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“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too

February 04, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Many claim that books and films-- politicians too—are frequently the result of a deliberate marketing strategy, that they’re designed by a team according to formulae based on earlier successes and applied like an algorithm to the market:--to win. “The Martian” may be one of these made-to-order productions, containing as it does, all essential ingredients-- a star actor, an ethnically diverse cast, a futuristic theme, spectacular cosmic sets, high tech knowhow, and a heroic American plot.

Americans will never tire of their need for muscular heroes engaged in the struggle between good and bad, challenging the forces of nature, triumphing in a valiant rescue. But maybe such needs are not limited to American tastes. Who doesn’t seek heroic resolutions and reassurance that a man’s (sic) intelligence and ingenuity will save us from human folly and tame the power of nature?

I can’t help wondering if Crown Publishers, who plucked “The Martians” from a self-published unknown (Andy Weir), and 20th Century Fox-- within months of the book’s release they secured film rights, released the film in under two years, and rapidly snagged an Oscar nomination-- had been searching for this very story. Following the new “Star Wars” and building on the popularity of space science and its spectacular recent discoveries, a human drama on Mars was inevitable.

The movie’s plot is as credible as a person washed up on that desert island in “Castaway”. In “The Martian” we have a cosmonaut botanist Watney (Matt Damon) lost in future space (on Mars), using his wit and science knowhow to survive, and doing so on less than Tom Hanks had available in “Castaway”.

In the end our space hero is rescued by the woman spaceship commander and her multi-ethnic crew, after tense months of negotiations between them and officials at NASA headquarters on earth. This drama equals that of “Apollo 13”, with Damon’s heroism matching that of Hanks (again). Except that “The Martian” tags a new partner: China.

Filmmaking, like any industry, is sensitive to marketing statistics. Examining these, one begins to speculate about what drives films like “The Martian”. In 2014, one research agency announced how film entertainment worldwide was expected to grow from $88.3 billion in 2015 to $104.6 billion in 2019. Another survey notes how the international box office market is expanding rapidly in the Asian-Pacific region, where, we are advised, China is the market to watch. Thus film companies have their sights set on China’s filmgoers.

Overseas auto sales may be declining but entertainment is an expanding revenue source for the USA. From science fiction (“The Terminator” series) to children’s education (“Sesame Street”), hundreds of US produced TV series and films are translated into dozens of languages and franchised for production by other countries. Futuristic spectacles like “The Martian” become big foreign revenue earners. Everyone enjoys drama; when it’s combined with credible science, special effects and a hero like Matt Damon, it’s a box office success.

It’s also a political winner. As poet Amiri Baraka emphasized and filmmaker Spike Lee reinforces in his productions, everything is political. On the surface, unlike a Lee film, “The Martian” lacks any explicit political message. There are no fearless Marine snipers, no gallant lawyers defending minority rights, no environmentalists challenging corporate polluters, no journalists doggedly pursuing truth at any price.

“The Martian”’s subtext lies in its demonstration of the brilliance of the American scientist and how far his team will go to save one American life. This film is also on target with its ethnic diversity. (Although the hero is still a white man.) While some personalities differ slightly from the book’s characters, they nevertheless represent what’s described as an A-1 cast: stranded Mars cosmonaut Watney (Damon); smart women, headed by the space ship’s commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain); Purnell (Donald Glover), a genius African American mathematician; Martinez (Michela Pena), a compassionate Latino pilot; and Ng (Ben Wong), the capable Chinese Jet Propulsion Lab director. Finally, we have Dr. Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), charged with the rescue of Damon, declaring that his mother is from India. (Everyone except a hijab-crowned physicist, an Arab geneticist, and a Native American chemist is present.)

If we look back at the 1995 all-white-all-male “Apollo 13” cast, it’s clear we’ve advanced on some fronts. Of course “Apollo 13” was based on reality while “The Martian”, like “Star Trek”, is futuristic. And for America, true ethnic parity, while not science fiction, is not present-day reality.

