Sunday, June 21, 2015

Smoking and movies

Woody Allen, not too long ago decided not to release any of his films in India because of their harsh treatment of smoking in movies.  I have come to admire Woody, and sympathize with his desire to create a positive atmosphere when his movies are screened.  Being a life long non smoker I am not quite as self righteous as converted non smokers, but I think something has to be done and perhaps the Indian film authorities have made a good move.

Clark Gable took off his shirt in 1934 for "It Happened One Night" as studio people wanted to project a masculine quality.  Supposedly it was a key factor in decline of undershirt sales.  Marlon Brando wore a T shirt in "A Streetcar named Desire" and started a new fashion.  This demonstrates commercial interests do have an impact.  The term "product placement"  has become familiar to all of us.

Prominent actors were paid to endorse smoking.  John Wayne, Clark Gable, John Garfield and Spencer Tracey, emphasized masculinity.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were also paid to give a sophisticated image.  From the 1920's to 1950's tobacco companies provided most of the advertising revenue for Hollywood movies.  Starting with the 50's there was a noticeable shift to television and tobacco companies often sponsored tv shows.  After 1970 when tobacco advertising was banned, placement strategy became more important.  In 1998 an agreement was made that prohibited tobacco product placement in entertainment accessible to children, but nonetheless tobacco placement increased until 2005.  It is still prominent in many features.

Smoking is a problem, especially with youngsters.  In my whole life I only know one person who started smoking as an adult and she was under a lot of stress.  We all know that smoking is harmful, but preaching about it doesn't work, in fact it often just provides an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and (false) sophistication.  Probably more effective are role models, i.e. non smoking heroes, even celebrities.

A friend from high school had quit smoking, but in our small town (Haliburton) found the local pool hall as "something to do" and was frustrated that he didn't perform slickly and re-started smoking so he wouldn't feel so foolish.  I remember some other friends who started smoking at dances when they were trying to develop a relationship and were offered cigarettes by their female prospects.  They couldn't say no.  I don't understand how I avoided it, but it just didn't make sense to me.  All this time movies which were a big part of my life and my peers were presenting smoking as masculine, sophisticated and also a stress reliever.

I know smoking has a long history and it wouldn't  be realistic for example to portray World War II soldiers without most of them smoking.  But when movies glamorize smoking they are sending a message that many youngsters like to emulate.  Smoking has been used to project masculinity.  It often has been an ice breaker.  Movies try to reflect the times, but also set standards.  Time to find other models

My father in law died of complications from lung cancer and my mother, a non smoker died of emphysema (possibly second hand smoke did her in).  I used to wear contact lens and found smoke stung my eyes.  Once you get through the teen years in modern times we are increasingly aware of the many harms of smoking and can resist the temptation.

Remedies include anti-tobacco ads before the feature plus reminders of smoking harmful effects when smoking is being shown.  Another idea is to add tobacco to the activities that restrict a film.  For producers wanting wide distribution this could diminish exposure to smoking among youngsters.  IMDB posts smoking information on many of their reviews as they recognize many viewers, especially parents are interested.

Larry Hagman, most famous as the bad guy on "Dallas" was an adamant non smoker chairing non smoking campaigns. A different kind of role model.

A touchy issue is forcing actors to smoke (this actually helped ruin one relationship for me).  Before an audition it is usually posted if a role requires smoking and that filters out some non-smoking actors. Vince Vaughan started smoking at age 24 because he wanted to look real and has since quit.  Others are able to fake smoking.  Fake smoking-- is used by non smoking actors, but sometimes illegal inside buildings such as in California.  Although smoking may be required for historical reasons, it should be very limited for any other reason.  Viewers may not realize the actor is not really smoking, but they see that smoking is considered important for image.  It is the image that is the real problem.

In India there are a lot of movies that along with the preview trailers show a short clip on the health hazards of smoking some including very graphic sections of very ill people.  I can see why Woody Allen would think these clips can turn people off.  During a movie with smoking a little warning comes on with "smoking is injurious to your health." which serves as a reminder while also being realistic in historical sense.

Until the 1990's smoking in Bollywood was mostly done by the bad guys, but subsequently copying more Western movies Indian actors smoked to demonstrate sophistication.  A law was passed in 2005 to ban smoking, but proved to be unenforceable.  Movie people complained about restrictions being like censorship.

