Eurhythmics from the East

For those of you who don't speak German, this curious gem of a video from the International Socialist Peace and Freedom Conference of 1974 (held in Rio de Janeiro) shows the East German women's rhythmic gymnastics team introducing their new outfits for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

All 22 ladies show off the daring new 'Progess and Equality' themed uniforms, half black and half multicolored, which were the first in East German history not designed by Margot Honecker, wife of East German Premier Erich Honecker and Minister of Education.

The voice-over commentary is by Erich Mielke, Director of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Having the secretive super-spy appear on mainstream television programming was part of the short-lived 'Protecting You, Protecting the State, Protecting the Future' program, which was designed to improve the reputation of East German spy agencies. Mielke was removed from the spotlight after he made comments about the apparent facial hair growth of some of the gymnasts, which is just visible from certain angles in this video.

Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes -- a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.

The Generic Television Show Plot

A man analyzed the plots of thousands of television series using complex statistical analysis and came up with the following description of a generic television show episode:

Just for fun, let's put that into a single narrative: the typical script starts among a group of wise-cracking teenagers at the school, making plans for the day to come and the weekend. At the office, however, a dead body is discovered. The wisecracking ceases, and instead the befuddled victims try to describe more accurately how the murder happened, to apologize for their mistakes, and to inspire each other not to give in to defeat but to fight for victory. A heartfelt plea to the Almighty for help lies over their testimony at the trial; and they carefully move into the future, apologizing once again and reflecting on the new truths they have learned.

Eerily disjointed.

Norwegian 'Slow TV'

I visited Norway last summer and came back filled with envy. Here's the thing about Norway: It's a ludicrously beautiful country perched atop a massive underground ocean of oil. Plus, its sensible government doesn't blow the oil money on platinum-plated palaces. Instead, it first funds a lavish welfare state and then deposits the remaining surplus cash into Norway's $1 trillion government savings fund. Norwegians all looked absurdly healthy and happy, as if they didn't have a care in the world.

Abstractly, you might sometimes just want to punch them. But then you meet them, and in eerily flawless English, they bitch endearingly about all the problems their country faces, from right-wing extremists to the high cost of living to timid, ineffectual politicians. You know, typical Scandinavian problems. So then you begin to like the Norwegians.

And really, how can you stay mad at people who enthusiastically watch 6-day-long 'Slow TV' marathon shows featuring totally normal cruise ships voyages, train journeys, or knitting orgies?

Below, 236 minutes constituting part I of the Bergen-Oslo train journey, considered one of the world's most picturesque:

Conan O'Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt's Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:


Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks -- what do you say?

German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

...English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging--some of them well into old age--without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte -- at least not in front of her -- but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.