peteg's blog

In the Year of the Pig

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This is the pick of the anti-Vietnam War docos I've seen so far. I struggle to believe it was made in 1968, while LBJ was in power and Hồ Chí Minh still alive, as the level of cultural awareness canvassed here far outstrips that of the U.S. Government as represented by McNamara, Rusk et al.

Like Hearts and Minds, many injudicious comments are made, but these are counterbalanced by erudite commentary from some people who do know South East Asia, including at least one US Senator. Perhaps most interesting is the Frenchman Paul Mus, who demonstrates a keen understanding of Vietnamese culture and aspirations. He died soon after the movie was released. Also David Halberstam puts in a suitably literate and awestruck appearance.

The iconic footage of Madam Nhu, Uncle Ho, LBJ, Bảo Đại, Ngô Đình Diệm, Curtis LeMay, ... is priceless, as are the images of the Vietnamese people during wartime, especially around Hà Nội. There is much less war porn here than in the typical doco.

Topical: The Journal of Vietnamese Studies had a forum on Paul Mus in 2009.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

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At the Chauvel with Rob at their show-and-tell with one of the writer/directors Judith Ehrlich. I think she was out here for the Sydney Film Festival. It opens more broadly this coming Thursday.

I'd been meaning to see this film since I first heard about it more than a year ago. It is well-constructed and occasionally riveting, with some great selective quoting of Nixon. They could have dropped some of the worn-out war porn though. There is a degree of self-absorption here that is also vaguely troubling, but it is difficult to communicate the nuance of political influence without sliding to extremes.

Much was made during the discussion of the recent hoopla around Wikileaks and its founder Assange, and also the similarly-recent legislation in Iceland to protect whistle blowers. There seems to be little to learn from this film about connecting to the general population in ways that might change policies; Ellsberg's big impact was to get the Watergate investigation started, which was also a fortunate accident for him as it allowed the court to dismiss the charges arising from his leaking the Pentagon Papers. As always with technicians, he failed to understand how little the people care about details and proof.

Ellsberg is very similar here to what he was in Hearts and Minds, which is perhaps unsurprising as his life has been in some kind of stasis since 1971. (Ehrlich stated this quite flatly.)

I wonder if Ellsberg's book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is worth reading.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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I remember Bob Carr calling this one a turkey when it won an Oscar (or something) back in 2000. I have to agree, the cliches are tedious and there is no depth. All the flying looks totally fake, the fighting is ho-hum, except perhaps between the two women. Oh sure, it's a form of dance, in which case I'm watching the wrong movie. Capriciousness robs everyone and everything of possibility.

David Marr, Quarterly Essay #38: Power Trip, The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd

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Marr can write, there's no doubt about that. The question is whether he can analyze. Rudd is driven by anger? Well, maybe, but what does that tell us? Obsessed by detail, unable to delegate, an oppressive boss... one wonders that the government has managed to do anything at all. I was relieved when Howard went down in 2007, but my small hopes for this lot had evaporated well before I read this. Crabb's efforts have definitely reduced readers' expectations of the commentariat.

Crikey develops this argument further. I concur with the observation that Rudd is more boring than angry. This essay does not explain why Rudd decided to fill his void (if there was one) with generalist political power rather than make money ala his wife and Turnbull.

Probably all you need to read is contained in this excerpt in the SMAGE. I don't think the full version is worth twenty bucks. If you're desperate for more, you can read Judith Brett's take in Inside Story.

Incidentally I did buy Quarterly Essay #36: Australian Story: Kevin Rudd and the Lucky Country by Mungo MacCallum, and found it so feeble that it defied a write-up. Mungo claims to hold on to reality with both hands but seems to have little familiarity with evidence. This journal's glory days are long gone.

The Karate Kid

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On the strength of Dana Stevens's review of the remake; I can barely imagine that Jackie Chan is as funny there as Mr Miyagi was here. Having an Okinawan protagonist was apposite then, and I wonder if the Beijing setting, the fresher prince, the kung fu, etc. will satisfy. This was perhaps the Gran Torino of its day.

It has the cheese, and all that other wonderful 1980s stuff. The ending is a bit abrupt, and the whole thing is totally implausible, both of which add to its charm. I liked the lead boy, he reeked of east coast meets west, but his opponents were banal. Shue is vapid and game.

Another Slate article on the cultural import of this film.

Hearts and Minds

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An anti-Vietnam War doco from 1974. There is some iconic footage here, and some stupendous comments from people who should have known better. I am keen to see more of the Saigon from that era.

The summary at Wikipedia is quite good.