Censorship is a delicate issue and I agree reality should be portrayed.  However youngsters are the most vulnerable and efforts to prevent their initiation are critical to future health of the nation.  Shah Rukh Khan is a chain smoker, often playing smoking roles sets a bad example.  He is one of my favorites, but I cringe to see him smoke.  Non smokers who set a better example include Abhishek Bachchan, Vivek Oberoi (not allow smoking on set), Paresh Rawal. Hrithrik Roshan and Akshay Kumar.  Saif ali Khan is a converted non smoker who has become an anti smoking crusader.  Bipasha Basu has refused to even hold a cigarette.

In Canada I recall a few non smoking commercials during the previews.  They attempt to de glamorize the image smokers see elsewhere.  The fellow singing through his windpipe makes a strong statement.

Youngsters, especially teenagers resent parents telling them what to do, but seem oblivious how other commercial interests manipulate them for their own greedy ends.  That is a delicate message to convey, but I would like to see more efforts along that line.

Again I sympathize with Woody Allen who basically wants his movies to be seen in an ideal setting. Tobacco manufacturers have pulled the strings for many decades with movies and very carefully do what they can to undermine health programs.  When smoking is less of a health threat it will not be used to project masculinity and sophistication, but just as an historical aberration.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Pope. Is he a moral force for everyone?

I am not a Catholic and as an outsider have always thought they were too restrictive, although some of the Popes were admirable in one way or another.  Pope Francis has certainly opened up to what many would consider more progressive views than his predecessors.

This openness seems based on a broader understanding of the world.  Pope Francis appears very conscious that the world has been manipulated for the benefit of the very rich.  The very rich are quite comfortable with the status quo.  The definition of a conservative is someone who resists change and naturally if you have a good deal you want to keep it.  The world is changing in a lot of ways.

The Papal election process is secretive, but from my university history class many years ago I believe it has political elements.  It seems like the church has been under assault for many decades.  A few decades ago they elected the first Polish Pope, who turned out to be very anti-communist.  Now they have opened up even further and elected a non European who really does have credentials of working with poverty.  Also a scientific background.

Although in one sense a very powerful man, Pope Francis is aware of his limitations.  He can only push so far before running up against tradition and political (and economical) realities.  He seems to understand that, while pushing harder.

To a rational person the debate over whether the climate is changing is long over.  The contribution of mankind to climate change is settled.  There are lots of ideas how to deal with it and that is what we should be debating.  I favor in general the Green Party approach--tax what we don't want.  It is human nature to look for a better way--some say a market principle.

Climate change has been denied by some very powerful people, or ignored and many have just accepted the status quo.  The Pope's financial powers are probably not as great as those of the oil  and coal oligarchies, but his moral authority is still very formidable and not to be ignored.

Listening to Jack Beatty on NPR; he raised the point that one of the critical factors to climate change has been population growth and that a lot of that has come from poor believers.  The Pope has stated that it is not necessary to have large families and implied that it is not a good idea.  It might be a big step to approve of contraception, but one benefit might be that it would minimize abortions while also diminishing pressure on population and thereby climate change.  This would of course upset a lot of religious fundamentalists who in my opinion are really against promiscuity and see sex as a sin.

His encyclical, especially if it energizes Catholic priests should stir up an interesting debate prior to the American election.  The Republican candidates seem ready to forsake the moral authority of the Pope they have used for abortion and contraception.  Pope Francis has articulated his concerns very well and is well qualified to do so.  There will be some backtracking among the candidates.  I am worried that voters will actually think a backtracking Republican can solve their problems better than a Democrat, but hopefully enough voters will remember the hypocrisy and their clinging to monied powers.

It is upsetting to think that powerful men deny what must be obvious to them.  The Pope will not carry a lot of weight with many evangelicals, but his moral authority will impact many people open to reason.  Can the voices of the monied power maintain their power against not only the scientific community, but also the Pope?  I think there will be a whittling down and maybe it will draw attention to the fact that those in power want to increase their share of the pie.