The main hidden text of “The Martian” is found in the role of China-- Communist China, not the scientist played by Ben Wong. China enters the story at the moment of NASA’s despair and saves their seemingly doomed rescue plan. From their Beijing headquarters, watching the drama on live TV, Chinese space officials determinedly put aside their own project and offer to rocket supplies to the stricken Americans. A possible American failure is turned into an international victory, and Damon (he’s always Damon on screen) is reunited with his spaceship. Cheers erupt among crowds watching the rescue in Times Square, in London’s Trafalgar and at Tiananmen Square. (A good time was had by all.)  END

Comments welcome


[ “The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too ]

"The Donald" and the American Media

January 31, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Is “The Donald” Really One-up on US Media? If So, Should We Not Champion Him?

Why are we so surprised by the audacity and rise of The Donald? We made him. America made him. Our free, uncensorable press made him. For as long as I can recall being a media critic, we’ve been decrying our out-of-control, profiteering American media empire. We have charged the media with commandeering our elections, with making or breaking political aspirants according to how they ‘appear’, with caring less about facts than image, with reducing essential policies to sound bites, with skewing discussions and analyses with their hand-picked, biased pundits.

Remember Nixon’s triumphant 1952 “Checkers Speech” in the newly launched medium of television? And the homey images of J.F.K. that propelled him into the hearts of the nation? And those hard-nosed TV hosts like Ted Koppel whose reputation was built on bold confrontations with politicians?

Our corporate media rings up their cash registers along the way too, with TV ads absorbing the bulk of campaign budgets. We charge that elections are bought with unchecked contributions by rich donors who can saturate the media for their favorite candidates. News networks have us at both ends. Doing our civic duty largely from the sofa, we depend on network commercials for candidate’s promotional ads. And we seem to need televised interviews and analyses to help evaluate, to shame, or to promote the choices we make at the ballot. Not only has US media culture made a mash of competition for high office; it has established a pattern of pseudo news and dependence on TV election coverage that became a model across the world. Leadership is not only subject to media image; aspirants seek to gain control of media, as Italy’s former boss Silvio Berlusconi, himself a media tycoon, proved. Or like India’s Narendra Modi, they become expert media mavens. Recent scandals in the UK have pointed up the coziness of Tory leader Cameron and media mogul Rupert Murdock.

Across the world, in democracies and monarchies alike, effective leaders learn how to accommodate media demands, always in the hope to turning it to their advantage. Even our own Barack Obama is surely trying to play the media to his advantage by his frequent appearances on TV comedy shows. (To what success is another question.) One doubts he’s chatting with Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres merely to fill a free afternoon.

But back to the most shameless media man: The Donald. It seems to me, as I follow his stage appearances and interviews, that he is able to somehow make media serve him. So much so that, unlike other candidates, he seems to avoid spending his personal millions on paid ads. And he calls the shots.

Trump’s political incorrectness is galling, and frightening. I find him shameful, believing as I do, that some threads of democracy still hold us together. With the prospect that The Donald’s espoused principles could become US policy under his leadership, I may not want to live in this country.

Some political commentators now suggest that the US news media itself could be responsible to allowing Trump to gain the traction he has over these recent months. Oh, now they notice? Have they not fed his bombast and daring, his quips and his off-the-cuff behavior? His style may appear refreshing compared to formulaic presentations by other candidates--DNC and GOP. Now, they find that he’s uncontrollable?

They accorded The Donald super coverage to increase their own ratings; now  they can’t shut him down. More worrying, through our playful media The Donald has built what appears to be a serious audience and following.

Scrutiny and pressure by some TV hosts has exposed the weaknesses of candidates like Carson and Jeb Bush. Not The Donald however. In the case of Fox Network’s Megan Kelly who he refuses to face, he simply bypassed the debate altogether, and later mockingly shouts: “I’m on the front page of major papers without having been at the (January 28th) debate”. Then there’s the GOP who welcomed him to the party but can’t seem to ‘handle’ him. He defies their rules and procedures. Isn’t his something that we should welcome, given what we know about backroom deal-making? Isn’t he defying the decision of Citizens’ United as well?

[ "The Donald" and the American Media ]

Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you?

January 21, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When he initially disappeared from the airwaves I thought my favorite talk-radio host had taken family leave following his daughter’s traumatic experience in Paris during the November attacks there. By end December however Rivera hadn’t returned to his nationally syndicated slot on WABC Radio. His was the sole show I tuned to on that notorious, conservative media outlet. WABC Radio, broadcasting across the country from New York, is often scary. It permits hosts to utter shamefully venomous comments, sometimes bordering on illegal, on the airwaves.

