After failing to keep films away from culture-loving Iranians, the Islamic Republic is trying some new, if clunky, techniques for editing the West out of Western entertainment.
An American film in its original form, left, and modified by Iranian censors, right. (CaffeCinema.com)
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been at war with the cinema since even before its founding. Ayatollah and future dictator Ruhollah Khomeini, in his years as a revolutionary, condemned movies in both of his books as forces of foreign corruption and imperialism. Many of the clerics who helped foment revolution in Iran in the 1970s declared movies forbidden and denounced them, sometimes forcefully. In late 1978, a small group of radical Islamists locked the doors of the Cinema Rex movie house in the city of Abadan and set it on fire, killing 400. After the revolution the following year, 180 more movie theaters (though now empty) were burned to the ground. In his first year in power, Khomeini banned 513 foreign films.
But people really like movies, and Iranians are no exception. The long Persian tradition of art and poetry has perhaps informed Iran's passion for film; in 1995, Werner Herzog declared, "What I say tonight will be a banality in
the future: The greatest films of the world today are being made in Iran." The regime seems to have realized that foreign films were going to trickle into the country whether they permitted it or not, so perhaps better to "bring [the movies] under their own jurisdiction," as a report by the advocacy group Article 19 put it.
That means censoring foreign movies instead of banning them outright, and even broadcasting them widely enough that people won't feel it's worth their time to track down an uncensored version. The censors, offensive though their mission may be, don't have an easy job. There are 37 rules, laid out in 1983, 1993, and 1996 laws, detailing the ideas and images banned from movies. Many pertain to women: no close-ups of their faces, no makeup, no exposed necklines; men and women can't sit closely, appear to be alone together, touch, or exchange "tender words or jokes." Veiled women, bearded men, policemen, and soldiers can't be portrayed negatively without "a good excuse." No booze, no profanity against religion (yes, Iran protects faiths other than Islam), or neck ties, which are seen as a symbol of foreign culture. Oh, and no sorcery -- sorry, Harry Potter.
Censoring foreign movies used to mean simply pulling out the scissors, cutting away inappropriate scenes and shots until the film was a good deal shorter and made a lot less sense. But, in 2010, Iranian authorities acquired new technology allowing them to manipulate images and dialogues into Islamic inappropriateness.
"Romantic dialogue is often changed. For example, it isn't proper for a woman to say to her partner, 'I love you,'" Iranian journalist Reza Valizadeh explained to Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari in a 2010 interview. "It's clear how dialogue about sexual proposals is dealt with -- they are changed to marriage proposals. Also we see that beer becomes lemonade on state television and whiskey becomes orange juice. Also dialogue about politics is often changed."
Censors will sometimes edit immodest images -- whether it's a man and woman sitting too closely, someone drinking a cocktail, or even an open neckline -- by cutting the offending person or object or by simply placing some visual obstacle. The Iranian film fan site CaffeCinema.com put together a series of side-by-side comparisons showing the before-and-after of this new censorship technique. Yes, that's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in there. Some of the efforts here are almost impressively subtle, but others, well, let's just say there seem to be a lot of clunky vases in the censors' world.
We've only been able to identify the film in the top image; the aforementioned Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy (how that translates into any non-American culture, much less Iran's, is a mystery to me). If you're able to pick any of them out, please let us know in the comments.
The censored images are another indication of how seriously Iran takes the "infiltration" of foreign culture; the regime there has variously banned coffee shops, pop music, and certain hair styles in their quest to isolate Iranians from the outside world. But this isn't Afghanistan or Saddam's Iraq or North Korea, and there's really only so much the Islamic Republic can do to separate its long-worldly people from arts, culture, and entertainment. Little compromises like these silly seeming censorship techniques are a reminder of how difficult, and maybe how futile, that quest really is.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Identity politics loomed large on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
PHILADELPHIA––As successive speakers took the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday, Farhad Manjoo of the New York Timesobserved that the participants were much more liberal than the ones that helped nominate Bill Clinton. One child spoke of having parents who were undocumented immigrants. Another was a college graduate who is here in this country unlawfully.
Those speakers alone would’ve marked a departure from the past. And alongside them were a lesbian veteran who spoke of serving in the days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A disability-rights activist with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia spoke up against the prejudices faced by the community on whose behalf she works. And the whole roster highlighted the Democratic Party’s racial and gender diversity.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.