Monday, April 28, 2008
Crisis In Food Prices Threatens Worldwide Starvation - Is it Genocide?
By Richard C. Cook
Rising worldwide food prices are resulting in shortages, riots and protests, promises by governments to expand food aid, expressions of concern by international bodies like the World Bank, and stress on household budgets even in developed countries like the U.S. Did this just "happen" or is there a plan?
Plenty of commentators think they have it figured out and blame such factors as greater demand for high-end protein menus by the increasingly upscale populations of China and India , weather factors relating to global warming such as drought in Australia , and the diversion of animal feed crops such as corn and soybeans to ethanol production. L.H. Teslik of the Council on Foreign Relations speaks of "bubbling inflation and rising oil prices."
There is also the question of whether a role is being played by commodity speculation. The idea is that faced with the global financial crisis and the collapse of mortgage-based securities, investors are flocking to resource-based tangibles as a hedge against recession and the decline of the U.S. dollar. Hence gold is at record levels with oil keeping the same pace. How else to explain, for instance, the doubling of the price of rice in Asian markets in less than two months? Standard Chartered Bank food commodities analyst Abah Ofon says, "Fund money flowing into agriculture has boosted prices. It's fashionable. This is the year of agricultural commodities."
But the idea that speculation is at fault is disputed by no less than New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, one of the world's leading monetary economists, who writes:
"My problem with the speculative stories is that they all depend on something that holds production - or at least potential production - off the market. The key point is that the spot price equalizes the demand and supply of a commodity; speculation can drive up the futures price, but the spot price will only follow if the higher futures prices somehow reduce the quantity available for final consumers. The usual channel for this is an increase in inventories, as investors hoard the stuff in expectation of a higher price down the road. If this doesn't happen - if the spot price doesn't follow the futures price - then futures will presumably come down, as it turns out that buying futures produces losses."
Solid data in this area is hard to come by. Probably the chief common denominator among commentators, especially those advocating a supply and demand or global warming perspective, is that they have so little solid information. Thus it is refreshing to find a study that contains meaningful statistics such as one appearing on the Executive Intelligence Report website entitled, "To Defeat Famine: Kill the WTO" by Marcia Merry Baker. One particularly telling item is that after global food supplies were boosted through the Green Revolution and related programs lasting into the 1970s, more recently, world food production has actually declined.
Baker writes, "World per-capita output of grains of all kinds (rice, wheat, corn, and others) has been falling for twenty years. Whereas in 1986 it was 338 kilograms per person, it went down to 303 by 2006. This decline in no way has been made up for by increasing amounts of other staple foodstuffs-tubers, legumes, or oil crops, which likewise are in insufficient supply."
Further, "In twelve of the last twenty years, less grain has been produced than utilized that year (for all purposes-direct human consumption, livestock feed, industrial and energy uses, and reserves). Accordingly, the amount of carryover stocks of grain from year to year has been declining to extreme danger levels. The diversion of food crops into biofuels is the nail in the coffin. The latest estimate is that worldwide stockpiles of cereal crops of all kinds are expected to fall to a twenty-five-year low of 405 million tons in 2008. That is down twenty-one million tons, or five percent, from their already reduced level in 2007."
Further, an increasing proportion of food crops is being produced by large multinational corporations whose power and reach has ballooned under the World Trade Organization and spin-offs like NAFTA even as small family-run farms have lost the protection of parity pricing and been priced out of business. But the data suggest that a) the output of agribusiness has failed to match the older, more diversified systems of farming; and b) as nations lose their ability to feed themselves, agricultural pricing becomes more subject to monopolization.
The loss of agricultural self-sufficiency has been exacerbated in much of the developing world by International Monetary Fund lending policies. Under the " Washington consensus," entire nations have been forced to give up agricultural self-sufficiency and convert farmland to export commodities while displaced rural populations migrate to the slums of large cities such as Lagos , Nigeria . Today those populations are the ones most grievously threatened with starvation.
Then what is really going on?
First of all, let's get rid of the idea that we are seeing "impersonal market forces" at work. "Supply and demand" is not a "law"-it's a policy. If a seller has an article in demand it's a matter of choice whether he charges a premium when he offers it for sale. If he's a decent, honest soul, maybe he won't necessarily charge all the market will bear, particularly if the item is a necessity of life, such as food. Or maybe there will be a responsible public authority around that will prohibit price gouging or else subsidize the purchaser, as often happens in credit markets. Of course public spirited action like this is itself a declining commodity in a world afflicted with the kind of market fundamentalism and rampant privatization that has been the rage since the 1980s Reagan Revolution.
Second, let's ask the question which any competent investigator should pose when starting out on the trail of a possible crime: "Who benefits?" Indeed we may be speaking of a crime on the scale of genocide if the events in question are a) avoidable; in which case the crime is one of negligent homicide; or b) planned, where we obviously have a conspiracy among the contributing parties.
Those who benefit are obviously the ones who finance agricultural operations, those who are charging monopoly prices for the commodities in demand, the various middlemen who bring the products to market after they leave the farm, and the owners or mortgagees of the land, retail space, and other assets required to conduct the production/consumption cycle.
In other words, it's the financial elite of the world who have gained complete control of the most basic necessity of life. This includes not only the international financiers who provide capitalization, including the leveraging of trading in commodity futures up to the 97 percent level, but even organized crime groups which the U.S. Department of Justice says have penetrated world materials markets.
And is all this part of a long-term strategy by international finance to starve much of the world's population in order to seize their land, control their natural resources, and enslave the rest who fear a similar fate? Already millions of people are losing their homes to housing inflation and foreclosure. Is actual or threatened physical starvation the next part of the scenario?
And where are the governmental authorities whose job it is to protect the public welfare both at the national and international levels? These authorities long ago allowed a situation to develop, including in developed nations like the U.S., where people in localities no longer have the simple ability to feed themselves, even in emergencies. And not one of the candidates remaining in the U.S. presidential election-John McCain, Hillary Clinton, nor Barack Obama-has addressed the food pricing issue. Indeed, all three are part of a government that has gone so far as to exclude much of the rising cost of food from measurements of inflation, an innovation that took place on Bill Clinton's watch.
It is now April. Already food has run out in some parts of the world. In a few months winter will come, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. What will happen then? Are you certain food will be on your table?
And suppose you wanted to make a contribution to your own well-being and to that of your family and community by going into farming. In most parts of North America you can look around and see plenty of underutilized land.
But could you do it? Could you buy or lease land and pay taxes on it after the galloping inflation of the real estate bubble? Could you get bank loans for equipment and operating expenses under today's constrained credit conditions? Could you afford fuel for your equipment when petroleum costs over $115 a barrel? Is water readily available from developed supplies and is electricity available at regulated prices? Could you purchase anything other than genetically-modified seed? Would local supermarkets buy your produce when your prices are undercut by massive corporate distributorships importing food from abroad? Does the system even exist in your home town for marketing of local farm products?
And does anyone in power even care?
Well, whether they do or not, "We the People" should care. One of the worst aspects of the consumer society is the separation between the individual and the products of the earth we utilize. We always assume that whatever we need will be there so long as we have money in our bank account or the ability to charge on a credit card and pay later.
Such assumptions are losing their validity. Back in the 1960s people who were starting to understand these things began a modest "back to the land" movement. Today it is time to start one again. Except this time we need to do it right by demanding government policies that support it. This means low-cost credit, price supports, affordable utilities, favorable tax policies, and decisions by government and businesses to "buy local." Food production cannot safely be left in the hands of agribusiness and international finance capitalism any longer.
Richard C. Cook is a former U.S. federal government analyst, whose career included service with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Carter White House, NASA, and the U.S. Treasury Department. His articles on economics, politics, and space policy have appeared on numerous websites. His book on monetary reform entitled We Hold These Truths: The Promise of Monetary Reform is in preparation. He is also the author of Challenger Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age, called by one reviewer, "the most important spaceflight book of the last twenty years." His website is at:
Disapproval of Bush breaks record
By Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — President Bush has set a record he'd presumably prefer to avoid: the highest disapproval rating of any president in the 70-year history of the Gallup Poll.
In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, 28% of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing; 69% disapprove. The approval rating matches the low point of his presidency, and the disapproval sets a new high for any president since Franklin Roosevelt.
The previous record of 67% was reached by Harry Truman in January 1952, when the United States was enmeshed in the Korean War.
Bush's rating has worsened amid "collapsing optimism about the economy," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies presidential approval. Record gas prices and a wave of home foreclosures have fueled voter angst.
Bush also holds the record for the other extreme: the highest approval rating of any president in Gallup's history. In September 2001, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush's approval spiked to 90%. In another record, the percentage of Americans who say the invasion of Iraq was a mistake reached a new high, 63%, in the latest poll.
Assessments of Bush's presidency are harsh. By 69%-27%, those polled say Bush's tenure in general has been a failure, not a success.
Low approval ratings make it more difficult for presidents to maneuver, limiting their ability to get legislation passed or boost candidates in congressional elections.
"The president understands war and the slowdown in the economy weigh down public opinion, but the situation in Iraq is improving and the economy is about to get a big boost from the stimulus package," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Bush has had dismal ratings through most of his second term. His approval rating hasn't reached as high as 50% since May 2005. He's been steadily below 40% since September 2006.
Views of Bush divide sharply along party lines. Among Republicans, 66% approve and 32% disapprove. Disapproval is nearly universal — 91% — among Democrats. Of independents, 23% approve, 72% disapprove of the job he's doing.
Yankees go the healthy route
A clubhouse ban on candy and other sweets doesn't go over so well.
By Chris Foster, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 24, 2008
So it has come to this in New York: You can't get a Baby Ruth in the clubhouse that was home to Babe Ruth.
