When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

We watched this 5 hour + documentary five nights in a row, not able to stop thinking about this tragedy in between "screenings". It was originally broadcasted on HBO as a mini-series documentary and is now available on DVD. I believe every person in America should watch it, not to mention across the world. Moreover, it should be mandatory to watch for every high school in the US (which is probably not going to happen with the current administration, probably more keen on screening "Anti-Terrorism" propaganda instead).

The film tells the tale of what happened in New Orleans prior, during and after the hurricane. According to the account of events, what caused the drowning of New Orleans was not the hurricane (by the time it reached New Orleans it was only level 2 or 3, which the levees were suppose to withstand). It was the failure of the levees. These were the most incompetent structure and although experts and government officials knew three years in advance that they are outdated and unsafe, they did nothing about it. They simply watched the sinking of this flag-ship of American culture, not to mention individual people who's lives were at sake (and forsaken on that ship). They simply watched them drown (if they weren't too busy vacationing in Texas ranches or fighting Holy Wars in the Middle East).

In every single step of this hurricanic Via Dolorosa, the US government did everything possible to make things more complicated. Let's make a little list (which I am sure is not going to cover it all):
1) Not taking responsibility and action over the safety of the city and the questionable protection of the levees.
2) Not ensuring that the citizens of New Orleans are properly evacuated from the city, when the storm clearly was hitting level 6.
3) Not providing relief in time and rescuing the people who were stuck in the city. In fact, many resources were wasted on capturing so to speak "looters" (who in more cases than none were just looking for clean water and food for survival).
4) Delaying food and water and medical aid (the people in the city were stuck for 5 days with no food or clean drinking water)
5) Once the rescue has arrived, the families were torn apart and dispersed all across the US.
6) Once the hurricane was over and the city was ready to re-absorb its citizens, there were not attempts or efforts made to support or encourage or physically bring the people of New Orleans back home. Families were torn to pieces and the entire social fabric of this tightly woven city has been destroyed.
7) Delaying to assign emergency shelters such as trailers to the people that lost their homes, leaving them homeless and even causing death (from hypothermia) to young people who were staying at tent camps during the winter.
8) Even recovery of the dead wasn't properly done: people returned to their homes to find their dead relatives and loved ones, even in houses that were marked to be with no dead bodies inside.
9) To this day, the people New Orleans received little or no compensation for their losses, neither from the government nor from the insurance companies (to which they paid the best parts of the salary for their entire lives). Such funds and moneys, which could support the people while re-building the city, seem to be unavailable in a country that prides itself as being one of (if not THE) richest in the world.

Nice checklist, huh? This was so efficiently done I can imagine someone going through it and making sure nothing is done!

What happened in New Orleans is more than a large number of human tragedies concentrated in one city. This is a cultural tragedy. This is a message from the government of the USA that "George Bush doesn't care about black people", as one of the city's people dared to say on TV.
Of course, not only black people were affected by the hurricane - but New Orleans being a city that chooses to give more importance to jazz and good cuisine rather than oil and weapons clearly poses no political interest for the current US administration, and therefore very little sympathy translated into dollars.

So, the bottom line is - it's up to the people of New Orleans to re-build New Orleans. And if we want to see this city again and make sure that the heart of the US is still beating, we have to help them out ourselves.

Poster for When The Levees Broke from HBO.com
Clips from YouTube.com

Film Review: Perfume

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” was quite a difficult book for me to read. Not so much because of the subject, which on the surface is quite objectionable, but rather because I found the book, particularly the first part, to be exhaustively descriptive. To top it off, it’s impossible to identify with the (anti) hero: Jean-Baptiste Grenuille is detached, emotionless not-quite-human character, and basically lacks in all the areas that could possibly make another human being feel sympathy. His constant suffering does not make one feel more for him in the least; even his thirst for fragrance and his obsession with creating the perfect perfume seems excessive to the point of loosing most of its meaning, as it is so exquisitely detached from the human emotions that most people associate with scents. Grenuille is described in the book, more than once, as a tick. And throughout the book, there is not one moment when I managed to have more feelings towards him than I do towards a blood-sucking tick.

