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January, 2000

Vienna silent films first to drop bloomers

VIENNA, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The French are better known for it, but the Austrians are more daring. When erotic motifs entered the fledgling cinema industry at the beginning of the 20th century, skimpily clad ladies on the silver screen caused thrills -- and outrage -- across Europe. But Viennese film maker Saturn was the first to bare all. "In Saturn films, women were really naked," Paolo Caneppele from the Austrian Film Archive told Reuters about the original purveyor of movie nudes. "It is unique in this period in Europe, and I believe in the world, that a company made only erotic films," Caneppele said. For today's viewer, Saturn's "racy" movies have more charm than power to shock when bashful bathing beauties are surprised by a voyeur, or an artist's "marble" statue slowly comes to life. The Film Archive, which collects and documents rarities of cinema history, delighted audiences in Vienna last year with a retrospective of old-time erotica from between 1906 and 1910. "Saturn always showed what it promised, that's why it was so successful," Caneppele said.

In the early 1900s, Saturn's short films drew crowds to public showings thanks to nebulous censorship laws. "Racy films: We guarantee immaculate material and first-class rendering," promised a 1906 advertisement. Saucy scenes such as ladies "in their birthday suits" trying their hand at croquet were popular in itinerant cinemas throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Prague to Italy's Trieste. "Travelling cinemas introduced so-called "gentlemen's evenings" directed at a certain audience," said Film Archive researcher Michael Achenbach. However, some adult showings were also open to women, who joined in by loudly marvelling at the new moving images on the screen. "Silent films were never silent... a cinema hall in the era of silent film was chaos," Caneppele said.

He said big film producers such as France's Pathe produced more erotic films than Saturn, but shied away from revealing all. "Pathe's images were not as free as Saturn's. The models always wore some sort of transparent clothing, such as long nightgowns," said Achenbach. It took Silesian-born photographer Johann Schwarzer to make the scandalous -- but profitable -- move to female nudity. Schwarzer's one-man film company began production in a Vienna studio in 1906. It was the heyday of the Vienna Jugendstil -- or art nouveau -- movement, a style which focused on images of youth, spring, dance and femininity. Popular images of Oriental sensuality provided an exotic backdrop, making Saturn's "Veil Dance", "In the Harem" or "Slave Market" hits with cinema-goers, according to Caneppele. The occasionally collapsing stage prop did little to distract actors or audience from the action. "The films are comparable to the B-movies of the 50s and 60s," said Cannepele. "The motto was: keep on filming."

But what gave Saturn films extra appeal was their carefree treatment of eroticism. "The aim was to show naked women -- of course," said Caneppele. "But it was done with an element of humour." In "An Exciting Chase", for example, a policeman is hot on the heels of a female bather whose clothes have been stolen. Slapstick-style, the puffing constable stumbles over a baffled picnic party on the way. "It is a funny depiction of sex," said Caneppele. But not everybody was amused. Complaints from inside Austria and abroad led to charges of obscenity against the company which marked its movies with an eight-pointed star. A 1911 police order banned further showings of Saturn films and ordered the destruction of all film reels. Of 52 known titles, fragments of only 25 have survived.

Today they are valuable documents of Viennese life, fads and fashion close to one century ago. Even scientific novelties appear to have provided material for erotic comedy. "The Power of Hypnosis" stars a voluptuous lady who succeeds in hypnotising an admirer in her home, stripping to flimsy undergarments to check his reaction (zero) and relieving him of his wallet. Where did such burlesque plots leave men in Saturn's flicks? "Men don't make much of an impression in Schwarzer's films," said Caneppele. "They are either lovers, policemen, or extras."

Campy '50s educational films have resonance today

NEW YORK (Reuters) - What studio saw the most films shot on its sound stages during the 20th century: Paramount? Universal? 20th Century Fox? Warner Brothers? Wrong every time. It was the humble Coronet Studio in fashionable Glenview, Illinois, where hundreds of "social guidance" films were shot during the 1950s with the aim of showing America's teens how to become well-behaved, productive and happy denizens of a healthy society. Conceived and designed to be shown in schools, the vignettes, dubbed "mental hygiene" films by author and historian Ken Smith, were no less than "social engineering aimed at changing the behavior of a whole generation of kids," Smith told Reuters in an interview. He has curated the first-of-its-kind 70-film retrospective "Mental Hygiene: Social Guidance Films 1945-1970" at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which mirrors his similarly titled book (Blast Books). It has been a huge success for the museum, selling out almost all of its screenings, which wrap up on Jan. 23.