New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has banned candy and ice cream in an effort to create a more healthy diet.
Furthermore, the Journal News of Westchester County reported that the Yankees asked opposing teams to remove the offending items from the visitors' clubhouse before the team arrives.
In Tampa Bay, the candy was replaced with nuts, dried fruit and granola, hardly an inspiring rhyme scheme for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" ( . . . Buy me some peanuts, dried fruit and granola, I don't care if I ever go hoo-ma?).
Yankees players, meanwhile, were seen smuggling banned items (candy bars, not steroids) into the clubhouse.
It all leads to one important question: If the Yankees announce the hiring of Craig, will it be Roger or Jenny?
Wright Calls Sermon Controversy 'Unfair'
By RACHEL ZOLL, AP
Filed Under: Elections News, Barack Obama
NEW YORK (April 24) - The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to Barack Obama, said that publicizing sound bites of sermons in which he condemned U.S. policies was "unfair" and "devious," and done by people who know nothing about his church, according to excerpts of a PBS interview released Thursday.
In his first comments since his controversial sermons were broadcast throughout the media in March, Barack Obama's former pastor breaks his silence in an interview to air on PBS. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright said publicizing sounds bites of those speeches was "devious." "I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue," he said.
Wright said that, as an activist, he is accustomed to being "at odds with the establishment," but the response to the sermons has been "very, very unsettling."
The interview, scheduled for broadcast Friday night, is the first the pastor has given since video of his preaching gained national attention in March, putting Democratic presidential hopeful Obama on the defensive.
Among the most remarked upon sound bites was Wright proclaiming from the pulpit "God damn America" for its racism. He accused the government of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs.
The controversy forced Obama to explain his 20-year association with the minister, who is stepping down from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
"The blowing up of sermons preached 15, seven, six years ago and now becoming a media event, not the full sermon, but the snippets from the sermon ... having made me the target of hatred, yes, that is something very new," Wright told "Bill Moyers' Journal."
"I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt — for those who were doing that — were doing it for some very devious reasons," he said.
In a March 18 speech in Philadelphia, Obama described the history of injustice that fueled Wright's comments, while also condemning his pastor's statements and acknowledging white resentment of African-Americans.
Asked his response to the senator's speech, Wright said, "He's a politician, I'm a pastor."
"I do what I do. He does what politicians do," Wright said. "What happened in Philadelphia, where he had to respond to the sound bites, he responded as a politician."
Wright said he has never heard Obama repeat any of the pastor's controversial statements as his own opinion. "No, no, no. Absolutely not," Wright said.
Wright gave the interview as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and the North Carolina GOP argue over a TV ad with Obama and the pastor scheduled to run Monday, ahead of the state's crucial May 6 primary. A narrator in the spot says, "He's just too extreme for North Carolina." McCain has asked local officials not to run the ad, but the state GOP said no.
Wright is scheduled to speak Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.
April 25, 2008
Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones, scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are modern birds.
The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical similarities.
In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships.
Similar molecular tests on tissues from the extinct mastodon confirmed its close genetic link to the elephant, as had been suspected from skeletal affinities.
“Our results at the genetic level basically agree with what has been seen in skeletal data,” John M. Asara of Harvard said in a telephone interview. “There is more than a 90 percent probability that the grouping of T. rex with living birds is real.”
Dr. Asara and Lewis C. Cantley, both of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, processed the proteins from tissue recovered deep in bones of a 68 million-year-old T. rex excavated in 2003 by John R. Horner of Montana State University. Mary H. Schweitzer of North Carolina State University discovered the preserved soft tissues in the bones.
For the molecular study, Dr. Asara and Chris L. Organ, a researcher in evolutionary biology at Harvard, compared the dinosaur protein with similar protein from several dozen species of modern birds, reptiles and other animals.
Dr. Organ was the lead author of the journal report, which concluded that the molecular tests confirmed the prediction that extinct dinosaurs “would show a higher degree of similarity with birds than with other extant vertebrates.” The researchers said they planned to extend their investigations to include comparisons of T. rex protein with more species of birds, reptiles and other dinosaurs.
Dinosaur paleontologists were not surprised by the findings. An accumulation of fossil evidence in recent years had given them increasing confidence in their contention that birds descended from certain dinosaurs.
Sorry to ruin the fun, but an ice age cometh
Phil Chapman April 23, 2008
THE scariest photo I have seen on the internet is www.spaceweather.com, where you will find a real-time image of the sun from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, located in deep space at the equilibrium point between solar and terrestrial gravity.
What is scary about the picture is that there is only one tiny sunspot.
Disconcerting as it may be to true believers in global warming, the average temperature on Earth has remained steady or slowly declined during the past decade, despite the continued increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and now the global temperature is falling precipitously.
All four agencies that track Earth's temperature (the Hadley Climate Research Unit in Britain, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the Christy group at the University of Alabama, and Remote Sensing Systems Inc in California) report that it cooled by about 0.7C in 2007. This is the fastest temperature change in the instrumental record and it puts us back where we were in 1930. If the temperature does not soon recover, we will have to conclude that global warming is over.
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that 2007 was exceptionally cold. It snowed in Baghdad for the first time in centuries, the winter in China was simply terrible and the extent of Antarctic sea ice in the austral winter was the greatest on record since James Cook discovered the place in 1770.
It is generally not possible to draw conclusions about climatic trends from events in a single year, so I would normally dismiss this cold snap as transient, pending what happens in the next few years.
This is where SOHO comes in. The sunspot number follows a cycle of somewhat variable length, averaging 11 years. The most recent minimum was in March last year. The new cycle, No.24, was supposed to start soon after that, with a gradual build-up in sunspot numbers.
It didn't happen. The first sunspot appeared in January this year and lasted only two days. A tiny spot appeared last Monday but vanished within 24 hours. Another little spot appeared this Monday. Pray that there will be many more, and soon.
The reason this matters is that there is a close correlation between variations in the sunspot cycle and Earth's climate. The previous time a cycle was delayed like this was in the Dalton Minimum, an especially cold period that lasted several decades from 1790.
Northern winters became ferocious: in particular, the rout of Napoleon's Grand Army during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 was at least partly due to the lack of sunspots.
That the rapid temperature decline in 2007 coincided with the failure of cycle No.24 to begin on schedule is not proof of a causal connection but it is cause for concern.
It is time to put aside the global warming dogma, at least to begin contingency planning about what to do if we are moving into another little ice age, similar to the one that lasted from 1100 to 1850.
There is no doubt that the next little ice age would be much worse than the previous one and much more harmful than anything warming may do. There are many more people now and we have become dependent on a few temperate agricultural areas, especially in the US and Canada. Global warming would increase agricultural output, but global cooling will decrease it.
Millions will starve if we do nothing to prepare for it (such as planning changes in agriculture to compensate), and millions more will die from cold-related diseases.
There is also another possibility, remote but much more serious. The Greenland and Antarctic ice cores and other evidence show that for the past several million years, severe glaciation has almost always afflicted our planet.
The bleak truth is that, under normal conditions, most of North America and Europe are buried under about 1.5km of ice. This bitterly frigid climate is interrupted occasionally by brief warm interglacials, typically lasting less than 10,000 years.
The interglacial we have enjoyed throughout recorded human history, called the Holocene, began 11,000 years ago, so the ice is overdue. We also know that glaciation can occur quickly: the required decline in global temperature is about 12C and it can happen in 20 years.
The next descent into an ice age is inevitable but may not happen for another 1000 years. On the other hand, it must be noted that the cooling in 2007 was even faster than in typical glacial transitions. If it continued for 20 years, the temperature would be 14C cooler in 2027.
By then, most of the advanced nations would have ceased to exist, vanishing under the ice, and the rest of the world would be faced with a catastrophe beyond imagining.
Australia may escape total annihilation but would surely be overrun by millions of refugees. Once the glaciation starts, it will last 1000 centuries, an incomprehensible stretch of time.
If the ice age is coming, there is a small chance that we could prevent or at least delay the transition, if we are prepared to take action soon enough and on a large enough scale.
For example: We could gather all the bulldozers in the world and use them to dirty the snow in Canada and Siberia in the hope of reducing the reflectance so as to absorb more warmth from the sun.
We also may be able to release enormous floods of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from the hydrates under the Arctic permafrost and on the continental shelves, perhaps using nuclear weapons to destabilise the deposits.
We cannot really know, but my guess is that the odds are at least 50-50 that we will see significant cooling rather than warming in coming decades.
The probability that we are witnessing the onset of a real ice age is much less, perhaps one in 500, but not totally negligible.
All those urging action to curb global warming need to take off the blinkers and give some thought to what we should do if we are facing global cooling instead.
It will be difficult for people to face the truth when their reputations, careers, government grants or hopes for social change depend on global warming, but the fate of civilisation may be at stake.
In the famous words of Oliver Cromwell, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
Phil Chapman is a geophysicist and astronautical engineer who lives in San Francisco. He was the first Australian to become a NASA astronaut.
'Harold and Kumar' push the limits of multiculturalism
Ethnicity is a detail, not the punch line, in the stoner comedies.
By Mark Olsen
Special to The Times
April 23, 2008
It was hardly an auspicious start. In 2004's "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," two friends, one Korean American, the other Indian American, smoke a lot of pot and decide they want burgers from their favorite fast-food joint. So begins a nightlong, drug-fueled, often surreal odyssey that includes some unsavory high jinks with coeds, a rabid raccoon and a whacked-out cameo from a hopped-up Neil Patrick Harris.
At the time, many wrote off the low-budget movie as just another stoner comedy. But to others, the characters of Harold and Kumar -- weed-smoking and wisecracking but very much of color -- right away read as something different. Somehow, in featuring the misadventures of two regular guys who just happened to not be white, the pair pushed the limits of multiculturalism in contemporary cinema, bringing film closer to speed with changes that seemed to have already taken hold in the world of casting for television.
