Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America

Captain America: Source
In my ongoing pursuit of nonacademic entertainment, I went to see Captain America Friday night and was pleasantly surprised.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I love movies, both art house dramas and popcorn flicks, though my expectations tend to be considerably lower for the latter category. Captain America falls solidly into popcorn territory: American badassery at its finest, with buckles swashed and derring done.

Captain America starts out as Steve Rogers: a scrappy fighter with can-do gumption and lots of heart, whose feisty spirit is trapped in a puny little body as ill suited to acts of heroism as it is to leading-man status. Fortunately, for both the Allied forces and the modern moviegoer, he won't stay that way for long. Thanks to some fancy pseudoscience, the little man soon becomes a big man -- though he continues to fight for the Little Man against bullies of all stripes, and it's not long before he's taking on Hitler and the Fuhrer's psychotic colleagues. 

That includes this guy, who at one point observes that "arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say you do it better than anyone." And that's the thing about Captain America -- he's not arrogant, exactly -- though his enemies say otherwise. But he's proud and fierce and he doesn't give up. He follows his heart and he never compromises. Which is great in Nazi Germany and comic book climates where the boundaries between good and evil are clearly delineated with bold pen strokes.

Like the latest X-men movie, Captain America is set in wartime (the Cold War for the former, WWII for the latter) with U.S. interests juxtaposed against those of a menacing foreign ideology (communism and Naziism). But Captain America doesn't delve into the murky grey areas of morality that the X-men franchise has explored. Here, there are good guys (Allies) and bad guys (Nazis), and there's never any question of which side our heroes will choose -- only whether they'll be allowed to fight.

Because the Captain is initially kept off the front lines and his talents are channeled into fundraising, as he's encouraged to shill for U.S. war bonds and stir up patriotism at home. He's good at it -- of course he is -- but we all know he's destined for more than that.

Americans love a hero whose fight is clear. U.S. foreign policy, as I've observed before in this space, is often swayed by Wilsonian rhetoric toward Rooseveltian hard power politics. The American people may be leery of hard power ideology, but that doesn't mean they reject hard power altogether. And the comic book realm is a perfect example of this, with its emphasis both on letting might make right -- in the right ideological context.

Captain America is slated to appear next in an upcoming Avengers film, set in the present day, and it will be interesting to see how his ideology translates into the murkier Tony Stark era of double-dealing, where the lines between the public and the private sector are as fraught as those between the U.S. and its enemies ... whoever they may be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Xinhua in Times Square

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Panda. Source
OK, China may not be buying the world a Coke -- but it is leasing real estate in the same neighborhood: Times Square to be exact, where its logo will soon be rubbing shoulders with that of Coca Cola and Samsung, among others.

According to Reuters, China's state-sponsored Xinhua news/PD agency "will take over one of the highest-profile advertising locations in New York's Times Square starting Monday, in perhaps the most visible step in its recent American expansion."

If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you're remembering China's recent Times Square ad campaign, which received less than enthusiastic reviews (with Chinese reporting, of course, being one notable exception).  

Xinhua will replace a 60' x 40' sign currently emblazoned with the HSBC Bank logo, but while it's bound to increase Xinhua's recognizability, the public diplomacy implications of the move are less clear. The influence of the state on Xinhua reporting is fairly clear, and it's unlikely that many New Yorkers (or Americans in general, for that matter) will mistake it for an independent news source. 

I've written before on China's media expansion and its implications on the (forgive me, I'm about to get really geeky here) noosphere. That's right, I'm referring to the global abstraction of ideas that eventually become meaningful influences on foreign policy. 

China seems to recognize, both ideologically and financially, the importance of state-sponsored information institutions in a way a U.S. PD scholar can only dream of. More and more, I'm starting to agree with Secretary Clinton that the U.S. may be losing the information war... 

Clinton called it realpolitik. Arquilla and Ronfeldt would have called in noopolitik. Either way, it boils down to this: ideas matter, and in an information-saturated global environment, the nation whose ideas get the most traction has a serious political advantage.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

KVIFF Highlights

I've been home nearly a week now and find that when people ask me about the film festival, I keep recommending the same films. I've already mentioned my enthusiasm for Troll Hunter and Attack the Block, so today I'm linking to a few of my other favorites.


