Thursday, June 30, 2011

KVIFF: Day 0 -- part two

I escaped from the office about an hour ago and saw that the rain had cleared up. The breeze is still cool, which is fine by me, especially if it lowers the temperature in my bedroom.

We had the usual first-day issues, but all in all things seem to be running smoothly. I hesitate to type that, lest I end up jinxing the process, but it looks as if we'll be out of here before 11, making this a less-than-14-hour day all together, which is excellent, especially for the first day.

One of the exciting developments this year is the renovation of the open-air outdoor cinema, which has been out of commission since before I started working here. Its opens tomorrow night with a free screening of Jane Eyre, open to the public -- as opposed to the simultaneous invitation-only screening in the Grand Hall. I was tasked with writing the photo caption and was hit by one of those moments of great and terrible genius:

Open Air Opens with Open Eyre Opening.

Obviously that's not the one we went with.

KVIFF: Day 0

The view from my bedroom window.
I should have taken pictures yesterday, when everything was gleaming and bright. Today's our first full day of work, and--like clockwork--we awoke to rain and a significantly cooler temperatures. But weather in KV is like weather in New England: If you don't like it, just wait ten minutes.

No complaints from me about the weather, though. I'm on the fourth floor this year (fifth floor, by US standards) and it gets a little toasty in my room. It turns out I've actually got a room to myself this year--the initial assignment was a mistake. It gave me a twinge of a picked-last-for-kickball sort of feeling for just a minute, but there are plenty of advantages to having a solo room.

Another view.
It's fairly spartan: all white walls and blonde wood. It's a narrow room, just wide enough to hold one small table, one wardrobe (with one high shelf and two hangers), one small trashcan, and one bed (white pillow, white duvet). High on the wall opposite the bed is a tiny blue-green painting, the one spot of color in the whole room.

I've been spoiled in years past by having to share my bathroom with only one person. This year, my shower is at the end of the hall. But it's a clean, well-lighted place and it's much closer to the Hotel Thermal (where the press office is located) than the hotel we stayed at my first year on staff. That one was halfway up a very steep hill and it was a brutal walk at the end of a long day.

Someone from the film office just walked in with two of the videos I'd requested, so I've got to run. More later!

The inflatable theater from another angle.
Espace Dorleans: the inflatable theater.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

KVIFF: Day -1

Fun for the whole family! Especially the part that hates fun. Source
Tomorrow's our first official day of work, but most of the staff is already here. I arrived around 3:30 and made my way to the hotel. My room is on the third floor, which should be good for my calves, and I'm sharing it with one of the Czech writers.

I'll apologize in advance for any spelling errors in the next few weeks. The spell check feature on this blog has switched to Czech and I don't know how to fix it, so you'll have to rely on my personal spelling skills, which are less than perfect.

My first assignment is to cover a sidebar--that is, a non-competition category--on Greek cinema. I'm not sure if there's a direct connection between the dissolution of the economy and the bleakness of artistic output, but the Greeks seem to be a pretty dark bunch. I watched Dogtooth a few nights ago and couldn't decide which scene to have nightmares about first--which is not to say that it's a bad movie. It's been well received, and with good reason. But it's the kind of film that gets under your skin. Like a burrowing parasite, only slightly more grotesque. Nonetheless, I've been enjoying them and the article is slowly coming along.

Of the English staff, only our translator is here, so I have our closet of a staffroom to myself. That's not hyperbole--we are literally in a closet. The chairs and tables and other odds and ends that occupy this room for the rest of the year have been hauled out into the hallway, and five desks have been set up inside. I've claimed the one nearest the door, which tends to be a good spot until my editor loses something off of his desk and decides to borrow one of mine--which he can do without moving since this is, after all, a closet. But aside from the occasional filching hazard, it's a good desk. By which I mean it's close to the coffee machine.

With any luck, I'll have time tomorrow to take a break from movie-viewing to take a few photos of the town. As far as I can tell, everything looks exactly the same as it did two years ago. By the time I showed up, they'd already rolled out the crystal globe statues and the flags and blown up the enormous inflatable cinema that sits at the foot of the Hotel Thermal like a swollen tick. So everything appears to be ship shape. More updates as events warrant....