On its initial release, the film was a disappointment, bringing in just $18 million at the box office, but a steady-building popularity on DVD eventually made a sequel a reality. With one of the most outrageous movie titles in recent memory, "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" hits theaters Friday.
Both films -- written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also direct as a team this time out -- quite offhandedly make two characters with strong ethnic cultural identities into the leads, still an unusual move for a mainstream Hollywood movie. For all the talk of the remarkable schlubbiness of the leading men coming off the Apatow conveyor belt, they are still middle-class white guys.
"The theme in these movies is that Harold and Kumar are sort of beyond race," said Schlossberg. "They don't really care that much about their own identities; it's the people around them that sort of haven't gotten it yet."
The new film continues the rollicking ridiculousness of the first, picking up right where "White Castle" left off, as Harold and Kumar prepare to fly to Amsterdam. A series of mishaps -- starting with racial profiling at airport security and a misunderstanding between the words "bong" and "bomb" -- land the pair in the hands of Homeland Security, and soon enough they are kitted out in Gitmo's notorious orange jumpsuits. They are incarcerated for only a few minutes of screen time, though, before busting out of prison and floating back to Miami with a boatload of refugees, setting off on a trek across the American South that peaks when the duo gets high with President George W. Bush in Texas.
According to Hurwitz and Schlossberg, the audience that loved "White Castle" for its pot humor, potty jokes and anything-can-happen sense of wild reinvention is not shocked by the cultural difference of the leads.
"I feel like Hollywood is a little behind the curve usually in terms of what America is ready to accept from a cultural standpoint," said Hurwitz. "Filmgoers are a bit savvier than they are given credit for."
The roles have been a boost for the careers and visibility of John Cho, who plays Harold, and Kal Penn, who plays Kumar. Penn subsequently played the lead in "The Namesake," appeared on "24" and is now a regular on the television series "House." Cho -- previously known for "American Pie" -- has been cast in a number of television pilots and landed the part of Sulu in J.J. Abrams' upcoming reinvention of "Star Trek."
Both actors have always been particularly sensitive to the issues of racial representation. It goes back to even before they were doing the audition rounds earlier in their careers, to memories from childhood. Penn, 31 and from New Jersey, vividly recalled how the release of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," with a scene of an Indian feast, had an immediate effect.
"I remember going to school after the weekend that movie came out and no one wanted to sit next to me at lunch," said Penn. "They completely believed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich certainly had to contain monkey brains. Nobody would sit next to me for a week. Even though I was a kid, that was the first time I realized how seeing something in a film can really affect how you look at things."
It's a theme that Penn takes quite seriously. He's actually, believe it or not, currently a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses in "Images of Asian Americans in the Media" and "Contemporary American Teen Films."
Cho, 35 and raised in Los Angeles, recalled his own disappointment at the Long Duk Dong character in "Sixteen Candles" and acknowledged that there can be concerns about the broader cultural meanings a specific role may have.
"It is a bit of a burden just thinking about it all the time," he said. "The point is to have fun in this job, and it makes it a little trickier sometimes. I do feel some amount of pressure, and with every job I've tried to steer clear of things that I feel would embarrass me as an Asian American.
"While I'm willing to make a fool of myself in a role, I certainly don't want to put on buckteeth and a cone-shaped hat and talk with an accent."
Hurwitz and Schlossberg initially created the characters of Harold and Kumar as friends/sidekicks for an earlier script. They decided to turn them into lead roles as a way to reflect the diverse group of friends they grew up with in New Jersey, many of whom were American-born to immigrant parents and as entrenched in American culture as were the writers.
"With both films, race is and isn't important," explained Schlossberg. "We were very aware that our protagonists were a Korean American and an Asian American, but on the other hand, it's totally random. Everybody always asks why did we do this, and the movies themselves don't always answer the question. We bring up race, and it's clearly there, but we try not to make it too much about it."
The seemingly throwaway attitude toward the characters' cultural background suits Penn just fine.
"The ethnicity flavors the role, but who they are goes way beyond ethnicity," said Penn. "And it seems to me we are moving away from just the ethnocentric side characters. I think that's evidenced in shows like 'Lost,' 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'House,' 'The Office.'
"It's probably too soon to say, but hopefully you're seeing a shift where the real America is actually being reflected in all its diversity. I find it really refreshing and more interesting to watch when things are more fleshed out."
Where "White Castle" points toward such issues to largely leave them alone, in "Guantanamo Bay," it is the ethnicity of Harold and Kumar that sets the film's chain of events in motion, with an added undercurrent of political upheaval throughout the film. An overzealous Homeland Security officer (Rob Corddry) believes that the two provide proof that North Korea and Al Qaeda are working together. The scene with President Bush (played by impersonator James Adomian) shows him as petulant and immature, not to mention drinking and using drugs.
"The goal for us is to make the audience laugh," said Hurwitz, backing away somewhat from the film's political subtext and obvious moral outrage.
"When it really comes down to it, our priority at all times is to have a crazy, bonkers, out-there, outrageous, un-PC, insane comedy so you and your friends can go to the theater and have an incredible time. There's nothing that can ruin that kind of movie more than being preachy or having a strong political message. So for us, this film brings up what's going on and helps us all laugh at it. It's a form of therapy."
The challenge at times can be how to turn a solemn topic into a laughing matter.
"Guantanamo Bay isn't just a serious subject, it's an extremely serious subject," said Schlossberg. "And when you have things that are that heavy, I think it's just a natural human response to make something light about it."
Added Hurwitz, "A lot of times the things you're a little afraid to joke about are the things that get the biggest reaction."
Saturday, April 26, 2008
UN food chief urges crisis action
Tuesday, 22 April 2008
Josette Sheeran from the UN World Food Programme has spoken about the shortages.
The head of the UN World Food Programme has said urgent action is required to stimulate food production and help the poor cope with soaring food prices.
Josette Sheeran told the BBC that an additional 100 million people, who did not need assistance six months ago, could not now afford to purchase food.
Her warning came ahead of a meeting in London to discuss the rise in prices and an EU policy encouraging biofuels.
Biofuels are intended to tackle climate change but can take away farm land.
Earlier, Latin American leaders had warned about the growth in production of biofuels, which are derived from plant crops.
In an interview with the BBC, Ms Sheeran said she would be stressing the urgent need to tackle the global rise in food and commodity prices when she attended the meeting hosted by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday afternoon.
"We find that people are being thrown into the urgent category and we really want to make the point that the clock is ticking and we need to help people now meet their nutritional needs," she said.
"We're seeing about 100 million people... who maybe didn't need assistance six months ago but today simply can't afford enough food for their family."
Ms Sheeran said the price of rice in Asia had soared from $460 a ton on 3 March to more than $1,000 seven weeks later. The global prices of wheat, rice and maize have nearly doubled in the past year.
Ms Sheeran said the crisis required large-scale, high-level action by the international community, focused on both emergency and longer-term solutions.
In the short term, she said the WFP needed increased donations to make sure it could meet the needs of those who already relied on it, because its budget requirements were rising by several millions of dollars a week in line with the cost of food.
"We can purchase less food than we could in June - in fact, 40% less," she said.
Ms Sheeran said the international community needed to pay attention to the food supply system and look at all the factors that have increased demand.
"Certainly, biofuel is one of those things that is impacting it and we need the experts to sit down and look at how much food is needed and to make sure people can get it at an affordable price," she said.
Latin American concern
Writing ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Mr Brown said rising food prices posed as great a threat to world prosperity as the global credit crisis and warned that they threatened to reverse progress made to alleviate poverty in the developing world.
"Tackling hunger is a moral challenge to each of us and it is also a threat to the political and economic stability of nations," he said in a statement.
Food riots earlier this month in Haiti, which is highly reliant on imports of food and fuel, led to the deaths of at least six people, including a UN peacekeeper.
There has also been unrest in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.
Mr Brown said he feared the use of agricultural land to produce biofuels, which he said were known to be "frequently energy-inefficient", might have been a factor in driving up food prices.
South Americans warn over biofuels
"We need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment of different production methods and to ensure we are more selective in our support," he added.
"If our UK review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in EU biofuels targets."
The EU has come under criticism for its target of getting 10% of road transport fuel from crops by 2020, while ethanol production is on course to account for some 30% of the US maize crop by 2010.
Biofuels are being developed in many countries as an alternative to fossil fuels, on the basis that they absorb carbon dioxide while growing and therefore contribute less to climate change.
But there are concerns that forests, which also absorb large amounts of carbon, are being cleared to make way for biofuel crop plantations, as well as that their cultivation is taking land out of food production.
Speaking at the UN in New York, Bolivian President Evo Morales attacked those who put luxury cars ahead of human lives. His Peruvian counterpart, Alan Garcia, said using land for biofuels was putting food out of reach for poor people.
The comments came after one of the world's major producers, Brazil, announced a venture in Ghana to grow sugar cane for bio-ethanol.
World Food Program warns of 'silent tsunami' of hunger
By DAVID STRINGER
LONDON (AP) — Ration cards. Genetically modified crops. The end of pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap supermarkets.
These possible solutions to the first global food crisis since World War II — which the World Food Program says already threatens 20 million of the poorest children — are complex and controversial. And they may not even solve the problem as demand continues to soar.
A "silent tsunami" of hunger is sweeping the world's most desperate nations, said Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, speaking Tuesday at a London summit on the crisis.
The skyrocketing cost of food staples, stoked by rising fuel prices, unpredictable weather and demand from India and China, has already sparked sometimes violent protests across the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
The price of rice has more than doubled in the last five weeks, she said. The World Bank estimates food prices have risen by 83 percent in three years.