I can never discuss with my friends what I hear on WABC; not only do they reject the network for what they find fascist and hateful; they assume that if I myself tune in, I’ve eschewed our shared progressive values. A wall rises between us. Admitting I listen to WABC is like confessing that I occasionally consume a McDonalds double cheeseburger; I’m thereby supporting global warming and contributing to America’s obesity epidemic.

Why do I tune to the station? Because I want to experience firsthand how those putative right-wingers talk; I want to the hear what Americans who I normally never meet—you know: those obese illiterates who carry guns and drink gallons of beer—say about issues being debated here. To me, both as an anthropologist and as a journalist, everybody counts. Shouldn’t I hear them directly rather than as objects of satire on “The Daily Show”?

 It was out of this compulsion that in 2012 I became a regular morning listener to Geraldo Rivera’s show. Promoted as “not red (left), not blue (right) but red-white- and-blue”, Rivera tries to tread a middle road. More to the point, he attracts listeners from across our social and economic spectrum—positions less heard in our increasingly polarized society. Geraldo always, always listens to his callers, even when they’re far right of him politically. And unlike many others on this network (and Fox TV), Rivera’s guests represent a wide range of positions. I first heard Donald Trump on his show (I don’t recall what they discussed); my colleague, comedian and commentator Dean Obeidallah was a regular on Geraldo too.  

In contrast to other voices on WABC (and Fox TV), Rivera is an advocate for immigrant rights. Not only because of his Hispanic heritage through his Puerto Rican father; he reminds us that like most newcomers here, immigrants are hard working, they’re needed, and they’re --we are-- the history of this country. While he’s pro-military and veterans’ rights—who cannot be in today’s fierce nationalist atmosphere?-- Rivera isn’t an advocate for military intervention in countries whose policies don’t conform to US dictate.

Another three weeks pass absent Geraldo’s voice on my radio; I decide to Google him. (I’ll follow him to his new network, I optimistically think.) And I learn that he’s been fired! How did this happen? In an FB posting Rivera details his termination by WABC referring to a shakeup in network management. He doesn’t explicitly say WABC has a new editorial policy that won’t accommodate his liberalism. But I wonder if, in this election year when the ‘right’ and ‘far-right’ are battling for big stakes, Rivera might have become a liability-- out of step with Republican and Tea Party agendas. (Contrary to the power attributed to American television, radio talk shows are highly influential, e.g. Limbaugh and Beck who’ve made conservative talk-radio a national political movement.) Thus, right wing media bosses may demand that everyone march to their tune; so Rivera, known as a ‘loose cannon’, is jettisoned.

His personal life and his reputation for sensationalist encounters aside, Rivera is a media specialist who fused law and journalism to raise American journalistic standards. He arrived on the scene in 1970 with a television expose on the abuse of intellectually disabled patients in Willowbrook, a New York care center. He was the attorney for the nationalist Puerto Rican ‘Young Lords’, and before that an investigator for NYPD. He’s variously described as an attorney, author, TV personality and reporter. He’s a first class journalist too.

Details of his eclectic career are easily available, so find out what makes this bombastic fellow tick and why we need him in that lonely middle ground of US politics. 

What's your experience with Geraldo Rivera? Comments welcome

[ Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you? ]

The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network

January 18, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

No one need be surprised by news of the demise of AJAM: Al-Jazeera America. In 2013, people unfamiliar with the history and politics of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera media group welcomed the American edition as a valued addition to international(ized) news sources. Early enthusiasm was likely based on an outdated reputation of the original Al-Jazeera’s satellite network, launched in 1999 and funded by Qatar’s rulers. That Arabic language service dazzled the world when it arrived, its reputation for hard-hitting news stories reinforced by the Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 film “Control Room”.

The original (mother) Al-Jazeera offered news coverage and commentaries by non-Europeans, talents generally unheard and unimagined from Arabs, concerning their world affairs.