To answer my title question:  I believe Pope Francis is a moral force that even non believers should respect, if not agree with everything he says. He is not beholden to financial donations and has identified alliance with the masses.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Swedish movies

Sweden is a small country that seems to punch above its weight in a lot of activities.  Volvo, Saab (my dad's favouite car), Ikea, meat balls, ABBA, are all well known and respected around the globe.  They also have a long history of movie excellence.  From North America we have been aware of the likes of Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, and Liv Ullman.

A good place to start is with Ingmar Bergman.  A good authority on Ingmar would be Woody Allen who discovered Bergman in the 1950's.  He liked The "Seventh Seal" best.  Woody felt that Bergman's films had the deepest intellectual content while still being entertaining.  He described Bergman as the greatest film artist pound for pound

The "Seventh Seal" (1957) was very grim, but also very thoughtful movie that is listed in the top 250 at IMDB.  It featured Death playing chess against Max Von Sydow portraying a returning Crusader during the Black Plague.  This film helped elevate Max to international cinema.  Max was one of many graduates of theatrical studies in Sweden.

"Fanny and Alexander" (1982) which was an Oscar winner is considered  autobiographical.  It is set with partly with a family heavily involved with the theatre and partly with two children being taken under the care of a religious leader.   Bergman was the son of a priest, but also had theatrical relations.

I have long felt that opera is the highest art form (partly because it combines everything else) and that filmed opera has the potential to be even better.  Ingmar Bergman filmed the "Magic Flute" (1975) on a Swedish stage and made the audience part of the entertainment.

"Faithless" (2000) was actually directed by Liv Ullman, but written by Ingmar.  There are supposed to be semi autobiographical elements in it.  Lena Endre who later performed in all 3 of the Stieg Larrsson trilogy was the leading actress.

Scandinavians have been very prominent with mystery writers.  One of my favorite authors is Henning Mankell with his Wallander series (he has continued to mature in style). The Swedes also had mystery writer competition from Norway.

Stieg Larsson, after he died, created an international sensation with a trilogy of stories that have been made into movies in both Sweden and America.  "Girl with  with Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet"s Nest"  (all 3 released in 2009) drew attention and was copied in English a few years later. The Swedish version starred Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.

Both Michael and Noomi have made films in English.  Michael appeared in a Swedish favorite "As it is in Heaven." (2004) with a sort of sports-like theme with a diverse troubled group coalescing into a superior choir.  The lead singer was actually a music star in her first movie and is quite impressive in a supporting role.   I had seen Michael in two earlier films "The Man from Beijing" (2011) filmed in German, but originally written by Henning Mankell which I enjoyed.

"Mother of Mine" (2005) a Finnish/Swedish production that was very moving and written up in my blog on sad movies also had Michael Nyqvist in an important role.  A little bit of history not known by most North Americans is that during World War II Russia invaded Finland and 70,000 children were shipped to other countries including Sweden.  It is a very emotional film and demonstrates co-operation between Finland and Sweden (whose languages are not similar, but some are bilingual).  The director Klaus Haro has done some other films with Swedes.

Another of the supporting cast in the Stieg Larsson trilogy, Annika Hallin. had been seen in another film.  Annika who played  Michael's lawyer sister was the lead actress in the  Norwegian movie "Kissed by Winter" (2005).  

Stellan Skarsgard starred in "Insomnia"  (1997) when the writer-director, Erik Skjolbjaert decided he would write in a Swedish police officer working on a case in Norway.   It was an interesting twist on a film noir.  Stellan has made many English speaking movies including "Mama Mia" (2008) based on fellow Swede ABBA songs).   "Insomnia" (2002)was revised in English with the setting moved to Alaska.  Stellan's son Alexandr has also been in American movies as well as a few in Sweden

The Swedish and Danish language are also very similar and to some extent intelligible to one another.  This was commented on with "The Bridge" set between Malmo Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark in which the two leads spoke only their native language (Swedish or Danish) to each other.

"Force Majeure," (2014) directed by Ruben Ostlund got a lot of attention at film festivals this past year and did have a unique focus.  A man running from scary (but harmless) avalanche in front of his wife and children.  The dynamics affect whole family plus friends.  The film made it to the short list for foreign language Oscar and did win a prize at Cannes and also the Toronto Film Critics.  The controlled avalanche was actually filmed in British Columbia.