This is a feature film about a teenager with cystic fibrosis, surrounded by visions of the paths his future might take. His older brother is wasting away with a more advanced form of the disease. His companions at the hospital are pushing the limits of their endurance, trying to make the most out of what is likely to be a limited lifespan. His best friend, who's never had to live with compromised health, lives his life unburdened by the consequences of his actions. Under the constant pressure of other people's expectations for him and an awareness of his physical limitations, Tom must cope with his disease and decide which path his life will take. Hans Van Nuffel manages to direct a compelling story without sappy sick kid cliches.

Sunflower Hour

This is a charming, if uneven, first effort from Canadian director Aaron Houston. A mockumentary about "the seedy underbelly of puppeteering" in the style of Christopher Guest, Sunflower Hour focuses on the auditions of four wildly inappropriate candidates for a children's television show. The ending's a bit sloppy, but the film as a whole is entertaining and very funny, with excellent performances by Amitai Marmorstein and Ben Cotton in particular. (For the record, they know about the typo -- they just haven't had a chance to fix it.)

The Other F Word

This trailer doesn't really do it justice, but The Other F Word is a really touching documentary about punk rock icons who have become fathers and struggle to reconcile their anti-authoritarian careers with the need to become authoritarian figures in their own families. Ultimately, it's not about punk rock so much as the process of growing up and deciding when to challenge the system and when to embrace it. And the soundtrack rocks, naturally.

I'd also give a nod to Win Win, Flowers of Evil and The British Guide to Showing Off.

In a lot of my classes, we've discussed the cultural influence of films -- specifically in terms of how Disney and Hollywood have helped define people's images of the United States, and how Bollywood and Nollywood and the BBC have done the same for their respective countries. But at an international film festival, it's easy to see how quickly the lines get blurred, in part because so many movies are international co-productions and in part because it's clear that the audiences for such productions aren't strictly domestic.

I think it's probable that film industries contribute to a nation's reputation, but I think measuring that influence would be almost impossible. And that got me thinking about the USG-Sundance project Film Forward, which I wrote about last year. It may be time to revisit that thread and see what progress it's made...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jiggity jig...

This used to be my metro stop.

After a harrowing flight -- complete with turbulence, airsick seatmates and a last-minute aborted attempt to descend into Dulles -- I'm back in the States and just about over my jet lag.

I had a lovely time in the Czech Republic, as I always do, and from a totally nerdy standpoint, I enjoyed getting some foreign perspectives on international politics from my friends.

This wasn't my first trip to Europe. I did a semester abroad in 2002, and lived there from 2003-2005 -- a period in which U.S. foreign policy wasn't enjoying raging popularity. And at the time, I found myself responding a little defensively when people started to criticize the States, which they did frequently.

I, too, was unhappy with the war. I had attended protests and signed petitions against U.S. engagement in Iraq, so I could sympathize with other people's criticisms. But I frequently found myself getting frustrated when people judged the U.S. solely on its policies, without stopping to consider the land, the people, the culture -- all the things I love about the country.

I wasn't one of those people who sewed a maple leaf on her backpack, but I found myself going back and forth in my attempt to defend and explain the United States to other people, which I was frequently asked to do.

Old Town Hall
This time I returned with a degree in public diplomacy and a new perspective on U.S. policy and diplomacy, but I still found myself torn between my desire to defend my nation and my personal dissatisfaction with specific actions and policies.

One evening when I was out with friends, the conversation turned to the U.S. culture and its tendency to refuse to accept failure as an option. The table acknowledge that this had two results.

First, Americans refuse to quit until they've solved a problem. This is something people love about them. Second, Americans refuse to compromise. This is something people hate about them. Americans like to believe that all problems have a solution -- and there are more than a few Americans who believe that the U.S. is uniquely equipped to solve global problems.

It made me think of American exceptionalism (in its current understanding, not the original, with its anti-communist connotations), which is difficult to explain when you're the only American at the table and you're surrounded by people from democratic nations where the literacy, child mortality or employment rates are better.