"What we are seeing now is affecting more people on every continent," Sheeran told a news conference.
Hosting talks with Sheeran, lawmakers and experts, British Prime Gordon Brown said the spiraling prices threaten to plunge millions back into poverty and reverse progress on alleviating misery in the developing world.
"Tackling hunger is a moral challenge to each of us and it is also a threat to the political and economic stability of nations," Brown said.
Malaysia's embattled prime minister is already under pressure over the price increases and has launched a major rice-growing project. Indonesia's government needed to revise its annual budget to respond.
Unrest over the food crisis has led to deaths in Cameroon and Haiti, cost Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis his job, and caused hungry textile workers to clash with police in Bangladesh.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said more protests in other developing nations appear likely. "We are going through a very serious crisis and we are going to see lots of food strikes and demonstrations," Annan told reporters in Geneva.
At streetside restaurants in Lome, Togo, even the traditional balls of corn meal or corn dough served with vegetable soup are shrinking. Once as big as a boxer's fist, the dumplings are now the size of a tennis ball — but cost twice as much.
In Yaounde, Cameroon, civil servant Samuel Ebwelle, 51, said he fears food prices will rise further.
"We are getting to the worst period of our life," he said. "We've had to reduce the number of meals we take a day from three to two. Breakfast no longer exists on our menu."
Even if her call for $500 million in emergency funding is met, food aid programs — including work to feed 20 million poor children — will be hit this year, Sheeran said.
President Bush has released $200 million in urgent aid. Britain pledged an immediate $59.7 million on Tuesday.
Even so, school feeding projects in Kenya and Cambodia have been scaled back and food aid has been cut in half in Tajikistan, Sheeran said.
Yet while angry street protesters call for immediate action, long term solutions are likely to be slow, costly and complicated, experts warn.
And evolving diets among burgeoning middle classes in India and China will help double the demand for food — particularly grain intensive meat and dairy products — by 2030, the World Bank says.
Robert Zoellick, the bank's head, claims as many as 100 million people could be forced deeper into poverty. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said rising food costs threaten to cancel strides made toward the goal of cutting world poverty in half by 2015.
"Now is not too soon to be thinking about the longer-term solutions," said Alex Evans, a former adviser to Britain's Environment Secretary Hilary Benn.
He said world leaders must help increase food production, rethink their push on biofuels — which many blame for pushing up food prices — and consider anew the once taboo topic of growing genetically modified crops.
But Evans, now a visiting fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said increasing the amount of land that can be farmed in the developing world will be arduous.
"It's almost like new oil or gas fields; they'll tend to be the hardest to reach places, that need new roads and new infrastructure to be viable," he said.
The will to increase food production exists, as does most of the necessary skills, but there are major obstacles, including a lack of government investment in agriculture and — in Africa particularly — a scarcity of fertilizers, good irrigation and access to markets.
"Many African farmers are very entrepreneurial, but they simply aren't connected to markets," said Lawrence Haddad, an economist and director of Britain's Institute of Development Studies. "They find there are no chilling plants for milk and no grinding mills for coffee."
Haddad said the likely impact of food price increases should have been anticipated. "The fact no one has previously made the link between agriculture and poverty is quite incredible," he said.
Just as new land for farming is available in Russia and Brazil, new genetically modified crops resistant to drought, or which deliver additional nutrients, could be better targeted to different regions of the developing world, Evans said. "The solutions are more nuanced than we previously thought," he added.
Sheeran said developing world governments, particularly in Africa, will need to dedicate at least 10 percent of future budgets to agriculture to boost global production.
Some experts predict other countries could follow the example of Pakistan, which has revived the use of ration cards for subsidized wheat.
The production of biofuels also needs to be urgently re-examined, Brown said.
He acknowledged that Britain this month introduced targets aimed at producing 5 percent of transport fuel from biofuels by 2010, but said his government and others should review their policies.
Production of biofuel leads to the destruction of forests and takes up land available to grow crops for food.
Brown said the impact of the food crisis won't just be felt in the developing world, but also in the checkout lane of Western supermarkets. "It it is not surprising that we see our shopping bills go up," Brown said.
Many analysts, including Britain's opposition leader David Cameron, claim that people in the West will need to eat less meat — and consume, or waste, less food in general. Some expect the shift in attitudes to herald the end of supermarket giveaways and cost-cutting grocery stores that stack goods to the ceiling and sell in bulk.
Citizens in the West, China and India must realize that the meat on their plate and biofuels in their expensive cars carry a cost for those in the developing world, Evans said.
Sheeran believes many already understand the impact. "Much of the world is waking up to the fact that food does not spontaneously appear on grocery store shelves," she said.
AP writers Ebow Godwin in Lome, Togo; Emmanuel Tumanjong in Yaounde, Cameroon; Anita Powell in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Eliane Engeler in Geneva contributed to this report.
Food Crisis Set to Get Worse - Experts
Haider Rizvi OneWorld US
NEW YORK, Apr 19 (OneWorld) - The current food crisis causing hunger and starvation for millions of people across the world is not going to end as long as those who dominate the international grain markets remain unwilling to change their behavior, according to experts specializing in international trade and environmental economics.
"Business as usual is no longer a viable option," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based independent think tank. "Food security will deteriorate further unless leading countries can collectively mobilize to stabilize population and restrict the use of grain to produce automotive fuel."
In his latest research, Brown, an award-winning environmental analyst, points out that the unsustainable use of land and water, as well as trade imbalances among nations, are among the major factors contributing to the present crisis of food shortages coupled with a phenomenal soaring of prices.
"The chronically tight food supply the world is now facing is driven by the cumulative effects of several well established trends that are affecting both global demand and supply, " he told reporters at a recently held tele-press conference.
"Continuing with current trends means the Earth's haves and have-nots splitting further apart. It would leave us facing a world nobody wants to inhabit."
- Robert Watson, UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs
On the demand side, according to Brown, the trends include the addition of 70 million people every year, while some some 4 billion people are already struggling to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. At the same time, the amount of grain used for car fuels is also rising immensely.
"Since 2005, this last source of demand has raised the annual growth in world grain consumption from nearly 20 million tons to about 50 million tons," he said. "Meanwhile, on the supply side, there is little new land to be brought under the plow" unless it comes from clearing tropical rain forests in the Amazon and Congo basins, or in Indonesia or the Brazilian Cerrado.
The Institute's research shows that new sources of irrigation water are even more scarce than new land to plow. During the past 50 years, world irrigated land has nearly tripled, expanding from 94 million hectares in 1950 to 276 million hectares in 2000. In other words, for the individual, the amount of cultivable land is shrinking by 1 percent every year.
Experts working with other international institutions, including the United Nations, more or less agree with Brown's analysis of the current food crisis.
Early this week, a report released by the UN's World Food Program (WFP) called for rich countries to contribute $500 million to address the issue of food scarcity that has led to riots in a number of countries in the global South.
The World Bank says at least 33 countries are currently in danger of political destabilization and internal conflicts driven by the rising prices of food. Currently, some of these poor countries are facing food price hikes up to 80 percent.
Like Brown, in a recent statement, Robert Watson, the former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and chief economist at Britain's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, said the global production of food has increased, "but not every one has benefited."
Watson blamed governments and private businesses for paying more attention to growth in production than natural resources or food security.
"Continuing with current trends means the Earth's haves and have-nots splitting further apart," he said. "It would leave us facing a world nobody wants to inhabit. We have to make food more available and nutritious without degrading the land."
The 2,500-page WFP report says the world produces enough food for every one, yet over 800 million people go hungry. Its authors say food is cheaper and diets are better than 40 years ago, but malnutrition and food insecurity threatens millions nonetheless.
"The unequal distribution of food and conflict over control of the world's dwindling natural resources presents a major political and social challenge to governments," said the report's authors. "[It is] likely to reach crisis status as climate change advances and world population expands from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050."
For his part, Brown is particularly concerned about the impact of U.S. policies on the growing food insecurity worldwide, and he is not convinced Washington has any plans to help mitigate the problem. "I don't think the U.S. has realized the seriousness of the problem we are facing," he told OneWorld.
"I am not sure they have any understanding of what is happening."
April 21, 2008
Running Out of Planet to Exploit
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Nine years ago The Economist ran a big story on oil, which was then selling for $10 a barrel. The magazine warned that this might not last. Instead, it suggested, oil might well fall to $5 a barrel.
In any case, The Economist asserted, the world faced “the prospect of cheap, plentiful oil for the foreseeable future.”
Last week, oil hit $117.
It’s not just oil that has defied the complacency of a few years back. Food prices have also soared, as have the prices of basic metals. And the global surge in commodity prices is reviving a question we haven’t heard much since the 1970s: Will limited supplies of natural resources pose an obstacle to future world economic growth?
How you answer this question depends largely on what you believe is driving the rise in resource prices. Broadly speaking, there are three competing views.
The first is that it’s mainly speculation — that investors, looking for high returns at a time of low interest rates, have piled into commodity futures, driving up prices. On this view, someday soon the bubble will burst and high resource prices will go the way of Pets.com.
The second view is that soaring resource prices do, in fact, have a basis in fundamentals — especially rapidly growing demand from newly meat-eating, car-driving Chinese — but that given time we’ll drill more wells, plant more acres, and increased supply will push prices right back down again.
The third view is that the era of cheap resources is over for good — that we’re running out of oil, running out of land to expand food production and generally running out of planet to exploit.
I find myself somewhere between the second and third views.
There are some very smart people — not least, George Soros — who believe that we’re in a commodities bubble (although Mr. Soros says that the bubble is still in its “growth phase”). My problem with this view, however, is this: Where are the inventories?
