Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Drink 'em Up

Last night the Mankato city council voted to set new regulations on drink specials in Mankato bars. The new restrictions ban all-you-can-drink cup specials, multi-drink specials (two drinks for one price), gender-related specials, and cut off all drink specials at 11 p.m.

The new regulations are nothing short of a mess, allowing loop holes so large that bar owners can drink and drive a Mack truck through them. For example, bars can run drink specials after 11 p.m. if the specials run from open to close and are featured each week as part of a tavern's marketing plan. Bars are also allowed short term promotional pricing on new drinks. These exceptions nearly negate the intended impact of the legislation, to curb binge drinking.

Local bar owners are understandably upset by the new rules and it raises serious questions about the city council's commitment to local business. The largest growth in Mankato business has occurred on the city's hilltop, near the intersection of Highway 14 and MN 22. Big box retailers such as Best Buy, Super Wal-Mart, Kohls, and now Lowes have been allowed to set up on the east side of town while downtown Mankato has been left to rot. At this point downtown Mankato is left with very little in the way of thriving local businesses except for the bars which the city council continues to punish. If this governing body is at all interested in supporting local businesses it certainly is not showing it.

What I find more troubling than the apparent thoughtlessness of this legislation or even the council's continued attack on local business is the presumption of the Mankato city council that it ought to micro-manage the health of its constituents. Council member Vance Stuehrenberg said, ''We're not going to change a culture by what something here in Mankato does but we can take a step.'' Stuehrenberg's quote raises two questions: What about the culture are you out to change and should that change be made? While the council has the ability to attempt to change the culture, as any group of concerned citizens do, these people are using their position to infringe upon our ability for self determination. By singling out alcohol sales and the phenomenon of binge drinking, the council is sending a message that the city ought to regulate, discourage, and even punish the private activities of its citizens, activities that harm no one but the individual involved. Freedom means the ability to make unhealthy choices, be it binge drinking, not exercising, smoking, or eating fatty foods. Freedom comes with personal responsibility and suffering through or enjoying the consequences of those decisions. The city council apparently does not share this view and has decided to step in and make these decisions for the rest of us. While their concern for my well being is duly noted, I am an adult and prefer to make my own choices.

There is also the issue of precedent. While I do not readily give myself over to slippery-slope arguments, there is slope issue at hand here. If the council was truly serious about improving my health, wouldn't it try to curb my diet of red meat and other cholesterol-filled food? Cancer and preventable heart disease are among the greatest causes of death in the nation, so shouldn't our local restaurants and grocers face the same regulation? I hope not, because I enjoy a steak with my beer. But if the council is allowed to punish unhealthy personal choices, the horizon of the council's reach may extend beyond increasing my bar tab and penetrate all the way into my refrigerator.

The city council has bungled its attempts at regulating personal choices through muddled legislation, but the notions at the heart of this legislation--continued attacks on freedom of choice and further infringement on local business--are a far greater threat to the collective well being than whether citizens get liquor at a discounted price. While I understand that the council has the best of intentions, its members must understand that the pursuit of happiness, whether it is found in public service or at the bottom of a tequila bottle, ought to be unimpeded, even if it leads to the self-destruction of the individual.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rain Man

Last week Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue made headlines by asking citizens to pray for rain and led a public prayer outside the state capital building for relief from the terrible drought the state has suffered through this year.

Communicating for the governor, Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said, "The only solution is rain, and the only place we get that is from a higher power."

I could dwell on how pathetic this makes Perdue look (the man is so inept at dealing with the crisis he has been reduced to wishing upon a star) and the fairly obvious church-state problems of the prayer (it amounts to state-sponsored religion), I'd rather draw attention to a little item buried in one of the news articles after the prayer.

As it turned out, two days later a storm hit Georgia and left about an inch of rain, which did nothing to alleviate the drought but did manage to destroy the roof of a church and injure children with flying shards of glass.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hitler: The Rise of Evil

Last night I got to re-watch Hitler: The Rise of Evil. It was originally a made-for-TV mini-series broadcast on network television in 2003 and the film has been in the back of my mind ever since. Last month it was released on DVD and I finally got my hands on a copy.

The film has some great production values going for it, especially for a made-for-TV production, such as the attempted coup in Munich. The film also has some very good performances by Liev Schreiber and Julianna Margulies as Hitler supporters Ernst and Helene Hanfstaengl, Peter Stormare as SA leader Ernst Röhm, Matthew Modine as anti-Nazi journalist Fritz Gerlich, Peter O'Toole as President Hindenburg, and Robert Carlyle as Adolf Hitler. Carlyle gives one of the great performances of the Fuhrer, on par with Bruno Ganz in Downfall, which I hold as one of the finest portrayals of Hitler ever made.

Dramatizing history is tough, especially when the filmmakers deal with such a well known and thoroughly researched figure as Hitler. On the one hand, the filmmaker must make storytelling decisions that place dramatic principles ahead of historical accuracy. On the other hand, it is easy to end up on a slippery slope where so much dramatic licence is taken that the portrayal of the historical figure or event no longer represents who this person or place was. This docu-drama walks that line as well as any historical film I've ever seen.

The film isn't perfect. There is a coda on the ending which feels out of place and rather forced. I think a more effective final image could have been used. Also, the one glaring historical element that I found wanting was Hitler's relationship to Joseph Goebbels and Goebbels importance to the rise of Nazi popularity in Germany, both of which are under emphasized.

But what really strikes me about this film, aside from its craft and performances, is the relevance. History is dramatized with the intent of illuminating the present. Based on what I have seen recently, films that go back further in time can be more effective to understand the present than films dramatizing current events. Consider post-9/11 films Kingdom of Heaven and Munich as compared to Rendition or The Kingdom. While there are certainly exceptions, such as In the Valley of Elah, it seems that films which dig farther into the past can tells us more about the present, perhaps because we are more removed from the event itself. The best Vietnam films were made after the war, although there were a few films during Vietnam that dealt with the war through historical metaphor. Soldier Blue, a Western about the massacre of the Cheyenne Indians, is a thinly veiled parallel for the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Hitler: The Rise of Evil begins and ends with Edmond Burke's quote "The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing," and the story is filled with people making compromises with their ethics either to be polite or to accomplish their own ends. They ignore Hitler's anti-semitism, war mongering, and power grabbing until it is too late. There is a large emphasis, especially in the third act, on the surrender of civil liberties and throughout the film Hitler appeals to the Aryan myth of glory and idealism. In our post-9/11 world in which the West finds itself fighting an enemy mobilized by a dream of Islamic world domination and while fighting that enemy runs the risk of surrendering the very freedoms that it is attempting to preserve, the relevance of this film ought to be very clear.

Here is a trailer for the film: