Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Best Film of 2006: The White Countess

The film takes place from 1935 to 1937 when the Japanese invade Shanghai, destroying 100 years of European power, so I watched the film waiting for all hell to break loose in the end. The White Countess is similar to Casablanca but better. In Casablanca the beautiful heroine has no back history, but that’s not true of The White Countess.

The white countess of the title is Sofia Belinsky, a taxi dancer whose dancing in bars supports her destitute Russian aristocrat relatives—her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her aunt, her aunt, and her daughter. Except for her daughter, they all take her money and scorn her as a whore. Her relatives also try to alienate her daughter’s affections.

At one bar she meets Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind former American diplomat who escapes from the world that has disappointed him by hanging out in Shanghai’s many bars. Throughout the film first Chinese and a then Japanese named Mr. Matsuda tell Jackson how much they appreciate his work with the League of Nations on world peace, but Jackson is only interested in opening up his own nightclub where he can shut out the world. The only problem is Mr. Matsuda is the advance man for the Japanese army who plans to conquer Shanghai as well as the rest of China.

After Jackson wins big at the race track, he opens his bar The White Countess with Sofia Belinsky as it’s tragic, beautiful hostess. Jackson tells his friend e |HMr. Matsuda that his successful bar lacks one thing: political tension. So Matsuda uses his underworld connections to bring all the warring political factions into the bar where they can peacefully carouse . In one of my favorite scenes first a group of Chinese Communist-associated intellectuals enter the bar. Then come in another group of Chinese, the Kuomintang who are warring against the Communists. Outside in Shanghai the Kuomintang and the Communists have been killing each other for years, but inside they peacefully drink side by side. Next come a group of Japanese into the bar, and finally their soon-to-be enemies the Americans. Russians as well as Chinese singers, ballerinas, and comics perform while Sofia Belinsky is the beautiful centerpiece.

At one point Sofia asks Jackson why he has such huge doors to his club as if to shut out the world. She says that her family of Russian aristocrats tried to shut out the world with big doors but it didn’t work. Then I realized this film is as much about 2006 as it is about 1937: it’s about all those people who want to create safe worlds behind big gates. It’s about all those people who once tried like Jackson to improve the world but have given up. The film is about all those like Sofia who live on the edge, without any protections of big gates. The film is about the pettiest of snobbery: the destitute Russian aristocrats snub their neighbor , a poor Jewish tailor.

I read reviews of The White Countess, but most reviewers found it slow going because they didn’t understand that this world of the film was a beautiful soap bubble of 1937 Shanghai in its last days before it was all blown away. Sofia’s relatives desperately want to escape Shanghai for Hong Kong. Through a French connection they get the visas but need $300. Who do they go to for money? Sofia. She goes to her boss Jackson, who has also refused any emotional intimacy with her, thought both are obviously in love with each other. He gives her the money, knowing she will use it to flee Shanghai.

Of course, the Japanese send in troops. Thousands of Chinese flee before the advancing Japanese army. Sofia’s mother-in-law says they got the visas for the whole family to leave except for Sofia: a horrendous betrayal to leave her behind in the war-torn city. In his bar Jackson sees Mr. Matsuda enter, whom he accuses of betrayal. The film is about war and betrayal, but the screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro humanizes all people including Mr. Matsuda. At the end Matsuda tells Jackson to leave his bar to be with the real white countess Sofia, so Jackson goes out, a blind man in a city flooded with refugees, to find Sofia. So the film is also about humanity, courage, trust, and love in wartime. The film asks all of us: do we hide ourselves behind big gates or do we go out into the streets of the war-torn world?