Smith said he became interested in the seemingly hokey films while working at the cable network Comedy Central, which occasionally uses snippets of them in its programming. "The more I watched them the more fascinated I became because I realized they weren't just funny, there was a lot of dark, strange stuff, and there was a larger story to it. Mental hygiene films were popular because they showed life not as it was but as their adult creators wanted it to be." With titles ranging from "Getting Along With Parents," "How to Keep a Job" and "It's Wonderful Being a Girl" to the more lurid "Doorway to Death" and "The Last Date," Smith said he understands people's inclination to dismiss them as hopelessly dated, cheaply shot and often poorly acted time capsules.

The postwar 1950s and early '60s, with a sensibility of fear and conformity and hallmarks of the bomb, the Cold War and McCarthyism, is sharply reflected in the films. "They're hokey and, even if the message is not, the way they're made is so cheesy and so transparent," he said. Even as late as 1968, "Marijuana" featured Sonny Bono -- of all people -- droning on, decked out in a lame suit and looking and sounding very stoned himself. "But I always ask audiences, 'How many of you have a giant company logo on your jacket or your T-shirt? You think brainwashing is gone? You think you're not susceptible to this?" Smith said. "We've gotten more sophisticated but so have the people who are trying to put messages into our heads." As examples he cites McDonalds' sponsorship of school lunch programs and Channel One being beamed into classrooms. "That's much more insidious and sinister to me than these films ever were because they were made with the best intentions. They cared about kids."

Smith posits that corporations now control our mental hygiene. "Look what's happened to the Internet in the last five years. It's gone from being the information superhighway to e-commerce. It's become just another way for us to shop." He divides the 3,000 or so films, fewer than half of which survive, into basic categories such as dating, drugs, fitting in, cautionary tales, bloody highways and sex education. If fitting in and dating are most responsible for the genre's reputation as laughably dated, the road safety and cautionary tales could probably satisfy the most hardened, bloodthirsty modern teen sporting a skateboard and "I Love Satan" T-shirt. Most of the films run 10 to 15 minutes but a few stretch over half an hour. "There were no guidelines," Smith said. "That's why they're so weird in many respects. ... They covered everything from homosexuality to menstruation to sex hygiene."

"It's Up to You," a 1959 production ostensibly about safety in boys' shop classes, featured four minutes of bloody, gruesome actual eye surgery footage, all in tight close-up. "It wasn't made to impress film festival judges, it was made to make its audiences throw up. It still does," Smith writes in his book. Purportedly about responsibility for safety, Smith says the film's hidden message is "workman's comp? Don't be ridiculous. It was all YOUR fault!" Nowhere is this underlying theme more evident than in the highway safety or "bloody highways" genre, many of which incorporated scenes and corpses from real highway fatalities. From "Safety or Slaughter" to "Mechanized Death," some of the films featured footage of blood-splattered accident victims with their faces ripped off and audio of the dying. Few who see them forget them and no one giggles through these gore fests.

Many of the drug films took a similar approach, such as 1951's "Drug Addiction," in which good boy Marty experiments with marijuana and ends up drinking soda from a broken bottle, cutting his mouth to bloody ribbons while laughing maniacally. "Educators were appalled but they used them because highway fatalities kept rising. And teenagers became branded as this sort of menace on the road," Smith said of the gore films. Never mind that "Detroit was cranking out these monster engines in cars with no safety devices, the roads were bad and not designed for high speeds and there were more people driving. Of course you're going to have more deaths," he said. "Teenagers became the scapegoat, reflecting back on this general fear of young people, which we still have today." Delinquency films also bore this hallmark. "The most frightening image in all delinquency films was that of normal-looking white kids who have enjoyed all the benefits of free enterprise and suburbia throwing it contemptuously back in adult faces," Smith writes. Fast forward 50 years and he could be describing 1999's Columbine High School shootings. "They're more apropos than people might expect," he mused.