Normally, speculation drives up commodity prices by promoting hoarding. Yet there’s no sign of resource hoarding in the data: inventories of food and metals are at or near historic lows, while oil inventories are only normal.
The best argument for the second view, that the resource crunch is real but temporary, is the strong resemblance between what we’re seeing now and the resource crisis of the 1970s.
What Americans mostly remember about the 1970s are soaring oil prices and lines at gas stations. But there was also a severe global food crisis, which caused a lot of pain at the supermarket checkout line — I remember 1974 as the year of Hamburger Helper — and, much more important, helped cause devastating famines in poorer countries.
In retrospect, the commodity boom of 1972-75 was probably the result of rapid world economic growth that outpaced supplies, combined with the effects of bad weather and Middle Eastern conflict. Eventually, the bad luck came to an end, new land was placed under cultivation, new sources of oil were found in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, and resources got cheap again.
But this time may be different: concerns about what happens when an ever-growing world economy pushes up against the limits of a finite planet ring truer now than they did in the 1970s.
For one thing, I don’t expect growth in China to slow sharply anytime soon. That’s a big contrast with what happened in the 1970s, when growth in Japan and Europe, the emerging economies of the time, downshifted — and thereby took a lot of pressure off the world’s resources.
Meanwhile, resources are getting harder to find. Big oil discoveries, in particular, have become few and far between, and in the last few years oil production from new sources has been barely enough to offset declining production from established sources.
And the bad weather hitting agricultural production this time is starting to look more fundamental and permanent than El Niño and La Niña, which disrupted crops 35 years ago. Australia, in particular, is now in the 10th year of a drought that looks more and more like a long-term manifestation of climate change.
Suppose that we really are running up against global limits. What does it mean?
Even if it turns out that we’re really at or near peak world oil production, that doesn’t mean that one day we’ll say, “Oh my God! We just ran out of oil!” and watch civilization collapse into “Mad Max” anarchy.
But rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it.
Don’t look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling.
Arby's owner buying Wendy's for $2.34 billion stock deal
By MARK WILLIAMS, AP Business Writer
Thu Apr 24, 2008
After two past rejections, the owner of Arby's shaved roast beef sandwich restaurants is buying Wendy's, the fast-food chain famous for its made-to-order square hamburgers and chocolate Frosty dessert, for around $2 billion.
Triarc Companies Inc., which is owned by billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, said Thursday it will pay about $2.34 billion in an all-stock deal for the nation's third-largest hamburger chain started in 1969 by Dave Thomas. Wendy's had rejected at least two buyout offers from Triarc.
Thomas' daughter Pam Thomas Farber said the family was devastated by the news.
"It's a very sad day for Wendy's, and our family. We just didn't think this would be the outcome," said Farber, 53.
If her father were alive to hear news of the buyout, "he would not be amused," she said.
Thomas became a household face when he began pitching his burgers and fries in television commercials in 1989.
Wendy's International Inc. deferred comment to Triarc, which had nothing further to say right away.
Triarc will pay about $26.78 per share for the company, which has about 87 million shares outstanding. The price is a premium of 6 percent from the company's closing price of $25.32 Wednesday.
Under the terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the second half of the year, shareholders at Wendy's will receive 4.25 shares of Triarc Class A stock for each share of Wendy's stock they own.
Atlanta-based Triarc said its shareholders will have to approve a charter amendment in which each share of its Class B stock will be converted into Class A stock.
The Wendy's board has been studying strategic alternatives since early last year, and expenses related to that contributed to the company's 72 percent drop in first-quarter earning announced Thursday.
Wendy's said its profits totaled $4.1 million, or 5 cents, a share for the quarter ended March 30 compared with a profit of $14.7 million, or 15 cents a share, a year ago. Revenue was down slightly to $513 million from $522 million a year ago.
Wendy's stock is well off its high for the past year of $42.22 that it reached shortly after the committee began its work in the summer. It fell 3 cents to $25.39 in early trading Thursday.
Sales have slid in a struggling economy that has hurt other restaurant chains, too.
The deal caps two chaotic years for Wendy's in which it has sold or spun off operations, slashed its corporate staff and had its wholesome image tarnished by a woman who falsely claimed she found part of a finger in her chili.
Triarc said it will also change its name to include the Wendy's name.
Pushed by activist shareholders, Wendy's spun off its Tim Hortons coffee-and-doughnut chain and sold its money-losing Baja Fresh Mexican Grill. Chairman and CEO Jack Schuessler abruptly retired in March 2006, months after a woman and her husband were sentenced to prison for extortion for their plot in March 2005 to plant part of a human finger in a bowl of chili at a San Jose, Calif., Wendy's restaurant and claiming it was served to her.
Farber said the family didn't think much of Peltz' and Triarc's tactics.
"They came after them (Wendy's) and came after them and came after them. They spun Tim Hortons off, they did this, they did that. They did everything they asked but it wasn't enough."
Farber said she had just gotten off the phone with her sister Wendy, 46, the company's namesake.
"She's feeling horrible. She just is devastated," Farber said.
Farber said the family had a supported an alternate bid led by Wendy's franchisee David Karam, president of Cedar Enterprises Inc.
"We knew what Dave Karam's commitment was to Wendy's, his family's commitment — just as ours. His dad was a very good friend of our dad's and was one of the very first franchisees, so there's a lot of history."
Peltz, who runs the Trian Fund, and his allies own 9.8 percent of Wendy's stock. Arby's has more than 3,000 restaurants.
He had argued in a letter to Wendy's chairman James Pickett that Triac would be a natural buyer of Wendy's. Peltz gained three seats on the company's board last year.
Thomas, who died in 2002, opened his first restaurant in a former steakhouse on a cold, snowy Saturday in downtown Columbus on Nov. 15, 1969. He named the chain after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou — nicknamed Wendy by her siblings.
The smiling Thomas, always wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, touted the virtues of fast food in humorous ads, often featuring big-name stars such as bluesman B.B. King and soap opera queen Susan Lucci. He appeared in more than 800 ads.
Wendy's, based in suburban Dublin, operates about 6,600 restaurants in the United States and abroad. It trails McDonald's and Burger King Holdings Inc. in the burger business.
On the Net: http://www.wendys.com
Associated Press writer Doug Whiteman contributed to this story.
Director of "Basic Instinct" writes Jesus biography
By TOBY STERLING, Associated Press Writer
Wed Apr 23, 2008
"Basic Instinct" director Paul Verhoeven has written a book that contradicts biblical teaching by suggesting that Jesus might have been fathered by a Roman soldier who raped Mary.
An Amsterdam publishing house said Wednesday it will publish the Dutch filmmaker's biography of Jesus, "Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait," in September.
Verhoeven is best known as the director of blockbuster films including "Basic Instinct" and "RoboCop," but he is also a member of "Jesus Seminar," a group of scholars and authors that seeks to establish historical facts about Jesus.
Marianna Sterk of the publishing house J.M. Meulenhoff said the book includes several ideas that run contrary to Christian faith, including the suggestion that Jesus could be the son of a Roman soldier who raped Mary during a Jewish uprising against Roman rule in 4 B.C.
The book also claims that Judas Iscariot was not responsible for Jesus' betrayal, she said.
The movie director's claims were greeted with some skepticism among those who have dedicated their careers to studying the life of Jesus. One issue is that there is very little information about the life of Jesus outside of the Gospels. The Gospels as understood by Christians for nearly 2,000 years do not support Verhoeven's ideas.
William Portier, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, said the Jesus Seminar is known for making provocative claims, but "they are real scholars — you have to deal with them."
However, he said Verhoeven's ideas sounded "pretty out there."
John Dominic Crossan, a Jesus Seminar founder, agreed. He said that while Verhoeven was a member in good standing, there is little evidence for the view that Jesus was illegitimate.
Crossan said the claim is first reported in a polemic written in the second century against the Book of Matthew, intended for a Jewish audience.
"It's an obvious first retort to claims that Mary was a virgin," Crossan said. "If you wanted to do a hatchet job on Jesus' reputation, this would be the way."
The most likely scenario for people who don't accept that Jesus was literally the son of God and had no human father is simply that he was the son of Joseph, Crossan said.
Sterk said the book will be translated into English in 2009. Verhoeven hopes it will be a springboard for him to raise interest in making a film along the same lines, she said.
Verhoeven, 69, has dreamed of making a movie about Jesus' life for decades, she said.
Asked whether it would be difficult to follow Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," she said Verhoeven knows he may be somewhat late to market.
"He is painfully aware of that," she said. "However, he has quite a different angle."
The Roman Emperor Who Claimed To Be The World's Greatest Athlete
By Brad Steiger
To the crowd at the Circus Maximus the odds were six to five either way whether the criminal standing in the arena before them would survive the day. Whether he did or did not depended on the emperor, and the emperor was known to be a man moved mainly by whim.
Even as the single lion was set loose into the arena and goaded with spears and moveable fences to the thief who would be its lunch, the emperor lounged comfortably in his chair, seemingly unmoved by the pitiful-looking wretch before him.
The starved beast did not charge at once but moved around its prey slowly, cautiously. Then the lion sprang for the quivering man, and the crowd, which had become tensely silent, was immediately on its feet, shouting as the bounding beast approached its victim.
At that moment the emperor moved. His white robe did not interfere with his arm motion as he snatched up the javelin at his side and impaled the beast in midair as it began its final lunge.
Cheers rocked the crowded coliseum, and the emperor took his bows, while the man he had saved kissed his feet.
Who was this strange monarch who played with the lives of others so carelessly? Lucius Aurelius Commodus was the son of the great philosopher-statesman Marcus Aurelius and Faustina, a woman whose shady reputation inspired a great deal of gossip in the Roman Empire. This bizarre parental combination inclined the boy to be wild in his youth, and while his father wanted him to be schooled to ascend to the throne of the empire, Commodus followed his own interests.