The film is the last by producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, as Merchant died soon after the film’s completion. Merchant , who was from India, and Ivory, who is American, have been making splendid films for 40 years, but The White Countess is my favorite of their many films. They saved the best for last.e gi|He

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Visiting My Local Mosque

I’m a member of Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), so when PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council had a joint program called New Ground with two speakers from Israel—a Palestinian Taghrid Shbita and a Jew Daphne Banai-- at my local mosque February 24, I went to the Islamic Center of Southern California. Entering the mosque, I saw the large empty room on my left with a wooden floor, but headed to the room on my right which had rows of chairs and a table, a video screen, and a microphone up front. On the wall to my right were twelve colorful posters explain the Five Pillars of Islam and a long wooden rack with small cubicles and a sign saying “please use these racks for shoes.”

The MC, a young woman, welcomed us to the Islamic Center with a quote from Gandhi saying we should all be agents for change that we want to bring about.

Taghrid Shbita, a Palestinian human rights lawyer who is a citizen of Israel, spoke first, telling us the story of Palestinians who remained in Israel. She said that in 1948 the land had 950,000 Palestinians, but 800,000 left, leaving 150,000 including her family. Many of these Palestinians who remained became internal refugees in Israel since 400-500 Arab villages emptied. Her husband’s family, for example, lived in the Arab village Misqi, but fled in 1948, winding up in the Arab village of Tira.

From 1948-1952, houses remained standing in Misqi, and the former inhabitants wished to return, but in 1952 the Israeli government destroyed all the houses. Ever since then, she said, the former inhabitants of Misqi return twice a year and the older generation tell the young where the houses, gardens, and streets stood. In her family her husband’s mother tells these stories to her three children. Her village Tira once had 12,000 acres but because of Israeli land confiscations now has 2,000 acres, so the young generation have no place to build homes when they marry. Her son as well as others would like to live in Misqi, which is an empty place, but the Israeli government won’t let them.

Shbita said that Israel says it’s a democracy with equal rights for everybody but it is also a Jewish state—that is a contradiction. She said that Israel has laws that benefit Jews and discriminate against Palestinians such as the Law of Return, where any Jew from anywhere in the world can go live in Israel as a citizen. She said she has an uncle who grew up in Israel but was away studying in Egypt when the Israeli census took place, not counting him. For decades he has wanted to return home but hasn’t been allowed, so now he lives in Jordan.

She added that Palestinians citizens of Israel face many other kinds of discrimination. Most don’t volunteer for the Israeli army, thus never getting the many benefits army veterans get. For example, her daughter who is not a veteran applied for a job as a part-time sales clerk, and was refused because she wasn’t a veteran. Shbita said she failed to see why sales clerks need to be army veterans. Also, her husband and other family members were on the beach at Natanya when Israel Jews attacked them, saying that the beach was for Jews only and Arabs weren’t allowed. She concluded by saying that this discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel should be ended.

Next Daphne Banai, coordinator of Machsom (checkpoint) Watch, a group of 400 Jewish Israeli women who act as human rights monitors at checkpoints throughout the West Bank, spoke about her being born into a right-wing nationalist Israeli Jewish family. As an adult in Israel she searched out Palestinians to meet and talk with for the first time, and these dialogues changed her life.

As a member of Machsom Watch, she told she and other women go daily to West Bank checkpoints. She said that on December 31, 2003, they watched a 78-year old man with a suitcase and the proper permits refused at a checkpoint. She and her colleagues from Machsom Watch drove him to a 2nd checkpoint, where he was again refused. She pointed out to the Israeli soldier that the man’s house was in the village right next door to the checkpoint and pleaded they let him cross, but again the soldier refused. Not wanting to abandon the 78-year old man on this freezing night, they drove him to a nearby Arab village, knocked on a door, and asked the people there to give him sanctuary, which they did.

Banai showed us a map on the video screen of the green line, the internally recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and the separation wall that juts into the West Bank. She also showed us another map showing that Israel has partitioned the West Bank into four sections: North, Central, South, and the Jordan Valley. The Israelis don’t let Palestinians from the first three areas cross into the Jordan Valley. She said that Machsom Watch found a 14-year old shepherd boy, who had crossed the line into the Jordan Valley following a sheep, handcuffed and blindfolded by Israeli soldiers, sitting there for four hours.

