Monday, January 31, 2011

Movie Review: Sapporo Winter Olympics

Sapporo Winter Olympics (札幌オリンピック) (1972)
by Masahiro Shinoda

It's in the previous post, but I'll embed it here again for those who find this individual post through searching.

From the only review at, by a C. Weinstein of Los Angeles:

If this DVD represents the documentary "Sapporo Winter Olympics" by Masahiroo Shinoda, it is probably one of the best that came out of Japan in the 1970's. Extremely difficult to find on video, this film is as much about a meditation on discipline and on pure atmosphere as it is a coverage of the 1972 winter games. Each section has its own rhythm and flows effortlessly into subsequent scenes. Narration is almost completely absent for most of the film, the director preferring you to experience the feeling of cold weather that practically chills you from the screen and the determination on the part of many entrants gunning for a chance to make their mark.

If you like pure atmosphere in a film or are just looking for a good documentary about the 1972 Sapporo Olympics I highly recommend finding a copy of this.

The clip is all of three minutes and thirty-five seconds, but it is amazing how it captures all the points listed in Mr. Weinstein's review. It is absolutely atmospheric and a meditation. When I first watched it yesterday, I thought to myself at first that it was some kind of extremely stylistic film portraying fictional characters, starting with the opening shot showing the lone building against a bleak, empty sky and then moving on to the bird's-eye view of the skater alone on the ice and going from there. The katakana characters only added to the feeling of foreignness. Only during my reading of the commets at YouTube did I discover that the clip is from the documentary by the noted Japanese director.

The clip has that quality that so often is found in photos and films of that period that is hard to describe. It's detailed and focused, yet subdued. without the rich colors one today associates with digital film.

The action is simple, three different ladies skating around and judges judging the figures left behind. I think only a Japanese director, with his attention to nuance and unspoken expression, could capture with such detail the emotions evident. The first skater is calm, collected, disciplined and confident. The second skater is uncertain and hesitant. Shinoda captures this by showing both her facial expression and her posture before starting as she stands there before beginning her figure. The crowd looks nervous. She begins tentatively and looks wobbly. This is followed by close-ups of two of the judges, judging, watching, commenting as they examine everything.

Like I said, it's barely over three and a half minutes, but it is captivating. It reminded me immediately of Tarkovsky's Solaris, especially the prewiew shot of the second skater, standing there with her short blond hair. It looks surreal.

I need to find this documentary.

Visiting The Dead: Compulsory Figures

In the world of traditional Catholics, the loss of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form was keenly felt in a Church gone crazy as it threw aside the old ways in favor of the new.

In the last half of the twentieth century, that phenomenon was not restricted solely to the Church. Even in the world of sports, things changed, not necessarily for the better. In baseball, the mound was lowered and the designated hitter was introduced. In basketball, the skilled teamwork of bygone eras was replaced by a more free-flowing style that was perhaps more entertaining, but at the expense of basic fundamentals.

So it went in the world of figure skating. Figure skating had for a long time been composed of two elements, the compulsory figures and the free skate. The free skate is of course what we see on television today, men and women skating around at various speeds, performing jumps and spins throughout. Compulsory figures was a portion of the competition that involved the drawing of figures on the ice with the edges of the blades of one's skates. The figures' exactness in terms of how they were made and their shape were judged and marks were given. Watch the video below, a clip from coverage of the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada for more information along with interviews on the change going on in the sport as the idea of removing compulsory figures from international events was first considered.

Over time, the figure skating changed as the free skate gained in importance, especially with the advent of television coverage of premiere events. Compulsory figures did not translate well in the medium as the above clip demonstrates (though by the late eighties, much had been done to make it as appealing as possible); audiences watched the jumps and spins of the free skate and then were left confused by the compulsory figures and the winners of competitions who excelled at the latter and beat the favorite of the general public who watched for the skaters who excelled at jumping and spinning.

The clip below from a documentary on the 1972 Winter Olympics at Sapporo, Japan happens to document not just the games themselves, but the turning point for the sport of figure skating. The first skater shown, Beatrix Schuba of Austria, is considered to be one of the greatest compulsory figure skaters ever. The second skater shown, Janet Lynn of the United States, was known to American audiences for her free skating ability.

Schuba received a 5.0 for her figures, a high mark that was what I have read extremely rare at senior international events and placed first. Lynn was tentative as the clip shows so well (more on the second video later) and placed fourth. The situation was reversed though for the free skate as Lynn placed first and Schuba seventh. Due to the weight given compulsory figures, Schuba won the gold medal and Lynn the bronze. After that result, a new short program was introduced and the weight of compulsory figures was slowly reduced over the years until in 1990 they were removed from international competitions altogether.