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brand X

A thoughtful screed against branding asks how a focus on branding can limit the integrity of a message:

"When I was a hungry young reporter in the 1970s, I thought of myself as a superman, an invincible crusader for truth and justice — even though, looking back at old pictures, I now see that I resembled an emaciated weasel in unattractive clothing. My goals, however, were unambiguous, and heroic: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”

Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent."

Weingarten's column is specific to journalism, but the question pertains to nation branding as well.


Like gingerbread houses for grownups. Source
Twenty-four hours from now, if all goes well, I'll be in Prague--jetlagged and disheveled and cursing myself, once again, for my appalling Czech language skills.

This will be my sixth year covering the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for the Festival Daily, and my first trip to Europe since 2009, as my travels in Mexico prevented me from attending last year. I've blogged about the experience before, here and here, and I look forward to posting updates again, once I've settled in.

Here's a quick primer on the festival: The first seeds of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (or "KVIFF") were planted in 1946, when a non-competition festival was launched in Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně, another popular Czech spa town. Before the festival really had a chance to establish itself, the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia pushed it in a new direction. The communists allowed the festival continued, but with a decidedly socialist bent. This had the negative effect of emphasizing films that had more merit as propaganda than as art -- but it also resulted in an emphasis on films from Third World countries.

Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, KVIFF entered a new era. Today the festival continues to highlight films from developing nations, with several sidebars devoted to films from the Czech Republic and its central and eastern European neighbors. In terms of glitz and glamor, KVIFF can't compete with fellow category A festivals like Cannes. But what it lacks in glam, it makes up for in intimacy. Visitors won't walk away with a bagful of swag, but their chances of meeting and talking with a famous actor, attending a class taught by a favorite director, or watching an up-and-coming legend guest DJ at a local club are much higher.

I'm leaving in a few hours and I think my fellow travelers would appreciate it if I showered beforehand, so I'll close for now. If you have any PD/IC questions for the international film community, let me know, and I'll see if I can scrounge up some answers. Ahoj!

Friday, June 17, 2011

PD: No Laughing Matter?

 But not really. Source
My friends and I recently came across a deadly book called "5,600 Jokes for Every Occasion," whose entries--barely recognizable as humor--would have made the most hackneyed vaudevillian cringe. Here's an example of the sort of hilarious exchanges the book contained:

She: What can I wear to prevent sunburn?
He: A jacket! 

As one of my friends noted, that's not a joke; that's sensible advice. The entire book was filled with these militantly unfunny offerings, prompting me to reflect with sympathy on the plight of the humor-impaired.

That thought was in my head again this week as I read an Atlantic article about Cambodian comedians who double as government mouthpieces. Here's a riotous quote from a popular comedy program cited in the article:
Krem: Phnom Penh municipality now has less garbage and is cleaner. Do you know who did that?
Oeurn: Who?
Krem: It is because of Excellency Kep Chuktema, the governor. He has educated people and broadcast it on television not to litter, so now there is less garbage and no more bad smell.
I apologize if that hilarious punchline made you laugh so hard that you did yourself bodily injury. I myself am so amused I need to wipe off my computer screen due to an unfortunate snarfing incident. No, really. Please go on and tell us more hilarious stories about the government's civil programs! OK, snarking aside, I realize that a great deal of humor is culturally informed, and I will be the last person to claim that I have my thumb on the pulse of the Cambodian humor scene. But can I be alone in thinking the above exchange ... lacking?

According to The Atlantic, this yukfest is a common occurrence in Cambodia, where "comedians" often double as bodyguards for the nation's prime minister. Or, to be more accurate, the government's armed bodyguards frequently perform on comedy programs.

As writer Julia Wallace notes, "The country's dozens of 'colonel comedians' underscore the extent to which [prime minister] Hun Sen and his CPP have consolidated power over the past two decades, successfully marginalizing not just rival politicians but also dissenting artistic and cultural voices."

Because nothing shuts down a heckler faster than a comedian who's packing heat.