She showed us a map of the 70 checkpoints; most aren’t between Israel and the West Bank but are within the West Bank. Also she said that the checkpoints have no written rules and Israeli army order change constantly. She said the Israelis have built dirt mounds outside many Arab villages or put gates, so Palestinians can only drive their cars up to the dirt mound or gate and then have to walk the rest of the way to the checkpoint, often carrying heavy suitcases or other loads. Pregnant women and heart patients have to walk or be carried, often standing in line 5 or more hours at checkpoints. She said that one UN report had one year 60 women giving birth at a checkpoint, with 20 having stillborn children. She said us a photo of Arabs carrying an ill man on a stretcher to a checkpoint.

Banai showed us photos of roads on the West Bank: the Jews-only highways are new, empty, and evenly paved while the Palestinian roads are old, broken up, and uneven. She showed us photos of Arab villages caught on the Israeli side of the separation wall, with an Arab market forced to close because they are separated by the wall from their customers or schoolchildren have a difficult walk through gates to school. She said Machsom Watch is against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Banai said the her group Machson Watch condemns terror attacks on Israeli citizens, but Israel should do so from within the Green line. She maintains that the occupation isn’t eliminating terrorists but breeding new ones.

At the programs end the young MC returned reminding us of Gandhi’s quote that we become change agents, and finished with a quote from the Koran saying that if different nations would have dialogue with each other, it would be good for all.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Jane Austen in Los Angeles

Once upon a time I used to watch TV at night to relax but after I got Netflix, no more. Now I watch films, particularly film versions of Janet Austen's novels: Emma, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and last night, Mansfield Park, the 1999 version.

I like Austen so much because we're at war right now, and she writes about love. She also wrote during wartime--the Napleonic Wars--but focuses not on war but on romance back home. Watching Mansfield Park last night I was thinking how much the novel is like a Shakespearean comedy where seven young people--four women and three men--constantly fall in love to the wrong people, but at the end most have realized their folly and finally paired up with the one they really love or really deserve. Austen's world is very reassuring: love matters during wartime.

In the Mansfield Park film I saw, the heroine, Fanny Price, is born into a poor, large family in Portsmouth, England, but is sent away when she is around ten to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Betram, who live in the huge mansion of Mansifled Park. For the first half of the novel Fanny is snubbed by most of the family because she is poor while they are rich--only her cousin Edmund is kind to her. Her other aunt, Mrs. Norris, lives in the nearby parsonage off Sir Thomas; Aunt Norris always spoils Fanny's two wealthy girl cousins Maria and Julia while she delivers a cruel class snobbery toward Fanny, verbally abusing her. This story 's focusing on class makes it fitting for Los Angeles which is deeply divided into wealthy and poor neighborhoods. How would a poor girl from South Central L.A. be treated growing up in Beverly Hills?

Fanny seems to withstand this class cruelty well, growing up writing stories to her far-off sister Susan; she has a sense of herself, her own values, and is spunky. Actually she's the spunkiest character of all. Her Aunt Norris is petty class snob while her other Aunt spends her life sitting in a chair with a lapdog and taking opium. Fanny's cousin Tom, the oldest son, devotes his time to dissipation, gambling and partying in London, while her two female cousins Maria and Julia are spoiled, vain rich girls. Only cousin Edmund, the second son who wants to be clergyman, has any sense of ethics.

The patriarch, Sir Thomas, tries to be both stern and kind but is distracted by problems with plantation in Antigua. Edmund says to Fanny once that all this wealth comes from black slavery. Fanny is the only one who begins to question slavery to Sir Thomas, the only one to articulate an abolitionist position. Again, the film puts Fanny as the only one who has clear sight, recognizing that the family's luxury is based on violence and horror. Again, this seems a good film for L.A. with it's long history of racial segregation.