Today, compulsory figures have been largely forgotten by the viewing public and in the skating community at large as well, though there is debate in some circles as modern skaters are seen by some as having lost the skills needed for fundamental footwork that even the mediocre compulsory figure skaters of yesteryear displayed in their jumps and spins due to their training in the discipline. Whether this is actually true, I cannot say, not being an expert myself, but it stands to reason that something has been lost.

Having started to watch curling during the Winter Olympics a few olympiads ago and having watched the clips above, could there be an audience for compulsory figures, if not as a component, then as a sport unto itself? Certain people are willing to sit through curling, thought by others to be exceedingly boring, not because they are well versed on the ins and outs of the sport, but due to the human drama unfolding on the ice. Especially on television with the close-ups of the participants, viewers can get a very good sense of the tension of the back-and-forth match of wits and skill. The second clip above demonstrates that there certainly was tension in compulsory figures. With high-definition televisions and modern technology demonstrating the sport, I would suggest that the viewing experience today would be far different from all those years ago.

This obviously isn't a blog dedicated to the sport of figure skating and this post is pretty much for me alone, but it's something I have thought about and wanted to share. Make of it what you will.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt In Crisis

Two articles from Asia News from January 28:

"Burdened by the high cost of living and corruption, Christians and Muslims united in Cairo streets" is an interview with a Coptic priest. In answer to the question of the fate of Christians:

Right now, the demonstrations are not against Christians. Patriarch Shenouda has called for calm. But many Christians and non-Christians told him, that this is not the time for calm, because Christians are also affected by the crisis. In fact, for Christians the crisis is even worse because they suffer discrimination and have a hard time finding jobs. In case of promotions, they are passed over in favour younger Muslim employees. If a Christian opens a shop, fewer people buy from him.

"Egyptian revolt not only political but also spiritual and Islamic" by Samir Khalil Samir talks about a magazine article that interviewed by over a score of figures from the Islamic world. Father Samir explains:

Another interesting aspect is that this project of reform of Islam was published Jan. 24, one day before the outbreak of demonstrations in Egypt. These protests have economic and political roots. This means that in addition to current politics, there is an intellectual current that is fed up with the Islam that has spread in the last 30 years in the country, an "externalized" Islam that puts the emphasis on external things (clothing, beard, veil, etc. ..). This shows that there is a global movement - both spiritual and political - in Egypt that wants to transform the country. And since it is a leading country in the Middle Eastern world, one can expect that the changes in act in Cairo will spread throughout the region. Perhaps the same demonstrations that are taking place on the streets of the capital will have an influence on this "externalized" Islam.

He then goes on to examine several of the points of the article, including interaction between the sexes, jihad and its classical limits, and externalization of piety at the expense of personal responsibility.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: The Pope's Legion

The Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican
by Charles A. Coulombe

I discovered this book by way of a book review in an issue of New Oxford Review last year. As much as I want to say that it's a military history due to the great part of its subject-matter, I can't quite bring myself to do it. It does recount the history of the Papal Zouaves and recounts their various actions both in service to the Pope and afterward. But I've found it to be more a description of the time and those who lived during it.

To wit: the main strength of the book is Coulombe's attention to individuals and their stories. He details their entry into and exit from the story, interweaving the accounts of the various volunteers into that of the larger regiment and the wars in which it fought. However, the flurry of names, particularly at the beginning as the first volunteers are introduced, is daunting. It's clear though that Coulombe must have sifted through a mountain of material, personal accounts and so on, to bring so much to the narrative.

The main drawback of the book is the lack of maps, which is one of the reasons why I don't qualify it as a military history. Battles and skirmishes are described (some in great detail), lines of march are given, but without maps to show the way, it is hard to follow.

The conclusion of the book does a very good job of bringing together all the threads as Coulombe recounts the final dissolution of the regiment and the endeavors of the veterans and then talks of their legacies, both personally and collectively. The Papal Zouaves and the ideals they embodied represent a facet of the Catholic identity that has been lost due not only to the encroachment of a secular, industrialized world, but also due to changes in the Church's view on war itself after two world wars.

Coulombe quotes Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro's homily at the annual Zouave requiem in 2007, "These soldiers had received from the Church, their reason for living and this is why they were ready to sacrifice their own life for her. We are sons of the Church, too, and for her we have to fight the good battle of our time." The author then remarks that whatever response may be made to the story of the Zouaves, it had better be made quickly as time is urgent.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sudan: Turning Point

"Church's role is critical in run-up to Sudan independence vote"
By Benjamin Mann, Staff Writer

Baltimore, Md., Jan 4, 2011 / 05:53 am (CNA).- Sudan's Catholic bishops say their country “will never be the same again,” once a January 2011 referendum that could split Africa's largest country in two takes place. Leading up to the vote, the Sudanese Catholic Church is playing a central role in preparing the country for the vote and its possible consequences.