Jan and the Hussites
And it made me think how much American exceptionalism would benefit by embracing compromise as a desirable diplomatic tool -- not as a sign of executive weakness.

Mostly it made me think how nice it would be to have a foreign policy based on the serenity prayer: policymakers with the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Every year, the weather in Karlovy Vary is completely unpredictable. The temperature can drop -- or rise -- about 40 degrees over the course of the week, and sometimes in the course of the afternoon.

A few days ago I dashed outside for some fresh air on my lunch break, and was delighted to see that it was sunny. Sunshine! On me! So exciting! I indulged myself for 20 minutes before reluctantly returning to the closet. It is worth noting that the closet is located in a room without windows, which is located in a hall without windows, beyond which are more rooms -- which do have windows, but tend to keep their doors shut. So you have to walk a good two or three minutes to so much as see a window once you get to the office.

Which is why I was so surprised when a colleague came in 15 minutes later and said, "You just missed the most fantastic thunderstorm." Evidently the heavens clouded over mere minutes after I left my perch, pelting festgoers with heavy rain. By the time he made it back to the hotel, it had already cleared up.

I'm not positive, but I think this is what lives in our office when we're not there...
Last night I left around midnight (it was a rough day) and got as far as the entrance before I realized it was pouring. And not just pouring, but storming -- the good kind, with really dramatic streaks of lightning ripping up the sky. I decided to take the long way home, and swung by one of the colonnades that houses the hot springs here. I was pretty much soaked by that point, so I ducked in and stared out at the rain and the lightning. It had a very Sound of Music sort of feel.

My editor yesterday said of the festival, "It's like childbirth, you know? It's painful at the time, but then you finish and forget and a year later you're ready to come back." And I knew exactly what he meant. Because I've been locked in a closet for about 15 hours a day for over a week now, but I get outside for a few minutes of sunshine, or to sit in the rain and watch a storm roll over the valley, and I just love it. Maybe it's the oxygen-deprivation talking, but I really do love it here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

One day more...

Just another day at the office:

Cross-cultural communication breakdown

I just had this actual exchange:

C: I just heard a very disturbing word for my girlfriend.
Me: What was that?
C: He said, "How's your muchacha?"
Me: ...
C: What is a muchacha anyway?
Me: It means 'girl.'
C: Ooooh. I thought it was one of those cuddly monkey toys.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In case you're curious...

...this is what I've been working on this week:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Proofreading, porn and alien invasions

Attack the Block: Source
After another 13-hour day in the closet, my colleagues and I decided to reward our perseverance with a midnight screening. We went straight to the cinema after we wrapped up here, but were still at the tail end of an ominously long line.

KVIFF likes to have big audiences, so their policy is that if you show up to a film and there are still empty seats five minutes before it opens, they'll let you in until the house is full. This is a great policy, particularly given that KVIFF is often referred to as a sort of "backpacker's Cannes" because this town is crawling with backpackers and students. There's a camp set up for them just out of town, although some stay in hotels closer to the action, and they're all here to see films on the cheap.

It gives the festival a very young, enthusiastic vibe. But it also means that lines to get last-minute admission can be quite long.

One of the perks of a press pass is that it lets you jump the line, which is what we did. I felt a wee little bit guilty about it, but given that it was only my second film in the cinema I didn't feel too bad. Here's a trailer, if you're interested.

It was definitely one of the better films I saw yesterday. Often we'll grab a video from the video room and watch them in between working on proofs. It passes the time, and sometimes they're related to research for specific articles. Yesterday, the proofreader got one which sounded good from the description, but ... I just don't know how to describe it. Some sort of hybrid between Japanese pornography and musical theater, involving an amphibious sort of water sprite that loves cucumbers. I'd link to the trailer here, but it is not even remotely safe for work.

We spent a good deal of time speculating as to why that particular film had been selected by the programming staff, and the best I could come up with is that they'd never seen anything like it before. I don't think anybody has ever seen anything like it before. And it disturbs me a bit that, now that I've seen it, I can no longer say that I've never seen anything like it before.

But fest flicks are always a bit of a grab bag, I suppose...

