Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Life is all about coincidences isn’t it? About paths that cross or almost don’t, separated by mere whiskers of chance or often cross too late. There are ample hints of that and then some in the German born Turkish director Fatih Akin’s feature “The Edge of Heaven”. Coincidences are a valuable tool in the hands of a director, in one less accomplished they risk being trite but not so in this movie. Here an exploration of cross cultural bonds including the sameness that binds us and the differences that set us apart is done in a manner that is human, appealing, will bowl you over and yet it is done with almost an air of distance. I do not use word detachment, there isn’t any in this wonderful human drama that encompasses two nations Turkey and Germany which have many ties. Juxtaposed against the way Turkey had been rebuffed for its entry to the EU and Germany’s discomfort with its own Turkish minority this movie will feel very relevant to our times and likely stand it’s test too.

I liked that Akin does not come out for one versus the other it is likely born of his presence in dual worlds and cultures an experience a lot of us could use.

In a nutshell this film to quote the NYTime’s A.O. Scott is about..

There are six principal characters in “The Edge of Heaven”: two mothers, two daughters, a father and a son, all arranged in more or less symmetrical pairs. In the course of this extraordinary film by the German writer-director Fatih Akin (which won the best screenplay award in Cannes last year) children are lost, lost parents are never found, and generational and geographical distances grow wider.

I loved the camera work, it has done a great job of recording the myriad human emotions on the actors and also set up the moody feel that pervades this movie. I loved how it began with the camera panning across the dusty path of ground, a gas station that a car has pulled up at. Heck I thought it could be some place in Texas. But it was Turkey with the character Nejat (Baki Davrak) on his way to meet his father (as we later find out). There is a conversation here where the store attendant upon being asked by Nejat about the Turkish music playing, is told it is a local singer who “died young ..just like you”. The look that passes across Nejat’s face is it one of fear? Nejat who teaches German lit at a university in Germany is well portrayed as a guy who seems at ease in this world of two cultures. And perhaps the only time I saw a look of real joy on his face was when he walks in to a German bookstore in Istanbul. The rest of the movie we sense a wariness and a weariness to him.

The second scene is in Bremen, Germany where an older man Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is walking the streets in a flat cap sizing up the prostitutes along this street with its brightly painted houses. He picks Yeter (Nursel Kose) a Turkish woman working as a prostitute and after a couple of visits offers her a deal to pay her the same amount that she makes, his condition being she stay and sleep only with him. Yeter has little choice accosted as she is on the bus by a pair of Turkish men for bringing dishonor to Islam. Nejat meets Yeter at his dad Ali’s place. She has a daughter back in Turkey that she supports but has told her she works in a shoe store. Yeter meets an untimely death.. a sad accidental event at the hands of Ali, something that the viewer is forewarned with a caption at the start of that chapter of the movie.

While one might argue that letting the user know about this before hand would take away from the dramatic effect of the event, but it does not and this technique is used once again to great effect as yet another life is lost aimlessly at the hand of a child holding a weapon.

Shades of the movie babel? I was reminded of that after that scene but there is also the chronologically disordered way events unfold in the movie, some may find it confusing but I thought it served a very good purpose, it kept you thinking about what was happening.

The move shifts to Istanbul where Nejat has come with the aim of locating Yeter’s daughter, who her relatives have lost track of. Turns out Yeter’s daughter, Ayten played to great effect by Nurgul Yesilcay with her delicate looks yet an angry, forceful undercurrent has fled to Germany to escape arrest by Turkish authorities for her involvement with a radical group. Penniless and with no place to go she meets Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) who is trying to find meaning in her life. She takes Ayten in to her home watched over by Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) and Ayten and Lotte become lovers. Ayten applies for asylum is denied and she is deported back to Turkey. Lotte much to the concern of her mother follows in an attempt to help Ayten. Lotte stays with Nejat as a tenant after putting up a sign at his bookstore (right above the spot with Yeter’s picture. Nejat has no recent picture of Ayten in his quest to find her and so uses her mother Yeter’s photo). The irony of this and other moments is conveyed well as being one of lost chances and near misses.

In a tragic episode Lotte dies led down the path by Ayten who sees her in prison and asks her to help retrieve something for her friends. Her grief stricken mother Suzanne arrives in Istanbul and gets in touch with Nejat with whom Lotte had boarded. They are in a way kindred souls, Suzanne is dealing with the loss of a child while Nejat bears the burden of the unsuccessful quest for Yeter’s daughter and that his father was responsible for Yeter’ death. There is this telling scene as he and Suzanne sit for dinner at an Istanbul restaurant of sumptuous Turskish dishes, and they toast.. to death. And the camera draws away to reveal the normal background noise of dinner conversations. Had they made their peace?