But for all his obvious affection for these artifacts, in the end Smith says the films likely did more harm than good. "By setting an artificial ideal ... you project this as the right way to be, and of course there is no right way to be. "Kids would watch them and learn that being selfish, arrogant, undemocratic or delinquent would make them unhappy or, depending on the producer, dead," he writes. "Conversely, those who played by the rules and maintained the status quo were rewarded with popularity, fun, and a life span that extended into their 20s." "Shy Guy" (1947) depicts a father telling his social outcast son, played by a young Dick York of "Bewitched" fame, to "pick out the most popular boys and girls at school and keep an eye on them." Smith likens these films to the Nazis' use of film in classrooms to influence the behavior of young Germans in the 1930s, which he said inspired Coronet Studios founder David Smart. But he tempers the analogy by saying the films had "well-intentioned democratic purposes" and were championed by progressive academics, not reactionary moralizers.

Other studios filled other niches: Centron in Lawrence, Kansas, like Coronet far from the glamour of Hollywood, produced films that strained to include troubled teens with dark thoughts and maladjusted lives, while producer Sid Davis made his mark with blood-and-guts highway and drug films. In the end, Smith says, social guidance films fell victim to changing times. "In the late 1940s and 1950s, when kids wanted to conform, they were effective. In the late 1960s, when kids didn't, they were not." But they continue to inspire some, including independent filmmakers who in the 1980s made "Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?" updating the saga of Susan Jane Smith, the heroine of 1951's "The Outsider" who weeps "I just don't fit it." They decided she moved to San Francisco, called herself "Suejanna" and spent her days knocking back cappuccinos with a bunch of drag queens in the gay neighborhood, the Castro. So Susan Jane turned out just fine, after all.

Hollywood movie breaks Thai royal taboo

BANGKOK, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Hollywood blockbuster "Anna and the King" is filling cinemas around the world with its tale of romance between Thailand's 19th century King Mongkut and a Victorian English teacher. Not in Thailand.

The film, like its predecessor "The King and I", has broken a sacrosanct Thai taboo and has been banned. Thai censors ruled that the film, with Jodie Foster as governess Anna Leonowens and Hong Kong's Chow Yun-Fat as the monarch, gave insufficient respect to the royal family. Studio Twentieth Century Fox argues the new film is more sensitive to Thai and Asian cultural values than the 1956 Oscar winner, which starred Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. But for many Thais, their royal family is so highly regarded that nothing but the most delicate portrayal of the present Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, or the ruling Chakri dynasty, will do.

Regarded by many older Thais as the guiding light, semi-divine King Bhumibol and his family receive a near-religious devotion from much of the country's 61 million population. Street images and icons of past Chakri kings are draped in jasmine and marigold garlands and "waied" -- given a bow with hands together as if in prayer. Photographs, paintings and calendars of the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, adorn almost every large commercial and public building and are run several times a day on Thai television stations to the royal anthem. Foreigners are expected to show similar respect, as any tourist guide-book stresses.

Breaking this rule can have dire consequences. Thailand has a draconian "lese majeste" law with jail-terms of up to 15 years for anything deemed to demean the royal family as well as a strict censorship law dating from 1930 against disrespectful films under which "Anna and the King" was banned. These laws, and apocryphal stories of visitors being mobbed by Thais for tearing up baht notes or defacing other images of the king, may keep foreigners on their feet in cinemas while the audience stands for the king before each feature. But few Thais need such coercion. King Bhumibol (pronounced pumipon), the world's longest-reigning monarch, has earned his respect through a series of social, political and environmental initiatives since his accession to the throne in 1946 at just 19.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-born king has sponsored projects ranging from agricultural irrigation, reforestation work and crop-substitution to end poppy production to flood control in Bangkok to prevent what used to be annual monsoon inundation. And although he inherited a constitutional monarchy that lost its absolute right to rule in 1932 after a nationalist revolt, the king has affected the affairs of state at key moments. In 1973, he is said to have played a vital role at the height of bloody protests against a military government, persuading the then ruler Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn to go into exile. Twenty years later, after more than 50 pro-democracy protesters had been shot dead by a subsequent military junta, King Bhumibol summoned ruling General Suchinda Kraprayoon and detained opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang for an audience. "If this goes on, it will put the country in great danger, making Thailand a meaningless country," the king told the two protagonists on live television, effectively ending the conflict. He used television cleverly again in March 1995 to explain, before a flip chart, how his successful heart operation had worked, dispensing reassurance over his health and medical education directly into millions of Thai homes.

