Friday, August 25, 2006

Film Godzilla (Gojira; Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Tonight the NC Museum of Art's summer lawn series featured the original Japanese Godzilla (Gojira; Ishiro Honda, 1954; not the 1956 American version with Raymond Burr). I enjoyed it ... more writeup coming soon ...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Film Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine, 2006)

(I am documenting this after the fact and think we saw the film on August 24, but I may be wrong; it was the middle or end of August. This is the basis for my published review in the October 2006 issue of Saathee Magazine.)

In millions of barrels per day, total U.S. oil imports (crude and refined) in 1977: 8.8. In 2005: 13.5 . Maximum federal tax credit for electric vehicle (2002): $4000. For vehicles weighing 6000 pounds and greater (2003): $100,000.

I remember living through the oil crisis in the 1970s and having lines for rationed gas. President Carter in 1979 put measures in place to gradually improve fuel efficiency of vehicles, vowing to set the country on a course to reduce oil imports. Unfortunately, some later politicians seemed to forget that crisis and nullified many of the conservation measures, even removing solar panels that had been installed on the White House.

  • Jumping forward to 1990, California adopted a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring auto makers to sell 10% of its cars having no emissions from fueling or operation. Cars could be recharged at home or at public recharging stations. In 1996, the mandate was made more flexible in the face of auto industry pressure and in 2003 California further weakened it, no longer requiring car manufacturers to produce any ZEVs.

    General Motors (GM), which had developed the EV1 electric car for lease but not sale, almost immediately discontinued and recalled the leased vehicles. Contrary to company claims of recycling the car parts, GM was found trucking the clean functioning cars to Arizona and crushing them. Owners who have loved the experience and low cost of driving their cars protested and even Gandhian non-violent vigils and actions, as well as offers to buy the cars, are unable to stop the destruction.

    Why such a history especially with rising gas prices and the backdrop of conflicts at least partially over access to oil? The documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? attempts to give insight. A variety of "suspects" are examined. Are car companies guilty? The filmmakers think so and imply that they only half-heartedly worked to develop and market the cars. The EV1 had no internal combustion engine, oil, filters, or spark plugs, and a break system requiring minimal repair. That was good news for the people fortunate enough to have been able to lease the cars, but provided very little after-market profit. How about oil companies? Their lobbies strongly opposed the adoption of electric cars which, after all, would reduce their sales. Batteries? Surprisingly not guilty; GM purchased a majority interest in nickel-metal hydride battery technology but chose to deliver an under-performing product that provided half the driving range.

    How about the U.S. government? Guilty as well, according to the film. Not only were earlier conservation measures stripped of their power, but in 2002 the current administration joined automakers and car dealers in a lawsuit against California's ZEV mandate. Instead of encouraging a proven and existing technology, it helped sign its death certificate and instead is gambling on hydrogen fuel cell technology. The film includes an interview with Joseph J. Romm, author of The Hype about Hydrogen, to make the point that hydrogen may be a long-term solution, but many impediments, including price (a vehicle currently costs $1 million and the fuel is very expensive and from non-renewable sources), creation of fueling infrastructure, and range (normal sized cars currently can't carry enough hydrogen to provide sufficient range) make it unlikely to be a solution for decades to come.

    The Clinton administration as well did little to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards If anything, the filmmakers imply, government has stifled cleaner electric technology; there were more electric cars on the road 100 years ago than gas cars.

    The film features interviews with people such as Chelsea Sexton, who was an EV1 sales specialist married to an EV1 technician; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; S. David Freeman, former energy advisor to President Carter; R. James Woolsey, ex-CIA director; Phyllis Diller, a comedian who remembers early electric cars before 1920; and Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, whose battery technology powered the EV1 and is used in many current hybrid vehicles. I found that the human interest was a welcome respite to a film that at times was too focused on pressing its case against the demise of the electric car.

    Anybody interested in efficient and renewable energy, as well as public policy, should see this film. Who Killed the Electric Car? informs well, though I wish it presented a little more history of the electric car. Documentaries can and should be interesting and not just educational; by and large this is, though at times it is a little repetitive. That said, overall the film is thought-provoking, and the frustrating story of the electric car's demise ends with some optimism for the future.

    7 stars out of 10

    Film websites

    Note: all pictures (inclusion forthcoming) are ©2006 by Sony Pictures Classics, and used with their permission.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Film Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

I had never seen the classic film Lawrence of Arabia but my wife and I had the good fortune of seeing it tonight outdoors at the NC Museum of Art's Summer Film series. It's an epic at 227 minutes (we had an intermission; the film was captivating enough that I didn't find the break necessary, and it sure didn't feel like it lasted almost 4 hours) with Peter O'Toole playing the role of T.E. Lawrence, conflicted English military friend of the Arabs during World War I.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Film Highway Courtesans (Mystelle Brabbée, 2004)

Guddi as teacher. Used with permission courtesy of Women Make Movies ( I saw the documentary film Highway Courtesans, a Women Make Movies Release, on DVD. It is about the Bachara tribe in the western part of Madhya Pradesh in central India. This tribe is known for the tradition of child prostitution, with families making their first daughters, as children, into prostitutes to support the family. The tradition is centuries old and is still practiced today.