The film, however, was everything I hoped it would be, yet without taking away from the concept of the book. What before was an exhausting and linear storytelling filled to the brim with scent descriptions, was now appropriately replaced with accurate images so tactile that you can feel and smell them. Whomever said the book was unfilmable, was obviously wrong. Thanks to skillful screenwriting (by Director Tom Tykwer, and screenwriters Anrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger) , the film plays in a far more convincing way than does the book. The exposition is laid out intensely to illustrate a rich odorous world with all its magnificent nuances: from the stench of the fish market, where Grenuille is mistakably born, through myriads of mundane odours, to the coiffed, powdered wigs and fine perfumes of the ear.

The casting is excellent for the most part, and the acting is outstanding. Ben Whishaw, even if a tad too handsome for what anyone could imagine Grenuille to be*, is brilliant in portraying the odd outcast sociopath with no scent of his own yet an incredible gift for discerning and remembering scents, which leads him to become a perfumer. He manages to pull off the character truthfully, and at the same time also raise just enough empathy in the audience to make his motives understandable and almost logic. His love for scent and his raw passion to acquire the ability to preserve it comes through clearly, and dictates a flowing cinematic storytelling, assisted by sparse narration. We are just as bewitched as he is with the striking fragrant beauty of the maiden (Karoline Herthfurth) that became the muse who haunts him for the rest of his pathetic life.

In his role as Maestro Baldini, Dustin Hoffman’s performance adds a much needed humour and human swarmth to the film, and also creates a bridge to Grenuille’s mind and to understanding his motives later on. Alan Rickman is perfectly casted for Monsieur Richis, Laure’s father (her name is Enlighized to Laura in the movie, and she is played by the appropriately teenager actress Rachel Hurd-Wood), the man who unveils Grenuille’s murder scheme, contributes a heart-trembling performance with his usual tragic presence and expressive voice.

From a perfumer’s point of view, some of the scenes are a nosewatering eye candy: the antique perfumery of Maestro Baldini, with all the beakers and vials and elimbics and flacons and flasks; Even his supposedly-boring lecture about the Egyptians and the 12 essences and the 13th secrete essence is intriguing for a perfumer staring at the screen…(and, it niely reduces his number of Grenuille’s victims from 26 to a mere 14…) And of course - that feature Grasse (which to us, by the way, is the Mecca of Perfume, rather than the Rome…) – from flower harvesting to enflourage (the image below is enflourage of jonquilles), maceration and distillation. If you are a perfumer, this film will make you want to visit there more than ever, so perhaps you should reserve your airline tickets before you reserve your seat at your neighbourhood cinema…

By the end of the film I could visualize the 13 essences used for the perfume and almost forget the horror that was required to extract them. And of course, the metaphor of robbing the scent from flowers to make our perfumes, as they gradually die in their sleep, still echoes in my head till now…

The only thing I was worried about was the ending. In the book, this is the only point of true redemption for our hero Grenuille. As much as one might buy into believing that the perfect perfume will redeem him from his cursed state of un-love, it is not until he is devoured by his own people that he becomes part of them. And I am utterly grateful that the film ended that way. The only thing missing from that scent was a burp…

*Grenuille the child though is a total miscast, even if played extremely well; look at Alvaro Roque in the eye, and try to tell me you don't like him. His skin looks too healthy and dark to be Grenuille the grown up serial killer. He looks almost like the charming Italian boy from Cinema Paradiso, for heaven's sake!

Stills from the film courtesy of Paramount Pictures and from IMDB.com. To view more photos, including a fantastic panoramic views from the set (my favourites, naturally, being the perfumeries), visit the film's official website.

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