Why AJAM was set up is a mystery. The American public could benefit from wider perspectives. But AJAM did not offer that; it exhibited no enlightened Arab or Muslim viewpoints, neither in its productions nor editorials. Neither were Arab and Arab American staff in evidence in its productions.

If American viewers don’t tap international sources like Euronews, France 24, Press TV (the Iranian English language channel), or Russia’s RT, to name the major English sources beyond CBC (Canada) and the UK’s BBC, why subscribe to AJAM? Long before, in 2006 Al-Jazeera English (also Doha-based) was launched and has established itself of an innovative and distinctive network. Originally accessible in the USA online and by satellite, it boasts a strong international team who produce hard hitting programs like “Witness” and “Empire”, with a network of correspondents across the globe. It attracts left-leaning audiences for its critical approach to American policies and its support for the Palestinian struggle, with coverage from Occupied Palestine unseen on American networks. Its website also carries insightful opinion pieces, many by well informed American Arab writers whose perspectives you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

(With the founding of ALAM, Al-Jazeera English became unavailable in the US online.)

The original Al-Jazeera (Arabic) news channel has changed dramatically since its spectacular arrival in 1996. Then it was marked by a high professional standard of journalism and an aggressive approach to international affairs previously unknown in the Arab lands whose exclusively Arab staff equals –no, excels—British and French Arabic language channels. (Although, Al-Jazeera Arabic initially drew its technical and editorial staff largely from the BBC.) It attracted Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian and Egyptian expatriate journalists whose homelands were either in turmoil or where opportunities and facilities were limited. Al-Jazeera tapped the most dynamic, creative and courageous Arab journalists in the world; it’s work generated new pride among the Arab public, encouraged by quality public dialogue happening within its own ranks. Arabs’ economic resources were finally being put to good use. By 2003 the network boasted 70 correspondents and 23 bureaus around the world, from Cairo to Jakarta, Islamabad to Kabul, London to Moscow.

Initially Al-Jazeera Media Network, although funded and managed by Qatar’s ruling family, seemed to be independent of government control; it appeared to be beyond US interference too. Indeed Washington suggested the network was a mouthpiece for terrorists, when for example, after 2001, it regularly aired videos produced by Al-Qaida. American military attacks were launched on Al-Jazeera twice. Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office was bombed and its correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed in American strikes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, in the early days of the US assault on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman was held by US authorities at the Guantanamo prison.  

Although Qatari and other Gulf area leaders escape criticism by Al-Jazeera, other regional dictators do not; at times, in e.g. Algeria and Jordan, its correspondents were banned. Although by 2003 satellite TV was ubiquitous and every Arab home has had access to Al-Jazeera news which also sent reports direct from Jerusalem (with a sympathetic eye to Palestinian aspirations). Its broadcasts brought Israeli officials and commentators into Arab homes for the first time.

As the company grew in popularity—a reputation that’s declined since the Arab Spring--it greatly expanded its services. Al-Jazeera Media Network is now a vast communications empire with several sports channels, a children’s channel and a documentary channel, all commercial free. Before it opened AJAM, Al-Jazeera established a Balkan unit and a Turkish unit.

Al-Jazeera’s appeal for its early presentations of regional political issues waned among Arabs as the US occupation of Iraq turned ugly, and after 2011, when with the rise of the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar’s policy towards Libya and Syria moved in synch with Washington’s. Indeed, the Doha news channel explicitly advocates regime change in Syria and Libya.

Meanwhile Al-Jazeera enjoys considerable soft power through its sports and documentary channels. Screened documentaries, many produced by US filmmakers critical of American policies, are popular with the Arab public. But the sports channels likely draw most viewers. As a depressing political status quo settles across the Arab world, public need for escapist entertainment is stronger than ever, and Al-Jazeera is there to help. 


[ The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network ]

Christmas Eve in The City That Never Sleeps?

December 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The city that never sleeps? Well, this Christmas eve New York is defying that moniker.

Although the metropolis may awaken after midnight, it’s presently deserted. Park and Fifth Avenues twinkle on through the evening while their residents abandon streets and highways, malls and markets, parks and bike lanes to join family and friends indoors, even on this warm winter night. Up and down the wide avenues of Manhattan millions of miniature lights still sparkle, embracing tree trunks and reaching through invisible, naked branches. Dazzling decorations that lured shoppers are now but shadows behind dimmed window panes. Curbside parking space is plentiful; taxi drivers have burrowed their cars in suburban garages; fruit vendors, the only merchants in sight, are shuttering their vans.