The film, directed by Mystelle Brabbée, follows six years in the life of Bacharan Guddi Chauhan from age 16 to 23. She has been a prostitute serving passing-by truckers and others I believe since age 11 or 12, but clearly is uneasy about this forced occupation. Along the way, she has garnered a boyfriend, Sagar, out of her clientèle. Sagar surprisingly seems not to mind her profession.

Guddi's misgivings lead her, against her family's wishes, to leave prostitution and learn enough to become a teacher in a village. Trucks on Ratlam Highway. Used with permission courtesy of Women Make Movies ( do her drunken do-nothing brother and tradition-bound father react to her independent streak? How does Guddi, as well as some of her peers in the community, Shana and Sungita, feel about the tradition and the role thrust upon them? Change is often a two-edged sword, and would fighting this tradition benefit these young ladies and girls? What other opportunities exist, where do they exist, and do ex-Bacharan prostitutes have hopes of marriage? Can they fulfill their desires to support their families? Why is Sagar vague about his plans to marry Guddi? We see Guddi's father sending her by bus to a larger town to get a proper education; will he support her and let her study?

View outside Guddi's home. Used with permission courtesy of Women Make Movies ( 71-minute film that took approximately ten years to produce gives insight into these questions. It is difficult to come to terms with forced child prostitution, especially in modern times, and a documentary on this topic could leave one numb. Instead, the film is crafted in an accessible and warm manner. The prostitutes are victims, but somehow Guddi, Shana, and Sungita, are surprisingly strong and confident.

I am impressed with the access that the filmmakers were able to get to the people in the Bacharan village, and to the villagers' willingness to frankly discuss matters. By clearly documenting this story, the producers have used film to possibly make a big difference in the lives of these highway courtesans. But will this age-old tradition become a thing of the past? And if it does, will reasonable opportunities for villagers be available? We can only hope.

Highway Courtesans has won a number of awards, such as best feature documentary at the 2005 Galway Film Fleadh and winner of the President's Jury Award at the 2005 Chicago International Documentary Festival. I understand that it is set for theatrical release this November at New York City's Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. Established in 1972, Women Make Movies, the film's distributor, is a national non-profit media organization and the largest distributor of films made exclusively by and about women. WMM's collection of more than 500 films are used by thousands of educational, community and cultural organizations annually, exhibited at film festivals worldwide and broadcast on television and cable stations in the U.S. and abroad.

Links of interest: Guddi, her boyfriend Sagar, and filmmaker Mystelle Brabbée. Used with permission courtesy of Women Make Movies (

Photographs used with permission courtesy of Women Make Movies ( Guddi as teacher, trucks on Ratlam Highway, view outside Guddi's home, Guddi with her boyfriend Sagar and director Mystelle Brabbée.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Concert: Jaafar Music

I love Jaafar Music, led by my friend Troy Cole. The group describes itself on its website as:
"a middle eastern jazz Arabic funk fusion ensemble that originates from the Raleigh/Durham Triangle of NC. The instrumentation is usually bass, oud, keys, dumbek, drum set, sometime a double neck guitar is thrown into the mix. It is an awesome blend of western and eastern ideas fusing seamlessly through 'traditional' oriental themes, and western jazz/funk."
As always, I enjoyed seeing them perform tonight. As soon as I got home, I created a public gallery for the images and uploaded them, as well as .mpg videos.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Film Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang; Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2005)

Tonight, with a friend (while my wife practiced - she's on stage tomorrow!), I saw the critically acclaimed Taiwanese film Three Times at our historic Carolina Theatre. The description that the theatre's site had posted is:
The film features three different stories of love and memory through three time periods, 1966, 1911 and 2005. The first, "A Time for Love," hinges on the meeting of soldier boy Chen with pool hall hostess May and his subsequent search for her. The second episode, "A Time for Freedom," deals with a courtesan tending to a Mr. Chang during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. And the third episode, "A Time for Youth," centers on epileptic singer Jing who casually takes up with photographer Zhen while increasingly ignoring her female lover.
Neither of us left the film understanding what the commotion could have been about. We both reasonably enjoyed the episode taking place in 1966 (from which the image below is taken) - it is sweet and innocent, and all the characters seemed happy. In the 1911 episode, the characters were all imprisoned by duty-bound roles, and happiness was not readily apparent. In the gritty modern 2005 final episode, all trace of innocence and happiness seemed to be whisked away in the detritus of the modern anonymous city.

The best scene for me was in the first part; in the sweet romance blooming between our two protagonists, Chen (played by Chen Chang) reaches his hand down slowly to clasp the hand of May (Qi Shu). But rather than enjoy many such touching scenes, I was left a bit puzzled by the dearth of interest, to me, in the rest of the film.

I had expected that Hsia-hsien Hou, cited as filming subtle scenes of beauty, would have cleverly used the three parallel histories, perhaps weaving them and interchanging them nonlinearly, or somehow related them. All I saw was the coincidental use of two characters in love stories of three different eras. The film was slow; if it were entirely to have taken place in the 1960s, I could have described "slow" with more positive phrases, such as, perhaps, "subtly engaging" or "innocently unwinding" or maybe even "softly touching". I would give the film 5 1/2 or 6 stars out of 10.

In addition to the imdb entry for the film, you can also visit its official website.

All pictures here ©2006 by The Independent Film Channel LLC and used with permission.