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The Dogs of Revolution

Robert R. Thompson

The people -- and the dogs -- of Romania now reside in a less threatening, more humane country.

On 12 December 2004 Romania elected a new president. Romanians have traveled a rocky road to democracy since their violent 1989 revolution against their communist leader Nicolai Ceausescu. The immediate post-revolutionary situation was confused and chaotic. The 1990s were a time of economic problems and political turmoil. That Romanians now stand at the new century's threshold with a free and democratic, if still troubled, system is a testament to their resilience. In this era of democracy building, it is instructive to examine how Romanians struggle to maintain their young democracy. They went from dictatorship to democracy, pretty much by themselves, with no help from US President George Bush, thank you very much.

After the 1989 violence, it was unclear exactly who ruled. To this day, Romanians continue the debate about who was in charge after their revolution. Except for one term between 1996 and 2000, Ion Illiescu, a former communist and key player in Ceausescu's ouster and execution, served as president. Questions linger about how Illiescu and his political party, the Social Democrats, gained and maintained power despite the evolution of Romania's free electoral system. This explains the surprise at the defeat of his party and its chosen successor in the December 2004 presidential election, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. The victor was Bucharest's former mayor, Traian Basescu.

And, a key question is, what do Romanians make of this underdog victor, Basescu? I can attest to at least one reason for his popularity. Travel back with me for a moment to June of 2000, my first day in Bucharest. My former student Elena, whose family set up my meetings with politicians and journalists, suggests we go to a nice restaurant near her family's apartment for a good meal to help me relax after the long flight. We drive to the city's center, park, and walk to the restaurant. But before we can get in, dogs, lots of dogs, immediately surround us, dogs of all sizes and shapes, wild dogs. Elena cringes, I do too. There are some really big dogs blocking our way. We edge past this canine collection, make it into the restaurant, and by now Elena is angry.

"Why doesn't somebody do something about this!? It's awful!" The next day we walk to various appointments around Bucharest. I see that the city has dogs the way some cities have rats; about 300,000 strays roam the streets. Where did they come from? Not surprisingly, the blame goes to the late Nicolai Ceausescu. In 1980, in pursuit of his grandiose Bucharest building plans, Ceausescu obliterated many residential areas, forced Bucharest residents into smaller apartments, and so they abandoned the pets they no longer had room for. In June of 2000 these dogs set loose are everywhere. Bucharest's citizens try to ignore them, but, like New York City's pigeons, they have no fear. And a big dog is a lot more intimidating than a pigeon. Shortly after the dogs were set loose, Basescu was elected Bucharest's mayor.

Two years later, June 2002, I am back to see how Romania's democracy is coming along. Bucharest is beautiful on this bright summer day. Flowers and trees line boulevards where the tanks rolled in 1989. And, I notice, there are no dogs roaming the streets, anymore. With what The New York Times recently called Basescu's "no-nonsense approach to making decisions", (14 December 2004), he determined to remake Bucharest, so it might compete with other great European cities like Budapest or Prague. First and foremost Basescu took on the dogs. Initially, the decision was to destroy them, but most of the dogs were saved. Film star and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot strongly, and very publicly, criticized the proposed killing of Bucharest's stray dogs. She came to Bucharest and worked with Basescu to save the dogs. She donated $140,000, which helped to fund part of a "mass sterilization and adoption programme". (BBC News, 2 March 2001) Elena and all of Bucharest's residents were very happy. And they were especially happy with Basescu's ability to navigate his way through a situation that might have put Bucharest in the spotlight as city of dog killers.

Romania's 2004 presidential election showcases the Romanians' desire for democracy, and their unwillingness to ever again be intimated; treated like dogs. But, despite Basescu's skillful handling of the dog problem, winning the presidential election wasn't easy. The 2004 election took place in two stages. On Sunday 28 November, voters selected 314 deputies for the Chamber of Deputies, and 134 Senators. The seats are apportioned proportionately to parties winning more than five percent of the vote. (For example, 40 percent of the popular vote equals 40 percent of the seats.) Romanians also voted directly for a presidential candidate. The entire election was quite close. Two multiparty coalitions won the highest number of seats in the two legislative houses: on the left, the Social Democratic Party, National Union, and Humanist Party of Romania, about 37 percent in each house; and on the center-right, the Alliance For Justice and Truth, National Liberal Party, and Democratic Party, about 32 percent. The other seats went to smaller parties. President Illiescu's man of the SDP, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase won about 43 percent of the presidential vote, to Traian Basescu's, of the center-right Truth and Justice Alliance, 35 percent of the vote. Again, candidates of other parties divided the rest.