On October 12, 166, Lucius Aurelius Commodus, became Caesar of Rome together with his younger brother Marcus. Commodus's twin, Antoninus, died in 165, and Marcus died in surgery in 169, leaving Commodus as Marcus Aurelius' sole surviving son. On November 27, 176, Marcus Aurelius bestowed the title of Imperator upon Commodus, and in 177, gave him equal power as himself by naming him Augustus. On January 1, 177, at the age of 15, Commodus became the youngest consul in Roman history up to that time. On March 17, 180, Commodus became the sole emperor when Marcus Aurelius died while the two moved the army to the Danubian front.
Although mentally lazy, Commodus was physically strong and excelled in horse racing, chariot racing, hunting and killing wild beasts, and in hand-to-hand combat against professional soldiers and gladiators. When all the statistics of the races won, the animals killed, and the gladiators bested are computed, many historians have acknowledged Commodus as the greatest athlete who ever lived.
By modern standards Commodus was not an extraordinarily big man, but in his time when the average height of the Roman soldier was about five feet, his six-foot-190-pound frame was Herculean. Nor did Commodus' bulk affect his coordination adversely, and he was said to have had an uncanny ability to stay on his feet in any situation. Because of his size, he enjoyed impersonating the character of Hercules when he entered the coliseum.
For ten years Commodus was acknowledged as the best boxer in the empire. This may not seem too astounding in the light of modern record holders like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Muhammed Ali, but it must be remembered that boxing matches in ancient Rome always ended with the loser stone cold dead.
In addition to being the fastest runner in the empire, Commodus was also the best man with a bow, javelin, and sword. Furthermore, he was an excellent horseman and a champion charioteer.
The reign of Marcus Aurelius had been marred by almost constant warfare, but even though Commodus' administration was one of the most corrupt the Roman Empire had ever known, it was comparatively one of peace. Perhaps it was boiling with political strife, but the crowd at the coliseum did not care, for they had a hero to idolize. The mob never knew what special treat the remarkable emperor would devise for them next. On one occasion Commodus ordered a hundred lions to be let into the arena and killed them all with his personal bow. For the wholesale slaughter he used only a hundred arrows, one for each lion.
A great innovator of weapons and tools for the athlete, Commodus once heard that a Goth archer had killed an elephant with only seven arrows. Not to be outdone, he summoned Galen, the official physician, and an elephant. Commodus then proceeded to shoot arrows into the hulking creature until the poor animal lay dead. Commodus then had the physician dissect the body to find out which of the arrows had done the most damage. On the following day the emperor pleased the crowds by killing an elephant with only five arrows.
On another occasion Commodus experimented with a crescent-shaped arrowhead, putting it to use by shooting off the heads of dozens of ostriches as they were chased around the arena.
In combat he was at his best. Commodus' favorite ploy was to stack the odds against himself and yet emerge the victor. He would fight as asecutor, a heavily armored swordsman, against a ratarius, an almost completely naked gladiator, who carried a three-pronged spear and a twine net to ensnare his foe.
To the modern reader, it would seem that the armored man would have the advantage, but the Roman connoisseurs of combat knew exactly the opposite was the case. The ratarius, nearly naked, was much more agile and nearly always found the more heavily armored man to be an easy prey for the cast of his net and the jab of his spear. Commodus never lost in this contest. Often he spared his would-be victims, and when he did kill, he did so quickly, the anatomy lessons from Galen telling him exactly where the human body was most vulnerable.
Commodus was the only emperor who walked the sands of the arena with the gladiators. He bested the trained warriors at their own game, and during his long career he killed 735 of these professionals without ever being seriously wounded himself.
While some historians have insisted that the gladiators were too frightened to defend themselves against the emperor and thus submitted to his prowess--expert or not--there is some debate whether or not Commodus killed the fallen warriors in view of the masses in the coliseum. Substantial evidence has mounted that the Great Hercules did kill the defeated gladiators either in public or in private. Indeed, when certain officials complained of the slaughter of the finest gladiators by Commodus, thereby depriving the crowds of skilled contests between evenly matched opponents, wounded soldiers and amputees were placed in the arena to be slain by Hercules.
While his athletic prowess grew, Commodus' administrative abilities waned, and though some of his counselors had thought him capable of maturing into a fine emperor, he began to run the empire as he did the games at the Circus Maximus--with an iron hand and a ruthless competitive spirit. Commodus murdered political rivals without reason, antagonizing Rome's most powerful citizens, until even the hero-worshipping plebeians knew that something drastic was bound to happen.
Late in 192, the Temple of Pax, the Temple of Vesta, and a section of the Imperial state palace were destroyed in a fire. Although a portion of the citizenry was devastated by such a loss, Commodus paid little attention, shooting hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins in the morning and fighting his winning bouts as a gladiator in the afternoon.
Whether paid to do so or not, Marcia, Commodus' favorite mistress, took the problem to heart and drugged her lover's wine. With the emperor unconscious, the chamberlain and a praetorian guard ordered a wrestler into the imperial quarters to strangle him. Commodus' life ended as violently as he had lived it.
Commodus has been portrayed in two movies. In 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Christopher Plummer was quite convincing as the emperor who sought to be respected for his gladiatorial prowess. On the other hand, in Gladiator (2000) Joaquin Phoenix emphasized the sinister and ruthless side of the man. In neither film was Commodus assassinated, but slain in combat in the arena.
Megan Fox tops FHM's sexiest women list
By DERRIK J. LANG
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Megan Fox is the sexiest woman in the world — at least according to FHM magazine.
The "Transformers" co-star tops FHM's annual 100 Sexiest Women in the World poll of FHM readers. The 21-year-old model-actress beat out the likes of Angelina Jolie (No. 12), Rihanna (No. 14), Kim Kardashian (No. 17), Paris Hilton (No. 77) and last year's champion, Jessica Alba (No. 3).
Fox debuted on the annual list in 2006 at No. 68 and ranked at No. 65 in 2007. Joining her in the top 10 this year are — in descending order — Jessica Biel, Alba, Elisha Cuthbert, Scarlett Johansson, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Hilary Duff, Tricia Helfer, Blake Lively and Kate Beckinsale. Britney Spears came in last place at No. 100.
The women from MTV's "The Hills" duke it out on the list with Heidi Montag (No. 44) beating out Audrina Patridge (No. 80) and Lauren Conrad (No. 95). Current "Dancing with the Stars" contestant Shannon Elizabeth (No. 46) returned to the ranking after being absent last year, joining professional dancers Cheryl Burke (No. 40) and Karina Smirnoff (No. 78).
FHM said nearly 9 million votes were cast for the 14th edition of the annual poll.
On the Net:
FHM's 100 Sexiest Women in the World: http://www.fhmonline.com/100sexiest
Clinton grinds out victory over Obama in Pennsylvania
By DAVID ESPO and BETH FOUHY
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton ground out a gritty victory in the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday night, defeating Barack Obama and staving off elimination in their historic race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Some counted me out and said to drop out," the former first lady told supporters cheering her triumph in a state where she was outspent by more than two-to-one. "But the American people don't quit. And they deserve a president who doesn't quit, either."
"Because of you, the tide is turning."
Her victory, while comfortable, set up another critical test in two weeks time in Indiana. North Carolina votes the same night, with Obama already the clear favorite in a state with a large black population.
In Pennsylvania, Clinton was winning 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for her rival with 75 percent counted, and she hoped for significant inroads into Obama's overall lead in the competition for delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
An early tabulation showed her gaining at least 28 delegates in Pennsylvania, with 130 more still to be awarded.
Clinton scored her victory by winning the votes of blue-collar workers, women and white men in an election where the economy was the dominant concern. Obama was favored by blacks, the affluent and voters who recently switched to the Democratic Party, a group that comprised about one in ten Pennsylvania voters, according to the surveys conducted by The Associated Press and the TV networks.
More than 80 percent of voters surveyed as they left their polling places said the nation was already in a recession.
A six-week campaign allowed time for intense courtship of the voters.
She showed her blue-collar bona fides one night by knocking down a shot of whiskey, then taking a mug of beer as a chaser. Obama went bowling in his attempt to win over working-class voters.
Clinton's win marked at least the third time she had triumphed when defeat might have sent her to the campaign sidelines.
She won in New Hampshire last winter after coming in third in the kickoff Iowa caucuses, and she won primaries in Ohio and Texas several weeks later after losing 11 straight contests.
Her victory also gave Clinton a strong record in the big states as she attempts to persuade convention superdelegates to look past Obama's delegate advantage and his lead in the popular vote in picking a nominee. She had previously won primaries in Texas, California, Ohio and her home state of New York, while Obama won his home state of Illinois.
The latest tabulation of delegates left Obama with an overall lead of 1648.5 to 1537.5, totals that include the superdelegates who are not picked in primaries and caucuses.
Clinton projected confidence to the end of the Pennsylvania campaign, scheduling an election-night rally in Philadelphia. Obama signaled in advance he expected to lose, flying off to Indiana for an evening appearance even before the polls closed.
Flush with cash, Obama reported spending $11.2 million on television in the state, more than any place else. That compared with $4.8 million for Clinton.
The tone of the campaign was increasingly personal — to the delight of Republicans and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting gaining in the polls while the Democrats battle in primaries deep into the spring.
"In the last 10 years Barack Obama has taken almost $2 million from lobbyists, corporations and PACs. The head of his New Hampshire campaign is a drug company lobbyist, in Indiana an energy lobbyist, a casino lobbyist in Nevada," said a Clinton commercial that aired in the final days of the race.