The Thorn Birds

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Loan's mate chị Mai is a big fan of the book (in translation) and this mini-series, so I figured it'd be worth a look. There are some great performances from actors in minor roles, especially Christopher Plummer as an Italian Catholic operator. The leads are a bit more wooden, partially excused by some dodgy dialogue and hackneyed set pieces. The characters are a bit too shallowly drawn for me to get excited about, but are sufficient vehicles for the main themes, I guess.

Whatever its faults, they don't make them like this any more; no longer is anyone really interested in romancing undeveloped Australia...

Trung Nguyên: 1 Nguyễn Thông, District 3.

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This "official" one is at the railway station. As the whole place is smoke-free, it is quite comfortable, albeit totally empty. I think the train users have other things on their minds than coffee. Perhaps it gets busy when the train comes in. The coffee is so-so.

City Lights

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Classic Chaplin. It didn't exactly scream "masterpiece!" at me, but it had its moments.

Trung Nguyên: 26B-C Lê Lợi

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A brand-new tiny "official" cafe in the heart of the tourist district. The coffee wasn't great, the prices are the same as elsewhere, and there is little to attact me to this place.

All about Eve

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Something of a chick-flick with brains (but only something). Bette Davis is great, as is Anne Baxter. Addison DeWitt is such a cliche that I can't believe the actor got an Oscar for playing him. This is the sort of intrigue Sydney theatre types dream of.

Parked at #88 on IMDB's top-250.

Trung Nguyên: Corner of Trương Dịnh and Lý Tự Trọng.

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This one is new since my last visit. It is an "official" one, quite similar to the others, with a non-smoking floor. Quite near the tourist areas. There is no point drinking anything but the coffee as everything is expensive. I got a card and now have a few other new ones to check out.

Elizabeth Pisani: The Wisdom of Whores

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Caroline from DRD lent me her copy of this personal memoir of the early days of the global AIDS intervention, covering a decade from roughly 1995. Pisani is at her strongest when she is telling anecdotes and presenting data, and at her weakest when she gets vague and non-constructive.

Like many experts, Pisani does not seem to realise that a lot of her experience is generic; for example, many data crankage (statistical) activities suffer from the problems she had, and would the collection process be so very different if the goal was to influence drink driving in the developing world, or efficiently saving cute furry creatures? Possibly less sexy, I grant you. Her bullshit bingo is age-old, and some themes get a Freakonomics-ish treatment, such as the idea that more people having sex is safer. Such coarse oversimplifications are rife in these types of books, but sometimes she is careful, for example in identifying that it is network effects that dominate in the spread of disease. The management of aid money struck me as largely an accounting issue, readily solved by finding a good accountant.

Stylistically Pisani sometimes gets tediously repetitious. The chapter The Naked Truth is twice as long as it should be, and that space could have been used to more fully explain infection vectors. Occasionally she is patronising and neo-colonial, partly because she wants to forment an iconoclastic lone-rider image, sometimes because that is how she thinks about some issues; arguing about whether prostitutes would prefer lipstick of nail polish as a reward for completing a survey is a trivial example. Her appeals to the crutch of rationality are tedious, especially when she robs it of any kind of universality. Some analogies have less than half an arse. For all her scientific training she is a journalist at heart.

Occasionally she touches on ethical issues, such as whether AIDS testing should always be voluntary, confidential, etc. These are interesting questions but she doesn't do much more than begin to explore them. I don't doubt there is a wealth of material out there on the morality of development, though as it is a mile from "the data", Pisani is likely unfamiliar with it. Her bibliography has the common problem of these polemics: it was designed to add heft and authority rather than serve as an entry point for the non-specialist who is the most likely reader. (One of her anecdotes is that by 2006 she had become so predictable that her colleagues knew what her criticisms would be; ergo I doubt they will critically read this text.)

Her TED 2010 talk gives a good sense of her tone and mode of discussion; the graph at approximately nine minutes in is the kind of rubbery thing I'm complaining about: is it only STIs that cause spikes in HIV load? What about pneumonia and suchlike?

For all that Pisani is not unnecessarily salacious, and her message is valuable, albeit not especially constructive; she offers no suggestions for getting the ants out of the sugar bowl, and indeed her solution was to become a queen ant (as far as I can tell). However unless we take her overly literally, there is little "wisdom of whores" in this book, which is more about nibbling at the hand that feeds.

Topical: Foreign Policy reports on drug rehab in Hải Phòng.

The Book of Eli

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Ah, the power of the trailer... Oldman, Waits, Washington, how could it be this bad? I felt ashamed that I took Loan to see this pile of crap at the Cinebox Hòa Bình on 3/2 street. Should have seen a chick flick instead.