The situation looked grim for the Basescu. It seemed that President Illiescu's Social Democrats would remain in power in both presidency and Parliament. And Illiescu would still be around, in his new Senate seat. It was the same old Romanian story, "democracy," but no Democracy. But, the election wasn't over yet. Neither presidential candidate received the requisite 51 percent of the vote. That meant a 12 December run off election between Nastase and Basescu, the first round's top two vote getters. This time Basescu pulled it out, 51.23 percent to 48.77 percent. (The New York Times, 14 December 2004) The victory also enabled his party alliance, and other smaller parties in the Parliament, to put together the votes to keep Illiescu's Social Democrats out of the Prime Minister's job, and put in Calin Popescu-Tariceanu of the National Liberal Party

So, now that Romanians have "thrown the rascals out", are they truly on the democratic path? I am fairly optimistic about their current prospects. In Bucharest, the destruction of 1989 is long over, thankfully. For example, one of the city's most beautiful buildings, the National Library, a scene of fierce fighting then, is restored, and its collections rebuilt. Thanks to Ceausescu's destructive building policies, Bucharest will never be as beautiful as Budapest or Prague. But it is a lively, vibrant, and exciting city. The National Opera House is beautiful and lavish, inside and out, its productions first class. Imagine, Strauss's "Die Fledermaus", sung in Romanian. Exquisite. And, thank you Basescu and Bardot; one no longer has to dodge the dogs to enjoy the city! Indeed, whether in Bucharest, or in the northern Transylvanian city of Sibiu, or in smaller towns and villages sparkling in the summer sun throughout central and northern Romania, I could barely believe that Romania had ever suffered under an especially brutal form of communism.

Still, I was curious, now that he's been elected, about what Romanians think of their new president. One of my Romanian acquaintances, a savvy former political operative, wrote to me both before and after the presidential runoff. Last November, before either of Romania's election rounds, she wrote, "I do not trust any of the two front line competitors" the current Prime Minister Nastase or Bucharest's Mayor Basescu. "The future is not too bright (as) Romania is not a great democracy". Now, however, about a month after. Basescu's surprising win, my friend is a bit more positive about Romanian politics. To her, the election result "was not a surprise, because Nastase (the loser) is not a popular person, and Basescu is; and because at least one-third of the electorate was determined NOT to vote PSD." (Social Democrats) Also she was very pleased with some of the "excellent people in his team," especially the new Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs. "So, I wait and see for the moment at least." There is a distinct wariness in her view, the wariness of people treated badly in the past, like dogs that suffered a cruel master. But I find it encouraging that Romanians finally rejected the party that, since the tainted 1989 revolution, had held power.

I realize that, ultimately, we shouldn't emphasize too strongly the success of Basescu's agile Bucharest dog policy, or use that success in predicting his ability to handle the Romanian presidency. He did compromise nicely with Bardot. And, he was able to keep Bucharest, and its image, clean. Still, it was a very popular decision. Dealing humanely with Bucharest's stray dogs, and as my friend notes, not being a Social Democrat will help provide Basescu with some leeway in the early days of his term.

Getting a handle on Romania's sputtering economy as it hopes to head into the European Union in 2007 will be a more demanding test of Basescu's ability to make tough decisions. Illiescu sits in the Senate. He remains powerful. And his party, the Social Democrats, though less popular, managed to grab the most seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Manipulating the treacherous shoals of Romanian parliamentary politics will challenge Basescu more than his dealings with Bardot did. How capable a democratic parliamentarian will he be? He pledged, "to be merciless towards any corruption act involving any Governmental structure." (Romanian government press release, 29 December 2004) I think that Romania is poised to finally realize the potential for freedom and democracy the Romanians first seized in 1989. The people and the dogs of Romania now reside in a less threatening, more humane country. But, the true test of Romania's "New Era" will be what my friends, and all other Romanians, think about, and how they respond to President Basescu's democratic leadership.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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