While Sir Thomas is away, a young wealthy brother and sister--Henry and Mary Crawford--move nearby, befriending the people at Mansfield Park. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund, silently watches pretty and elegant Mary Crawford flirting with Edmund. Fanny watches Henry Crawford flirt with both her cousins Julia and then Maria, who is engaged to a wealthy boor Mr. Rushworth. Fanny is always the poor outsider. but she keeps her cool. The young people decide to put on a risque play Lover's Vows, but Sir Thomas's unexpected arrival puts a stop to the play, ending Maria's budding romance with Mr. Crawford.

Maria suddenly marries Mr. Rushworth to escape from her detested father while Henry Crawford decides to court Fanny Price, falling in love with her and asking her to marry him, but she refuses him, not trusting his character. Sir Thomas, on hearing this, orders Fanny Price to marry Henry Crawford, saying this is her only chance to have a good marriage, but she bravely stands up Sir Thomas, saying she won't. I really admired Fanny at this point. To punish her, Sir Thomas sends her back to her poor family, as if she was some trinket that displeased him so he could return it. Fanny returns to live in her family's overcrowded tenement. It's as if our heroine was dispatched back from the Beverly Hills mansion to live in the ghetto.

Fanny hears that Edmund has announced his engagement to Mary Crawford; Henry Crawford follows Fanny back to Portsmouth, asking her to marry again, but she refuses. She just doesn't trust him, telling her sister she thinks he's a rake. Fanny is a heroine, refusing the easy way out of poverty, sticking to her conscience. Well, would you trust a Beverly Hills playboy courting a poor girl living in a South LA neighborhood?

At this point, the eldest son grows very ill from dissipation, and is near death at Mansfield Park, so Fanny is summoned back to the mansion to nurse him. At Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford seduces Maria, and they both run away. This produces a terrible scandal in 1806--adultery, a broken marriage, divorce. The family is horrified--the oldest son Tom is near death while the daughter Maria is utterly disgraced. Mary Crawford can't help but show her pleasure that Tom may die, leaving her fiance Edmund a wealthy heir. Edmund is horrified about her money-grubbing attitude, careless of his elder brother's life or death, and renounces her.

Tom does recover. Edmund discovers he loves Fanny, proposes, and accepts. He's going to be a poor clergyman, probably living in a poor cottage, not a grand mansion, but he and Fanny totally love each other. Aunt Norris is sent to live with the disgraced Maria in a cottage: it is fitting that the two snobs get to spend their life together. Austen seems to be saying that Fanny Price is made a better person because of the hard times she had to undergo. For Los Angeles, 2007, that's a pretty good idea: hard times can build character, and in the end we can find people who love us.

At film's end a character said that Sir Thomas ended his plantation in Antigua and found other business ventures, so the film seems to be saying the English are better off without slavery and class snobbery. Los Angeles like England would be better off without racism and class snobbery and with more true love, so Mansfield Park is the novel and film we need now.

  • 1999: Mansfield Park, film directed by Patricia Rozema, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram (interestingly, he also featured in the 1983 version, playing one of Fanny's brothers). This film alters several major elements of the story and depicts Fanny as author of some of Austen's actual letters as well as her children's history of England.

Monday, February 19, 2007

My New Computer with Windows Vista

My computer, a 2001 Dell with Windows Millennium—a terrible, outdated operating system-- crashed February 13, 2007, so February 16, 2007, I bought at Fry’s Electronics a new computer: a Gateway GT5408 with Vista Premium. At home I set up my computer (with my brother’s phone help) all by myself over three days! Friday afternoon I hooked up all the parts, got onto the Internet through my EarthLink DSL line, but ran into a few problems. I couldn’t figure out where the plugs plugged into on the ViewSonic monitor, so I called up ViewSonic. While I was on hold, I saw the plugs right underneath the front of the monitor—problem solved.