Cleaning house

I often struggle to keep my desk clear while I'm at the festival -- one of the hazards of working in a storage closet (ironically) is that there isn't much space left over for storage. But this year I've managed to do a fairly good job, arranging everything into neat little piles and ruthlessly casting off unnecessary papers at the end of the day.

If you were to look at my desk now, all you'd see would be a dozen copies of the paper, two magazines, two large catalogues, three or four small catalogues, one industry guide, a camera, a watch, a polka-dot umbrella, a cup of coffee, a pair of headphones, several business cards, a DVD, a guide to speaking Czech (which I haven't touched since I got here), a note pad, invitations to a handful of industry events, a hair clasp and my sunglasses.

This is a personal record.

However, every morning I come in with the suspicion that fairies have somehow been adding stuff to my desk. Or possibly my editor. Or else the newspapers have started spontaneously reproducing, because they are stacked up in messy piles that I definitely don't remember leaving there last night...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Morning commute

I passed an enormous plush radish on my way to work this morning. The poor soul within it was walking uphill as I was walking down, and I was very sorry to have left my camera in the office last night because it looked awesome.

Among the many odd aspects of this festival is the bizarre influx of business. During the winter, Karlovy Vary is a sleepy little spa town. But during the festival, the town imports businesses from all over the country. Clubs send satellites to set up shop for two weeks in vacant palaces (this was, after all, a favorite vacation spot for European royalty and celebrities a few centuries back, so there are plenty of palaces to fill). And the sponsors have all got tents and exhibitions and mascots and things, so you walk down the street and pass by a Chester Cheeto-esque representative posing with two backpackers, or a handful of festgoers pedaling away on stationary bikes for charity, or, you know, an enormous radish stumbling uphill, and it's all a bit surreal.

Or maybe everything feels surreal after yesterday, when I managed to spend 16 hours in the Thermal. To be fair, I was only working from 10 to midnight. The last two hours were self-inflicted, as one of my colleagues and I were determined that we would see a movie in the cinema before we left -- as opposed to the way we normally watch them, slouched in front of our computers in 15-minute increments in between edits.

As press, we're entitled to four free tickets every day. But because we tend to be so busy during the day, the midnight screenings tend to be the easiest option. Which is how I ended up last night at a Norwegian horror flick called "Troll Hunter," which was much better than you're imagining. In fact, I'd say it was excellent. I would fully support Ain't It Cool News' description of it as "pretty damn spectacular."

Think Blair Witch Project -- only the kids are out to discover whether the legends of a troll-rich region in the heart of Norway (protected, natch, by a top-secret bureaucratic cover-up) are true. Their investigations lead them to a strange man who seems to know more than he lets on, so they follow him late at night down a creepy unmarked road, film gear in tow. You will never guess what comes next. Unless, of course, you've ever seen a horror movie. In that case, you know exactly what's coming next.

Fun fact: The Norwegian word for "troll piss" seems to be trollpis. I'm probably spelling that wrong, but it sounds exactly the same. It really is a small world after all...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Execution Dependent

So the other night when we stayed up until sunrise talking about all sorts of nerdy things, as if we were in an Ethan Hawke movie, the filmmaker told us about a conversation he'd had with another industry professional where the man had referred to a project as "execution dependent."

Well, what does that mean? We wanted to know.

And evidently it means that the success of the project is dependent on its execution. In other words, it has to be good in order to succeed (like an independent film by somebody unknown) as opposed to a movie like Harry Potter or Fast Five, which is going to succeed regardless of whether it's well executed or not -- which is not to say that it will be poorly executed, simply that its success is unrelated to its quality.

The conversation drifted into the realm of journalism and film at that point -- and for the most part I think there was a consensus that journalism and film ought to be execution dependent -- but privately I started wondering about what it means for public diplomacy to be execution dependent. One of the recurring themes of PD is the need for metrics and the difficulty of assessing a project's success. There is an idea, I think, that most PD is and should be execution dependent -- but are there any reliable popcorn blockbusters in the world of PD? I'm not advocating for a strict diet of easy fixes, but I'm wondering if there might not be benefits to recognizing a few empty calorie, economic alternatives that could pad out a more sophisticated PD grand strategy?