An uncommon genre for me is the vampire movie.  "Let The Right One In"  (2008) got my attention on another project and on impulse I watched it.  It was scary, partly because it seemed so real, but had an element of humanity about it.  The director, Tomas Alfredson did "Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy" in English.  An upcoming project for him is "The Snowman" based on internationally famous Norwegian author Jo Nesbo.

There is a good variety of Swedish movies, so don't be afraid to check one out.   The Scandinavian countries do a lot of work with each other on films and that seems to be healthy for each one.  Also note they are already helping boost English language films in a significant way.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Canada's Dilemma

This post is inspiredly by a column in today's Spectator by Dante Ryel who captured and connected a lot of my themes with his own perspective.

Canada has one big asset, the Tar Sands that at one time seemed like it might be the salvation of mankind.   That was a long time ago, but our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is tied to it.  There are several decades worth of oil buried there that at one time seemed not only could be sold to a desperate world, but at a huge profit for Canada.  

Dante has pointed out two major concerns.  The one is climate change which most of the world is acknowledging, but a powerful section is denying.  Hopefully those who are willing to do something about it will overwhelm the ones wanting to cling to their fossil fuel empire.  The other concern is that when the price of oil is high the Canadian dollar is also high and that handicaps us from developing our manufacturing and diversifying our economy.  Canada has been too dependent on the oil industry.  In fact the Canadian government based its budget on the assumption of continuing price increases and demand.

For many years the Canadian dollar was well below the American dollar and that helped generate manufacturing jobs.  When the oil sands started booming our dollar caught up and surpassed the American dollar and there seemed to be a fairly strong correlation between the price of oil and the Canadian dollar.  When visiting other countries it was a pleasant surprise that our Canadian dollar would buy more than it used to.  With the price of oil declining that is reversing and may help manufacturing, but a little difficult to predict.

The Saudis are said to keep up production so that high priced alternatives such as the tar sands and fracking plus renewables will slow down.  Some speculate maybe they want the oil exporters Russia and Iran to suffer.  The price at the gas pump is still below previous levels a few months ago and consumption is up.  Dante suggests an alternative strategy; maybe the Saudis are liquidating their assets while they can.  When oil is replaced there will not be much profit in it.

The Saudis recognize that oil is a finite resource and have been using some of their profits for other investments.  Americans are suspicious of the Iranians wanting nuclear energy, but maybe they also realize there is a finite amount of oil and they need to find alternatives or at least be able to export to an oil hungry world.

It is also pointed out that oil wealth tends to work against democracy.  One of my favourite examples has been when the Conservatives under Harper cut the $2 per vote subsidy for political parties.  This gives less incentive to vote for third parties and encourages strategic voting or not voting at all.  Another example has been muzzling scientists here in Canada while they are ridiculed by many Americans who wish to deny climate change.  

Another one of my favourite themes has been our voting system that favours those who can split the vote in order to win with less than 40% of the popular vote.  Before we woke up to climate change, Canadians were aware of the dangers of pollution, but somehow those who support our fossil fuel corporations seem to hold onto power.  

With low price on gas, consumption will increase for awhile and likely some alternatives will be put on hold.  But the price of solar and wind energy is coming down and will be seen by more and more people as a logical alternative.

It may be awhile before our elections are handled proportionately, but more Canadians need to realize we are being controlled by those beholden to the oil conglomerates.  The Conservatives were very clever to merge two divisions of their party a few years back while those opposed to their policies split the vote and allow the Conservatives to take power and set the rules.

While Stephen Harper clings to an oil alliance, Canada is missing opportunities to diversify which are being picked up by others who more realistically see the future.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lincoln Chafee has an interesting proposal for a metric future

How does a marginal candidate get more attention?  How do they transform their unique resources into something people can understand.  Lincoln Chaffee came up with advocating the metric system.

A little background.  One of his main assets is that he was one of the few Senators to vote against the invasion of Iraq unlike Hilary Clinton.  Although she has disavowed her vote it really does point out that she has a tendency to make a political vote, rather than a stronger moral one.  Lincoln is very unique in that he was a Republican at the time and it took more courage to go against a party leader that said "you are either with us or against us."

It is part of his campaign to "wage peace."  He points out that America has a credibility problem partly to do with the Iraq War and that metric conversion would be one step to improve international reputation.  Most candidate are trying to project a "unilateralist" role for the United States.  Many politicians find themselves restricted by the strong notion that United States is exceptional and does not need to follow the world.  Lincoln seems to have the idea that in many ways United States would do better by better blending in.

