Friday, May 27, 2016

Culture of Luxury

Food and drink are necessary for survival and, more than that, are often forms of small or large luxuries. When we see these consumable luxuries we tend to think of them as fleeting pleasures, things to be enjoyed – perhaps even discussed and remembered – but not as things that are the end result of an established culture.

However, in truth these products are very much the result of a culture that exists within the bounds of the law – for example sanitary laws or laws of regional designation – as well as within the robust and exacting rules of the cultural gatekeepers.  The documentary film Somm: Into the Bottle provides a window on these often unexamined aspects of winemaking and the larger wine industry and how these pieces fit together to form a self-defining culture.

Somm: Into the Bottle is a follow-up to the documentary film Somm, which delves into the world of Master Sommeliers and explores the arduous educational and testing process undertaken by those seeking to attain this most coveted of statuses in the wine world. In itself, Somm presents a unique understanding of a world that is often under-valued or misunderstood by even those who avail themselves of the knowledge provided by sommeliers. Many of the same individuals profiled in Somm return to Somm: Into the Bottle to serve as guides into the world of winemaking and the wine industry, telling the story of the wine product many viewers are familiar with in ways that probe what wine actually is.   

The story unfolds through chapters, ranging from the historical origins of wine to the pouring of the product into barrels. Far from presenting a simple story, the film moves on to examine every aspect of the creation of the product. To do so, the story told focuses on the territory used to grow wine grapes throughout the world, noting the origins of winegrowing as stemming from early colonization, notably Roman colonization, of areas amenable to grapes that yielded certain forms of wine. Inherent in this aspect of the story is the interlinking between the territory and those on it, leading to the creation of multiple generations of families focused on the territory used for winemaking.

In many ways, there are essential similarities between these developments and the creation of kingdoms and modern countries with set patterns of culture and identity. These parallels are furthered with the discussion of laws – some of them quite old – that restrict the ability to use a certain name for a product unless the product actually originates in a given territorial location. Through the seals or other manifestations of origin, bottles of wine – for example those from Champagne – essentially carry their own forms of passports.

The film’s chapters move on to examine the various components of the wine product itself. Perhaps obviously, there is a great deal of focus on the grapes themselves, noting how the environment and experiences of the vines and the grapes as they mature form the identity of the grape for later wine usage. There are unwritten rules as to how to handle vines to train them to produce in certain environments and to function in even challenging climates and seasons. In this way, the film presents aspects of wine growing that are similar to the ways in which society and law regulate the conduct of individuals and teaches future generations.

Similarly, the film emphasizes the many people involved in the creation of wine and how they are governed by tradition as well as law in ways that are similar to the functioning of society and the governing of individual relationships. For example, the length of time in which a wine remains in a barrel and the fermentation agents added to it trains the wine and gives it identity. Even the barrels themselves have a huge impact on the product, with different barrels imparting different identities to the wine.

Ultimately, the film presents the final product of the winemaking process. It also presents the ways in which wine is brought to life. Bringing wine to life is contingent on the existence of a product that is the result of a culture that is self-governing through respect for the product and the components that are involved in it. As the film presents it, this culture is international and constitutes an entity older than current countries in the international system. This culture is preserved through tradition and remains viable through the ability to modernize – a balance many countries cannot strike. At the same time, this culture can work within the national legal systems that apply to the areas in which wine is made and indeed the national legal systems are often used to achieve certain of the culture’s goals, such as protection from predatory outside forces wishing to misappropriate a geographical designation.

Overall, Somm: Into the Bottle informs the audience of the broader context surrounding the bottle of wine it might encounter as a consumer or even a mere bystander. While the film itself is limited to wine it opens a door onto the larger world of culture society and regulation of food and beverages, particularly those that are ubiquitous luxuries to many societies.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Racing to Revolution

Cars are often referred to as revolutionary in terms of design or innovation but they are not as often thought of as being tools of revolution or resistance themselves. The documentary Havana MotorClub, however, changes this and highlights the potential for cars and auto racing to be at the forefront of revolution and resistance.

Havana Motor Club tells the story of auto racing and automotive ingenuity in Cuba. It begins with an explanation of how auto racing functioned in Cuba prior to the communist revolution. At that point, cars in Cuba were symbols of luxury and auto racing had become so ingrained in society that Havana was the site of a Formula One race in 1958. The event was highly publicized, symbolizing a step for Cuba’s advancement in the eyes of some and the decadence of capitalism in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, the event was marred by tragedy when a car participating in the race lost control, veering into the cheering crowd and killed and injured a number of spectators.

Shortly thereafter, the communist revolution occurred in Cuba and all forms of auto racing were outlawed. This did not stop Cubans from maintaining a love affair with their cars – albeit cars that are essentially frozen in time in the 1950s. This also failed to stop Cubans from engaging in auto races, however these races were forced underground and became illegal activities. Still, races occurred in the middle of traffic or at night on more deserted strips of land, all under the threat of jail time and the confiscation of participating cars. These threats were not enough to stop the development of a well-known racing culture that features several prominent garages and personalities.