As Nejat goes to the seaside village where his father now estranged and deported from Germany has retired. Susanne seeks out Ayten in prison who seems pulverized by the news that she is indirectly responsible for Lotte’s death. The scenes of the grieving mother and her daughter’s girlfriend behind prison glass as Ayten tries to communicate in her broken English, the only word she seems to be able to say is sorry and ask for forgiveness which Susanne does. On release from prison Ayten returns to the book store that Nejat has left in the care of Susanne. And as they leave the store we see them pass the bulletin board without the sign with the picture of Yeter, which Nejat has removed in frustration before he last left the store.

The movie did not tie up any loose ends and I think that was ok. Life is hardly that simple. The movie did a splendid job of exploring the maps of human relationships, between father and sons, mothers and daughters and the forces that draw us close or force us apart.

Akin’s directorial skills were very obvious in some of the scenes I mentioned above, but there were many more. The scene of coffins being loaded off and on planes… Yeter’s journey back home and Lotte’s too.

There is also the scene where Ayten’s accomplices are captured and they shout out their names as the police drag them away, and the neighbors watching applaud. What are they applauding the police or the revolutionaries?

The landscapes of Turkey are well captured including the energy of Istanbul and the musical score I really loved.

I am glad I got to watch this movie, I recently also finished watching “Head-On” and can hardly wait to watch his documentary on the music scene in Istanbul.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Most Narcissitic Post!
To those of you following this blog, you know I tore an ACL in my right knee two years ago, spent a couple of months in physical therapy found that surgery was not needed and started running again.
I have been running for close to 15 years now, nothing long distance just the usual 2-3 miles 3 times a week or more or less weather permitting.
I always wondered if I could run longer regularly, but I did not try nor did I really have anything to tell me how much I was actually running, till I started using the "iMapMyRun" app on the iPhone that uses it's built in GOS functionality to tell you exactly how much I run.
This app lets me load myresults to the website where I can enter my height, weight and it tells me how many calories I burned and lets me do all the wonderful things with numers and stats. It also has routes from other runners in case I want to try out what they do.
And this app finally helped me find out if I could run farther, not sure why I needed that to know I could run longer. I suppose I liked being able to look at the app while running, it showed me distance run, time, current and average pace. And I can take screenshots!
So slowly I started increasing my distance run, thanks to the shorter hours of daylight I am only running on weekends (I cannot use a bike at home.. don't ask. I am too restless!). The Saturday is usually a shorter quicker 4 mile run and the Sunday is usually longer. So today I managed to run my longest distance yet... 7 miles! Here is a screen shot of that run.

Some of you might laugh for this is not a fast pace at all, but it is not bad for a guy who just turned 46!
I am hoping to slowly be able to up the distance, I went up from 4 to 5 to 6 and to 7 miles today.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

India's Anti-Greenspan or How India Avoided a Financial Collapse In It's Banking Sector

Woke up this morning and reluctantly (all the bad news) turned to the business section of the NYTimes, and was intrigued by this piece....
Talking Business: How India Avoided a Crisis By JOE NOCERA.
As the financial crisis and the real estate bubble here imploded I wondered how India was doing for it has been growing by leaps and bounds lately. Did they avoid this? How did they?
This article does provide some insights on this. India has been rightly critiqued for it's excessive regulatory policies (and rightly so at times) but this does appear to be a good example of perhaps what Alan Greenspan should have been doing.

Snippets from the article below...
“What has taken a number of us by surprise is the lack of adequate supervision and regulation,” Rana Kapoor was saying the other day. “This was despite the fact that Enron had happened and you passed Sarbanes-Oxley. We don’t understand it. Maybe it’s because we sit in a more controlled economy but ....” He smiled sweetly as his voice trailed off, as if to take the sting off his comments. But they stung nonetheless.
Yes because enough fools believed that the free market can correct or regulate itself. An unregulated free market was to make all of us rich!

Yet two years ago, the Indian real estate market — commercial and residential alike — was every bit as frothy as the American market. High-rises were being slapped up on spec. Housing developments were sprouting up everywhere. And there was plenty of money flowing into India, mainly from private equity and hedge funds, to fuel the commercial real estate bubble in particular. Goldman Sachs, Carlyle, Blackstone, Citibank — they were all here, throwing money at developers. So why did the Indian banks stay on the sidelines and avoid most of the pain that has been suffered by the big American banks?