At the head of the country since before most Thais were born, the king has been an emotional rock in a country that has changed out of all recognition since he was crowned in 1950. In only three generations, Thailand has been transformed from a rice and sugar-growing network of paddy fields and plantations and cities built around Buddhist temples, to a largely urban, concrete society which has lost touch with some of its roots. Modern capitalism -- helped by exposure to American forces during the Vietnam war -- has eroded traditional family values and brought rampant consumerism and a billion-dollar sex trade. In the face of these changes, the royal family has symbolised national pride and history. On the throne since 1772, the Chakri dynasty represents the formal, age-old values of respect and hierarchy in an otherwise topsy-turvy world, sociologists say.

"History has bound the dynasty and its subjects for a long, long time," said Thepmontri Limpayom, a lecturer in cultural, social and historical studies at Rangsit University in Bangkok. "It is a deep-rooted culture that Thai people give their elders respect and the changes of society have not altered the old belief by some that the king is a kind of living God." Anything that could threaten this is simply not tolerated. This week's ban of "Anna and the King" has raised the hackles of some Thais, particularly younger people, and is likely to spawn a lively black-market in illegal videos. Some critics argued the film should not be seen as an attempt at accurate history but should be accepted purely as fiction. But most Thais seem to accept the verdict of the censors, one of whom objected to scenes of the king kissing his daughter on the mouth or smoking a cigar and said the movie made King Mongkut "look like a cowboy". Summing up the censor's decision, Thai Film Board and Federation of Movie Industry member Sombat Phukarn explained: "We believe in freedom of information, but we have a culture and traditions that we must respect."

Santa gets stoned...

SANTIAGO, Dec 23 (Reuters) - A group of children in northern Chile stoned and robbed Santa Claus after he ignored their pleas to toss them candies from his truck as he drove past them, local press reported on Thursday. Santa-suited Cristian Parenti, 28 was pelted with rocks by the children as they ran alongside his truck after he refused to share his load of candies, daily Las Ultimas Noticias reported. Some of the youngsters climbed aboard the moving truck and stole toys out of his sack before running away. The 300-pound (136 kg) Parenti was heading to a neighbourhood in Tocopilla, 960 miles (1,545 km) north of Santiago, to deliver boxes of candies that the local government planned to give out later. The unemployed father, hired by the city to don the Santa outfit, was hit twice in the head, in his chest and in his eye, forcing him to seek medical attention -- at which time him learned that the glue he used to attach his beard had burned his skin, the paper said. "They left me full of goose eggs," he said.

Y2K precautions lose Thai food vendor her savings

BANGKOK, Jan 4 (Reuters) - A Thai street food vendor lost her life savings because of worries over the millennium bug, police said on Tuesday. Kieuthong Attaparb was so concerned Y2K computer problems might swallow her savings that she withdrew 100,000 baht ($2,700) from a bank in Rayong, 210 km (131.5 miles) southeast of Bangkok, and kept it at home over the millennium weekend. On Sunday morning her house burnt down and her savings went up in smoke. Thai banks have so far reported no Y2K problems.

Swazi speaker says he took cow dung to save king

MBABANE, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Swaziland's parliamentary speaker, who has been asked to resign for taking cow dung from the royal yard, has insisted he did so in order to perform rituals to protect the king. An official from the Swaziland National Council, who attended a weekend hearing into speaker Mgabhi Dlamini's conduct, told journalists that Dlamini said he had had a series of dreams in which he was warned that King Mswati III was in danger. Dlamini said he took the dung -- which is associated with witchcraft ceremonies in the Swazi countryside -- to conduct magical rituals to render the king invincible. King Mswati III rules the landlocked southern African kingdom as an absolute monarch.