I pass Symphony Space with its marquee in darkness. Starbucks at 95th is lifeless; although I see lights on at McDonalds on 96th.  Their coffee maker is off; and those employees chatting inside must be waiting to be paid their bonus. (Does McD give Christmas bonuses?). One working mother guarding McD’s door against any new customers unapologetically announces that she’s heading home early today.

Forget any last minute stocking stuffer, a bottle of perfume, chocolates, or wine. Shoppers had their chance; now workers deserve some respite. Do I detect an uncharacteristic respect for workers’ family needs this night? “We’re closed”, whispers a silent Wall Street. For one evening and a day, this mercilessly capitalist center succumbs to ‘tradition’, if not religious conviction.   

I don’t remember New York streets as vacant like at 9 pm today. Broadway in lockdown! South Asian cooks in masala bars, Japanese sushi roll wrappers, and Afghan taxi drivers all bend to America’s Christmas (if not Christian) tradition and depart for distant lodgings. No quick pickups from cheap Chinese fast food joints or the Halal shawarma street-carts tonight.

After finishing my radio special after 7 o’clock, I head towards Brooklyn’s Schermerhorn subway station. The streets have emptied. Seeing a handsome brightly lit store selling fresh produce, juices, and organic cereals, I step inside for some bulgar wheat—$8.00. a pound!-- but I’m unlikely to find it anywhere else tonight. Four attendants hover in the aisles with no one to serve. (Are they too awaiting their yearend bonus?)

At least the A train to Manhattan is still running and I board a near empty car. Beside me, a groggy fellow, in laborer’s clothes is either drugged or he drank too much at his company party; he teeters beside me all the way out of Brooklyn, then finally stretches himself out over five empty seats as we tunnel towards Manhattan. Three other passengers across from me emit the ambience that identifies ‘tourist’ to any native New Yorker. They’re conversing in French, as are two casually dressed men seated nearby. I spot a young woman an orange hijab browsing through her phone: intense, but not French.  

That’s it. What a reversal of mood since I traveled on this very route only 6 hours earlier! Then, subway platforms on the A-Line were not only jammed with commuters; they thrummed with seasonal music proffered by a variety of ‘holiday’ entertainers who know we’re especially generous these days. A cacophony of sound behind me stirs my curiosity and, walking along the platform, I find its source-- a man plucking a guitar and stomping his tambourine-wrapped foot while mouthing some unrecognizable tune. Awful. Yet a surprising number of people stop to photograph his pitiful drama. The man’s disharmony is surely a ploy to draw us to his ‘stage’, a presentation as crude as his music and unarguably below NYC’s street-music standards.

There in front of him, and us, five foot-high dolls are perched, each dressed in a colorful bra and skirt. Electrically animated by the man’s vigorous foot slapping, they shake and shimmy, while on a shelf above them, three furry toys-- a rabbit, a bear and a monkey-- twirl. “Oh look!” squeals a young mother, parking her baby in its stroller. Calling two older children towards the display, the enthusiastically snaps a photo. (Her daughters are less impressed.) Meanwhile passing travelers drop dollar bills into a bowl at the man’s elbow. Others raise their phone cameras towards the makeshift stage, then move on.

I step into the next train to join workers and shoppers heading to Brooklyn. The train car is crowded but four tall men somehow make their way among us, three wearing red Santa caps, followed by one shaking a small brown bag at us. The singers start with “Jingle Bells”, then shift to “Silent Night” in the genre of African American gospel music. I can’t find any singles when I reach into my purse, but the fellow handling the quartet’s ‘donations’ rushes to assist me. Seeing my $10. note, he smiles: “I can give you change”, and reaches into his own sack to help me out. Am I to announce my contribution, divided by four, to the whole train? The carolers, waiting, are into a second verse of Silent Night. An awkward moment.  How can I ask for change? So I drop my tenner into the proffered bag forthwith and murmur a blessing to his “Merry Christmas” thankyou.

[ Christmas Eve in The City That Never Sleeps? ]

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