Metric is internationally normal.  The old imperial system used by Amercians actually causes engineering adjustments for all countries.  It is easier for everyone, because the basis is 10, a number most can count on their fingers.   The globe, except for Liberia and Myanmar already trades and researches in metric, so everything involving the rest of the world will go smoother, i.e. be more understandable and economical in the long run.

In earlier blog on this subject I commented on basketball.  The international standard was adapted from the height of the first peach basket which was approximately 10 feet--it was just a convenient place to place the basket on an overhead running track.  It was not exact until someone decided to standardize it.  The International authority has adjusted to 3.05 metres which might not be to the same exact millimetre as 10 feet, but in reality basketball players adjust their shots with every hoop.  Check my earlier post,

The Olympics is the biggest international event.  It is metric and Americans have accepted 100 metres, 200 metres, etc and trained with those exact distances in mind.   The NFL football may make an adjustment and it would be political.  An example would be the Ontario speed limit on controlled access highways went from 60 miles per hour to 61+ mph as that happens to be where 100 kilometres per hour converts.  I can see someone would round it up to make it better for defence and others would shorten downward to encourage more offensive excitement.

Of course a lack of exceptionalism will be thrown at Chafee and it is possible ridicule will shunt him to the side,   Thomas Jefferson advocated for metric.  Gerald Ford, a Republican  signed a bill to expand use of metric, but it ended up being voluntary.  I hope the voting masses consider the back story--US can increase its credibility, fit in the world better and actually make it easier to measure things

A few campaigns ago when the price of gas went up, the Democrats under Obama came up with the idea of how to lower the price of gas with a tire gauge.  It was ridiculed, but in fact it was  a very practical suggestion--lower the demand for gas (by being more efficient) and the price will come down.  Unfortunately the proof came with heavy unemployment.

There are a lot of issues in the election and ultimately the voters will decide on a package deal.  Right now Hilary has a commanding lead and a lot of resources to go all the way.  Bernie Sanders has an interesting package that will draw attention.  Perhaps the two men, plus Martin O'Malley can have their good ideas blended in the Democrat campaign and even force the Republicans to eventually accept the merits.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


It is possible to read too much into a NewYork Times editorial, but sometimes it is encouraging.  On the negative side they pointed out that Australia actually reversed a carbon tax when a conservative government got elected.

It seems impossible for a government to make laws without some consent from the monied powers.  The majority of people in most nations now realize that climate change is real and something should be done about it.  A smaller number are doing their small share--recyling, etc.

The New York Times editorial was inspired by some European conglomerates actually suggesting a carbon tax would help.  They are not being altruistic, just recognizing reality.  They see a serious problem and recognize something will have to be done and soon.  They want something predictable and reasonably smooth.  The names are some that you might have heard:  BG Group, BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, and Total.

The Times also point out an example that demonstrates a carbon tax can work.  It comes from British Columbia that enacted a carbon tax and diverted some of the money to lowering income tax (sounds like a Green Party idea).  The results are a reduction in fuel consumption compared to rest of Canada that did not have a carbon tax.  On top of that they had more business growth than the rest of Canada.

There already is a carbon tax in much of the world.  Taxes on gas were intended to maintain our road system, but in the United States they have not been raised since 1993.  They could be raised with the increased revenue being distributed in a politically acceptable manner.  The first might be an offsetting tax cuts, ideally in a progressive manner.  Other uses might be to cut the debt.  Another appropriate use might be to improve infrastructure.  The most relevant infrastructure might be to make transportation both more green and more efficient.  British Columbia has proved it can be good for the economy.  Jobs will be required.

Stephen Harper has been very resistant to talk of climate change.  Undoubtedly he is concerned about the perceived value of the Tar Sands and how it could contribute to Canada's economy.  He probably enjoys some financial backing from some powerful advocates.  Shortly the G7 members are meeting in Germany and the majority see climate change as one of the most critical issues facing mankind. Hopefully Canada will fit in better after this meeting.  We are a small country and have to be concerned about our own economic survival, but when huge oil companies see a problem, we cannot afford to ignore it.  More importantly can we contribute to the survival of mankind or delay the necessary remedies?