I suspect that to some extent, that's what a lot of PD 2.0 is. It's cheap, relatively easy and can reach a large audience quickly -- but it's effectiveness has yet to be proven. Those who read this blog know I go back and forth on the merits of PD 2.0. Ultimately, I believe it's a vast source of untapped potential -- but I'm not convinced any nation or group has fully tapped it yet.

Late night copyediting

Late night copyediting.
Since the English section has a staff of four (one editor, two writers and a proofreader) we all tend to work 12-15 hour days, and we all end up pitching in to help each other with our tasks -- which is why I've cut so many of these entries off when we get our proofs in.

As I mentioned before, we all care a lot about grammar. I mean a lot. Two days back the proofreader and I had ... not an argument, but a spirited exchange of views about semi-colons that took up way more time and energy than it deserved. And in our time off, of course, we somehow end up talking about grammar again. This is all well and good, unless a non-deranged person overhears you.

So today we had this exchange while going through the first proofs:

Me (with way too much enthusiasm): Hey, if you're on to something, are you on to something or are you onto something?
Proofreader: I believe you're on to something.
Me: I thought so!
(At which point I look up and see the Czech writers making Significant Eye Contact with one another.)
Czech writer: Ah.

The distinction was probably clearer for the native speakers....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Joy of Lex

It begins...
Last night was the opening gala, so we all got kitted out in our glad rags and went down to the Hotel Pupp. We were late wrapping up the paper, so we were late to the party -- arriving around midnight. We actually passed Dame Judi on her way out, but it was a little awkward as we were both wearing the same dress.

That's not true, of course. Dame Judi's was significantly nicer than the one I had on, but we did pass one another on the floor. Things were starting to wind down by the time we showed up and I don't think most of us planned to stay long, but a group of writers from the English and Czech sections sat down at a table outside, and a director I'd interviewed earlier in the day came over to join us, and he turned out to be pretty cool, and then it was 3:30 in the morning.

It was a group of six and included one American, two Brits, one Irishman, one Czech and a Canadian. Among that group, I think all six of us would have described ourselves as writers, and quite a few of us would have described ourselves as editors or current/former teachers. There was also a Fulbright scholar and a person who works for RFE, so I pretty much had all of my favorite topics covered.

Among other things, we discussed the following:
* methodology
* social media
* international communication
* film
* cross-cultural differences
* RFE and Smith-Mundt laws
* study abroad
* the Fulbright program
* international language lessons
* phrasal verbs (!!)

In other words, I totally geeked out. Not gonna lie, there was a lot of grammar talk going on.

I had a glass of wine when we got to the party, but stopped drinking soon after. Nonetheless, I allowed myself to succumb to peer pressure when the rest of the group wanted to hit up another bar after the party, which is how I ended up collapsing into bed after 5am, with sunlight streaming in my window. 

Needless to say, we've all been a little sluggish today... Even though I stopped after one wine, I struggled to drag myself out of bed at 9am, and was mortified when I got to the office to find that I was the last one in.

I'd planned to say more about some of the above topics --particularly those that relate to this blog's regular focus -- but it looks as if I'm going to have to run off and make an interview, so stay tuned for a follow-up on that topic.

From the malapropidioms department

Highlight from last night's conversation -- After I turned down the offer of a beer in favor of water, my editor came up with this: "It's like that saying, you know, you can lead a girl to water, but you can't make her drink. And I think there's a horse in there somewhere...."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

We had a bit of a break around 8 o'clock, so I ducked out to grab a bite before the proofs start rolling in. Today's the first day of the festival, which means the Opening Ceremony and all sorts of stars rolling up to the red carpet downstairs. I don't generally go to the red carpet, but I happened to be outside (I'd forgotten to get a photograph of a director I interviewed earlier in the afternoon and had to track him down at his hotel, then race back) so I managed to see Vaclav Havel and his wife pull up.

On my way back from the restaurant I ducked into the restroom and found one of the hotel staffers inside cleaning with a bottle of what I can only assume was napalm. I took one lung-scorching breath and almost passed out, but am happy to report that the restroom is unquestionably clean. Seriously, there is no way any germ could possibly survive that wash.

Proofs are in! Dashing off...

I never really understand the Opening Ceremony dance... Source