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most people are other people

De meeste mensen zijn andere mensen - 1

De meeste mensen zijn andere mensen - 2

"De meeste mensen zijn andere mensen" - or in English: "Most people are other people" - on the former Heineken building in Rotterdam. It's a quote from the king of epigrams, Oscar Wilde (from 'De Profundis'):

It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Interestingly, the meaning of 'other' seems to shift by isolating the sentence. Where Wilde meant that most people are not themselves, the phrase by itself also suggests that most people are different from you - providing an ironically irrefutable comment on today's xenophobic tendencies.

Also posted in my Words gallery.

trances

Some more Moroccan cinema... 'Trances' ('Al-Hal', 1981) is a vintage documentary about the legendary group 'Nass El Ghiwane'. Formed in the late '60s in Casablanca, the band revitalized traditional Moroccan music by mixing different influences - notably the Sufi chants of gnawa - and adding contemporary lyrics.

As modern-day troubadours in a country only recently independent, they combined timeless music and poetry to speak out about oppression and injustice. Besides concerts and interviews, the film contains historic footage of Morocco as well as unique Essaouira gnawa sessions.

Martin Scorsese has cited the film as a source of inspiration for 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and its soundtrack by Peter Gabriel.

What you see here is a mix of the poetry, the music and the theatre that goes way back to the roots of the Moroccan culture. And I think the group was singing damnation: their people, their beliefs, their sufferings and their prayers all came through their singing.

All but forgotten, 'Trances' was restored in 2007 by Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. The Auteurs, a great online film library, is offering the film for free.

heaven's doors

Heaven's Doors ('Abwab ul-Jinnah', 2006), the feature debut of the brothers Swel and Imad Noury, has been called "absurdly ambitious". Which it certainly is - creating a kind of Moroccan 'Amores Perros' with three interlocking story lines, 160 minutes long, all on a shoestring budget. And while it may have its flaws, the film makes up for it with a lot of visual flair and some remarkably compassionate storytelling.

Set in modern-day Casablanca, a bustling metropolis stylishly captured in washed-out colors by a restless camera, the film follows three people whose lives are all touched by a single act of violence. Ney is a young Moroccan sucked into a life of crime; Lisa an American widow reluctantly taking a young boy into her care; and Smail (played by the directors' father, filmmaker Hakim Noury) a middle-aged ex-convict out for revenge.

Heaven's Doors - 1

The real focus of the film, however, is on these people's family relations, and particularly between mothers and sons. Ney turns to crime to provide for his blind mother and his little sister; Lisa can't have children of her own, but suddenly finds herself in a mother role; and Smail's first stop after being released from prison is to visit his sick mother in the hospital.

As Ney's mother reminds her son, "Mothers hold the keys to paradise." In 'Heaven's Doors', mothers seem to provide the only unconditional relationship in a society full of uncertainty, crippled by poverty, crime and idle dreams of making it across the "Strait" to Europe.

Heaven's Doors - 2

Balancing the film's raw and hectic style, the three stories are introduced by titles, short parables (not sure what the source of these is) that lend it a poetic, contemplative air. They're intriguing enough to quote in full...

First story:

The mother approached her son. Crying, she softly caressed his face. She did not know what to say or do. Then she whispered in his ear: "My son, you can see the light in many different ways. But you can only be blind in one way."

Second story:

The sea was wild, the sky was grey. The child looked at her and said: "Why do some people die and others don't?" The woman laughed and the child understood. Time passed, the sea calmed and the sky turned blue. The woman looked at him and asked: "Why do some people love and others don't?" The child smiled, and the woman understood.

Third story:

The silence of the night makes loneliness a heavy burden. He opened his eyes and saw the Fate he kept running from. At that moment he had only one thought: resistance against the irreversibility of lost time.

(All roughly translated from Dutch dvd subtitles.)

For their second film, 'The Man Who Sold the World', the Noury brothers are adapting Dostoyevsky's short story, 'A Weak Heart' - should be one to look out for...

Update: The poems / parables are not quotes but were written by Swel Noury, as he was kind enough to point out. And for more info on 'The Man Who Sold the World' see its Facebook page.

the futility boundary

Well-known but still poorly understood, the placebo effect is where pharmacology yields to psychology and the power of illusion. Last year a study revealed that expensive placebo pills work better than cheap ones. Now according to Wired, 'Placebos Are Getting More Effective', which creates some interesting paradoxes.

The placebo effect can be achieved in many ways, from prescribing sugar pills to merely putting patients on a waiting list, or any type of 'sham' alternative medicine - basically anything where a patient may have reasonable expectations of feeling better. To illustrate this, its opposite effect, nocebo, also hinges on expectations: patients feeling worse just by witnessing other patients' pain.

In both cases, the subjective expectations produce real, objective results, i.e. people feeling better, or worse. In fact, as this Skeptic article describes, there is a "hierarchy of effectiveness" for placebos:

  • Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections
  • Placebo injections work better than placebo pills
  • Sham acupuncture treatment works better than a placebo pill
  • Capsules work better than tablets
  • Big pills work better than small
  • The more doses a day, the better
  • The more expensive, the better
  • The color of the pill makes a difference
  • Telling the patient, "This will relieve your pain" works better than saying "This might help."

Such psychological mechanisms have long been considered an embarrassment in the drug industry, where they have a great term for medication that doesn't work significantly better than placebos: the futility boundary.

Placebos already posed interesting ethical questions, like how does deceiving people relate to the Hippocratic oath, even when it does help them? Introducing price into the equation makes these questions even more uncomfortable, like wouldn't this effect be subject to inflation? And now it turns out that the futility boundary is getting higher - suggesting that for all our scientific sophistication, we're getting more susceptible to illusion...

Among the reasons cited for this trend is the fact that drug companies are attempting to cure more elusive ailments, like depression, which involve higher brain functions and therefore are more prone to psychological 'manipulation'. Another reason, however, appears to be that current drugs, like anti-depressants, have become so widespread (and at least in that sense successful) that people's expectations of their efficacy have risen. These expectations, stirred up further by media and marketing, influence trials of new drugs - and of the placebos they're tested against.

Taking this argument to its extreme, it looks like Western society, which has come to expect so much from pills, may end up being better off taking sugar pills, precisely because it has been trained so well in their expectations of them. Pharma, like everything else, is reduced to marketing - but in a very precarious feedback loop.

Update: Some related Dutch sources:

praying woman

Praying Woman - Dante Horoiwa - 1

Praying Woman - Dante Horoiwa - 2

Great wall painting in Rotterdam, by Brazilian artist Dante Horoiwa. Part of the Reflexo on Urban Art festival, which invited "10 Brazilian graffiti artists to paint huge walls in the streets of Rotterdam to show urban and contemporary Brazilian art".

the xx

Lots of praise going out to a bunch of 20-year-olds from London, as after their singles 'Crystalised' and 'Basic Space' The xx finally released their debut album 'xx'. (Yes, that all needs to be lowercase.)

The xx

Sparse and atmospheric electro / dream / mystery pop, or whatever label you want to apply, comparisons with post-punk (Young Marble Giants) and new wave are easily made. But mix that with a dose of R&B influence - they've done covers of Womack & Womack's 'Teardrops', Aaliyah's 'Hot Like Fire' and Kyla's 'Do You Mind' - and the result becomes seductively unclassifiable.

Their self-produced album manages to sound both dreamily timid and amazingly assured, stripped down and restrained but rich in its mood of nocturnal longing. No doubt this one will end up in many best of the year lists.

For more xx treats, check their 'Basic Space' dub remix, 'Space Bass', and their FACT Mix 70.