we just wear different running shoes.)

–The French don't covet packaged cookie-cutter beauty, au naturel is de rigeur, and less is truly more in France.

Suggested comments thread: how much of this also holds true for German women? Or, for that matter, German men?