Part of the reason is cultural. Indians are simply not as comfortable with credit as Americans. “A lot of Indians, when you push them, will say that if you spend more than you earn you will get in trouble,” an Indian consultant told me. “Americans spent more than they earned.”
So why did the Indian banking system not fail?
But there was also another factor, perhaps the most important of all. India had a bank regulator who was the anti-Greenspan.
“He basically believed that if bankers were given the opportunity to sin, they would sin,” said one banker who asked not to be named because, well, there’s not much percentage in getting on the wrong side of the Reserve Bank of India. For all the bankers’ talk about their higher lending standards, the truth is that Mr. Reddy made them even more stringent during the bubble.
Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to even point out bubbles, much less try to deflate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality. About two years ago, he started sensing that real estate, in particular, had entered bubble territory. One of the first moves he made was to ban the use of bank loans for the purchase of raw land, which was skyrocketing. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved — and then only to make construction loans. (Guess who wound up financing the land purchases? United States private equity and hedge funds, of course!)

Then, as securitizations and derivatives gained increasing prominence in the world’s financial system, the Reserve Bank of India sharply curtailed their use in the country. When Mr. Reddy saw American banks setting up off-balance-sheet vehicles to hide debt, he essentially banned them in India. As a result, banks in India wound up holding onto the loans they made to customers. On the one hand, this meant they made fewer loans than their American counterparts because they couldn’t sell off the loans to Wall Street in securitizations. On the other hand, it meant they still had the incentive — as American banks did not — to see those loans paid back.
Did the bankers in India like it? No of course not!

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth! Mr. Parekh told me that while he had been saying for some time that Indian real estate was in bubble territory, he was still unhappy with the rules imposed by Mr. Reddy. “We were critical of the central bank,” he said. “We thought these were harsh measures.”

“For a while we were wondering if we were missing out on something,” said Ms. Kochhar of Icici. Banks in the United States seemed to have come up with some magical new formula for making money: make loans that required no down payment and little in the way of verification — and post instant, short-term, profits.
And do we have something to learn from the Indian example?

As the credit crisis has spread these past months, no Indian bank has come close to failing the way so many United States and European financial institutions have. None have required the kind of emergency injections of capital that Western banks have needed. None have had the huge write-downs that were par for the course in the West. As the bubble has burst, which lenders have taken the hit? Why, the private equity and hedge fund lenders who had been so eager to finance land development. Us, in others words, rather than them. Why is that not a surprise?

When I asked Mr. Kapoor for his take on what had happened in the United States, he replied: “We recognize it as a problem of plenty. It was perpetuated by greedy bankers, whether investment bankers or commercial bankers. The greed to make money is the impression it has made here. Anytime they wanted a loan, people just dipped into their home A.T.M. It was like money was on call.”

So it was. And our regulators, unlike theirs, just stood by and let it happen. The next time we’re moving into bubble territory, perhaps we can take a page from Mr. Reddy’s book — sometimes it’s better to apply the brakes too early than too late. Or, as was the case with Mr. Greenspan, not at all.
Yes our regulators let it happen and the door was opened starting with the Clinton era and continued thru the Bush years (no surprise there). And American tax payers are left holding the bag.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Note (For the very few that still watch this space). Work is very busy, coupled with a lot of blogs being blocked at work and other professional pursuits, time to blog has truly become a premium. I miss reading the blogs I used to frequent, I will still try to read when I can, but this blog will now likely be more of a chronicle of things that strike my fancy or intrigue me or a place to vent. Talking about which... The Palin Rallies Seem To Have A Much Higher Preponderance Of Teh Stupid! From an oped by Gail Collins in the NYT link.

One woman at a Sarah Palin rally told The Times’s Robbie Brown that she was terrified that Obama was “going to push a socialist agenda” but that she was sure “Saxby Chambliss can stop him.” Now Chambliss has been a senator for six years, and his greatest achievement was getting ranked the 33rd best golfer in Washington by Golf Digest. It is highly unlikely that he could stop the president from doing anything beyond making a putt

The Worst President Ever

No easy street for Bush once he's out of office

The process of relinquishing the most powerful job in the world isn't an easy one. Besides overseeing the construction of a presidential library and writing his memoirs, President Bush must also grapple with salvaging a legacy mired in the lowest presidential approval ratings in history.
Says the headline on CNNs web site. After the damage he inflicted upon this country I am not exactly worried that he has no easy street. Just go away already and spare us! If he cares about his legacy he can work with the Democrats and President elect Obama to get something meaningful done before he leaves office, even if it is not things he likes and is truly helpful for the country. That would do something for his "legacy", but knowing his track record, I am not holding my breath! And it is not just about him!