Obama responded with an ad that accused Clinton of "eleventh-hour smears paid for by lobbyist money." It said that unlike his rival, he "doesn't take money from special interest PACs or Washington lobbyists — not one dime."
Also to the delight of Republicans, the six-week layoff between primaries produced a string of troubles for the Democrats.
Obama was forced onto the defensive by incendiary comments by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then triggered controversy on his own by saying small-town Americans cling to guns and religion because of their economic hardships.
Clinton conceded that she had not landed under sniper fire in Bosnia while first lady, even though she said several times that she had. And she replaced her chief strategist, Mark Penn, after he met with officials of the Colombian government seeking passage of a free trade agreement that she opposes.
The remaining Democratic contests are primaries in North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon, Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico, and caucuses in Guam.
David Espo reported from Washington.
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Apr 24, 2008
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Thursday, April 24, 2008
Hands-on Wii Fit
Apr 15, 2008
The following account comes to readers from IGN Nintendo Team editor-in-chief Matt Casamassina, who extensively tested out the English version of Wii Fit from Nintendo's Media Summit event in San Francisco last week:
I think gamers -- hardcore or otherwise -- who still believe that Wii Fit is a gimmick, an impostor, or an all-out fake are in for a rude awakening. Whether you want to refer to it as a game or an exercise program, you will eventually have to concede, as I have, that it's the real deal. It'll give you a work out. You will sweat. Your heart will move. And you might just wake up the sore the next day. I'm speaking from experience for exactly that happened to me at last week's Nintendo Media Summit, where I went hands (and feet) on the Wii Balance Board and cycled through some of the exercises and minis in Nintendo's sort-of-kind-of-game and soon-to-be-hit.
I've been through the basics of Wii Fit a dozen times before, but just in case you've been out on vacation for the last 10 months, I've provided a quick primer. Nintendo's latest "casual" or "bridge" title, set to debut on May 19 in America, takes the fundamentals of Wii Sports to the next level. Whereas the pack-in encouraged players to get off their couches and swing the Wii remote like a real tennis racket or bowl like a pro, Wii Fit challenges participants to compete in mini-workouts, the end goal being to tone muscle and hopefully burn fat. You stand on an included scale-like device called the Wii Balance Board and it very accurately measures every shift, however subtle, you might make as you battle and play through 40 different minis and exercises spread across strength training, yoga, aerobics, and balance games.
The Big N has shied away from stating that Wii Fit is a true exercise solution (and I can't really blame it when we live in a world where stupid people who accidentally break their TVs with Wii remotes will actually sue the publisher), but the fact remains, many of the challenges encapsulated within Wii Fit are hard and very taxing on your body. I'm by no means Mr. Universe, but I do go to my local gym about four times per week and I adhere to regular workout cycles, sometimes concentrating on my chest and back, other times focusing on my arms and stomach. I've been doing this for years and like to think I'm fairly well-versed in a solid exercise program. And yet, 20 minutes with Wii Fit kicked my ass, which surprised me.
Always politically correct, Nintendo has designed Wii Fit to measure your body mass index or BMI as opposed to your weight. That said, you can set the game to display your weight, too, and according to Shigeru Miyamoto, who hatched the concept, the Wii Balance Board is actually one of the most accurate scales that money can buy. I'm inclined to believe him having seen just how precisely the contraption measured my every tiny nuance of a momentum shift and movement. In addition to your BMI, which is a fancy way of describing the measurement of body fat, the title awards you with a Wii Fit Age (go figure, right?), the latter of which is based an initial balance test. As you play Wii Fit every day, you'll want to secure and maintain a healthy age.
Right, so my primer was a little longer than I teased, but everybody needs a refresher now and again. In my recent play-through of the title, I first engaged in a strength-training exercise that was one part push-up and another part yoga. Bear in mind that I'm used to shoulder-length push-ups, but in Wii Fit, the size of the Balance Board -- about the width of a day-to-day scale -- requires that you pull your arms a little closer together like a diamond push-up. This, in case you're wondering, is considerably more difficult. Both hands are placed firmly on the Balance Board, knees still on the ground. Next, you stretch your legs out and hold your body at the high point of the push-up. Breath in and slowly lower yourself to the Board while breathing out. Now hold for one, two, three seconds. Not so bad, right? Wrong. It's about to get tricky. Now you have to keep the position while you wrap your right leg around your left, reach toward the sky with your right arm and pivot your body, shifting all of your weight on your left arm. Hold. Return to the push-up position -- smoothly now -- and repeat the process. Six times. (You can unlock higher reps as you use Wii Fit on a daily basis.)
IGN's resident not-sure-what-she-does Jessica Chobot and I competed in two different push-up competitions and somehow, against all odds, she beat me. I am not entirely sure how this happened given that her arms are no wider than soda straws, but I think it may have something to do with my form -- as I noted, I was a little wobblier than Jess due to the fact that I have weight to consider (particularly in my belly, I'm not embarrassed to admit) and Chobot practically floats. Even so, I at least finished the competition, competing all six reps. Jess, on the other hand, gave up halfway through, fell on her face and smashed her hip. That she still won remains an enigma.
In Wii Fit, when you start the exercise, an on-screen trainer -- either male or female depending on your preference -- gives you important advice about form, breathing, position holds, and timing. You're going to want to listen to the trainer as they offer invaluable guidance throughout your workouts and they're advice changes dynamically throughout your programs as the title measures different shifts in your form and momentum. It's pretty incredible to receive genuinely helpful guidance halfway through an instruction.
There are all sorts of other exercises, some more difficult than others. In strength training alone, which I find particularly appealing (mostly because it's not Yoga, which I seem to be incapable of showing any kind of prowess in), there's single leg extension, sideways leg lifts, arm and leg lifts, single arm stands, torso twists, rowing squats, single leg twists, lunges, push-ups and side planks, jackknifes, plank and tricep extensions, and more. In aerobics, you can partake in hula-hoop challenges, basic steps, basic runs, super hula-hoops, advanced steps, rhythm boxing, free steps and free runs. In Yoga, there's deep breathing, half moons, dances, cobras, bridges, spinal twists, shoulder stands, warrior poses, tree poses, sun salutation poses, standing knee poses, palm tree poses, chair, chair, triangle and downward-facing dog poses. It's a ridiculous complete set of traditional exercises.
And then there are the Balance Board games. I tried a few more of these out at the event. First, though, the selection, which includes soccer heading, ski slalom, ski jump, table tilt, tightrope walk, balance bubble, penguin slide, snowboard slalom and lotus focus. I delved a little deeper into the ski jump than I ever have before and found the mini to be immensely enjoyable, both simple and addictive. To play, you place both feet on the Balance Board and lean forward, shifting most of your weight toward the front of the peripheral. The position of your feet directly moves an on-screen reticule around and your immediate goal is merely to correctly balance yourself so that the reticule moves within another on-screen circe -- the money spot. The longer you keep the reticule in there, the greater speed your character will build as he slides down the hill. And just before you reach the jump at the end, you make a jumping gesture (but don't actually jump -- Wii Fit warns before several challenges that you should never jump). Just straighten your legs very quickly and, according to one Nintendo instructor, you should even try to stand on your tiptoes, as you're likely to gain greater height. (I tried this but was unsuccessful.) It took me about two tries to really get the hang of everything, another five or so to start ranking in the top five, and three more times on top of that before I finally nabbed first place. It's not a complicated mini-game, but I have to admit that I was glued to the ski slalom as I tried for first place. I didn't want to stop playing, which is always a great sign.
I also tried out the game's tightrope and penguin slide minis and found them to be nearly as enjoyable, although altogether different in execution. In tightrope, you walk by making a walking gesture with your left and right feed -- remember, you don't really want to lift your legs; same as jumping. As you walk the tightrope, you'll need to keep the balance and avoid obstructions by jumping over them. And in penguin slide, you tilt an icy platform left and right by shifting the balance with your respective feet, the goal being to eat as many penguins as possible. All fun.
There's no doubt that Wii Fit is going to appeal to the casual crowd. (I keep saying that if Nintendo can just get the title on Oprah Winfrey, it'll be a gargantuan success.) But I like to brand myself a hardcore gamer and I have to tell you, I think the program is incredible. Is this Nintendo's "bridge" strategy in effect? Whatever the case, I'm a believer. I go to the gym regularly, but sometimes I have to force myself to leave the house. Wii Fit succeeds in that it makes exercising fun -- addictive, even. In fact, gamers strictly opposed to working up a sweat may find the exercise component invisible -- you'll be having so much fun with the mini-games that you won't even notice you're technically burning calories until you're suddenly out of breath.
Nintendo is supporting Wii Fit with an epic marketing budget and allocating more than a million units for the title's launch in the U.S. on May 19. There's nothing gimmicky about the fitness game and I think America is going to quickly find itself hooked on the Big N's latest phenomenon.
The Greatest Five Seconds in Movie History
by Bobby B.
"No. I am your father."
-- Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back
It is difficult -- if not impossible -- to understand the impact these five words had on all of popular culture back in 1980. They were spoken, of course, by one of the cultural icons of the last half of the twentieth century; the modern fairy-tale symbol of all that is evil; the ultimate cinematic bad-ass; Darth Vader. And when a stunned Luke Skywalker heard these words his expression of shock, horror and disbelief found millions of reflections in the faces of the audience that bore witness to this awe-inspiring revelation. There has never and will never be another moment like it in the history of film.