Second, both the monitor and the speakers had identical green audio plugs to plug into the CPU, but the CPU only had 1 green slot for audio. The print manuals didn’t help. I emailed Gateway. Also the machine came with a 60-day trial of Office 2007 Home and Student, but I when I tried to register it, I found it they gave me the Canadian version, which wouldn’t accept my registration form because I refused to include a Canadian zip code, so I emailed Windows.

I also had a 60-day trial for McAfee Security Center. When I started that program, they said I needed to update it, which I did, opening up window which ordered me to register right then. When I clicked Ok to register, the window disappeared, leaving nothing. Finally, I just gave up on Day 1.

Day 2 I returned to my machine, got an email back from Gateway regarding my problem with audio plugs which only provided me with a link with their large online manual, which did not provide a solution. My new computer had an Easy Transfer center to help transfer documents from the old to new computer, so I plugged in my little flash drive, a tiny drive with all the documents from my old computer, started Easy Transfer, got to a window which included flash drive icon, clicked it, and it didn’t work. I felt frustrated.

Moving on, I decided to set up my printer—a beloved Canon Pixma MP780. I put in the Canon CD set up disc into the CD slot, and got the message that my printer was incompatible with my Windows, so please contact Canon. The kind Canon tech woman spent about 45 minutes on the phone with me helping me to download a driver and three programs for my printer; at the end of the downloading my printer did work! Despite the frustration, I felt I had made progress, but was tired so quit for the day.

Day 3 my brother, who has been hearing reports on all my problems, calls me up, telling me Windows Vista has anti-spyware and Firewall, so it’s better to use those rather than McAfee’s anti-spyware and Firewall. So after some time searching, turning things on and off, I turned on Windows Vista Spyware and Firewall, and turned off the McAfee versions, since I only need one. Then I downloaded Mozilla Foxfire, my favorite browser. My brother told me to use Google anti-popup, so I downloaded the Mozilla/Google toolbar with anti-popup. I also downloaded AVG free anti-virus. Now my computer feels protected by good programs.

A few minutes later I’m online when I get a message from McAfee telling me my computer isn’t protected, and stopping me from doing anything. I close the computer down, start it up again, and go to Amazon.com reading the reviews of McAfee—mostly negative. Then I uninstall McAfee. McAfree has given me problems from Day 1, so I don’t need it. .I still don't know how to transfer all my documents, so I decided to stop by Best Buy later that day asking how much Geek Squad will charge me to do a transfer.

As I explore the computer, I opened up the window that says “computer,” giving a picture of my drives—reminding me of a similar window on my old machine that I used when I wanted to use my flash drive. I get inspired to again try transferring my documents, so I plugged in my flash drive into the USB port. I now see the flashdrive on the computer window. Wonderful! I open it up. There are all my documents. Even better. Now I open up “Documents” on the new computer, and start dragging all my documents folders from the old to the new. I open one of my old folders but on the new computer. It opens. I’ve done the transfer! I’m thrilled! I don’t have to pay anybody any money!

After three days of having very low audio sound, I realized that the sound was only coming from the monitor but not the speakers. I had plugged the monitor audio jack into the green plug, but plugging the speakers’ audio jack into the green plug gave me good sound. Hurrah. I put a music CD into the CD slot, but now the music is good and loud. Great. I feel so terrific that, despite all the frustrations, I’ve set up my new computer—the printer works, DSL works, the old documents are on new machine, the audio works.

Day 4 I finally get an email from Windows with a link to download the correct version of Office 2007, which I do. Now it all works!!!! I also feel more confident about my computer skills, and I’m beginning to learn how to use Windows Vista and Office 2007. I also learned that the problems I had were not mine: 1) the manual's unclear instructions caused the problem with the audio plugs; 2) a mistake giving me Office 2007 Canada made it impossible to register; 3) McAfee had some glitch keeping me from registering; and 3) incompatibility between Windows Vista and my printer. But I hung in there, and with help from my brother, phone calls & emails, all problems were solved.