Dane sends mayday alarm as bathtub boat sinks

COPENHAGEN, Jan 7 (Reuters) - A Danish man set off a real-life sea rescue mission while playing with toy ships in his bathtub, a newspaper reported on Friday. The drunk 52-year-old called in repeated mayday alarms to the Maritime Sea Rescue Command as he piloted his water toys, claiming he was captain of a 12-crew freighter in distress. Giving a position west of the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm, which belongs to Denmark, he said his vessel was listing 45 degrees and that one crew member had been washed overboard. The authorities leaped to respond, sending two rescue vessels to search the area for one-and-a-half hours. But police eventually traced the phone calls to the home of the intoxicated man, who admitted the false alarm. He faced fines and compensation claims of 10,000 crowns ($1,400) for the "disaster," which police told the daily Sjaellands Tidende was the first of its kind on record.

Argentines protest at "racist" suntan ad

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Argentine human rights groups on Thursday demanded a magazine ad for Hawaiian Tropic sun-tan lotion, depicting a sun-tanned man being dragged off by the Ku Klux Klan, be withdrawn because it is offensive to blacks. The advertisement, designed by an Argentine ad agency, takes up two pages in the local edition of music and entertainment magazine Rolling Stone. It portrays white-robed and hooded members of the white supremacist group hauling away an incredulous white man from the side of a private swimming pool -- a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic sun-tan oil in the foreground. "The tone is humorous, the idea is: You're going to get so black that the Ku Klux Klan are going to come after you," Carlos Perez, creative director of Grey Argentina -- the agency that dreamed up the ad -- told the daily Clarin newspaper. Human rights groups said there was nothing funny about it. "It's an outrage to blacks, it suggests that being black means you are vulnerable to being kidnapped and tortured by the Ku Klux Klan," Victor Ramos, head of the Argentine Institute Against Discrimination (INADI), told Reuters. "The content is racist," Ramos said, adding that INADI would do everything it could to make Rolling Stone cut the ad.

Yellow underwear a hot item in Latin America

MEXICO CITY, Dec 30 (Reuters) - In Latin America, success in the new millennium depends on the color of your underwear. Tradition has it that if you wear yellow knickers on New Year's Eve you'll have good fortune. If it's red you'll be lucky in love. And this year being the millennium, the search for wealth and passion has provoked an even bigger rush than usual for the "right" briefs or panties. Supposedly, you must cast away your old underwear at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 and wear the new one to bring you luck from the very start of the New Year. But many Latin Americans break the rules a touch, preferring to don their new knickers before the New Year kicks in, to avoid a mad dash to bathrooms as the clock strikes midnight.

"The millennium has definitely had a big influence. Our yellow underwear ran out almost immediately -- we've been out of them since Dec. 22. I guess everyone's hoping for money," said Eduardo Rua, men's underwear sales assistant in Liverpool department store, Mexico City."The distributors didn't calculate correctly for the extra millennium rush," he added. In the women's department, however, passion was the priority. Red panties had all but sold out. "There have been a lot of desperate boyfriends running from shop to shop looking for red underwear but there's not much around. They're going to be very disappointed," said sales assistant Guadalupe Giles. In Venezuela, yellow underwear is de rigeur for both men and women for New Year. Worn inside out, they are believed to bring extra luck, but they must be new and given as a gift.

According to another Venezuelan tradition, if you go out into the streets shortly after midnight with your yellow underwear on back to front, carrying a suitcase full of clothes and run round the block, you'll travel a lot in the new year. In Colombia, whole sections of department stores are devoted to yellow underwear in the run up to New Year. In Argentina pink is the color of choice. In Buenos Aires supermarkets, special millennium pink panties with a big "2000" inscription are selling like hot cakes. In flamboyant Brazil, there is a whole rainbow of colors to chose from each with a different significance. Women wear white for peace, yellow for money, red for passion and pink for love. Brazilian men simply wear white for luck.

Giveaway dolls scandalise Singapore

The well-ordered life of Singapore was upset yesterday when McDonald's was forced to reinforce security at its restaurants to control a mad rush by the island state's normally staid adults for stuffed toy cats with their Extra-Value Meals. Seven people were injured, three men seriously enough to be sent to hospital, when the crush of people eager for the Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel dolls in Korean wedding costumes shattered a glass door at a McDonald's outlet on Thursday. "We are very sorry that the euphoria surrounding the Hello Kitty promotion has led to such an incident," said Fanny Lai, director of marketing for McDonald's.

