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I watched a BBC version of the novel “Persuasion” the other day. It was not a great version, with a few ham actors and an apparently low budget, but still pretty watchable. I came out with a few conclusions.

– Jane Austen invented romantic comedies. Unfortunately, I hate romantic comedies with a passion. (Really, I jut can’t stand them. They usually repeat over and over the same stories in exactly the same order.). While I am sure that Austen’s books are much better than the typical Hollywood fare, I haven’t taken the time to read them yet.

– Status was very important in the anglo world of those days. Almost as much as it is today.

– We think society has changed, but it really hasn’t changed that much. Women still want rich husbands and men still want young beautiful women. The difference is that now that became harder to achieve, except for a few. But the higher classes still behave very similarly to the higher classes of that period. And they still hate those with lower status with a passion.

– Being 27 in 1816 was like being 37 today. Which is a relief, in some ways.

– While the main purpose of women seems to be to find a rich husband, men actually do have a life. Feminism didn’t change that, it just delayed it (see point above) so women now usually wait to get married in their 30s. Unfortunately fertility decreases with age.

– There was no Muslim immigration in England in those days.

– It rains a lot in Bath.


Just a brief musical interlude: David Bowie, now 66, released a haunting new song and video, “Where are we now?“, which rapidly reached the 6th place in the UK charts. Bob Dylan, at 71, has just released “Tempest”, an album that is being considered by critics as one of his best; here one of the catchiest songs, “Duquesne Whistle“, which also has a strange video. Leonard Cohen is right now on a world tour at 78 years of age promoting his latest album.

Rock’n’roll is not dead, it’s just very old.

Whatever happened to “live fast, die young”? Many of the singers of the 60s died from drug overdose or suicide or choking on their own vomit. The smartest ones, however, seem to have realized that their audience would grow old too, and if they slowed down on the drugs and booze, they would manage to extend their careers for much longer.

But will current artists manage the same long careers? I can’t imagine Justin Bieber at 70 still on the stage.

Maybe what is happening is that we as a culture are not creating many new interesting things, and that is why these older artists still remain relevant and popular. And that goes for all aspects of contemporary culture: in commercial movies, for instance, the most popular franchises are Batman and Superman and Captain America and other superheroes; characters that are almost 60 years old.

I for one like it that way. I think that I prefer Bowie and Dylan and Cohen to anything that came up in the new millenium.

Cinema started as an unpretentious form of entertainment, and today in the age of superhero megamovies in 3D it might have reached its zenith as a form of massive hypnosis and mindless diversion with merchandising. But there was a brief period, that lasted maybe from the 50 until the 70s, when Film was considered a major form of Art. Before that, no one took film seriously; after that, nobody cared anymore.

During that brief decades the world had Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovski, Kubrick, Wilder, Truffaut, Malle, Kurosawa and several other filmmakers who developed new ways of telling stories and seemed to be expanding the possibilities of cinema in ways not thought before.

Today, what is left of that? There are a few aging French directors. There is Michel Haneke, who seems to be highly praised by today’s critics, but to be honest his films always leave me cold. Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and all the great American directors of the 70s seem to either have gotten tired or to have sold out long ago.

Maybe I have aged too; maybe it’s not cinema that lost its power but myself. It is also true that the music I tend to hear even today is not very recent, the most “modern” ones are from the 80s or 90s; can’t stomach much of what came after that. Has the world changed or have I changed?

One thing that certainly took place was a continental shift. Maybe what happened was not so much the decay of art cinema as the decay of European art cinema: Europe became somehow less important in film-making (where are the great Italian masters of today, for instance?) and the United States lost its inferiority complex towards Europe: Woody Allen and Scorsese stopped imitating the European masters and developed their own style, and the younger directors such as P. T. Anderson didn’t even look to Europe as a model anymore. But perhaps the real news of the last decades is the emergence of a new Asian cinema, with Japan, Korea and Taiwan making some of the most innovative films out there.

Still, it seems true that cinema is no longer thought by many as a major form of art. Perhaps the most famous director working nowadays is Quentin Tarantino, and that says a lot. Whatever you think about his work, it can hardly be called serious in the sense that those works of the 60s were. (However, it is also true that many of the films of the 60s and 70s were certainly overvalued and some of them did not age so well.)

The public has also changed, it is true. Most films today are created for an audience of teenagers, or for adults that are still mentally teenagers, which would be the majority of the population of the world today. However, it is also true that we tend to see things in a diverse way nowadays, so maybe it’s not so much cinema that changed but ourselves.

In terms of mere technique, cinema improved a lot. And, because technology also reduced the costs and improved the quality, there is a vast array of independent movies that continue to create more original works, even if having less exposure to the commercial market, or maybe because of that.

Still, I can’t remember any good recent director that could be the equivalent of a Fellini or a Bergman in those earlier times, but I could be wrong. I don’t watch as many films as I did before. Indeed, has the world changed or have I changed?

Here’s an article saying that intelligent movies are dead, another saying that they not dead yet but are dying, and finally a contrary view saying that the death of cinema is just an impression of nostalgic old fools.

I didn’t want to give money to Tarantino because I find him obnoxious, so I watched “Django Unchained” in a very bad pirated copy (sorry) and I cannot vouch for the visual quality of the film. In terms of story, however, I thought it was a pretty weak film.