The article focuses mostly on the domestic impact of the state-centric "comedy," but there's a takeaway for all people involved in message transmission, be it domestic or international.

On the one hand, it's nice to see that Australian reporters don't have a lock on misdirected attempts at humor, but I do think this is a limited strategy. By all means, use humor to make a point, but propaganda with a punchline falls into a category that's all its own. If I may paraphrase: explaining political policy through a joke is like dissecting a frog; you understand it better, but the frog dies of it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IC Fail

From time to time, manIC likes to honor ordinary human beings who, in the spirit of GOB Bluth, have "made a huge mistake." Australian newsman Karl Stefanovic's recent attempt at humor isn't really disastrous enough to merit a GOB award, but his ham-handed joke mangling, coupled with his self-satisfied/hysterical chuckling, deserves a special sort of recognition.

Karl, you haven't really made a huge mistake. But by blowing an opportunity for cross-cultural communication and making a fool out of yourself in front of an internationally renowned figure (and a television camera), you've earned an honorable mention in the manIC files. Kudos, sir.

(And for the record, Karl, since you seem to be struggling to understand why the Dalai Lama didn't respond to your hilarious routine by snarfing his coffee and collapsing on the floor in a fit of gleeful hiccups, I don't think ignorance of pizza is the explanation you're looking for....)

Watch the video below:

Friday, June 10, 2011

X-men and IR

In my continued quest of brainless summer fun, I joined some friends to watch X-men: First Class yesterday. Alas, the latest flick from the franchise proved more resistant to my quest for non-academic pursuits than my last foray.

Maybe it was because I watched it with international relations scholars, or maybe because X-men has always been a more thoughtful franchise. Whatever the reason, I couldn't help but observe several IR threads running throughout the movie. I know, I know. I'm a huge nerd.

Before you completely despair, I will say that X-men: First Class has all the hallmarks of a popcorn classic: attractive leads, snappy one-liners, bright explosions and incredibly stupid memes ("Remember: Mutant and proud").

But the film, like many X-men stories, focuses on the contrasting world views of two of its most charismatic and powerful mutants: the idealistic Professor X and the realistic Magneto. (Lest the symbolism of their balanced-in-opposition stances escape us, they are frequently depicted playing chess: Look! The director tells us. They are smart! Balanced! Yet opposed!)

The idea is that Professor X and Magneto are both members of a small but powerful minority, and they disagree about how those powers should be used. Magneto, a strict realist, adopts a traditional approach, arguing that ordinary humans will feel threatened by the growing power of the mutant community. Fear will lead to attack, powered by a desire for self-preservation. In order to protect themselves, the mutants must band together against a common enemy.

Professor X is the idealist, arguing that the strength of mutual interests and cooperation will override traditional balance-of-power politics, particularly if non-mutants can be persuaded to recognize mutant powers as a resource for good.

The resolution of this argument is ambiguous, and Professor X and Magneto fare no better in reaching consensus than their IR colleagues. Ultimately, there is always evidence to support both sides of the coin. That may be what makes X-men such an enduring franchise. The nature of the enemy is unpredictable and changing, giving their villains and heroes greater depth than some other comics. The nature of their struggle is not rooted in a simple good v. evil binary, but in the the response of ordinary humans to revolutionary change.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dog Days of June

Mmmmmm. Source
The great thing about living in D.C. is that you never have to choose between sweltering heat and oppressive humidity -- for the bulk of the summer you can have both! I was thinking about that this morning when I received a phone call informing me that my afternoon interview had to be postponed, as the entire block on which the interview was to be held has lost power.

This news reaches us on a day when the D.C. authorities are warning that the weather is so hot and nasty that it's actually unhealthy for people to engage in dangerous activities such as being outside or breathing. It's the kind of heat that makes stupid intrepid people wade into the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in search the kind of relief that only an illegal dip into goose-murky water can provide. 

My interview had been scheduled for 1:15, by which point I imagine the high rises on that block will start trembling and shooting out Looney Tunish jets of steam from their top windows. I won't be there to see it, however, as I'll be directing my energies toward temperature-reducing pursuits in the comfort of my own backyard--such as training the dog to fetch ice cubes from the freezer.