It was the second such incident since the promotion began on New Year's Day. Two weeks ago, a brawl broke out between a doctor and a truck driver. Up to 100 people have been lining up outside some outlets for the toys - in one case at least 70 waited their turn to buy the limited-edition cats underneath an afternoon drizzle. "Hello Kitty, goodbye sanity," the local press said in one of many reports on the craze. It has even provoked a national debate in the media about wastage as many buyers simply dump their Extra-Value Meals once they get their dolls. They are introduced weekly in different costumes. McDonald's is now limiting the number of Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel dolls Singaporeans can buy to four per customer per promotion. It is reinforcing security at its 113 Singapore restaurants for the launch on Thursday of the "Romantic" series of stuffed cats in western wedding attire.

Men charged in cocaine home delivery ring

NEW YORK - Residents of this city can get everything from dry-cleaning to groceries to Chinese food delivered to their homes. Now, 10 people have been charged with running an operation that delivered cocaine to people's doors. The indictment, filed in Manhattan federal court, alleged the defendants were members of the Home Delivery Cocaine Organization who arranged for drugs to be delivered to customers in the advertising, real estate, investment and legal fields. According to the charges, customers typically ordered personal-use quantities of cocaine by paging one of the organisation's electronic paging devices and entering a call-back number. A member of the organisation then returned the page, often using cellular telephones that were subscribed to in fraudulent names. The indictment said two cellular phones were being monitored by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Customers ordered the cocaine much like they would a cup of coffee, in "small," "medium" and "large" sizes. The minimum quantity was half a gram for $25; the middle size was one gram for $50; three grams cost $150. The Home Delivery Cocaine Organization allegedly sent a delivery person, posing as a livery cab driver, to bring the drugs to the customer. In July 1999 two undercover DEA agents posed as customers buying cocaine in this manner, the indictment alleged.

Bid to snap up crocodile's private parts thwarted

NAIROBI, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Kenyan wildlife wardens had to intervene to stop a group of prostitutes from stealing the genitals from the carcass of a crocodile they killed in Lake Victoria, the Kenya Times reported on Wednesday. The newspaper said prostitutes at Mbita town attempted to remove the crocodile's genitals after wildlife officials had killed the beast while hunting for a rogue hippo. It reported that crocodile genitals were highly regarded by prostitutes as a strong love potion. "Many wananchi (people) including the whores left the scene disappointed after the wardens hired a boat that carried the carcass, tied it to a boulder and sank it to the bottom of the lake," the newspaper said.

Japanese guilty of demanding eye for a loan

TOKYO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - A Japanese court cast into doubt the future of a lender to small businesses on Wednesday after sentencing one of its former employees to 18 months for telling a loan guarantor to sell a kidney or an eyeball to pay off a debt. Financial regulators were set to suspend part of the operations of small business lender Nichiei Co Ltd for up to one year, Kyodo news agency reported on Wednesday after news of the conviction on Tuesday. Nichiei, the largest such "shoko" loan company, has been under fire over questionable business practices since the former employee, Eisuke Arai, 25, was arrested last October on suspicion of pressuring a loan guarantor to sell his body organs to pay off a high-interest loan. The Tokyo District Court sentenced Arai to an 18-month prison term suspended for three years.

Arai was convicted of trying to extort some 5.7 million yen ($53,920) from a loan guarantor in 1998, and the court said his actions reflected company policy. A Nichiei spokesman said on Wednesday the lender had yet to receive notification from the financial regulators. "We are taking this conviction seriously and will try further to improve the education of our staff," he said, reiterating that the company had not instructed Arai to use such methods. However, Nichiei had charged high interest rates and engaged in "forcible collection methods", local newspapers quoted the court as saying. Japan last month passed bills aimed at curbing the practices of the shoko loan companies, following allegations they were charging sky-high lending rates and using intimidatory loan collection methods. The legislation, which will come into force on June 1, cuts the maximum legal lending rate to 29.2 percent per year from the current 40 percent.