Let me tell you how I feel about Tarantino: I enjoyed “Pulp Fiction” at the time it came out and had some fun with “Kill Bill” although it was way too long. I hated “From Dawn to Dusk” and was annoyed by the historical liberties of “Inglorious Basterds”. I didn’t care much for “Reservoir Dogs” but I thought “True Romance” (directed by Tony Scott) was fun. Still, I never considered him a great filmmaker, at most a talented genre filmmaker with a good knack for dialogues and violent scenes. But hey, that’s just me.

Tarantino once said that Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was one of the best-directed movies of all time. He might as well be right, it is certainly in my list of favorite movies. However, Sergio Leone was a very different director than Tarantino, and, despite “Django Unchained” being a clear homage to the so-called “Spaghetti Western” genre, it falls very short of Leone’s mark.

For one, Sergio Leone was interested in real History. He was fascinated by the Old West and did a lot of research on the subject. Also, both “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” have charismatic, human characters, something that Tarantino’s films sorely lack. Maybe that’s my main problem with Tarantino: after “Jackie Brown”, he just decided that believable human characters were a waste of time, so he went into caricature overdrive.

Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, which takes place during the Civil War, presents the Southern Confederates as honorable soldiers, not as the total evil bastards that we see in Tarantino’s film, where pretty much all Southern whites are sadistic pricks. In fact, in Leone’s movie, it is the Yankees who are shown in worse light, badly treating the captured Confederate in prison camps. Leone knew that The Good are not always good, The Bad are not all the time bad, and the Ugly can be also funny.

A film touching the delicate historical issues of America’s dark past could be interesting, even if it was an action film, even if it was a revenge story and even if it was a “spaghetti Western”.

But subtlety is not Tarantino’s main strength. Then again, maybe it’s not what the current American public wants, anyway.


An excellent article at the New Yorker chronicles the career of Apollo Robbins, pickpocket extraordinaire. He is a stage performer specialized in stealing objects from his public and apparently he is so skilled that his act is being studied by psychiatrists and cops.

In fact, professional magicians (in French called “prestidigitateurs”, i.e. fast-moving fingers) and regular pickpockets use similar techniques: the trick is not so much to move fast as to focus the victim’s attention on something else, so that he becomes oblivious as to what is really happening.

It is easier to do that with groups, because our attention is naturally divided. I have seen gypsy women in Rome creating distractions with their kids or their companions in order to steal money from naive tourists. But lone pickpockets have a harder time; they must either be extremely dexterous with their hands or, in the case of scam artists, be extremely convincing in their initial friendly approach.

We tend to be fascinated with pickpockets because of the clear skill involved. Muggers will just point a gun at you: brute force is no fun. But we have to begrudgingly admit that pickpockets and scam artists at least have some kind of talent.

How do they learn their trade?  Some mention a mythical “School of The Seven Bells”, supposedly in Colombia, where pickpockets graduate after managing to silently steal from a jacket laced with bells. It is most likely an urban legend, but apparently many police officers believe that the place really exists.

There are pickpockets everywhere, but from a sample of the many cities I visited, I would say that Barcelona is probably in the top ten, not so much because of the amount of criminals (I personally have never been robbed there) as for their originality. Now, I am talking about non-violent thieves. In the US and in Latin America, robberies at gun point are the most common form of taking someone’s money, but in Europe there are less guns and a different dynamic.

Apparently the tradition of pickpocketing in Barcelona goes way back, but an article from El Periodico (in Spanish) described the several criminal gangs currently operating in the city. There are the “moors at the airport”, the “gypsy women with flowers”, the “peruvians with backpacks” and other colourful characters, most of them, not surprisingly, of foreign extraction. (However, the writers of the article seem to have forgotten the “scamming scandinavians” and the “japs in the jeep”, two dangerous groups also operating in the city.)

The most incredible pickpocketing scam that I personally witnessed took place in Prague (another beautiful city which full of such artists). I was in a restaurant with a female friend. The place was quite full and there were no available tables, so they politely asked if they could sit at our table (we were sitting at a large table with plenty of space).

There was nothing suspicious about them: they were a white couple in their mid-fifties, well-dressed and very sympathetic. Soon we were having an agreeable conversation without a care in the world. Until… At one point at the end of the dinner, the woman had some kind of collapse. It was not clear if it was an epileptic seizure or heart attack, she just moved frantically for a few seconds and then remained still with a paralyzed expression on her face. We all panicked, and I went with my friend to call someone at the bar. But when we came back with the waitress, the woman had miraculously recovered. She refused the glass of water that was offered to her and said she was OK. Her husband also seemed pretty calm, as if it was a common occurrence. They hurriedly paid their bill and left the restaurant.

When it was our turn to pay, a few moments later, my friend searched for her wallet in her purse and… Well, as you can imagine, “where is my wallet??” was the next sentence that came out of her mouth.

So, what can I say? Beware of white middle-aged couples, I guess.

A few weeks ago, Steve Sailer mentioned the Fayum Mummy Portraits. Recently I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I had the opportunity to see some of those remarkable portraits. Here are a couple of pictures that I saw at the Met:

A little boy.

This guy looks like someone I know.

Now, at that time (we are talking around 100-300 A.D.) Egypt had been occupied by the Romans, and most of the population was either Egyptian, Greek or a mixture of both. It is not clear (for me, at least) the ethnicity of the portraits above. They look more or less like Southern Europeans of today, they could be Greek or Southern Italian. In any case, they do not look black. Here there are several more pictures from the same period, found in different museums all over the world.

However, we know that Ancient Egypt was actually a multiracial society and they had contact with the Nubians, so there probably was some mixing even at the time.

Here is an interesting discussion about the issue at Anthroscape.

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