Nearly thirty years later the phenomenon that is Star Wars is taken for granted. Young people today don't know and older people don't remember that there was a time when no one knew that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Nowadays that moment in cinematic history has become a part of our social fabric. I would venture to guess that everyone reading this has uttered those five words (probably altered erroneously to include a sixth – as in "No Luke, I am your father") in their deepest baritone at some point in their lives. Take a moment: can you think of anyone who does not know where those five words come from or who it was that said them? Someone may or may not know who Michael Corleone is, or Iago, Sauron, or the White Witch; but everyone knows Darth Vader. People who have never seen any of the Star Wars movies (I hear there are such people, poor, sick, twisted souls) are cognizant of Luke Skywalker's dark lineage by sheer cultural osmosis. But it goes deeper than that. Those five words were much more than a powerful twist in the ultimate fantasy flick. That sentence changed movies and by extension, America, forever. More than any other film THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is responsible for the American tradition of the summer blockbuster. It wasn't the first. GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE GODFATHER had all been massive in their day. And then there was JAWS, and STAR WARS changing the game altogether.
Released at the beginning of summer, they put up numbers never before seen. This was a result not just of the films themselves, but the changing face of marketing. Still these two spectacular hits were surprises, first-timers, phenoms unto themselves. The release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK stirred in a new ingredient...anticipation. Springing directly out of the hype machine and story momentum of the first film, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened to a blockbuster reception. The world had spent three years waiting for it. Slated to be The Event for the summer of 1980, everyone wanted to be a part of it. We had rushed to see JAWS and STAR WARS because we'd heard they were great but we'd penciled in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on our calendars because we knew it was coming...and thus a tradition was born.
This had everything to do of course, with the impact of STAR WARS. Movies are our societal dreams, the creative manipulation of our collective sub-conscious. In the 1970's America had started out having a difficult time of it. We had lost a war for the first time – a war we weren't even sure we should be participating in. A president had resigned in disgrace. Symbols of hope from the decade before – Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Bobby Kennedy – had been assassinated and the civil rights movements for Black and Native Americans, women, and homosexuals seemed to have crashed on the reefs of the Me Generation. And the films of the Seventies reflected this new, bruised and battered
reality: CHINATOWN, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, TAXI DRIVER, SAVE THE TIGER, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE DEER HUNTER, THE EXORCIST, even THE GODFATHER. Though these films were often brilliant they didn't provide relief from an increasingly complex, frustrating and dangerous reality. America had needed a break, an escape. And STAR WARS had provided.
STAR WARS drew on the literary and mythic traditions of Joseph Campbell, Beowulf and King Arthur, among others, as well as the cinematic traditions of Westerns and Flash Gordon serials. It was a new movie that touched something old within us, something primal. The simplified positing of conflict between two stark extremes – Good and Evil – had in itself been a relief from the moral ambiguities of the day. It felt like a throwback to an earlier era, the days of Once Upon a Time, a period when there were clear answers to tough questions, our memory of an age that probably never existed. Child-like, but not childish, its stunning special effects dazzled kids and cynical adults alike. Perhaps most importantly Star Wars provided a lot of fun at a time when that was what everyone needed. And it was HUGE. Even though we now live in the Age of the Blockbuster, STAR WARS is still one of the highest grossing films of all time. Everyone saw it. Everyone knew the story. Everyone knew what a light saber was. We hummed the music on the playground. "May the Force be with you" became the phrase of the day. Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, mouths agape, in like wonderment during the cantina scene. A Jew and a Muslim were both enthralled by the awesome sight and voice of Darth Vader. Young people and old gripped their chairs on the roller-coaster ride culminating in the exhilarating destruction of the Death Star. For two hours, people of every culture, color and race forgot their differences and had a blast. STAR WARS had, in effect, engendered a cinematic community that wasn't bound by borders or ideologies or even culture.
The full potential of the social impact of film had been stunningly realized in one stroke and it was more than anyone could have imagined. Groups of human beings often function as a single organism in behavior and this newly formed Star Wars community had been no different. Having had one blast of ecstasy the whole world now waited for its next fix. And that was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Adding to the anticipation was that it took years for the next one to come along. Almost before the first film ended there was a rumor that there was going to be a second one. But there was nothing for a while, only speculation. And then speculation became more concrete. Quite deliberately it was leaked that a sequel was in production. Movie buffs, science fiction geeks, children, even professionals over their water coolers hotly debated the title and plot of the new film. Everybody else was drawn in when the marketing campaign began anew.
(STAR WARS had changed the face of movie marketing and maybe marketing in general. It was perhaps, the first movie ever to become a full fledged corporation. There were toys, lunch boxes, comics, cartoons, books, clothes, games, you name it – that carried the STAR WARS name or image. Thirty years later this is old hat. But in the late 1970's this was something new. I was too young to realize that I should have been terrified.)
So we were all waiting. The story, the characters, the marketing campaign, the time period had all combined to create a perfect storm of anticipation. Whatever else was going on in your community in the summer of 1980 you knew that one thing you were going to do, one thing that most people in most communities across the United
States were going to do, we were all going to go see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
I was twelve that year. My family was in transit. My dad was in the military and we had spent three years on a little island, Terceira, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That summer was a good one. We were visiting my mother's family in San Antonio, Texas and if you've ever been to Texas in the summertime you know that it's blistering. Temperatures were in the hundreds. You could see the heat coming off of the street. Summertime in San Antonio was about snow cones and dirt, baseball and ice cream, watching flamenco dancing on the riverside and dashing from one air conditioner to the other. We went to Six Flags and I rode a bigger, meaner roller coaster than I had ever ridden before. We went to the zoo and rode on elephants. We saw family we hadn't seen in years. And we planned to go see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It was the first movie anyone ever did that for. The weekend it opened people packed to go see the movie because they were going to have to wait in line...for hours. They brought lawn chairs and comic books, squirt guns and games to play. We brought a bunch of quarters because the age of Star Wars had also ushered in another technological and social phenomenon -- video games. This was also the dawn of the age of the multiplex. And once you made it to the ticket booth you probably weren't buying tickets for the next showing but the one after that or the one after that. Before movie theaters had one, two or three screens. Now for the first time there were epic movie houses with screens in the double digits. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was showing on six different screens and we still had to wait. But we were cool with that because it was a festival atmosphere. I went with my sister and my cousins but it was like we were friends with everybody who was there and it seemed like there were a million people there. People were playing Frisbee in the parking lot, sitting under umbrellas on the sidewalk, eating lunch in the back of their pickup trucks. Everybody was happy and excited. Everyone was talking about the movie and what they hoped to see. Everyone was an expert on the nature of the Force and the intricacies of being a Jedi. We were all waiting to see Yoda who was already a household name and face due to marketing. And when we finally, finally – not after hours of waiting or even days, but after years of waiting – were sitting in our seats staring up at the screen about to find out what happened to all of our friends, Luke and Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca, R-2 D-2 and C3PO...it was as sweet a moment of anticipation as any we'd experienced.
And it was awesome. I have heard since that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened to mixed reviews when it first came out. All I can say is I was completely unaware of anyone not liking the movie and frankly, sometimes people think too much. From the opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth, to the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia, to the training of Luke by master Yoda, to the introduction of Lando Calrissian and the Cloud City THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK expanded and deepened the first film and it did it with the same flair and excitement. Thrilling events tumble over each other: the fight with the Wampa, the thunderous battle with the Empire in the ice when the rebels were forced to escape, Luke's pilgrimage to Dagobah, the chase through the asteroid belt, the finding of the Cloud City.
And then, of course, there was the climactic light-saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the fight that everyone wanted to see, the real-deal showdown between Good and Evil we all knew was coming. And it went the only way it could go really. Luke putting up a good showing but really fighting a fight he could not win. We all knew that. After all, this was Darth Vader, the coolest cat in the Universe, a dude so bad he could choke you to death with a dirty look from behind his black helmet. But Luke showed skill, courage, heart. And then it happened. Beaten, helpless, with his back against the wall (or rather, hanging over a giant air-shaft) Luke finds himself facing the personification of cinematic evil on a slender bridge. We all knew Luke wasn't going to die but what was going to happen? How was he going to get out of this mess? And then, out of nowhere, a curve ball: Darth Vader for whatever reason decides to bring up Luke's father:
Darth Vader: Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough. He told me you killed him.
We all knew that. Like Luke we learned it from the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi -- Luke's mentor, a man who'd sacrificed himself to save Luke and his friends -- in the previous movie. And then it happened, the words none of us ever imagined we would hear:
Vader: No. I am your father.
It was electrifying, seismic, a bombshell. Looking back it was as though two hundred million movie-goers all audibly gasped at the same time. Certainly, everyone in the theater I was in did. And the next time I saw it and the next time after that. It was an ultimate story-telling moment in our ultimate story-telling medium; absolute, perfect, completing a perfect circle that made pure emotional sense. And it had been building up for three years, we had all been waiting for just this moment – and none of us had known it.
For one five-second sliver of time (I'm counting the four seconds Vader took to say the words and the immediate next second of shock on Luke's face) we were all one mind, one heart, frozen. It was epic.
There have been a hundred -- a thousand truly great moments in film history: the ending of CASABLANCA, when Dorothy first sees Oz in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Orson Welles entrance in THE THIRD MAN or when Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom for the last time in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, to name a tiny, tiny few. And I don't know that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a great film in the way these other films are great. The first three STAR WARS films were a product of zeitgeist, they captured a moment. This was something that George Lucas himself didn't seem to understand with the subsequent STAR WARS films. But there has never been another moment in film history that brought so many people together into the same emotional space and mindset as those five seconds in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when Darth Vader broke it down reeeeeeeeeeaaaal proper like and let Luke Skywalker know what was really going on.
It didn't take long before you started hearing people saying "Oh, yeah, I knew it all along." and "They didn't fool me.", etc. And you know, maybe some of them did know and maybe some people weren't fooled. If so, it's too bad for them. There are some things more important than being in the know. Those people who "knew" missed out on the greatest five seconds in movie history and one of the greatest moments of community in the Twentieth Century.