The film features interviews with members of these garages, who demonstrate their engineering skills in building and rebuilding cars – for licit purposes as well as racing purposes – despite embargoes and lack of spare parts. To the racers/mechanics profiled, it is clear that cars and the pursuit of racing despite the risk has become an essential part of their identities and families, in some cases extending to generations and across gender lines. It is also clear that there are dangers in the races to the drivers and to the spectators as a result of the illegal nature of competitions.

The first step toward legitimization of the races came in 2012 when the government agreed to allow an historic race to occur. During the weeks prior to the face, the film portrays the successes, failures and sacrifices of those who seek to participate. And yet, shortly before the race was scheduled to occur it was suspended by the government ostensibly due to issues with crowd control capabilities since the Pope was visiting at the same time. Despite this explanation, the outraged would-be racers – some of whom devoted decades to cars and the pursuit of racing – believe that there is a deeper political motivation at work.

Cancellation of the planned race does not suspend illegal racing or efforts by many in the racing community to press for another legal race. In the meantime, racers continue to race despite the potential repercussions and their garages continue to refine the capacities of their cars.

Eventually, the government relents and agrees to allow a race to be held. This generates hope within the auto racing community but this is tempered by some level of disbelief given the prior attempts at racing legally. At the same time, leaders within the community become acutely aware of the scrutiny that will be placed on the event and the need to ensure things such as crowd control and safety along with control among the racers themselves. Shortly before the race the official media host for the event announces to the community that his coverage of the race will not be aired on state television. Still, he maintains that he will thoroughly cover the event for posterity and to provide the community with evidence of the popularity and safety of racing.

Race day is of course quite tense for the racers, their garages and their families. The event is popular, drawing a good crowd, which makes the community’s officials concerned because of worries that the crowds will stand in dangerous places or come onto the track and cause another tragedy that will set back the cause of legalizing racing in Cuba. Throughout the pre-race announcements there are constant reminders of this and in between races the announcer must plead with the crowd to stay back from the track. Ultimately, all of the races scheduled are successfully and safely run, and the most anticipated race ends in a photo-finish – truly an ending fit for a film. And yet, at the end there is a reminder that racing is still illegal in Cuba as of the release time of the film in 2015.

Havana Motor Club is a fascinating view into part of Cuba that is unseen even with the increase in tourism opportunities for Americans and others. While Cuba is known for the preservation of cars from the 1950s, the racing culture is necessarily kept behind closed doors even from other Cubans as a result of its illegal status.

And yet, as portrayed in the film, auto racing in Cuba as emblematic of the ways in which sports can be used as vehicles of revolution and resistance. Feelings toward the Castro regime are irrelevant in this discussion. Instead the issue of revolution and resistance is related to laws that are seen as unpopular, unnecessary and, in many ways, slowing societal progress in Cuba. The racers and those associated with them act in defiance of laws that have existed for decades, offering overt forms of revolution against them and active means of resisting them.

When provided a window on legality, the racing community is eager to participate yet aware that it must organize carefully and create a well-executed spectacle to establish itself as legitimate. This provides the racers with a unique opportunity yet, as they are reminded by officials, requires them to shed some of the revolutionary aspects they were forced to adopt in order to race to begin with. In this way, the film demonstrates the ways that revolution and resistance can occur in unlikely places and among unlikely communities that might not consider themselves agents of revolution and resistance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fighting Evil with Evil

The desire to fight evil is as much of moral impulse as it is a legal one, and, indeed, the illegality of evil typically stems from the morality aspect. The desire to fight evil and wrong is also an imperative of many movies and television programs, to say nothing of comic books. One of the most recent installments in the Captain America film series – The Winter Soldier – provides a vivid example of this and takes the issue further to ask the question of the boundaries of fighting evil by using evil itself.

At the beginning of the movie, it appears that there is a standard flow of synergy from previous stories in which the group known as S.H.I.E.L.D., comprised of characters such as Captain America, Fury, and the Black Widow, had vanquished the forces of evil known as Hydra, an organization that had been created out of the remnants of World War II villainy. Hydra was known for operating without remorse or moral code and fomenting some of the worst crises faced by the world community, including civil wars, brutal dictatorships and genocide. Indeed, the movie opens with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents committing a daring hostage rescue mission on a tanker in order to free innocent civilians working on the ship. Nothing, it seems, could be a better way to fight evil.

And yet, there are murky aspects of the mission and in the organization’s governing structure. Once the mission is completed and Captain America and others return home, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Organization members such as Fury – the leader of significant organization operations – is targeted for death and indeed appears to die after a blatant and public attack. Following this, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s leadership appears to turn on Captain America and his compatriots, attempting to kill them and deploying a notorious assassin to achieve this outcome.

Captain America, the Black Widow, and Fury are reunited – Fury staged his death in order to escape those seeking to kill him. Fury reveals his fear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been corrupted, although he is unaware of the true depths of this corruption. He has ideas as to some of those involved in the corruption and the ways in which they have operated – and even suspects the continued existence and involvement of Hydra – but can go no further without the assistance of his closest and most trusted agents. With this in mind, Captain America and the Black Widow set off on an interstate chase for information – and ultimately the truth – while seeking to avoid those who are seeking to stop them.