Rio sees topless sunbathing craze after crackdown

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Rio's mayor declared all of the resort city's famous beaches open to topless sunbathing on Wednesday, legalizing a new craze that took hold after armed police arrested a bare-breasted beachgoer. The normally steamy sands of Rio de Janeiro have been absolutely sizzling with controversy since the weekend when 20 gun-toting police stormed a favorite nude sunbathing beach and forced dozens of women to put on their bikini tops. When one woman refused to comply, they roughly pulled her up and dragged her off to jail, setting off a ferocious tussle in the sands with the other sunbathers. A major television network caught the incident on film and aired it repeatedly to the embarrassment of city officials and the police force, which has since retracted a recent directive to crack down on public decency violations.

Ironically, the heavy-handed police action against sun worshiping in the buff or without a top has made the practice all the rage, whereas before it had not been that common on the beaches of the world's biggest Roman Catholic country. "This police attitude has provoked a reaction. People are going to take off the top part of their bikinis just for the challenge," Rio's mayor Luiz Paulo Conde told reporters. "In my opinion, this will be the summer of going topless." Indeed, bare-breasted sunbathers crowded Rio's famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches on Wednesday. In the past, the few to be found were generally tourists from Europe where the practice is more common. The mayor defended his move, saying a major part of Rio's appeal for tourists was the city's relaxed attitude toward skimpy beachwear, which made its legendary "dental floss" thong bikini popular. But although the Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, seem to parade around wearing next to nothing most of the time, they have always been surprisingly modest about making sure at least a postage stamp-sized bikini top is in place.

"I never went topless because I was afraid of people's reaction. Now that I'm not the only one, I can relax about it," said Carla Miranda, 26, a dancer whose favorite sunbathing haunt is the popular ninth lifeguard post on Ipanema. On Tuesday, she joined hundreds of others at the post, a traditional hangout for politically radical Cariocas, to demonstrate against the police repression. Several men donned the bikini tops of women who covered their bare chests with posters saying "Down with the Hypocrisy". But even more conservative Rio society has reacted with outrage at the exaggerated police action and called into question whether bare breasts should be considered obscene. There has been a flurry of newspaper editorials, letters and cartoons lampooning the government for the crackdown, especially since it tolerates the samba dancers who wear little more than glitter in Rio's decadent Carnival celebrations. "In the media, advertising and the Carnival parades the sight of breasts is commonplace," leading conservative newspaper O Globo said in an editorial. "If society does not agree with the police, it would be a gratuitous harm to publicize to the world that the topless can go to jail here."

Japan cult causes stir with name change

TOKYO, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The new name of Japan's doomsday cult accused of a 1995 mass murder attempt has unnerved some Japanese companies unlucky enough to share the same name. Aum Shinri Kyo said earlier this week it will change its name to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Aleph". A number of companies or institutions already use that name in Japan, and they fear being mistaken for the cult, whose members have been convicted or are on trial for a gas attack which killed 12 and injured thousands on the Tokyo subway. "We are greatly troubled by this," said a spokesman for Aleph, a preparatory school for college examinations based in the western commercial city of Osaka. The school said its students could be mistakenly associated with the cult when they submit applications to universities.

A restaurant chain, Aleph Inc, says it is considering changing its name to avoid any misunderstanding. The Hokkaido-based company has set up posters in all of its 200 restaurants explaining that it has no relation to the cult after inquiries from customers. A Tokyo-based publisher Kazuo Watanabe, who named his company Aleph 30 years ago, said he was worried his business may be affected although he has yet to decide whether to change the company name to something else. "It's disturbing," Watanabe said. Japanese media estimate there are more than 70 firms registered under the name "Aleph".

Mystery iceballs claim "first victim" in Spain

MADRID, Jan 20 (Reuters) - An elderly Spanish woman has claimed she was hit by a falling iceball, apparently the first victim of a phenomenon that has been puzzling scientists for days, state radio said on Thursday. Juana Sanchez Sanchez, 70, said she was knocked out briefly by a large, flying, frozen object that hit her on the shoulder as she walked in a street near her home in Almeria, southern Spain, the radio said. A man in Seville escaped injury last week when a four-kilo (nine-pound) iceball slammed into his car. Scientists are examining a dozen specimens to establish their origin amid speculation they could be frozen human excrement jettisoned by high-flying aircraft or debris from comets, an explanation which some space experts have ruled out. A Spanish newspaper said on Thursday at least three of the mystery, football-sized objects were fakes -- two turned out to be made of salt and another came from a restaurant freezer.

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