The article talks about how the Church is taking the lead in preparing the people for the vote on independence on January 9 due to the lack of strong civil institutions and due to the trust in the Church thanks to its ability to cross tribal lines. Of course, it's what the Church has done for a thousand years and more since the fall of Rome.

This is sobering:

At worst, the referendum's results could prompt a third Sudanese civil war– “far more lethal” than the first two, in Griffin's estimation, and “just as targeted against civilians.” Such a war, he predicted, would involve not only Sudan's north and south, but the nine neighboring countries, in what “could be the largest conventional war on the African continent.”

That result, in turn, could de-stabilize large portions of East Africa, immersing other countries in “proxy wars that are ignited and played out across Sudan.” This “worst-case scenario,” according to Griffin, “would make Somalia and Yemen look manageable by comparison.”

Let's pray it doesn't end up like that.

Blowing Up Christians III

"Anxiety and anger: Christmas celebrations for Copts in Egypt and worldwide at risk" (AsiaNews):

So far, the Coptic patriarch says he will celebrate Christmas Mass, but he may yet cancel it. Security stepped up in churches throughout the country. The violence of young Copts, a sign of no confidence in the Egyptian system. Discrimination against Christians: to repair a toilet in a church, a decree from the provincial governor is needed; Muslims can build mosques freely, receiving construction materials for free. Attack on the church of Alexandria has opened "a new and more cruel style." In Sydney Christmas celebrations canceled. Security measures in France, Canada, Germany.

The reference to the toilet is telling. I'm assuming the priest means it takes getting a decree in order call up a plumber... Uh huh... That's either hyperbolic or just plain pathetic. The Coptic pope will have his hands full in calming the youth. Otherwise it could turn into a bloodbath.

The attack on the Church of Saints in Alexandria has even aroused the condemnation of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: "In all likelihood - says the priest - the source of the terrorist act is elsewhere, al Qaeda, perhaps in Iraq. What is certain is that we are faced with a newer and crueler style than before. It is the first time there has been an attack of such a violent level in Egypt, using explosives inside a church. So far there had been clashes, but between people, individuals, perhaps with a gun, but certainly not with lethal explosives".

"Islamist threats against Coptic churches in Europe" (Catholic Culture/Catholic World News):

Civil authorities in several European nations are providing police protection for Coptic Orthodox churches following threats by Islamists. A Coptic Orthodox priest in France described “threats made on the Internet by Islamic mujahideen who announced other attacks in Europe and in France in particular, and who mention our church.”

At least the Copts in Europe stand a chance with real security provided by the police, not just hired hands armed with a pistol and a cell phone like in Egypt.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Blowing Up Christians II

"Egypt: Edict posted to jihadist websites 'legitimises' church attack'" (AKI)

Rome, 3 Jan. (AKI) - A religious edict signed by a Mauritanian cleric linked to Al-Qaeda' s late leader in Iraq and posted to jihadist websites appears to legitimise the deadly New Year's Eve attack on a church in northern Egypt. The edict, signed last month by Abu al-Mandhar al-Shanqiti, urges Muslims to avenge the alleged imprisonment in a convent of two Egyptian women after they converted to Islam.

Al-Shanqiti is close to the Jordanian sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the mentor of Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US raid there in 2006.

"How should Sharia (Islamic) law view Coptic priests and Christians who proselytise in our country and kidnap our women?" said al-Shanquiti's message, cited by jihadist website Al-Tawed.

And farther down:

"These Christians who don't hand over Muslims and who have kidnapped those two women have violated the accord under which they are afforded protection. We have no obligations towards them," said al-Shanquit.

Bolding my own. I like how he proclaims it to be their country, though as I recall, it was ours first. And note the clear statement regarding dhimmitude: those not of Islam are afforded protection, those who do not do as they should are owed nothing. Nice, huh?

Blowing Up Christians

"Europe and Islam in the wake of attacks against Copts in Alexandria"
by Samir Khalil Samir (

Absurd accusations against the Coptic community of keeping two women who converted to Islam captive. The psychosis of a country that prohibits changing of religion. Islamic attacks against Shenouda, the criticism of the imam of Al-Azhar against Benedict XVI. Europe must open up channels for cultural dialogue with Islamic countries, rejecting secularism and fundamentalism. Just like the pope said.

The article after the rider given above goes through the various points in depth. The part I found most informative was the explanation of the "absurd accusations" that the Copts are holding captive two women who supposed converted to Islam from Christianity. The article mentions that the attack against Iraqi Christians last October was also motivated by these accusations. Samir goes to great length in explaining the situation and how even the late imam of Al-Azhar decreed that there was no evidence that the two women had become Muslims.

I read yesterday that Israel's Mossad secret service is also being blamed for the attack as some kind of provocation. Samir mentions that rumor as well.

The Holy Father intends to hold an ecumenical meeting in Assisi this year in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II's infamous gathering. I think I can guess what will be one of the first agenda items.