Eventually, clues point to an old military facility where Captain America and the Black Widow make the shocking revelation that the machine involved in undermining S.H.I.E.L.D. and perpetuating Hydra’s activities was powered by the mental functions of Baron von Strucker, a villainous and evil member of the Nazi regime who had been captured during World War II. It appears that von Strucker was used to create machinery and systems that could effect Hydra’s activities. The argument proffered by von Strucker is seductively simple – Hydra and his machine were necessary to create evil in the world so that the world could be saved from itself because control of these activities made the world safer than allowing them to happen organically. In a nutshell, his argument is that there is virtue to using – and indeed fomenting – evil in order to fight evil, which includes controlling it.

In the end, there is a movie appropriate finale to the film. Hydra’s attempts to perpetuate chaos are thwarted by Captain America, the Black Widow, Fury and others picked up along the way. There are moments of drama and intense fighting, however in the end the fight against evil is successful and Hydra’s forces are vanquished. At least they are vanquished momentarily – all involved agree that there will be elements of Hydra in hiding.

Many aspects of The Winter Soldier are somewhat formulaic in terms of storytelling. What is important to note is the way in which the question of using evil to fight evil is addressed. Rather than creating a clear dichotomy between good and evil, the film casts the relationship in a more complex tone and explores the ways in which those who use evil to fight evil offer justifications for themselves. This necessarily touches in the level of control that is surrendered in order to prevent evil – or at least protect against it – and thus questions the balance of value between fighting evil and corralling it.   

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Weight of Right

There is a long-standing debate in many fields – particularly law – as to whether it is more important that a guilty man go free than that a hundred innocent men be imprisoned. Essentially, the crux of this debate is how to weigh wrong. This debate cuts to the center of individual, societal and systemic cores. What has gone somewhat less discussed is how to weigh right. The depths of this debate are poignantly demonstrated in Freedom Cry, the epilogue session of the video game Assassin’sCreed: Black Flag discussed in a recent Jurisculture posting.

Freedom Cry is set in the 1700s, 20 years after the main game story. The main game story follows the exploits of Edward Kenway, the pirate captain. Throughout the main game story, Kenway’s driving force is the pursuit of monetary gain, although he does captain his ship with a fair code. This fairness includes taking on Adéwalé (Adé), an escaped slave, as his quartermaster. While Kenway is briefly imprisoned, Adé joins the Brotherhood of the Assassins, a society adhering to a strict moral code and righting the wrongs of the world as a form of protection.

The main game story ends with Kenway returning home and Adé captaining his own ship in service of the Assassins. Freedom Cry opens with Adé performing a mission for the Assassins that results in his gaining access to written intelligence that he intends to carry to a contact in Port-au-Prince in modern day Haiti.

As with many cities in the Caribbean at the time, Port-au-Prince is heavily involved in the slave trade and slavery-reliant activities. Once in Port-au-Prince, Adé makes contact with Bastienne Josephe, the African proprietor of a prominent brothel in the city that is frequented by the political and social elite. At first glance, she seems complicit in the culture of slavery and its spoils and content to cater to her clientele. Under the surface, however, she has far greater depths and is in fact supporting anti-slavery factions by providing them with information gathered from her clients. As Adé begins to work with her to gather information and assist the anti-slavery factions, he gains greater respect for Bastienne and her use of long-range planning as a method of bringing an end to the ruling regime in a methodical way.

Despite his admiration for her dedication, Adé argues with Bastienne when they receive information regarding incoming slave ships. Bastienne notes that Ade has done a great deal to damage plantations’ slave usage and also prominent members of the elite. She points out that this has already caused a backlash of power and fear among the elite, including tougher enforcement of the unequal “Code Noir” that governed non-white persons in the area. She fears that targeting the slave ships will make conditions for the current slaves worse and damage the anti-slavery faction’s plan. On the other hand, Adé is adamant that he can free the would-be slaves and that freeing them is the paramount right thing to do.

Ultimately, Adé attempts to free the would-be slaves but is only partly successful. He and Bastienne make peace after these events and acknowledge the importance of care for human life in their quests against slavery, although they still carry on using different paths.

Freedom Cry is a unique method for allowing a large group of people to appreciate some of the horrors of slavery and the ways in which it was enforced. Beyond this, the game poses a variation on the debate over the weight of wrong – how do we weigh right? There is no question that both Adé and Bastienne were acting in accordance with what they believed to be right. Rather, it is a question of which right has more value. To Adé, the most valuable right is the right that can be more immediately achieved with tangible results that help people. To Bastienne, the most valuable right is the right that has the most impact for the largest number of people even if this will require more time and effort.

There is no clear answer to the question of how to weigh right. Indeed, at a legal and societal level this question may be even more intricate than that of how to weigh wrong since it is difficult to articulate methods of arguing against right in any form. However, as law and society must face issues such as modern day slavery and human trafficking this question seems highly relevant.